Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute

Trevor Le Gassick
31 August 2006

With the death of Naguib Mahfouz on 30 August 2006, there has passed from the international scene one of the most gifted, courageous and dedicated literary figures of the past century. Although he never travelled to the western hemisphere or Europe he was far from provincial in his outlook or his impact. The influence of his writings and of his personality on Arabic literature and thought – and, through translation, on the world at large – far exceeds that of any of his contemporaries of the city and land of his birth, Cairo in Egypt.

Naguib Mahfouz was born in 14 December 1911, the youngest of many siblings in an undistinguished middle-class Muslim family. He grew up in a nation struggling for independence from western colonialism, a condition embodied in the financial exploitation that led to the 1882 overthrow of the rebel nationalist leader Ahmad 'Urabi and, ultimately, the occupation and domination of Egypt for many decades by Great Britain. His earliest vital memories, as many of his works testify, were of demonstrations, street warfare and the repression of nationalist sentiment. But this was also the age of the emergence of political parties and a free press in Egypt, and of the nationalist Mustapha Kamil, whose oratorical genius and tragic early death inspired a generation of young Egyptians of both sexes.

Mahfouz's early years encompassed a period when many of his contemporaries viewed the west as a civilisation to be challenged but also emulated; his intellectual mentor for many years was the Coptic ideologue and publisher Salama Musa, a determined socialist, rationalist and sceptic.  At that time Islam, although the source of pride and love for the holy Qur'an, seemed almost irrelevant to many ambitious young nationalists throughout the Arab and Islamic world; this generation was, rather, deeply intrigued by Darwinism, and sought to draw upon the sources of rationalism (to which they ascribed the then evident superiority of western material civilisation) as a route to national regeneration. Mafouz's own first series of articles, written while he was still an undergraduate in philosophy at Cairo university, introduced and defined for the first time in Arabic the names and distinctive contributions of the major European philosophers.

Trevor Le Gassick is professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Michigan. Among his books are Major Themes in Modern Arabic Thought (University of Michigan Press, 1989), (as editor) Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz (Lynne Reiner, 1991), and several translations of Arabic literature, including Naguib Mahfouz's work.

Also on Naguib Mahfouz in openDemocracy:

Roger Allen, "Naguib Mahfouz: from Cairo to the world"
(31 August 2006)

A mirror of change

Mahfouz quickly moved on, however, and in the 1930s – under the influence of the popular nationalist poet and short-story writer al-Manfaluti – wrote a variety of sad and sentimental little tales set in contemporary Egypt. He also published in this period three historical novels dealing with political and military palace intrigues set in ancient Egypt. None of these works drew great attention and, following graduation, Mahfouz earned a living working in his nation's ministry of pious foundations, a career he maintained right through to his retirement; the procedures and values of the Egyptian bureaucracy provided the inspiration for many of his later satirical works.

In the 1940s Mahfouz turned his attention to the contemporary realist novel, though these works too gained him little initial recognition. It was not until the publication of Al-thulathiyya (which became known as The Cairo Trilogy) that he won enthusiastic praise from the critical establishment in both Egypt and the wider Arab world.

This fine series of novels, published in 1956-57 (and translated into English as Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street), traced the successive generations of a Cairo middle-class merchant family in the years following the first world war up to the 1952 military revolution that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. The works, with their panorama of the turbulent revolutionary social, economic and religious changes of the first half of the 20th century, resonated with readers all over the middle east who recognised the relevance of the Egyptian experience to their own societies.

The fame of the trilogy soon drew readers back to Mahfouz's earlier realist novels that had essentially escaped major critical attention. Interest centred particularly on his Zuqaq al-Midaqq (Midaq Alley), a work of fine subtle irony and humour, filled with dramatic events and a full cast of larger-than-life Dickensian characters. Its beautifully designed depiction of a tiny Cairo alley in the early war years as a microcosm of Egyptian and Muslim communities undergoing stressful change under the influence of western ideas and values was combined with a speed of narrative progression and lightness of touch unmatched by any of Mafouz's other works. Dealing in part with prostitution, homosexuality and the reduced status of Islam in local urban environments, this novel enables the reader to gain unequalled insight into the values of the society of the time.

By the late 1950s, therefore, Mahfouz was established as a major Egyptian intellectual whose works were being read (and viewed, in their filmed versions) throughout the Arab world. His status was now so high that he even felt able to discuss fundamentally explosive issues, such as comparative religion, the nature of Egypt's military dictatorship and the plight of intellectuals under Nasser's regime. His courage in writing the series of novels he was to publish in the late 1950s and early 1960s was also a mirror of the deep sense of malaise among the country's intellectual elite.

The writer and his world

Mahfouz's 1959 book Awlad Haratina (Children of Gebelawi, or – in another edition – Children of our Alley) was to become what he later referred to as his "illegitimate child"; it is certainly the most controversial of his many works. It traces, at great length and with considerable repetition and obfuscation, the thinly-veiled histories of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a military-based dictatorship and concludes that each in turn has failed to solve man's most pressing needs for prosperity and security.

The work was initially serialised in the Cairo daily newspaper al-Ahram, but the uproar it eventually caused among Egypt's Muslim clerics led Mahfouz to decide (so he once told me) not to republish it in book form, since he did not "wish to upset people". Several years after this conversation, and following its initial translation into English, the text did appear briefly in Arabic in Cairo bookshops; though it should be noted that this major work of Mahfouz has since then not been available for purchase in Egypt.

When I later reminded him of our conversation on the subject, Mahfouz roared with laughter, as he often did when gaining time to respond to a difficult question, before insisting that the Lebanese publisher had not paid him any royalty nor sought his permission for book publication. Yet it was this work that most convinced the committee to award him the Nobel prize for literature, in 1988; it too was the stated justification for the assassination attempt made against him in 1994 following a public condemnation of him for apostasy issued by the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.

His novels published in the 1960s revealing the malaise of Egypt's intellectual classes under the Nasser dictatorship are arguably his most polished works. By then Mahfouz had honed his skills and was writing with economy, subtlety and precision; he was one of the first to employ the "stream of consciousness" technique in Arabic. He was at his best when developing the psychology of his characters; his al-Karnak depicting the terrors of the machinery of the police state instituted in the last years of the Nasser period is a work reminiscent of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. At the same time, Mahfouz at his worst could not resist boring and predictable political commentary disguised in allegorical form; his Amama al-'Arsh (Before the Throne) and Rihlat Ibn Fattuma (The Journey of Ibn Fattuma) are, for example, of scant interest.

Mahfouz read very broadly in international literature and experimented with writing plays and short stories but received only minor praise and attention for these often difficult and enigmatic works. He will be remembered as a man of great intellectual ambition, courage, and dedication; he openly supported the concept of a shared heritage with the peoples of the Mediterranean basin due to which Jews and Arabs could, in his view, live in conciliation and mutual respect once the Palestinians were granted a just settlement.

A family man with a devoted wife and two talented, well-educated daughters, Naguib Mahfouz embodied rational and liberal values which he maintained consistently, even into our current age of polarisation and intercommunal violence. Gregarious and open-minded, a man who inspired affection as well as admiration, he will be sorely missed from the Egyptian and world stages.

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