Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
A punctual life
By Mohamed Salmawy
What saddens me most about the hospitalisation of Naguib Mahfouz is that it disrupts a lifestyle that the great novelist had stuck to for years. Mahfouz had chiselled his daily routine to perfection. He wrote at an exact time, ate at an exact time, and even smoked at an exact time. Any change in his routine troubled him deeply.
For decades, Mahfouz woke up at 5.30am, left his house at 6am to buy the newspapers, and then walked on foot to Tahrir Square where he would have his morning coffee at Ali Baba café and read the papers. Afterwards, he would go to the office, then return home at midday for lunch and a siesta. At 5pm, he would wake up to listen to the Um Kulthoum radio station, and then watch television with the family before going out to see his friends according to a strict schedule. He had one day set apart for meeting the gang, or the Harafish, which was a group of close friends including Mohamed Afifi, director Tawfiq Saleh and actor Ahmed Mazhar. At times, that same group included writer Ahmed Bahaaeddin, and poet and cartoonist Salah Jahin. Another group of friends featured people from a younger generation, such as novelists Gamal El-Ghitani and Yussef Al-Qaied. A third group still included writer Zaki Salem, Dr Fathi Hashim and Mohamed Al-Kafrawi.
After the knifing incident in 1994, Yehya El-Rakhawi, the renowned psychiatrist, concluded that Mahfouz should retain his old schedule and continue to see his friends regularly, for otherwise he would feel cut off. El-Rakhawi started meeting with Mahfouz once a week, not just for treatment but to talk about life in general. Soon afterward, this meeting turned into a gathering of a new group of friends. I used to attend these meetings, most of which were held in public places, from time to time. But my weekly meeting with Mahfouz was at his house and didn't involve other visitors except in rare occasions, as when an ambassador or a foreign journalist would request a meeting with the novelist. Mahfouz would say, "Bring him along." Sometimes the novelist would inform me that a publisher or a film or television producer wanted to negotiate the rights to film one of his works, and would say to me, "I asked him to come when you're here."
I discovered from these meetings that the fees Mafhouz was charging for the production of his works were quite modest. When I called his attention to that fact, he said, "This was the fee I accepted years ago and I hate to change it now." But I managed to convince him to leave the negotiations to me and managed to raise the fees paid by one film producer to five times what Mahfouz would have expected. When I gave Mahfouz the news, he was visibly upset. "No, no. This is too much," he told me. I said that his disciples charged a lot more than he did and that the producer was happy with the arrangement. The deal went through, but only because I insisted.
For the past 10 years or more, I have been meeting Mahfouz at his flat at 6pm once a week. One day I arrived and the novelist opened the door himself, although I hadn't rang the bell. Mahfouz never opened the door himself, for his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he couldn't hear the bell ringing. His wife usually answered the door. But on that day, Mahfouz opened the door himself and when I told him that I hadn't even rung the bell, he said, "You're always as punctual as I am. So when it was time, I opened and found you."
Mahfouz now has to live by doctors' orders, and he cannot see his friends at the appointed times. This must be as painful to him as the medical procedures he currently undergoes.