Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
Thebes at War
By Mohamed Salmawy
During my recent visit to Tokyo, a Japanese publisher told me that he wanted to have one of the early novels of Naguib Mahfouz translated into Japanese. I suggested Thebes at War.
In late 1999, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo carried out a survey and named Thebes at War one of the most important novels of the 20th century. When I told Mahfouz, he was too modest to acknowledge the praise. "They may have meant the most important of my Pharaonic novels."
"No, the newspaper asked several researchers in international literature and they selected Thebes at War, which you wrote in the 1930s. The newspaper wants your permission to publish the novel in a supplement with the newspaper, as they intend to publish one of the selected novels every week."
Still sceptical, Mahfouz said, "perhaps what they liked was the Pharaonic atmosphere."
"It's not that," I said. "There are many novels that tackled subjects from ancient Egyptian history, such as the novels of the British writer Sir H Rider Haggard in the early 20th century, which you used to read as a young boy. There are also the novels of the French writer Christian Jacq, which sold millions in the late years of that same century. El Mundo selected your novel for its literary worth. It said that it embodied the spirit of the 20th century and the quest by Third World people for liberation and independence."
"You're right. When I wrote Thebes at War, I was thinking all the time about the struggle of the Egyptians to rid their country from British occupation. I wanted to say that just as the Egyptians managed to free themselves in the past, they can do it again," Mahfouz said.
" El Mundo said that Thebes at War not only embodied the spirit of the 20th century but gave a human dimension to liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America," I pointed out.
Mahfouz started reminiscing, thinking back to the time he wrote Thebes at War and other novels set in the Pharaonic era. "At that time, we were trying to assert our national identity in the face of the British occupation, and we looked to our Pharaonic legacy for inspiration. Also, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1921 drew much international attention to the splendour of our past. This filled us with a sense of patriotism that influenced various forms of art at the time. I recall a song that went: Tutankhamun is our father. But I never imagined that one of those novels would ever be selected as a novel of the century."