Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
By Mohamed Salmawy
When I was preparing a book about Naguib Mahfouz for the French publisher Jean-Claude Lattes, I asked the novelist about Egypt and what it represented for him. The things Mahfouz said made me call the book Mon Egypte.
Mahfouz: Egypt is not just a piece of land. Egypt is the inventor of civilisation. This is why it is referred to in history as the mother of the earth. It occupies a place of pride among nations, the kind of pride you feel for your parents. Even if you grow richer or more knowledgeable and powerful than your parents you still feel proud of them. The strange thing is that this country of great history and unsurpassed civilisation is nothing but a thin strip along the banks of the Nile; the rest of the country uninhabited desert. What matters is not the extent of land but the spirit that inhabits it. This thin strip of land created moral values, launched the concept of monotheism, developed arts, invented science and gave the world a stunning administration. These factors enabled the Egyptians to survive while other cultures and nations withered and died.
Salmawy: What is Egypt's secret?
Mahfouz: The secret is that Egyptians learned how to extract life out of the land and they cared for life and knew how to preserve it. The Ancient Egyptians invented agriculture and were the first to worship greenery. In that sense the Ancient Egyptians were the first Greens known to man. Throughout history Egyptians have felt that their mission is to tend to life. They were proud to turn the land green, to make it blossom with life. The other thing is that Egyptians invented morality long before the major religions appeared on earth. Morality is not just a system for control but a protection against chaos and death.
Salmawy: Egypt has been influenced by other civilisations throughout its history. Which do you think left the greatest impact?
Mahfouz: The Islamic civilisation. When Islam came to Egypt it brought along a Semitic faith in values. Some of these values were new to Egypt. Justice and equality among all humans, for example, are basic tenets of Islam. Islam doesn't differentiate among people according to colour, ethnicity or wealth. Everyone is equal before God, rulers as well as subjects. Egypt retained some of its ancient traits even after the Muslim conquest. Islam restructured the Egyptian character but didn't obliterate its roots. Islam's impact on the Egyptian character has exceeded anything that happened since Pharaonic times.
Salmawy: Has Egypt, with its great civilisation, influenced Islam in any way?
Mahfouz: Egypt gave Islam a new voice. It didn't change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn't have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non- extremist. Egyptians are very pious, but they know how to mix piety with joy, just as their ancestors did centuries ago. Egyptians celebrate religious occasions with flair. For them, religious festivals and the month of Ramadan are occasions to celebrate life.