Youssef Rakha celebrates a Nobel laureate's anniversary
To mark his 92nd birthday, which falls today, Naguib Mahfouz was at the centre of last week's issue of Akhbar Al-Adab, which published an extended interview by Gamal El-Ghitani and the first 93 of Mahfouz's by now famous "dreams", the short pieces collectively entitled Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha (Dreams of the Recuperation Period), which first appeared on the pages of Nisf Al-Dunya.
photo: Antoune Albert
The occasion heralds a series of celebrations including -- also today, at the Oriental Hall of the American University in Cairo (AUC) -- the award ceremony for the 2003 round of the AUC Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. Mahfouz's increasingly precarious presence and the work he continues to produce are things for which a vast number of people -- and not only writers and readers of Mahfouz -- are deeply grateful. And it is in this spirit of gratitude that his birthday is now celebrated. In his interview El-Ghitani alluded to Mahfouz's 50th birthday party -- a grand affair organised by the then Al-Ahram chairman Mohamed Hassanein Heikal -- drawing attention to the fact that Mahfouz's importance as a public figure is not just a function of him having received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Following a cryptic call on Mahfouz by anti-American intellectuals to disown the medal in the wake of Sonallah Ibrahim's meticulously choreographed refusal of the award of the Culture Council's second Conference for Creativity in the Novel -- a few years ago Ibrahim had also refused, this time privately, to accept the Naguib Mahfouz Medal -- Mahfouz complained to El-Ghitani of "the prevalence of the political orientation in literary judgements", saying he admired Ibrahim's position as "a stance" and a gesture while remaining typically elusive about his actual feelings towards it.
"For an author to refuse LE100,000 based on his position is something valuable that can only elicit respect," Mahfouz said. "As for the statement he read out, in which he explained the reasons behind his decision, we might or might not agree with it -- according to each person's vision. For my own part I value his refusal as a position."
Despite the Nobel laureate's reputation for diplomacy and his cautious views on politics -- an orientation that was frequently interpreted as sitting on the fence, particularly prior to the Nobel Prize which granted the already established master an aura of sanctity -- El-Ghitani's interview stresses Mahfouz's oppositional stance.
Mahfouz was interrogated on writing Al-Qahira Al-Jadida (New Cairo) and almost arrested following the appearance of Tharthara Fawq Al-Nil (Chit Chat on the Nile). He was prevented from writing under Sadat when he signed a 1972 statement demanding a clearer cut policy on the conflict with Israel. "I think that what I write every Thursday in [the Al-Ahram column] Wujhat Nazar gives me the chance to voice my opinion on all that concerns me and concerns people." As to whether a writer should make his position clear on political and social issues, Mahfouz was boldly affirmative. "Of course he should talk, he should express his opinion..."
Regarding the present historical moment Mahfouz is appropriately critical. "Egypt is now in a crisis," he told El-Ghitani, "a serious crisis. It is impossible to judge the future based on the state through which we are going. One likes to be optimistic," Mahfouz added, "but there haven't been worse circumstances during my lifetime, no. The economic crisis at the beginning of the 1930s was violent, but for us state employees, we didn't really feel it; nor did the middle and working classes. Big traders, especially cotton traders, were the ones who were affected by it. But the salary that employees received at the beginning of each month was a guarantee, and was perfectly sufficient. We were prosperous employees: you would walk into [any private-sector store] and be welcomed with embraces, even though as an employee you bought for very little. But still you bought, you had a regular income. Now you know what the state of employees is like; and the same applies to the middle classes."
Contact with Mahfouz over recent years El-Ghitani describes as "my first encounter with the embodiment of wisdom". That wisdom has found expression most recently in extremely short, poetic accounts of dream experiences -- reflective miracles of concision, all the more admirable for being the work of an author who, over more than seven decades of uninterrupted productivity, favoured the full-length novel over any other form. Yet it is Mahfouz's insistance on resuming his work as a writer despite the gradual failing of his eyesight and his ability to move that gives the procedure a sense of poignancy.
"Now writing is restricted to the dreams," Mahfouz explained. "I think about the dream, I learn it, then I write it down blindly, from my memory of what the words look like. I wrote 97 dreams in this way but I had to dictate the last three to Hagg Sabri because my hand will no longer come to my rescue..."
Are the pieces in question based on real-life dreams or are they completely imagined?
"No, they are real dreams. The dream has replaced reality."
As to the substance of dreams being too fleeting, too intangible to provide the raw material for a piece of writing, Mahfouz was typically transparent. "I write what I remember," he said. "My concentration now is on dreams, I derive my material from them. It seems I gave myself the evil eye when I wrote Ra'ait fima yara al-na'im (I saw, in a dream)," he continues, referring to a collection of short stories that was based on dreams and alluding to the fact that, due to the complications of age, Mahfouz, Egypt's most prolific novelist, can no longer write a full-length short story.
"The dreams that fill up Ra'ait fima yara al-na'im are made up, but these are real dreams; they are all I can manage now. Even if I had an idea for a short story, in order for that story to materialise it would have to be written, which requires too much effort for me. I'm not going to interpret my own dreams for you," Mahfouz added, laughing. "And no, I don't see them in black and white. They are more realistic -- technicolour dreams."