Events in the Arab World this year were unlikely to be ignored by the Nobel Committee, and so it is no surprise that the number of Arab Nobel Prize winners has now risen to the grand total of… six. Considering that President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and has overseen more drone attacks than Bush Junior this might not be a bad thing. And that Mr Nobel himself invented dynamite and only created the awards because he read his false obituary and decided he had a pretty bad legacy… I digress, here are the six Arab Nobel winners:
Anwar Sadat (Egypt) – Nobel Peace Prize 1978 (together with Menachem Begin)
President Sadat of Egypt was the first Arab to be awarded any Nobel Prize, a full 77 years after they were first established. Of course, Arabs had not done anything noteworthy between the years 1901 and 1978. Then, along came Anwar Sadat. Of course, pre-mid 1970s (ish) Sadat was viewed by the West in the same way that they viewed Nasser; bad Arab guy. Sadat even compounded this by fighting a war against Israel in 1973 – whilst Israel reversed the initial Egyptian & Syrian gains the war made Israel think twice about taking Egypt lightly and gave Egypt a better hand in peace negotiations to get back the Sinai. Which was probably Sadat’s aim all along. Eventually, Sadat addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem in 1977 and then signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, with full diplomatic relations between the two countries following in 1980. Sadat and Begin of Israel shared the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of this. But other Arab countries saw this as a bit of a betrayal of the whole ‘all for one, one for all’ Arab unity thing they had going on, and they broke off all ties with Egypt. Billions of dollars of American aid softened the blow of rejection for Egypt and Sadat. Unfortunately for him, he’d made a lot of enemies over the years and he was assassinated during a military parade in 1981. Ironically the parade was celebrating the ‘victory’ over Israel in 1973.
Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) – Nobel Prize in Literature 1988
Literature and poetry have always been highly regarded in the Arab World, and so it is perhaps surprising that only one Arab has won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. However, if anyone did deserve to be that sole winner, it was the Egyptian literary giant, Naguib Mahfouz. By the time he won the award he was already 77 (he would die at the age of 94 in 2006) and had published classics of modern Arabic literature, such as the Cairo Trilogy, Chatter on the Nile and Children of Geblawi. Egypt, like much of the Arab World, was at times not ready for his frank and challenging narratives, and he survived an assassination attempt in 1994, at the age of 82.
Yasser Arafat (Palestine) – Nobel Peace Prize 1994 (together with Yitzakh Rabin & Shimon Peres)
When Sadat signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was pretty disparaging; “Let them sign what they like. False peace will not last.” Well, what a difference a couple of years make. Arafat followed the tried and trusted Sadat method of winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1993 he signed the Oslo accords with Israel. The accords stipulated that Arafat’s PLO recognised the state of Israel, and the Palestinians would get some degree of self-rule in the Palestinian territories. Like most Israel-Palestine deals it didn’t really bring peace any closer, but the Nobel powers that be decided it was good enough for Arafat to get the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ahmed Zewail (Egypt) – Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1999
The Egyptian-American is the first, and only, Arab to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field. Now I know pretty much nothing about Chemistry, but it is quite obvious that Ahmed Zewail is a genius. Growing up in Egypt in the 1960s and 70s he would constantly set up experiments in his bedroom, and even drove a car with no previous experience, purely based on theory. He nearly drove it into the Nile. His work on femtochemistry (wikipedia tells me that this is the study of chemical reactions across femtoseconds – unbelievably small divisions of time) won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, an amazing achievement. Egyptians are so proud of him that he is even talked of as a future president. He scoffs at the suggestion.
Mohamed El-Baradei (Egypt) – Nobel Peace Prize 2005 (together with the International Atomic Energy Agency)
Mohamed El-Baradei won the Nobel Peace Prize in his role as the head of the IAEA, a United Nations agency that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear power around the world. The award was in recognition of the role that the IAEA has played in preventing nuclear proliferation, and attempting to stifle conflict with regards to Iran. El-Baradei donated his winnings to Cairo orphanages. After three terms (where he was democratically voted in *ahem Arab dictators*) he left the post in 2005, and began getting involved in Egyptian politics. Unlike Zewail, he has announced that he is running for Egyptian president.
Tawakkol Karman (Yemen) – Nobel Peace Prize 2011 (together with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf & Leymah Gbowee)
Ah, an Arab Nobel Peace Prize that’s not for signing a deal with Israel. The Nobel Peace Prize committee had to recognise the Arab Spring in this year’s awards, however they chose to be a bit different. Tawakkol Karman is not as well known as Arab Spring luminaries such as Wael Ghonim, but her activism began long before mass protests began to rock the Arab World, she has been leading her organisation, Women Journalists Without Chains, for years in demonstrations about various human rights issues in Yemen. She has become a leader in the Yemeni revolution, all the more amazing because she is a woman in this largely conservative society. Take that stereotypes (and Ali Saleh).
There you have it, the Nobel Six. Just remember, if you’re Arab and want a Nobel Prize you should lead a revolution, be an amazingly clever scientist, write some epics, head international organisations… or simply sign a deal with Israel (there are a lot of Arab countries still to go, it’s there for the taking).Filed Under Arab Spring, israel, nobel prize, palestine