Lesson from Egypt: How to Reject A Literary Prize

by Ali Gharib

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.

8 thoughts on “Lesson from Egypt: How to Reject A Literary Prize”

  1. I’d only see a dilemma if McEwan acted in an opportunistic manner. He did not. Instead, he bravely used the stage to tell some unpleasent truths, e.g.

    “I’d like to say something about nihilism. Hamas whose founding charter incorporates the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has embraced the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns, and embraced the nihilism of an extinctionist policy towards Israel. But (to take just one example) it was also nihilism that fired a rocket at the undefended Gazan home of the Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, in 2008, killing his three daughters and his niece. It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip. Nihilism has unleashed the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories. When the distinguished judges of this prize commend me for my ‘love of people and concern for their right to self-realisation’, they seem to be demanding that I mention, and I must oblige, the continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs. These so-called ‘facts on the ground’ are a hardening concrete poured over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today, more difficult to assert their right to self-realisation.”

    1. He repeated all the old lies about Hamas, and mentioned only a few hackneyed episodes of Zionist cruelty. I also agree with Robin Y-K that he is overrated.

  2. It’s better than what Ghoshwood did, but it’s still crap. McEwan – a vastly overrated writer anyway – ignored not only BWISP (british writers in support of palestine) but more importantly Palestinian civil society, and failed to boycott the war criminal apartheid state. in his speech he put Palestinian resistance and Zionist aggression on the same moral level. He condemned the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, and then was hosted by the ethnic cleanser mayor of Jerusalem.

    I don’t aDVISE mCEWANS’S turgidly bourgeois novel Saturday – but it shows how this moral dwarf’s mind works. In it the whingeings and whinings of a bourgeois londoner are presented as somehow relevant commentary on Britain’s involvement in the destruction of Iraq.

  3. it really annoys me how McEwan quotes Bellow at the start of Saturday. Both Mcewan and Bellow had elitist (and Zionist) politics. Beyond that, no comparison. Bellow wrote like a dream. McEwan writes like little middle England trying and failing to be daring.

  4. Robin, your ad hominem attacks on Ian McEwan and his writing do nothing to advance the agenda of the BDS movement.

    This was never a literary contest and and by turning it into one you do your cosignatories a disservice. Say what you like about McEwan, but he’s a better writer than, say China Mieville. That should never have been the point.

    You argued your case. McEwan listened and presented his counter-argument. You failed in your objective. Suck it up and move on.

    This petty sniping makes you look very silly indeed.

  5. I speak only for myself. Of course his writing skills have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Just thought I’d say what I think oif his writing skills.

    How did I fail in my objective? I never expected McEwan to do the right thing, any more than I would experct his friend Amis to do anything good.

    Suck that up.

  6. and my comments on his writing were actually relevant, having looked at them again. the mentality that wrote saturday is the same mentality that made the silly ‘balanced’ speech in the apartheid state.

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