Remembering a Nobel Laureate Who Got Away: Tawfiq al-Hakim

“Had the committee for the Nobel Prize decided at an earlier date than 1988 that recognition should be given to the renaissance that was occurring in modern Arabic literature, the prize would surely have been awarded to Tawfiq al-Hakim.” – Denys Johnson Davies.

These are the words  translator and author Denys Johnson-Davies wrote in the introduction to The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim,published by AUC Press in 2008.

Johnson-Davies should know: As he wrote in his Memories in Translation, he was consulted when the Nobel committee came to Cairo to discuss their “Arab shortlist” for the 1988 prize. The list, according to Johnson-Davies, included the prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, the perennially mentioned poet Adonis, as well as two authors who are now deceased: Tayeb Salih and Yusuf Idris.

Al-Hakim, who was born in Alexandria on this year’s Nobel Day (October 9), 1898, died in the summer of 1987, just before the Nobel committee apparently turned its mind to Arabic literature. Althought best-known as a playwright, Al-Hakim was also a memoirist, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, journalist, and jack-of-many genres. A newly translated collection of his essays, The Revolt of the Young, trans. Mona Radwan, will be available this fall from Syracuse University Press.

Although lesser-known globally than Mahfouz, Al-Hakim continues to be widely read in Arabic.

And indeed, the older author’s Return of the Soul had a great effect on Mahfouz, who wrote in his Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate:

I consider Hadith Isa ibn Hisham [A Period of Time, by Muhammad Muwaylihi] the first modern Egyptian novel. Although it has not received the attention it deserves from researchers, I believe it is a great work. It draws directly on the Arab heritage through its use of the maqama style. Its content of social criticism has shaped Egyptian novels until today. In fact, that novel affected our whole generation.

After Isa ibn Hisham, I read Muhammad Husayn Haykal, known as the father of the Egyptian novel, then Taha Husayn and al-Mazni. Then I reached Tawfiq al-Hakim, whose works were truly landmarks in the evolution of Arabic novel writing. In the truest sense, they represented and helped shape a new age.

Al-Hakim’s writing ushered in a modern phase in the art of narration. In all truth, after the early sources of inspiration that shaped my concept of narration, such as the Qur’an, the Thousand and One Nights, and the epic tales that so fascinated me as a child, my direct mentor was al-Hakim. The Return of the Soul I believe marked the true birth of the Arabic novel. It was written using what were then cutting-edge narrative devices. Its predecessors, on the other hand, had turned toward the Western novels of the nineteenth century for inspiration. The Return of the Soul, in that context, was a bombshell.

Al-Hakim pioneered a new kind of literary theatre in Arabic, as well as writing as a public intellectual, a novelist, and journalist. You can read his The Return of the Soul (translated by William Hutchins as Return of the Spirit) and a number of other works in English translation. For those unfamiliar with the great writer’s work, The Essential Tawfiq al-Hakim, ed. Johnson-Davies, is an excellent place to start.

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