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

A master and his mantle

Al-Ahram Weekly canvasses the thoughts of writers, critics and filmmakers on the influence of Naguib Mahfouz on the Arabic novel, and on their own work

Click to view caption
Naguib Mahfouz; with prominent political commentator Mohamed Hassanein Heikal; receiving a visit from the late Hosny Guindy, Al-Ahram Weekly's founding editor-in-chief, following the attempt on his life in 1994; Mahfouz as the recipient of the Order of the Nile; at one of the cafés he frequented

Youssef Abu Raya, novelist and winner of the AUC Naguib Mahfouz Medal

Every brick in an alley that Mahfouz wrote about in his novels is part of Egypt's history.

In European literature the novel was forged and set in cities while in the Arab world the setting was rural. The first novel to be written in Arabic is Mohamed Husayn Haykal's Zaynab. Early pioneers like Taha Husayn, Yahia Haqqi and Tawfiq Al-Hakim, even the city dwellers among them, opted for rural settings. It was Naguib Mahfouz who highlighted the city for the first time.

When he concluded the first stage of his writing, which focussed on Ancient Egypt, he moved towards the realism exemplified in Al-Qahira Al-Jadida (The New Cairo), Bidaya Wa Nihaya ( The Beginning and the End ) and Zuqaq Al-Midaqq ( Midaq Alley ) and which concluded with the great epic of the Trilogy. The move was towards an urban experience, set in Cairo or Alexandria.

It is sometimes better not to step into the orbit of a large star so as not to be burnt or obliterated by it. He is astute, austere, serious, committed -- setting his goal and adamant in his pursuing that a goal to the end. He suppresses temptation and venal instincts. It would have been perfectly possible for Mahfouz to travel the world as an international celebrity, but he chose not to. He has travelled outside Egypt only three times, and only when he was obliged to do so whereas other writers today count their achievements in the number of foreign invitations they receive.

Mahfouz never actively pursued the translation of his works; rather, he was approached by translators. He never tried to appeal the Western reader; rather, he expressed himself with such honesty that readers came to him.

Artists can be bohemian and eccentric. It is possible that there is something of such qualities in Mahfouz but they are expressed in his writing, not in the conduct of his daily life.

Mahfouz had much to give on both the personal and literary level. He was working on Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha (English translation, The Dreams ), intense writing that distills the wisdom of many years, until the end. Some writers die while they are still breathing but not so Mahfouz; we were fortunate he worked until the last. One of the great lessons to be learned from Mahfouz is how he merged life with writing; thus it is that the two must end together.

Ibrahim Aslan, novelist

While tracing Mahfouz's direct influence is very difficult, he was the writer who laid the foundations of the Arabic novel, and they were strong foundations. The attempts made before his arrival on the scene were really no more than examinations of the site, testing the soil's texture before the actual building could begin. Mahfouz provided a sturdy base for the Arabic novel in general. He was able to create from Arabic, with all its phonetic characteristics, a language able to be the vehicle for modern literature, a modern storytelling form. And he forged the Arabic novel in a fashion that speaks to the Western understanding of the genre, a fact that has had a profound effect. The achievement is of barely imaginable magnitude.

Mahfouz has always been a singular example, in the way in which he accords respect and value to his work and in the way in which he respected the reader.

But it is Mahfouz the man who remains closest to my heart. He was always a son of this country ( ibn balad ), able to represent common folk because he was raised in a popular quarter, from where his jocularity and wit is derived. I also grew up in a low income area and strongly relate to this aspect of Mahfouz. I have no doubt that Mahfouz's youth had an enormous effect on his writing; writers generally work from scenes they can observe at close hand and it is no accident that Mahfouz could write of districts such as the one in which he was raised.

Alaa El-Aswani, novelist

Naguib Mahfouz founded the modern Arabic novel. He is one of the most important novelists in the history of literature and had he not been an Arab he would have received the Nobel Prize for literature much earlier. But the award of the prize is often a political decision. He received it when it was no longer possible to continue to ignore him.

Naguib Mahfouz is an inspiration to all writers, not just on account of his genius but also through the example of his determination and dedication.

Mahfouz was a friend of my father, Abbas Al-Aswani, so I knew a great deal about him from childhood. There is no doubt that he influenced me as a writer. I was influenced, in particular, by a statement he made in which he said he would not have achieved what he has had he not believed that writing is a mission to be pursued regardless of returns, that it provided him with a consolation for all that saddens him in this world.

His relationship with the generations that succeeded him is that of a father towards his children, with all the positive and the negative aspects of such ties. Many of those that followed him did so rebelliously, seeking to emerge from beneath his mantle.

Hala El-Badri, novelist

Naguib Mahfouz, who laid the foundations of the Arabic novel, also set out a methodology for writers, whether Arab or not, through the work rules he followed -- a fixed number of hours a day, and certain number of months a year. Mahfouz's work also moves from phase to phase, as is typical of major artists the world over. He seems always to have been in the vanguard, though he is often described as a classical writer. Novels like The Thief and the Dogs and the Harafish mark turning points in his work, transitions from one phase to another in which new models would emerge. After the accident [the attempt on Mahfouz's life] we find him distilling, making his writing more succinct. It seems to me that much that we would term modernist comes from the sudden changes of direction in his writing. My feeling is that, for better or for worse, novelists will be unable to escape the influence of his writing style, or ignore the edifice that he has built for many years to come.

His dedication and discipline are what influenced me despite the fact that, as the head of a household busy bringing up my children, I was never able to follow his strict writing regimen. Mahfouz will remain a model hard to emulate; proof of this is his sizeable output which required a lifetime of perseverance.

As a journalist I interviewed him several times and once asked him a question that puzzled me, the discrepancy between the articles he produced in Al-Ahram on the Egyptian left and Nasser, and the positions espoused in his fiction. Was I to trust Mahfouz the journalist or Mahfouz the artist? Trust the artist, he told me.

Salwa Bakr, novelist

Naguib Mahfouz's importance should be measured not in quantitative but in qualitative terms. Mahfouz succeeded in chronicling human relationships in Cairene society during a specific period of time, from the first decades of the 20th century to the last quarter of that century. He is the historian of what traditional academic histories exclude. He also succeeded in generating new modes of literary writing, the realistic and the historical. For the cursory reader his style might seem old fashioned and repetitive; he did, though, develop important techniques on which new trends were founded, as seen in the writings of the 1960s generation and their successors.

Of course Naguib Mahfouz is a monument, and monuments in the history of creativity are always a hindrance; though in the case of Mahfouz he is a positive hindrance. There are works that present obstacles to those who follow and who must come up with alternative texts -- we may call this the tragedy of creativity.

I never imitated Naguib Mahfouz's writing. To have done so would mean my writing would have no value, though there is no doubt that I imbibed Naguib Mahfouz and those early readings of his texts helped me achieve what I wanted in my own project.

Youssef Chahine, filmmaker

People who teach others never die, and there are many generations that have learned from Naguib Mahfouz. He has left us with many good people. If he disappears he is not dead, because he left people after him. The feeling one gets after he disappears is that there is a very large void, it is like a part of yourself isn't there. You see we all feel that he is a part of who we are. It is understandable that when he disappears we feel an emptiness within ourselves, but I thank God that he taught many people.

He did a number of movie scripts that are of great value. His input into any film made it so much more beautiful. When you watch the films to which he contributed, even years later, you realise just how much their success depended on him. He was always aware of the political dimension of any film. He was the one who taught us that a political statement was important in films. We worked together on [the films directed by Chahine] Gameela and Saladin.

We also had a lot of fights, and I learned a great deal from them. Unfortunately, he was always right in these disagreements. I would be raving and ranting as usual and he would correct me on all levels, the human, the political, the economic.

I loved him very much -- we were both friends and enemies at the same time. The biggest fight we ever had was when he was working work at the Cinema Institute; to me the job was completely beneath him. I couldn't stand him sitting behind a desk.

He taught me a very important habit, which is to wake up at 4am everyday and work from 4 to 7. From 7 to 8 he would go for a walk, then at 9 would go to the Cinema Institute. And in the Institute he would walk and talk like a bureaucrat, telling people to pass by him tomorrow.

I wrote a film script called Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice) which I submitted to him. After reading it through he said that I had taken it from one of his novels and when I read the story it turned out they were quite similar. He wrote an unforgettable note on the script: he said he thought it was one of the best in the history of Egyptian cinema.

He is very close to the people. As a filmmaker it is very hard for me to make actors believable. But when you look at Naguib's work in the cinema you will notice that all the acting is very good, that the characters are complete with even with their contradictions intact. He would never leave any detail in a character to mere chance which means that even if you're not a superb actor, once you have mastered the details of the script you end up doing a very decent job.

I already feel an incredible emptiness. Even though I sometimes annoyed him he would never reciprocate my unpleasantness because he knew that it was a product of my ignorance. So he would stoop down to my level of thinking and clarify his position, always with incredible patience.

Ferial J Ghazoul, professor of comparative literature and critic

The novels of Naguib Mahfouz are more than modern classics. They are the foundation and the base-line of contemporary Arabic fiction. They are the starting point from which other narrative works came into being. Whether following his model or developing it, complementing it, intersecting with it, or even writing as counterpoint to Mahfouzian poetics, Arabic novels are invariably compared to and contrasted with Mahfouz, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel.

Mahfouz's fiction has proven to be a matrix engendering a thousand and one different flowers and it is a living proof -- with its deep-rooted impact on the entire Arab world -- that Arab culture is one despite political segmentation.

Edwar Al-Kharrat, novelist and critic

It was Naguib Mahfouz who lay down the bases from which the modern Arabic novel has taken its form. He has worked diligently, and for a long time, to gather the components that allowed the next generation of writers to build on the firm base that he had set. By laying this foundation he in effect conceived the Arabic novel, allowing it a beginning and to reach new stages of development.

His ability to follow through a narrative in meticulous detail is one of the most important characteristics of his literary work. It is also the observation of social changes on a broad canvas that makes him a great writer. And this is in addition to the deep understanding of personality and what lies beneath the surface of his characters.

His diligent work and steadfast commitment to his writing, as well as his great love for Egypt, have certainly influenced me.

Naguib Mahfouz was a very lovable and attractive personality, friendly, with a radiant smile and resonating laugh. Of course these traits had an effect, not just on me but I think on all that people that interacted with him.

Sami Khashaba, critic

Naguib Mahfouz pushed the Arabic novel forward by leaps and bounds, in terms of structure, characterisation, and in its temporal dimensions. He had read Arabic, as well as Russian, English and French novels, studying structure and developing his knowledge of the genre.

Many of the issues debated today were broached in his work several decades ago. Naguib Mahfouz influenced many writers, Gamal Al-Ghitani, Youssef El-Qaid, Ibrahim Aslan and Sonallah Ibrahim among them. He influenced [television serial scriptwriter] Ossama Anwar Okasha, whose work is very close to Mahfouz's in characterisation, settings, even in family relations. But there is more to Mahfouz's influence than his impact on the writing of fiction. He also exerted an intellectual influence, particularly when it comes to Egypt, because he preoccupied himself with studying and describing the complexities of Egypt's culture, society and spirituality -- as in his novels Khan Al-Khalili and Zuqaq Al-Midaqq ( Midaq Alley ).

There is hardly a critic in the Arab world that has not addressed himself to Mahfouz's fictional world.

Fatma Moussa, professor of English literature and translator of Mahfouz's Miramar

I must speak of how effective his writing has been in changing the course of the Arabic novel. As I've said before, Naguib Mahfouz has condensed the development of the novel in Europe -- which took more than a hundred and fifty years in the case of the English novel, for example -- in the course of his work.

You have the three main stages of novel writing represented in his work. The first stage is that of the historical novel -- as in his Radubis and 'Abath Al-Aqdar. Then he wrote realistic novels about contemporary Egyptian society in the vein of 19th century European social and realistic novels. And when he exhausted this, he moved on to a much higher form of novel, starting with Al-Liss wal-Kilab ( The Thief and the Dogs ). This was the stage in which he wrote shorter novels, using the stream of consciousness technique and highly charged imagery; this period ends with his Miramar in 1967. Then, later, we have a period centering on the 1967 War, the "earthquake" as he himself called it, where he eventually discarded all the realistic tools he had used before, turning to the Absurd, then using Alf Layla and Ibn Battuta, and drawing on dreams. At this stage, he gave free reign to all possible experiences and experiments.

Mahfouz has done a very great service to the Arabic novel, and to the novel in general. And that is exactly why he won the Nobel Prize -- because his work proved that the Arabic novel can experiment and attain to the highest levels of experimentation.

Youssef El-Qaid, novelist

To me, Mahfouz impresses not only as a very good writer but as someone whose devotion to his art has been uncompromising. He devoted almost 70 years of his life to his work. I can think of no other novelist that has invested so much time, spurning all the distractions offered by the world.

In terms of language, I think he has safeguarded classical Arabic while at the same time attempting to elevate the status of colloquial Arabic, on which he draws in the dialogue between characters. I also think that his work has developed the Arabic language, something that becomes apparent when you compare his early writings with his last. You also detect in his work a response to the rhythms of language as it is used.

The foundation for the use of modern Arabic may have been laid by Mohamed Hussein Heikal and his generation, but it was given much wider currency by Mahfouz. Mahfouz and his generation parted from the autobiographical style used by the likes of Haykal in Zaynab, Al-Aqqad in Sarah or Taha Husayn in Al-Ayyam. Mahfouz stepped outside the self to observe subject matter around him and in doing so he produced a modern novel, utilising the literary experience of the West while remaining inspired by the Arab tradition of storytelling.

If you read his first and last novels it becomes clear that this is a writer who has gone through a number of phases, to the extent that his career embodies the development of the modern Arabic novel as well as other genres. He is primarily a novelist, secondly a short story writer, then a playwright and, lastly, a writer of newspaper articles.

Amina Rachid, professor of French literature and critic

Of course his influence on the Arabic novel is major; it extends to the 1960s generation in whom readers have detected a new trend in fiction which might be deemed a reaction to realism. As for his influence on me, it was strong; the first two Arabic novels I read were Zuqaq Al-Midaqq, and [Tawfiq Al-Hakim's] ' Awdat Al-Rawh, though I can't remember which I read first. What I do remember is that Zuqaq Al-Midaqq transported me to a world I did not know. I am a product of French schools and my readings were all in French. Then, at the age of 16, I discovered a different world and found myself in the true Egypt, a country removed from the one I knew at home. Later I read other novels by Mahfouz and learned much about Egypt though it is the influence of the first novel that stays with you.

I admire his perseverance and the fact that he wrote on a daily basis, which is very important in producing literature. Naguib Mahfouz's important works were born of perseverance, whatever our opinion about them may be.

Somaya Ramadan, novelist and winner of the AUC Naguib Mahfouz Medal

I'm sure that many, many people have paid tribute to the influence that Naguib Mahfouz has had on their work and they are all my masters -- the people from whom I learned my craft, who created my own personal tradition in Arabic -- and there is nothing to be added to that. His contribution in general terms would be that he put the Arabic novel in the spotlight by winning the Nobel. He did not win the Nobel only because of his writing but also because of his universal spirit and his capacity to see beyond the immediate. He won because he is a humanist.

He did not back down under any kind of pressure and his vision is one that can be understood, appreciated and revered by people all over the world.

I was exceptionally proud when I was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal, a prize that bears his name. My [acceptance] speech completely encapsulates that; it quotes an old papyrus saying that the fool is the one who is born in a jungle; I was not born in a jungle but in a garden that is well maintained, beneath the shade of a tree on which Naguib Mahfouz's name is carved.

I met him only once, when his health was failing. I don't think he even knew who I was or what I was doing there. But it was a very warm presence -- he exudes warmth and courtesy.

The fact that he could stand behind what he believed and go through very difficult times, managing exceptionally well, incredibly cleverly and with a lot of heart, is very admirable. It is a lesson in how to maintain your integrity despite all the pressure. He made us all proud and without him I don't know where we would have been in the world of literature.

Miral El-Tahawi, novelist

Naguib Mahfouz's work has appeared over a period of more than half a century. If each genre has a master, Mahfouz's distinction is that his name is associated with the Arabic novel over all these decades, in which different genres emerged. He exerted a strong influence on the novel and on three generations of practitioners, on whom he left his mark whether they were writing historical or autobiographical novels.

As for his influence on my own writing and other writers of my generation [the 1990s writers] -- well, we were trying to rebel against the form that Naguib Mahfouz's writing took. And of course this attempt at rebellion is proof of the extent of his influence on us. We were influenced by his careful structuring of the novel and tried to rebel against that. A lesson we learned from him was changing the mode of writing every few years; he never settled for a single mode. That's apart from what we learned from him on the human level, in that he never wasted his time on literary or political battles. He was a great man before being a great writer. Nor did he reject the experience of my generation, to which he lent his support.

Mahmoud El-Wardani, novelist

I'll start with his influence on the Arabic novel, which was as positive as it was negative. The positive aspect of his influence was that he founded the Arabic novel from scratch -- I don't believe that the Arabic novel existed before Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz's labour over 60 years is legendary, and one can imagine no one else pursuing such an undertaking. He gave up the world for the sake of fiction. He founded the Arabic novel in a vacuum, opening up avenues that had not previously existed, leading to the realistic novel, and to the existential novel. It is the pervasiveness of the models he constructed that can be seen as negative; readers associated the form with Mahfouz, seeing the novel as the Mahfouz novel, and this placed an obstacle in the way of the development of the genre.

The situation was compounded when he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

As for his influence on me, it was probably more indirect than direct. One cannot overestimate Mahfouz's role in conferring legitimacy on the novel, and on the fictional imagination in general. But as much as I have benefited from him my writing is very different from his.

We used to meet at Cafe Riche for several years, starting in 1969 and until the police told us not to sit in the cafe any more. Our weekly rendezvous with him was sacred -- it was on Thursday at 7pm. He would look at his watch and take his place at the appointed time, as precisely as he would light his cigarette and sip the froth of the coffee that was brought to him. He did not sit with us in his capacity as a master but as one of us, which is a quality few writers possess. There was nothing haughty about him, nor any false modesty; he genuinely treated young and old equally, listened to everyone carefully and took his time to consider a question before answering.

I had given a copy of my first collection of short stories, first published in a newspaper, to him. Several years later I was surprised to find that when he was asked in an interview about the most important novels and short story collections he had read, he mentioned me. It wasn't a hasty compliment. And, of course, he possessed the manners and courtesy of the 1919 revolution, with all its great traditions, and not of the generation of the Nasserite revolution good at raising its voice.

Poll conducted by Nader Habib , Pierre Loza and Engy El-Naggar

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