Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 -27 February 2008
Issue No. 885
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:

Reaching the limit

By Mohamed Salmawy

Naguib Mahfouz went through two bouts of writer's block in his life, each lasting for a few years. The first was right after the 1952 revolution, when he quit writing novels for nearly seven years, turning instead to film scripts. When he joined the Writers' Association during that time, he registered his name as a "scriptwriter" rather than a novelist. When I asked Mahfouz about that period, he said:

"My writing before the revolution focused on certain aspirations that I shared with my generation, such as the evacuation of the occupiers, the achievement of independence, social security, a modern state, etc. The 1952 revolution achieved much of this, so I didn't know what to write about anymore. Of course, in the following years I had reservations about the way the revolution was heading. But in the early years, the revolution seemed to embody all our national hopes. It deposed the king, declared the country a republic, signed a withdrawal agreement with the British, introduced agrarian reform, and made education free for all."

These were not the only reasons Mahfouz had writer's block for the first time since he published his first novel in 1938. There are other reasons, though less political. One was that he had just finished the Cairo Trilogy, which took him four years to write and left him exhausted. Also, he wrote the Trilogy in realistic style and felt in need of trying other styles. This is exactly what happened later. After a long hiatus, he came back with Children of the Alley, a splendid work that took his art into a symbolic, perhaps post-realistic phase.

The second bout of writer's block happened in 1987, right before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. "The first time I stopped writing, it was because I had nothing to say -- my mind went totally blank. The second time, however, my head was full of ideas. But I had lost the desire to write. I would sit at my desk, with all those ideas in my head, and could not gather the strength to put them on paper," he told me.

The second hiatus started after Mahfouz finished the novel Koshtomor, which was being serialised in Al-Ahram at the time he won the Nobel Prize. The reason for this second block, he thought, was the fact that his eyesight was getting worse, which made writing difficult. But that wasn't to last. Mahfouz made another comeback, this time with Echoes of an Autobiography, a new genre of writing which he maintained well into the Dreams period, the work he died while still writing.

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