Nobel Winners

One of the hotels near where we live, is called the “Nobel” hotel. I had always assumed it was supposed to be “Noble” hotel, but recently went inside a notice the picture with photos of 4 men. On enquiring, discovered that they were Nobel Prize winners from Egypt. How many of us know about the Egyptian prize winners?


The Nobel Prize is an annual international prize, first awarded in 1901, with now over 800 individuals who have received them. They have been referred to as one of the world’s greatest honours, however controversy over the Nobel prizes is often quite high. But his is nothing new, beginning with the fact that the man who founded them, Alfred Nobel, made his fortune from inventing dynamite!

In total, 10  Arabs have won Nobel prizes since they were instituted in 1901.

When considering winners from the Arab world, one theme that emerges is that their recognition often comes in the face of great adversary at home, with turmoil, uncertainty and constant threats that have sometimes turned deadly.


Anwar Sadat.

Muhammad Anwar El Sadat, born 1918 in Egypt, is the first Muslim Nobel Laureate.

Egypt’s third president, he became a hero for Egyptians and Arabs when he regained Sinai after it was occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.

Afterwards, he negotiated a peace treaty with Israel, for which he was criticized and called a traitor. Nonetheless, President Anwar al-Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, jointly with former US President Jimmy Carter and the late Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, for their role in forging the peace agreement between Cairo and Israel, known as the Camp David Accords:

“For contribution to the two frame agreements on peace in the Middle East, and on peace between Egypt and Israel, which were signed at Camp David on September 17, 1978.”

This was a highly contentious politically situation, and the award stirred up many heightened emotions around the world at the time. Not surprisingly, El Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981, largely because of the agreement, during a military parade celebrating Egypt’s victory in the 1973 war with Israel.

He was buried at the Unknown Soldier Memorial, in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. Sadat is described on the memorial as a “Hero of war and peace”.


Naguib Mahfouz

Novelist Naguib Mahfouz was the first (and still only) Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded 1988.

He was born in Egypt in 1911, and began his writing career as a 17 year old and has his first novel published in 1939. He is one of the foremost writers in modern Arabic literature. He has published 32 novels (half of which have been made into films), 13 collections of short stories (over 100 of them), journalism, memoirs, 200 articles and some screenplays.

He broke through many walls when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and this was said of him:

“who, through works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous – has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind”

He said, “The Nobel Prize has given me, for the first time in my life, the feeling that my literature could be appreciated on an international level. The Arab world also won the Nobel with me. I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition.”

These hopes have yet to come to pass. He remains the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the sole representative of a rich language spoken by more than 340 million people.

Mahfouz died of pneumonia and kidney problems in 2006. A military funeral was held for the late writer.


Ahmed Zewail

Ahmed Hassan Zewail, born in Damanhour (Delta area) in Egypt 1946, and won a Nobel Prize in 1999 in Chemistry. His first studies were in Alexandrai, but had over 30 degrees bestowed on him! He is known as the father of Femtochemistry, his award was…

“For his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy” 

His Nobel Prize was for his works in chemical reactions across femtoseconds. Through his research, he managed to show, for the first time, that it is possible with rapid laser techniques to study in slow motion how atoms in a molecule move during a chemical reaction, down to tens of femtoseconds (fs) or 0.000000000000001 seconds.

Zewail’s experiments led to the birth of the research area called femtochemistry.

Died on August 2nd 2016, after a long battle with cancer. He was given a military funeral in Cairo.


Mohamed ElBaradei

Mohamed El Baradei was born in Cairo in1942. He is known as a law scholar and a diplomat. but probably the best known fir his role of Director of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) from 1997 – 2009.

The aim of this organisation is to make efforts to ensure that nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes. A highly commendable (and yet very contentious) purpose. His time as president of this organisation saw his efforts in confronting the spread of nuclear weapons,  was, as one can imagine, was a rather intense period.

But in 2005, he and the organisation were awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace, due to their

“efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy, for peaceful purposes, is used in the safest possible way.” 

At 74 years of age, ElBaradei is the only Egyptian Nobel Prize laureate still alive. It is possibly fitting to end this brief look at the 4 Egyptian Nobel Prize winners with a sobering quote from Baradei’s Nobel Lecture:

“… only one percent of the money spent to develop new weapons would be enough to feed the entire world and that, if we hope to escape self-destruction, nuclear weapons should have no place in our collective conscience and no role in our security.”