Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
Life after Nobel
By Mohamed Salmawy
Lars Rydquist, director of the Library of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm and member of the Nobel Prize's Consultative Committee, visited Cairo recently and asked five questions to Naguib Mahfouz. The answers which I relayed to Mahfouz would be published on the academy's Web site, in order to update and enrich its section devoted to the Egyptian Nobel Laureate.
Salmawy: What did you feel when you knew you had won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Mahfouz: I felt extreme happiness as well as great astonishment. I never expected to win the prize. During my time Nobel was awarded to writers of the highest calibre like Anatole France, Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. There were also Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. I had heard that an Arab writer might some day win the Nobel Prize, but I greatly doubted it would happen.
Salmawy: But did not writer Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad nominate you to the prize 20 years before you won it? This was during a television interview in which he said he believed you deserve the Nobel Prize.
Mahfouz: El-Aqqad was always courageous in his thinking.
Salmawy: Did winning the Nobel Prize in any way influence your life and subsequent work?
Mahfouz: Yes, it encouraged me to continue writing. But I received it at a later stage of my writing career, unfortunately. The only thing I wrote afterwards was Echoes of an Autobiography. I am now writing Dreams of Recuperation. Even the novel Qushtumur, which was published in serialised form in Al-Ahram was written before the prize. It appeared in book form afterwards.
On the personal level winning Nobel imposed on me a life-style to which I am not used and which I would not have preferred. I accepted the interviews and encounters that had to be held with the media, but I would have preferred to work in peace.
Salmawy: What made you become a writer and who inspired your career?
Mahfouz: I started writing while I was in school on copy-books. I was inspired by contemporary Arab writers like El-Manfalouti, Taha Hussein, and El-Aqqad. They moved in me the passion to write, with the result that I moved from the science section to the literature section when I was in secondary school.
Salmawy: What have been the most important events in your life since Nobel?
Mahfouz pointing to his neck: This, the beating I received in 1994 (referring to the assassination attempt on his life when a youth tried to plunge a dagger in his neck. Mahfouz's right hand was paralyzed for a long time afterwards). But I was also greatly honoured by the state and people in a way that deeply moved me.
Salmawy: What has been the impact of your works on Egyptian literature since you won the Nobel Prize?
Mahfouz: The answer to this must be left to the critics. Only they can say whether my writings influenced Arabic literature or not. One effect that the Nobel Prize seems to have had is that more Arabic literary works have been translated into other languages. I heard this from Russian visitors, as well as from Germans who came to Egypt to invite us to the Frankfurt International Book Fair for which they were preparing at the time.