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Nobel winner Mahfouz lives on in Cairo’s alleyways5 minutes read

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Nobel winner Mahfouz lives on in Cairo's alleyways
A mural depicting Egyptian novelist and nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz is pictured behind the al-Azhar mosque in downtown Cairo on November 26, 2019. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

The legacy of Islamic Cairo’s most famous son Naguib Mahfouz lives on in its winding lanes more than three decades after he became the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A mosaic of the bespectacled author overlooks a market teeming with children on bikes, waiters balancing trays of hot drinks and shoppers haggling with hawkers over the price of meat.

It could be a scene straight out of a typical Mahfouz novel focusing on the minutes of life in the Egyptian capital, with its satirically political overtones and timeless characters.

Nobel winner Mahfouz lives on in Cairo's alleyways
Portrait of Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) 1992 ©Gattoni/Leemage

After years in the making, a museum in the writer’s honour opened in July this year.

A new translation of previously unpublished Mahfouz work is also in print, underscoring 13 years after his death the mark he made both on world literature and on Egyptians themselves.

In November, young writer Ahmed Mourad sparked controversy in Egypt when he suggested that the quality of Mahfouz’s work needed to be adapted to make it more contemporary.

The backlash at this tarnishing of the great man’s reputation forced Mourad to go on the popular television talk show circuit to clarify his comments.

Mahfouz is considered to be the father of the modern Arabic novel: he broadened its literary range by pushing through sacred red lines including religious taboos.

Nobel winner Mahfouz lives on in Cairo's alleyways
A mural depicting Egyptian novelist and nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz is pictured behind the al-Azhar mosque in downtown Cairo on November 26, 2019. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

And he was nearly killed for doing so. In 1994, a knifeman stabbed him in the neck in an assassination attempt. 

The attacker had been acting on a fatwa or religious edict issued by radical Egyptian-American imam Omar Abdel-Rahman, denouncing what he deemed to be the prodigious author’s blasphemous prose.

About Cairo with love –

Mahfouz’s daughter Om Kalthoum said he was so deeply enmeshed in the chaotic energy of Cairo that the city itself was a major character in his work.

The writer’s routine included walks along the corniche by the Nile to his favourite cafes near Tahrir Square, epicentre of the 2011 revolution, and to cultural salons.

“He wrote about Cairo with true love. He described it in granular detail. Even if he criticised it, it was still full of love,” she told the media.

She and her sister accepted their father’s 1988 Nobel Prize on his behalf because of his inability to travel due to his deteriorating eyesight.

Om Kalthoum said: “I remember sometimes we used to go to Al-Hussein (the area around the Al-Hussein mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo) and we’d sit in the cafe bearing his name,” the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe.

“He showed us Midaq Alley — it was pretty much the size of a small room — and he would tell us great stories about his days as a schoolchild,” she recalled.

‘Midaq Alley’ was one of his most widely read books globally and was adapted into a 1995 film starring Salma Hayek.

The site of the museum dedicated to him is in a beautifully restored Ottoman guesthouse in Islamic Cairo dating to 1774 and was chosen because he spent his early years there.

Nobel winner Mahfouz lives on in Cairo's alleyways
A picture taken on November 7, 2019 shows the nobel prize certificate of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz displayed at his museum at al-Azhar district in the heart of the capital Cairo. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

In the Al-Gamaleya neighbourhood the budding writer was surrounded by 10th century walls and a myriad of hiding spots for curious kids.

Om Kalthoum noted that being raised there left an indelible mark on her father’s imagination.

Mahfouz’s precious belongings including his mahogany desk, honours such as his Nobel certificate and even his last pack of cigarettes are among the items displayed in an exhibition that covers three floors. 

A universal writer –

Roger Allen, emeritus professor at Penn University in the United States and a prolific translator of Arab writers but especially Mahfouz, told reporters the author was monumental “in the development of Egyptian fiction”.

His writings delved into “ancient Egypt, Sufism, and politics”, Allen said.

“You get glimpses of his many interests. He was working on multiple tracks throughout his career.”

Allen translated a collection of his writings into English this year in a work entitled ‘The Quarter’.

The collection “reflects what a Cairene quarter looks like” — much like where the museum dedicated to him is located now.

It is also “a heavily symbolic entity associated with humanity”, Allen added.

“His works take on universal themes that show how to organise society and how it can be disrupted by forces,” he said.

The new collection is based on a pile of papers that his daughter found years after his death. It was organised and originally published in Arabic by Mohammed Shoair, an editor with the culture journal Akhbar Al-Adab.

Shoair said that “in the years before winning the Nobel, he lost his eyesight so his relationship with reality was almost severed. Writing for him became an obsession.”

Shoair has been archiving Mahfouz’s papers with Om Kalthoum’s help for a multi-volume biography.

He talked about Mahfouz’s pioneering role in revolutionising the Arab novel to the extent that many Arab authors now follow in his footsteps.

Alaa al-Aswany from Egypt, Ahmed Saadawi from Iraq and Algeria’s Ahlam Mosteghanemi have all found a global readership with books that have won international awards.

“The main idea behind his work since the 80s was returning to his childhood… his beginnings and the alley,” Shoair said of Mahfouz.

“He was talking about his personal life in a way, but through the memories of the past”.

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How young people are changing the African narrative

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How young people are changing the African narrative

For non-Africans who have never visited the continent, the perception of the second largest continent in the world has always been that of a place of impoverishment and raw savagery; a place ravaged by horrible epidemic and war. 

This is largely attributable to an agenda-driven western media which sell these bogus tales about Africa to their global audience viewing the world through their reportage. Sadly, some of our local media are also guilty of this disservice to the mother continent.

As much as Africa, like other continents have its challenges, the positive stories to tell about the continent far outweighs the negativity found therein. 

The good news, however, is that young Africans – the new generation, are striving to change the negative narrative of Africa through their excellence in different fields within and outside the continent.

These young Africans are pushing the frontiers of knowledge in their respective fields of interests, discovering new things and making landmark achievements. Whether in Technology, Fashion, Literature, Music and more, they are forging paths necessary for the sustenance of development in Africa. These crop of individuals are passing the message that Africa has a lot to offer the world through its rich human resources. What better way to be true ambassadors of the continent? 

Let us take a look at some of the young individuals championing the change of an age-long African perception in their different fields.

Technology & Innovation

Over the years, we have seen some of the most innovative minds in technology come from Africa. Notable figures like Philip Emeagwali who invented the world’s fastest computer and who also won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize for an application of the CM-2 massively-parallel computer, Jelani Aliyu who designed the Chevrolet Volt,  Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, among very many others make this list.

One young African that is gradually making waves in technology is 35-year-old Jamila Abbas. Abbas is a Kenyan computer scientist and software engineer who is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of MFarm Kenya Limited. MFarm is an android application that Abbas developed to solve the challenge of lack of pricing transparency Kenyan farmers faced.

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How “African” is our modern-day storytelling?

The tune of today’s African literature may still be dictated by the finances of the West

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Photo Credit: KUER

African literature in its earliest stages (of recognition) was mostly “protest writing” with a tinge of history. Most of the books published by African authors at the time were, at the very least, reactions to the socio-political reality that pervaded the continent at the time.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, it was rare to stumble on texts that did not attempt to address the subject of colonialism. Peter Abrahams’ “Mine Boy” dwelt on South Africa’s pre-apartheid days, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and “Arrow of God” were centred on narratives that focused on British incursion into Eastern Nigeria, and “West African Verse” (a poetry anthology edited by Donatus Nwoga) comprised poems from all corners of the continent that were large cries for freedom and calls for unity in the struggle to rid the continent of (direct) European subjugation. 

How "African" is our modern-day storytelling?
Photo credit: Poshmark

READ: Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie receives UN Global Leadership Award

The final two decades of the 20th century and the turn of the millennium ushered in what seemed to be new African narratives. Focus appears to have shifted from the themes of old, and African storytellers as well as poets have ventured into new terrain, unafraid to tackle the issues of gender fluidity, identity, mental health, sexuality and even Afro-futurism.

One art form that has majorly benefited from this paradigm shift is the short story. No longer seen as wholly inferior to the novel, short stories have slowly but surely assumed a pivotal role in influencing the direction of new African storytelling. They are compact, they are intricately woven, and they come with a huge sense of perspective. Short story collections like Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, Igoni Barrett’s “Love Is Power Or Something Like That”, Chinelo Okparanta’s “Happiness Like Water”, and more recently, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” provide insight on the new flavour of African stories being told.

However, there has been the question of what (and who) influences the kind of stories being told by African writers. There have been accusations levelled against authors of this continent bordering on “pandering to the West”. Writers have been chided for dwelling too much on themes like poverty, war and all the other topics that the West perceives as “uniquely African”.

How "African" is our modern-day storytelling?
Photo credit: Kobo

READ: 10 Young African authors making Africa proud

The late Kenyan author and journalist, Binyavanga Wainaina, in his essay “How To Write About Africa”, satirised what Western observers usually expected from literary works authored by African. “Jumping Monkey Hill”, one of the stories in Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck”, is a fictional account of a writers’ conference wherein the protagonist’s manuscript submission is panned by a white facilitator for not being “African enough”.

There is also the matter of how African writing is being currently funded. It is telling that The Caine Prize for African Writing, one of the highest literary honours in the short story category, was created in the United Kingdom. The Prize has provided a springboard of sorts to many promising African writers, but it has also been criticised for subtly reinforcing Western stereotypes of what African literature should look like.

In the words of Nigerian literary critic Ikhide Ikheloa, “the creation of a prize for ‘African writing’ may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory. The mostly lazy, predictable stories that make the shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. The problem now is that many writers are skewing their written perspectives to fit what they imagine will sell to the West and the judges of the Caine Prize….”

READ: Late Kenyan writer and human rights activist, Margaret Ogola gets Google doodle

It has also been argued that most of the writers who earn critical acclaim are usually based abroad, and in discussions about African literature are rated a lot more highly when compared to their contemporaries who ply their trade indigenously.

How "African" is our modern-day storytelling?
Late Kenyan writer, journalist and author of “How To Write About Africa”. Photo credit: Africa Is A Country

It is hard to fault this argument, considering how modern-day literary darlings like Ayobami Adebayo, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Chika Unigwe and Akwaeke Emezi are all practising their craft in the diaspora. Again, this reawakens the debate as to whether African creatives have to go out of the country before they can earn some recognition.

These arguments go to show that African literature, to an extent, still draws some of its validation from the best. However, credit has to be given to platforms like Kwani, Chimurenga, Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Brittlepaper and the Ake festival for promoting African writing as much as possible.

A lot of funding is needed to motivate and reward African storytellers, and while it is wished that there wasn’t so much Western financing, maybe the fact that stories are being told is some sort of consolation.

Related story: Nobel winner Mahfouz lives on in Cairo’s alleyways

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UNESCO adds Morroco’s Gnawa culture to list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

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UNESCO adds Morroco’s Gnawa culture to list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
(Photo credit: multiculturalkidblogs.com)

Gnawa culture, a centuries-old Moroccan practice rooted in music, African rituals and Sufi traditions, has been added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

UNESCO announced this via its Twitter account, on Thursday, December 12, 2019.

Gnawa refers to a “set of musical productions, fraternal practices and therapeutic rituals where the secular mixes with the sacred”, according to the nomination submitted by Morocco.

Often dressed in colourful outfits, Gnawa musicians play the guenbri, a type of lute with three strings, accompanied by steel castanets called krakebs.

They practice “a therapeutic ritual of possession… which takes the form of all-night ceremonies of rhythms and trance combining ancestral African practices, Arab-Muslim influences and native Berber cultural performances. The tradition, which includes the veneration of Islamic holy men, dates back to at least the 16th century.

Originally practised and transmitted by groups and individuals from slavery and the slave trade”, today it is one of the many facets of Moroccan culture and identity.

Gnawa was popularised by a festival that started in 1997 in the southern port city of Essaouira. 

Until then, Gnawa brotherhoods had been little known, even marginalised.

Now, they attract waves of fans each year from across the globe to the Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essaouira that highlights a unique mix of musical styles. 

Gnawa groups “form associations and organise festivals” year-round, which enable the younger generation “to have knowledge of both the lyrics and musical instruments as well as practices and rituals” linked to Gnawa culture.

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