Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 August - 6 September 2006
Issue No. 810
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Naguib Mahfouz: The central figure

By Roger Allen

So, the day that we have all been dreading has finally arrived. Naguib Mahfouz, great Egyptian, Nobel Laureate in literature in 1988, novelist, intellectual, humanist and believer, he with the always ready humour, has now been taken from us. He now rests in peace, Allah yerhamuh !

When I first met Naguib Bey, he was already famous as a novelist and short-story writer throughout the Arab world. It was in 1967, while I was completing my PhD degree at Oxford on Muhammad al-Muwaylihi and spending a research year in Cairo, that my good friend, Magdi Wahba, then Wakil-wizara at the Ministry of Culture and professor of English at Cairo University, took me to a mansion in Zamalek (at the very beginning of Sharia Al-Maahad Al-Swisri) in order to meet Naguib Mahfouz. There he sat in a darkened room, supervising the process of cinema censorship, a role that, as many people have noted, he carried out with his usual administrative efficiency. He apologised immediately for the room's atmosphere but went on to explain that, because of an eye problem, he could not tolerate bright light. Magdi Wahba then departed and I was left to converse with Egypt's great novelist.

He began, of course, by asking about me, and I told him about my research on Muhammad Al-Muwaylihi. That interested him a great deal since, like most Egyptians of those days, he had had to study Hadith 'Isa ibn Hisham in secondary school. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was fascinated by it as a narrative and by its portrait of Egypt at the turn of the 20th century. That discussion led to a more general one about fiction, and we began to talk about his own work. I had to admit to him that my own research focus on the earlier period in modern Arabic fiction meant that I had only read Zuqaq Al-Midaqq in its English version and two other novels in Arabic, Bayn Al-Qasrayn and Al-Summan wal-Kharif. He asked me why I had chosen the second of the two novels and I told him that it was because it was set during and after the Revolution of 1952. At this point, I remember telling him that I was particularly interested in the short-stories that he was currently writing (particular those published in the collection Khamarat Al-Qitt Al-Aswad ). I suggested that I might translate some of them into English along with Al-Summan wal-Kharif, and he immediately agreed. I still have on file in my university office the piece of paper we drew up together, on which I listed the stories I would translate (many of which eventually appeared in the anthology God's World that I prepared with Akef Abadir and published in 1973 -- the anthology mentioned in the Nobel committee's citation in 1988) and that he signed. A year or so later it was Naguib Bey himself who telephoned me during a subsequent visit to Cairo and told me to look out for a series of "vignettes" he had written that would appear in an unusual venue, at least, for him: Al-Idha'a wal-Television. Desiring, he said, to change direction from the short-stories he had been writing since the June War of 1967, he was trying something new. It also involved his Alexandrian friend, the artist Seif Wanli, and would be called Al-Maraya. The series appeared in the magazine and I immediately started translating them. A first English version appeared in 1977 and a second, along with Wanli's pictures, in 1999.

That meeting in 1967 was the beginning of a relationship that continued, with intervals, until a final meeting in 2005 on the Farah Boat in Doqqi. In the interim I published translations of Al-Summan wal-Kharif and Al-Maraya, along with some other short stories. I was also involved in what might be called the "pre-Nobel" process, beginning in 1984, whereby the committee in Stockholm was gradually made more aware not only of trends in modern Arabic literature in general but also of Mahfouz's prominent place within the Arabic fictional tradition. My own role in the process has been discussed and written about in many places, and I won't discuss it here; suffice to say that if Naguib Mahfouz's life was transformed on 13 October 1988 then so was mine. My first radio interview on that day in October 1988 happened at 7.30 in the morning, local Philadelphia time, and was with Chinese radio -- they heard about the award before Europe and America. Over the next five years or so I published at least 10 separate studies of his life and works and advised countless encyclopedias and anthology editors about selections from his works that might be included (mostly for the first time for any Arab author) within the contents of their books.

More recently I visited Naguib Bey during conference- trips to Cairo and have been privileged to attend his Tuesday-night soirées on the Nile houseboat, most often in the company of Raymond Stock, his biographer who is in the process of completing a doctoral degree under my supervision at the University of Pennsylvania, a work that will be devoted to an analysis of Mahfouz's Pharaonic works. During those occasions the great man was sitting on a couch with his back to the Nile and a table in front of him, surrounded by many of his closest -- though not his childhood -- friends, the "Harafish," who meet separately, I am told. Gamal Al-Ghitani was present, and Youssef El-Qaid and Na'im Sabri among others. Upon arriving I was always introduced to the great man, who for many years referred to me as Duktur Ruger, and on every occasion he has recalled that my short-story anthology, God's World, happened -- quite by chance -- to reach him on his birthday in 1973. The conversation on Tuesday evenings was always lively, often focused on local cultural events with which I was not always familiar. Every 10 minutes or so the conversation stopped while a member of the company shouted loudly in Naguib Bey's ear, giving him the gist of what has been said. Following that we all waited for the joke, quip or jibe which would invariably emerge from the mouth of this great man and mighty humorist. What is most comforting -- and I'm sure that all his friends and acquaintances will acknowledge this, especially Mohamed Salmawy, with whom he shared so many Saturday conversations in his apartment in Agouza -- is that Naguib Mahfouz kept his mind and his humour alive and poised to the very end of his eventful and productive life. What an enormous privilege I feel it is to have crossed paths with such a great man and such a warm human being.

What can one say about his contribution to Egyptian, Arabic and world literature, or sum up so much without writing several books, as many scholars already have? Well, I'll give it a try, though I acknowledge defeat before I even start. What is beyond doubt is that, in the development of that literary genre known as the novel in Arabic, the name of Naguib Mahfouz is already acknowledged and sanctioned as The central figure, the founding father of the mature form of the genre. As I have noted elsewhere, the process of writing the history of genres like the novel (and fiction in general) has to acknowledge the fluidity of the processes of change that bring such genres into existence. Thus the continuing discussions as to when the Arabic novel really began -- was it with Fransis Marrash and Salim Al-Bustani, or were there also connections to the pre- modern tradition of Arabic narrative (and especially the maqamah ) as revived by Al-Shidyaq, Al-Muwaylihi and Hafiz Ibrahim? And where do we fit Mahmoud Tahir Haqqi (with his memorable account of the Dinshaway incident) and Jurji Zaydan, with his still popular series of historical novels? The probable answer to these questions is that the development of the novel in Arabic involved all these different forces and authors, and more. It continued with the romantic nostalgia of Haykal in Zaynab and was much helped in both language and technique by Taha Husayn's wonderful childhood autobiography, Al-Ayyam. Then came the 1930s when, it seems, every Egyptian litterateur tried their hand at this relatively new genre -- Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Abbas Mahmoud Al-Aqqad, Mahmoud Taymur and, probably the best of them, Mahmoud Tahir Lashin.

All this "history" of the novel is well-known. As we remember the great Naguib Mahfouz, what is important is that he seems to have been the first of these writers to undertake a genuinely systematic study of the novel genre, its European examples and, above all, the techniques through which style, structure and theme were to be combined into a coherent narrative and contribution to literature. As we all know, his first actual essays in the novel genre took as their theme his major preoccupation at the time, the history of Ancient Egypt. However, as he watched Egyptian society suffering through the chaos of the Second World War, he seems to have decided that a change was necessary. It is no exaggeration to say that, with that decision, the course of the Arabic novel -- as a participant in and contributor to social reform (that being the great contribution of Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy and countless others in the European cultural traditions) -- was changed. The series of "quarter novels," starting with Al-Qahira Al-Jadida (inexplicably still not translated into English) and culminating with the Thulathiyyah ( Trilogy ), not only gave Egyptians a clear picture of the current social and political reality but made it clear that the novel genre had now moved from being an "import" into Arab society to a literary genre that was in every way suited to the needs of those Arab writers who would use its pages to comment on current realities.

While the Trilogy was completed in 1952 (before the Revolution), it did not appear in print until 1956-57 -- in other words, after the revolution (and, in a further twist of history, it only acquired fame in the West in the 1980s, first through its French translation and then as a result of the Nobel Award in 1988). Much had changed since 1952, and in any case the Trilogy itself -- while clearly a monument in its own right -- occupies a middle position in Mahfouz's total output. He was still experimenting with compositional techniques while writing it and afterwards. So, if the infamous Awlad Haratina of 1959 (which should be examined at some point for its interesting narrative techniques as well as for its highly controversial topic) was one illustration of change, then the novels of the 1960s -- in my view his best works in novel form, and especially Al-Liss wal-Kilab and Tharthara Fawq Al-Nil -- were an illustration of an Egyptian novelist writing in Arabic and crafting works of fiction of immense subtlety and power. The control over dialogue, for example (and always in a form of fussha, even if there are occasional colloquial words) was now complete, and there is always highly intelligent commentary on social and political events. To the careful reader the underlying element of religious belief and its role in society is also there, as, above all, is his ever-present humour.

A few months after the publication of Miramar, the angriest of these 1960s novels, came the naksa of June 1967. While many remained silent in its aftermath, Mahfouz spent a couple of years producing a whole series of complex, multi-layered short-stories (some of them not so short), followed by Al-Maraya, a process of "looking back in anger" (to use the title of John Osborne's play) but also a sign perhaps of things to come, in that Mahfouz now joined a whole series of younger writers (some of whom regarded him as their great teacher, such as Al-Ghitani) in searching in the past for themes and forms. Over the next decades Mahfouz produced a whole series of works in which he experiments with structure and language: Malhamat Al-Harafish, for example, which he once told me was his favourite of all his works; Layali Alf Layla, Rihlat Ibn Fattoumah, and -- perhaps most remarkable of all -- Asda' Al-Sira Al-Dhatiyya. There were also returns to earlier works: to the retrospective mode of the Trilogy in Al-Baqi min Al-Zaman Sa'a and the wistful Qushtumur ; and to Al-Maraya in an even more complex form in Hadith Al-Sabah wal-Masa'.

Some of these most recent works, Asda' and the series of Ahlam (some of which have been published in book form and indeed already translated into English by Raymond Stock), are clearly -- as their texts explain to the reader -- the retrospective thoughts, images, memories and dreams of an old man looking back over his life and contemplating some of the great mysteries of existence. With Mahfouz's passing we may now wonder if he will be able to find solutions to those mysteries while we -- his admiring readers -- are left to contemplate and appreciate the life, thought, and creativity of a very great Egyptian.

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