Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
By Mohamed Salmawy
People tend to think Children of the Alley is the only controversial work by Naguib Mahfouz. But much of Mahfouz's writings are controversial and some put him in harm's way. I am not referring just to Al-Karnak, Adrift on the Nile, Miramar, The Thief and the Dogs, or The Beggar. Some of his less known works were even more defiant.
I asked Mahfouz once about Fear, one of his short stories. He wrote that story in the early 1960s and for a long time afterwards lived in fear of retaliation. He admitted to me that he never feared the consequences of any of his writings more than he did those of Fear. Strangely enough, Mahfouz wrote Fear right after Children of the Alley, the novel that was published only after his death due to the immense crisis it caused. What this indicates is that Mahfouz was not a man to fear authority. He wrote what he felt regardless of the consequences. Fear was critical of the undemocratic methods of the time.
"Since the story was published in Al-Ahram, much speculation emerged over the symbols and characters it included. More than once, I was stopped by officers in the street. And they would question me straight away about what I meant by the story and who was the real life character of the despotic officer in the story. My impression was that those encounters were not accidental, but part of an unofficial investigation. What made me think so is that one of the officers once asked me if I was referring to Gamal Abdel-Nasser," Mahfouz said.
Fear tells the story of a society controlled by rival gangsters. One officer comes onto the scene, defeats the gangsters, and becomes the sole power. The officer abandons his military uniform for civilian clothes and starts frequenting the same hangouts as the gangsters. In the end, he wins the heart of the girl the gangsters all loved.
"The officer's name, Othman Galali, had the reverse initials of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Was this why the story seemed as an allegory about the former president?" I asked Mahfouz.
"That might be true. People thought that the officer was Nasser; that the gangsters stood for the disbanded political party, that the girl was a symbol of authority. But it was anyway clear that the story was an attack on dictatorial governments. I could argue that I wasn't referring to Nasser as such, but to other officers. For example, there was an officer by the name of Abu Zeid who became famous after the revolution when the government sent him to the south to fight the gangsters. But it was clear to everyone that the story was an attack on dictatorship."
Mahfouz railed against oppression in other stories as well: People of the Summit, Love on the Pyramid Plateau and Adrift on the Nile are but a few examples. A decision was made to arrest Mahfouz after he published Adrift on the Nile, but Nasser reversed it at the last moment. This goes to show that Mahfouz was not one to appease authorities, as some naïvely claim.