Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 September 2006
Issue No. 811
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Mahfouz and the end of the 20th century

Enigmatic and reserved, Mahfouz captured a world now surpassed by change, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*

It may seem that talk of the end of the 20th century comes six years too late, but centuries neither begin nor end with dates but rather events and great ideas that shape them. When it was said that the 20th century began late with the outbreak of World War I and ended early with the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, those who said so were not wrong. As for us, the death of Naguib Mahfouz marks the end of an era of great thoughts and directions that Egypt and the Arab world were filled with during the period from the early 20th century when Mahfouz was born until our current year, 2006.

In the beginning, Mahfouz trained his intellect on those years in which Arab thought was opening up, a process that had begun in the 19th century with the ideas of Refaa El-Tahtawi, Gamal El-Afghani, Mohamed Abdu, Abdel-Rahman El-Kawakebi, Lutfi El-Sayed, Saad Zaghloul and many others. Despite their differences and the variety of their tendencies, from liberal to national to Islamic, they all agreed that the formulation of political units comprising states following Ottoman rule no longer had justification, just as they agreed that the solution would not be new forms of allegiance to various kinds of colonialism. When the gifted Mahfouz was but eight, the 1919 Egyptian Revolution impressed upon his mind the meaning of politics, change, and the transition from being a dependent Ottoman state to being an independent nation-state. When our great friend's eyes closed for the last time, Egypt was independent, and with it all the Arabs, but neither the circumstances of Egypt nor those of the Arabs were as he had wished or as his generation that has passed had imagined.

Although most of Mahfouz's novels were set within restricted spaces (in his realist period they often went no further than the area between the River Nile and the Abbasiya neighbourhood in Cairo while in his symbolism period he did not often go beyond an alleyway or small neighbourhood, or sometimes even a single café, home or houseboat), their political meanings and social and spiritual horizons were without boundaries. Sometimes they even reached the edge of absoluteness, such as when El-Galabawi in Children of the Alley dominated everything, and when everyone in Al-Harafish waited for Ashour El-Nagui to come and establish justice and allow peace to prevail. Between the restricted and the limitless, our author made a world formed of the freedom to create, institutions of governance, and social justice that gave a share of power and money to the general public. Yet his imaginary world did not borrow from a reality assailed by crude power and its givens. In some way, the novelist was fully aware of the drama of governance and fully sympathetic with authority in its whims and mistakes. He never forgot to grant it a kind of eternalness through characteristics that remain a kind of everlasting law.

Mahfouz respected authority throughout his life. Despite his rebellion against it in many instances through his novels, his symbolism granted authority room for acceptance and even celebration of the great novelist and personality that expressed the cultural essence that seemed purely Egyptian but whose issues were spread throughout the Arab world. Simply put, the 20th century for Mahfouz and others was the century of the formation of the Arab state figuratively separated, split, and independent from the world it exists in.

In some way, Mahfouz's beginning was with Thebes' Struggle in the Pharaonic age while his end was fundamentally about the liberation of humankind in a free homeland. The author belonged to an idea, or group of ideas in reality, and placed the possibilities of carrying them out in the hands of a class of effendis -- or professional bureaucrats -- as he did in his trilogy ( Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street ). Yet when power fell into the hands of the Free Officers, our man found nothing to write about for some time. When he resumed writing once again, he was aware of the crisis of the entire model and so expressed it in a small, crisis-ridden hotel ( Miramar ) or a rocking houseboat at risk of politically and morally sinking ( Adrift on the Nile ). In the end, there was nothing left for Mahfouz other than to contemplate what had taken place through various experiences he discussed and narrated ( Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth ). And despite this, he was not able, after living 94 years, to arrive at the secret of the crisis and inability to move forward in the contemporary Egyptian, and Arab, state.

And thus we have reached the end of the 20th century. It was a century of expansion in Arab bureaucracy -- civil and military -- for this was an expression of independence with all of its symbols, songs, stories and sagas. Yet the 20th century passed the torch to a new century in which the question is not whether states will obtain independence or not, but rather what they would do after obtaining the independence they desire. Neither Mahfouz nor others had many answers. Rather, observers became part of the process of weakening the Arab state or even proud of its weakening. Hizbullah's escapade in Lebanon over the past weeks, and the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt declaring his readiness to mobilise thousands of fighters, and the call by parties and intellectuals to form military and political militias, are all indications that the contemporary Arab state has reached a dead end. All movement in the area has become a complete call for a retreat backwards, to where its first seeds are broken up and strewn among groups, communities, and sects.

Even until his death, Mahfouz did not realise the change in the universe. He was in a coma when scientists announced the departure of Pluto from the solar system, and even when he was at the height of consciousness he was absent, like all of his generation, from current global changes. Simply put, the ideas of independence, individuality, national character, and specific cultural expressions essentially mean isolation from the world and separation from it because it seems an expression of various degrees of material and moral pollution. It is surprising that the Arab world has become hostage to two projects, each based upon globalisation. One is represented by the United States with the goal of integrating the Arab world through the new Greater Middle East. Various forms of Islamic fundamentalism that view the world, and not the Arab state, as their primary stage, represent the second.

Between these two projects, Mahfouz's primary project stopped breathing. It produced leaders hesitant to take giant steps and scared to take small ones, completely enamoured at times with adjusting to the first project, and biased towards the second at others. It was never understood where the thinker, before the novelist, had reached regarding his view of the two projects. In the few instances he granted a meeting, the man listened a great deal and did not speak but through symbolic expressions. It is likely that he was a man of the 20th century and that with his death, there was nothing left of the century. Yet the issue of time is change, and the world has truly changed not only with the end of the Cold War or even subsequent technology revolutions, but rather because it has become necessary for the nature of states to change from independent entities to those capable of surviving in the shadow of fierce competition. In such a state, authority forms part of the picture, but the basis of the modern state is society; another story that no one has yet written.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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