Anis Mansour: Into the maze of literature
Philosopher, author and media figure, Egyptian writer Anis Mansour is known for the breadth of his interests as well as for his penetrating intelligence, writes Samir Sobhi
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Top: among the leading literary figures with President Mubarak; above: with Prince Ahmed Fouad II and Al-Ahram CEO Abdel-Moneim Said; left: with the late president Sadat and the celebrated industrialist Osman Ahmed Osman
He's the kind of person who says things like, "be patient. Wait another 10,000 years. There are many other universes left to discover."
Prolific author, popular columnist, dramatist, editor of many publications and philosopher, Anis Mansour was born in Mansoura on 18 August 1924. An excellent student throughout his school years, he later read philosophy at Cairo University. After graduating in 1947, he started what became a successful media career, working for Al-Akhbar, then Al-Ahram, and later serving as editor-in-chief of a further half a dozen magazines.
Mansour's book about existentialism, the first of its kind in Arabic, was reprinted five times and sold a record 30,000 copies. Although he has gained a different kind of fame for his books on travel, the paranormal and space travel, his passion is philosophy, the only way to try to understand topics like the relationship between man and society, life and death, and ethics and aesthetics, he says.
Nevertheless, societies, Mansour notes, are not in the habit of changing because of the doctrines they pursue. Rather, they change because of socio- economic forces. Philosophy may offer understanding, even inspiration, but when it comes to action, things work themselves out differently. You can have all the theories you like about the rights of peasants and workers, but unless you have the power to change things, such theories will remain a dead letter.
Moreover, books are not for everyone, Mansour holds. "Each book chooses its own kind of reader. Books about engineering will attract engineers, and books about medicine will attract doctors." The same, presumably, is true of books about philosophy. Mansour himself has always been an avid reader: even when he was still in primary school, he had read every book in the school library. He still has a report from his class teacher to prove it: "this is to certify that our pupil, the brilliant student Anis Mohamed Mansour, has read all the books in the school library, a total of 382."
Mansour is a man who appreciates routine, getting up at five every day and then going early to the office, where a ritual of writing unfolds. "I take all the books off my desk, and put all the pens and other things to one side," he says. "Then I switch off the ceiling light, so that the books that line the walls will not distract me. Then I get my writing paper. It has to be white and unlined. Then I get the pens. I have dozens of them, all black. They have to be soft-tipped so they can keep up with my pace of writing. I write as fast as I think, in big letters. And I rarely pause while I write."
To this day, Mansour is puzzled by the process of writing -- the irregularity of it, the place from which ideas come. "I don't know where my ideas come from, but they come," he says. "I also don't know why on some days I may be able to write 1,000 lines in a session and then on another I may not be able to get a single line down on paper. I don't know how long the cohabitation between myself and my dreams can last."
Part of what Mansour writes, he says, comes from the heart, and the other part he has to think more about. "I don't know how many times I have been aware of my heart and my mind seeming to switch places. Sometimes I write with my heart, and sometimes with my mind. Sometimes my heart follows my head, and sometimes it seems to follow my stomach."
It took Mansour a while to find the smooth style, the anecdotal ease and easy flow of fact and humour, for which he's famous. "During my attempts to find my own style, I used to tear up what I had written dozens of times until I was able to find the style I liked best. I always try to say something useful in an elegant way," he says.
There was one phase in which he experimented with writing poetry, though no one was allowed to read it, and he doesn't seem to miss it much. "I have written poetry, but I was never really serious about it. Some people memorise a lot of poetry and have talent. I found myself drifting away from poetry, which told me that the poetry I was writing lacked something."
Mansour has always been interested in health and nutrition, and he once wrote a book called Your Body Doesn't Lie, in which he argued that no two human bodies are the same. "My body is the only means I have to experience the world and to influence it," Mansour comments. "It is my achievement, my memory, and my fate."
Another topic he keeps going back to is happiness. There is chemistry involved in happiness, he says. "Someone may have 'good chemistry' with someone else, meaning that they click together and feel good together. There are many things that can produce happiness, just like different colours when combined produce white." Happiness can also be a form of obsession, he adds. "If I have a pain in my hand and then someone comes and brands my foot with a fire iron, then of course I forget about the pain in my hand. In the same way, for some people a sudden shock can come as a form of relief."
Mansour fondly remembers his journalistic beginnings in the early 1950s. He had just met the famous poet-writer Kamel El-Shennawi, who introduced him to political and journalistic circles in Cairo. "Kamel encouraged me a lot, and he did the same for many young people of my generation. It was through him that I met Ali and Mustafa Amin," the founders of the Cairo newspaper Akhbar Al-Yom.
Today, Arab thinking, Mansour says, is in need of rethinking. "There is a crisis in the way we conduct our human relations. We need to look deep inside ourselves. Arab thinkers are not required to resolve the troubles of the world, of course, but they may be able to help us avoid some of the worst excesses of life today. That is their humanitarian duty."
As far as his leisure activities are concerned, though Mansour used to write and produce for television he is very selective about what he watches on the box. "Television is hard to do. You can't please everyone all the time," he comments. "Some viewers want more culture, and others want more soap operas. Still others want more foreign films. There is a lot of good stuff on television, but I can't watch television a lot of the time. On the other hand, I like watching ballet and documentaries, programmes about animals, history and science. I admit that my taste is not for everyone."
Cryptically, Mansour declares that he lives for others and also against them. "I feel a need to befriend myself before I try to befriend other people. I have to feel at peace with myself before I can make peace with other people. He who is at war with himself cannot really be at peace and cannot be productive."
He has every respect for authors who were also politically engaged, people like Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, for example. But he holds that one shouldn't become too engrossed in politics, as this could mean losing the passion for literature.
"I am a writer who can enter the political maze and then find a way out again. I'm something like a silkworm, chomping my way through books, contentedly and perhaps even usefully."
In fact, Mansour is known for his sayings, many of which will always be associated with his name: ignoring people is the worst form of cruelty; art is the paper fence round the garden of civilisation; every time an artist dies, part of humanity's vision disappears; nothing is new in art except talent; we call the myths we believe in truth and the truths we don't believe in myth; it is easier to love humanity than it is to love your neighbour.