Lesson from Egypt: How to reject a literary prize…

on 10 Comments

British writer Ian McEwan took a lot of heat for accepting the Jerusalem Book Prize. The literary award is given out every two years at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, an event that appears to be put on by the Jerusalem municipal government.

In response to British writers who criticized his decision to accept the prize, McEwan wrote (with my emphasis):

I’m for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides.

But there are ways to do both: reject the prize and dialogue and engage, though it may not be to the liking of those who have awarded you the honor.

The lesson comes from Egypt, naturally. I discovered this by finally getting to the back of the book of the February issue of Harper’s. It’s from a retrospective review of two Egyptian writers, Albert Cossery and and Sonallah Ibrahim. 

Robyn Creswell writes (again, with my emphasis):

At the closing ceremony of a literary festival held in Cairo in October 2003, Sonallah Ibrahim was given the Arab Novel Award, an honor bestowed by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture that includes a significant cash prize. To the surprise of many in the audience, Ibrahim, a well-known dissident, attended the ceremony and even delivered a speech. He began it by thanking the prize committee and denouncing the complicity of Arab regimes with the foreign policies of Israel and the United States, which is how Cairene intellectuals clear their throats. He then moved on to harder truths. In Egypt, he observed, “We no longer have any theater, cinema, scientific research, or education. Instead, we have festivals and the lies of television. . . . Corruption and robbery are everywhere, but whoever speaks out is interrogated, beaten, and tortured.” In view of this “catastrophe” and the “impotence” of Egypt’s foreign policy, Ibrahim had no choice, he said, but to refuse the prize, “for it was awarded by a government that, in my opinion, lacks the credibility to bestow it.”

In Egypt, this speech is legendary.

This post originally appeared on Ali Gharib’s blog here.

10 Responses

  1. southernobserver
    March 1, 2011, 12:16 am

    Thank you for this very strong example to us all.

  2. annie
    March 1, 2011, 3:35 am

    awesome. thanks Ali.

  3. homelesseus
    March 1, 2011, 4:17 am

    Just boycott McEwan’s books. Lots of great writers out there. Who a needs a writer who would have accepted an award from the Nazi Center For Enlightenment “so he could see for himself.” If McEwan doesn’t know the reality of Jerusalem for Palestinains, then he should stop writing and get educated. I personally will not read anything else he has written. Which is sad, because he’s quite good.

    Boycott McEwan!

  4. Citizen
    March 1, 2011, 5:25 am

    If McEwan wrote a great novel involving reaching across the particular divides subject here, regardless of his literary reputation, that novel would not be published here, most certainly not by any brand publisher with the reputation and means to push it. He’d eventually get a form letter of a few sentences acknowledging his literary quality but concluding his submitted manuscript is “not a good fit for us,” and/or “too controversial,” at least “at this time.” And the editor would sign off, wishing him well and good luck elsewhere.

  5. Hostage
    March 1, 2011, 7:00 am

    It is a well-publicized fact that McEwan gave the prize money to Combatants for Peace; joined the protest in Sheikh Jarrah; and roundly criticized the occupation and both the Israeli and de facto Gaza governments (who were clashing over border incidents and a rocket attack on Beersheba while the book fair was in-progress).

    There are many pressing issues regarding the situation in Palestine, but the way McEwan handled the Jerusalem book prize episode doesn’t seem to qualify as one of them.

    Unlike Sonallah Ibrahim, he criticized both sides.

    • eGuard
      March 1, 2011, 8:59 am

      … [McEwan] criticized both sides.

      Both sides of what?

      Anyway, a good decomposition of McEwan’s position is at Jews Sans Frontieres.

      • Hostage
        March 1, 2011, 5:09 pm

        Both sides of what?

        The Jews Sans Frontiers article you cited discusses “the violence of both sides”. So, I think it ought to be self-evident to you that I was discussing that very same subject – “both sides” of the international armed conflict. That article is an illogical ad hominem screed that fails to support the author’s central claims that McEwan’s speech condemning the settlements and the occupation somehow “armed the apartheid regime with a continuing sense of normalcy and legitimacy” and that Combatants for Peace is “an Israelo-Palestinian joint money-laundering service for celebrities with a dirty conscience”.

        The reports of the UN High Commissioner; the Rapporteurs (e.g. Dugard and Falk); the Goldstone Fact Finding Mission Report; and the League of Arab States Independent Fact Finding Committee have each cited serious war crimes and crimes against humanity for which individuals on “both sides” of the armed conflict should be prosecuted under international criminal law. The attempt of the author of the Jews sans Frontiers article to quantify the moral differences between violent war criminals and the absurd claim that public condemnation gives an apartheid regime a sense of normalcy and legitimacy looks like mental masturbation to me.

      • eGuard
        March 1, 2011, 10:00 pm

        “violence of both sides” — so what other side violence should Sonallah Ibrahim have mentioned?

      • Hostage
        March 2, 2011, 5:32 am

        “violence of both sides” — so what other side violence should Sonallah Ibrahim have mentioned?

        Sonallah Ibrahim was not giving a speech that criticized the opposing sides in an on-going international armed conflict. So, the lesson is not completely analogous. McEwan did not enable or endorse apartheid by taking part in the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration; by giving the prize money to the former fighters in Combatants for Peace; or by criticizing the futility of resorting to violence and treating life as if it had no meaning, purpose, of value.

        There are plenty of real enablers like Huckabee, Palin, Rice, Obama, and the British Cabinet members who have pressed for amendments on universal jurisdiction laws so that suspected criminals can travel with impunity. There is no advantage to be gained by preaching to the converted or condemning them over their decisions regarding boycotts. When the Israel Prize laureates joined the boycott of Ariel, it was better in my opinion “to have [them] inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.

  6. Theo
    March 1, 2011, 7:46 am

    We, the west, lost the civil courage someplace on the way to effluence and prosperity. It has been replaced with the hunt for more and more financial rewards, disregarding how filthy the road to it may be.
    Hats off to those who have the guts to speak the truth.

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