London Magazine , February/March 1990
Egypt / Naguib Mahfouz / Edward Fox
In the year since he won the Nobel Prize for literature, Naguib Mahfouz’s main occupation has been giving interviews. He’s not at all difficult to get hold of, and he obliges everyone. A stream of journalists and literary pilgrims has beat a path to the door of his office at Al- Ahram, the Cairo newspaper, or to the cafes that he visits every morning. He can always be counted on for a good quip. At 78, having written over 30 novels (the best of these long, long ago), he’s entitled to sit back and bask in the flashbulbs of fame.
He now has his own office at Al-Ahram, in the wake of his success. It is the large and comfortable corner office formerly occupied by the late Tawfik al-Hakim, Egypt's great playwright, who died the year before. Until he won the Prize, Mahfouz shared an office next door with the literary critic Louis Awad. He was not viewed as a worthy heir to the space occupied by a recognized immortal of Arabic literature. The office remained empty.
Mahfouz has had a considerable reputation in Egypt for decades, but mainly because of novels that were made into films. His daughters, who collected the Prize on his behalf in Stockholm, say they never read their father's books but wait for the movie.
Literary respectability had to be conferred by a foreign committee. In the Arabic literary tradition, poetry is the highest form, and the novel, of which Mahfouz is the Arab world’s leading practitioner, is something borrowed from the West comparatively recently.
Nor is he a particularly great stylist of the Arabic language. He has an advanced vocabulary, but his prose style does not have the tautness, simplicity and traditional Arabic grammar and syntax of Taha Husayn’s. Mahfouz’s sentences suffer from the affliction of much modern Arabic prose of being English translated into Arabic: he puts the verb where it usually goes in English, instead of at the beginning of the sentence, as in classical Arabic. And some of his passages from the early sixties, written in an unfortunate stream of consciousness style under the influence of the nouveau roman (as in The Thief and the Dogs) are purple and obscure.
Mahfouz’s best books are the ones he wrote in the forties and fifties: The Beginning and the End, Midaq Alley, a trilogy --Bayn al-Qasrayn ('Between the Two Palaces'), Qasr al-Shawq ('The Palace of Desire') and AI-Suqariyyah ('The Sugar Pot') -- a translation of which is expected next year, and Children of Gebelawi.
When I called on him, he was seated in the middle of a long leather sofa, and wore a suit distinctly Egyptian in style of cloth and cut -- black shot with narrow stripes of colour, with high lapels, and a shirt buttoned at the collar with no tie. His glasses were large, tinted and rectangular, and he wore a conspicuous hearing aid. His manners were courtly and solicitous, and the best moments in the interview were when he allowed a gust of laughter to peal from the depths of his by now wizened frame.
His answers were models of polite evasion. He has no axe to grind, and as a public figure in the Arab world has to be careful about what he says. He likes a good joke more than anything else.
I brought along a friend to act as interpreter, as Mahfouz’s English is not fluent. The newspaper also supplied a minder who translated for him, and put words into his mouth where necessary, so there were four people involved in the interview, three of them responsible for unloading the cargo of wisdom from the fourth. It was less like a serious interview than a friendly banter with a genial old timer in a pub. Most of the time the work of the translators involved raising the volume of my questions so Mahfouz could hear them. We talked for about 20 minutes, and then were ushered out.
The day before the meeting with Mahfouz, I visited Louis Awad, a left-wing literary historian, in the gloomy office at AI-Ahram that he once shared with Mahfouz: dimly lit, under-equipped, sparsely furnished. AI- Ahram, the ‘semi-official newspaper,’ is where the Egyptian state puts its intellectuals to keep an eye on them. Awad, an intense left-wing Copt who exudes the strain of years of neglect and grievance, was much more illuminating on Naguib Mahfouz than Naguib Mahfouz himself.
He and Mahfouz and others were grouped together as members of what the historian Vatikiotis called ‘a new generation of writers calling for the total reform of Egyptian society’, which emerged in the late 1940s, distinguished by an inclination toward Marxist ideas and a Sartrean commitment to social change. I asked Awad about Mahfouz’s membership of this group.
‘He was the least committed of all of us,’ Awad said, speaking from the moral high ground of the unswerving follower of a pure and original doctrine about one who has fallen by the wayside. ‘He was able to adapt himself to any regime, to have no enemies, to be in the good books of everybody. This is how he was able to survive. He was made into an institution under Nasser; under Nasser he reached his apotheosis; he was almost crowned by the State. In return, he wrote not a line about Nasser.’
As a leftist, Awad would have supported Nasser, while a dominant theme in Mahfouz’s books is the disastrous effect on Egyptian society of Nasser’s revolution. This theme is developed allegorically in Miramar, which was published while Nasser was still in power. Mahfouz never mentioned Nasser’s name in print until long after Nasser’s death, and a larger theme of universal human weakness and the inevitability of suffering again and again eclipses specific historical issues. Mahfouz is a political agnostic; to a rock-ribbed Marxist this is galling, particularly as Mahfouz has been so successful.
All of what Awad had said about Mahfouz was true, if uncharitable. Although they are an essential factor in the lives of his characters, politics are seen as a kind of curse in Mahfouz’s novels, a mindless force that reveals itself only as oppression and brutality, or suffering and fear, depending on which end of the hammer you are on.
‘Political life, political existence is the most important type of existence as far as I am concerned,’ Mahfouz said in our interview. ‘The most spontaneous, the most natural activity of Egyptians is the political one…Yani, my subject is people and these people take care of politics like they take care of love.’ And you know how complicated love is, how difficult to understand or to master.
This is the system of politics in the quarter of Cairo that is the setting of Children of Gebelawi: ‘'The stronger took to bullying, the weaker to begging and all of them to drugs. A man would slave and suffer to earn a few morsels, which he then had to share with a chief, not in return for thanks, but for cuffs and insults and curses. The chiefs alone lived in ease and plenty, with their chief over them and the Trustee over everybody, while the ordinary people were trodden underfoot. If some poor man could not pay his protection money, a chief would take his revenge on the whole quarter, and if the victim complained to the Chief or the Trustee, it would just mean that they beat him too.’
The point made in Children of Gebelawi is that generation after generation of Egyptians live in a perpetual master-slave relationship under one despot after another. Every now and then a prophet appears from the ranks of the oppressed offering the means to break out of this cycle and introduce peace and justice, but after his death his message is forgotten and everything continues as before. Each chapter ends with a rhetorical question that has strong echoes of similar phrases that appear frequently in the Qur’an: ‘If our alley were not plagued with forgetfulness, good examples would not be wasted.’
The difference between Awad and Mahfouz is that while Awad had faith in Nasser, or at least sees virtue in having had faith, Mahfouz saw Nasser as yet another incarnation of Pharaoh, indistinguishable in essence from countless previous tyrants in a chain of tyranny stretching back thousands of years into Egypt's mythic past. ‘My job is to write down the complaints of those who are oppressed or in need,’ he writes in the prologue.
The setting of Children of Gebelawi is the Gamaliyya quarter of Cairo, the so, called ‘medieval’ quarter that surrounds Al-Azhar, the university and mosque that is the seat of religious scholarship and authority in the Islamic world. In its narrow streets the strange combination of poverty and vivacity that characterizes modern Egypt is revealed in its grandest state of filthy splendour. This is where Mahfouz spent his childhood, and where most of his novels are set.
In Children of Gebelaw'i he draws on the deep aquifer of legend that lies everywhere underneath the barren landscape of the Near East, and from which the Gilgamesh epic, the Old and New Testaments and the Qur'an were drawn. The story of the charismatic figures who appear in Gamaliyya, and help the people defy unjust authority , is written (quite successfully, too) in the portentous style of scripture. This is not as radical as it sounds: living in a Biblical land, like Egypt, one realizes that the narratives of the Old Testament are about a life that is still being lived, with the same oaths, terrors, blood-loyalties, blood-feuds and supernatural encounters. The shepherds and prophets of scripture are the ancestors, or at least distant cousins, of the inhabitants of Gamaliyya.
There is a popular print that is common in Arab countries of the family tree of Muhammad and his descendants. At the root is the name Adam, the first man and the first prophet. The names of his descendants form the trunk of the tree. The ancestors of the Prophet Jesus branch off to one side. Noah, Abraham and Moses bring you up the trunk of the tree, branching off with the names of various obscure persons. Muhammad’s name is near the top, branching out in many directions with names that are familiar in Islamic history. Someone believed to be descended from the Prophet could trace his ancestry all the
way back to Adam.
In the Islamic tradition, the prophets are seen as ordinary men, even Jesus, whom they do not believe was crucified, reasoning that God would never allow such a thing to happen to one of His messengers. This convention is observed in Gebelawi in the chapter involving a character based on Jesus who preaches forbearance, meekness and forgiveness, but is not considered half-divine and does not end up nailed to a cross. The spiritual dramas enacted by Adam, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are events in the lives of the kin of the people living in the real and fictional Gamaliyya quarter, and as real as anything that could happen to those poor and afflicted people.
Mahfouz has trod very carefully with this book since writing it 30 years ago. All his public remarks about it have been polite and circumspect. Unlike Salman Rushdie, Mahfouz is not a ‘lapsed’ Muslim. He was glad to accept (publicly at least) King Fahd of Saudi Arabia’s invitation to perform hajj after he won the Nobel Prize. To me he said, ‘When it was published in 1959 [in A/-Ahram, in serial form], Al-Azhar felt that it in some way influenced or affected religious ideas. So the government or its representatives said this must be banned because it affects our religious principles. I wished to discuss the matter with Al-Azhar but this never happened.’ Rather than defy the religious authorities and the popular consensus that stands behind them, Mahfouz deferred to their judgement on the book, and has never pushed to have it published in Arabic.
He has shown great cunning and skill in the course of his long career in accommodating, on the one hand, the government, and the religious consensus on the other, using a variety of techniques, both in his novels and in his public utterances. Anyone familiar with the Russian tradition will recognize the political theme discussed under the veil of allegory, and the carefully worded public apologies: he is Egypt’s Shosta- kovitch, maintaining his honour, yet at the same time surviving.
Chi/dren of Gebe/awi is a pious book, albeit in the heterodox manner of, for example, Godard’s film Hail Mary, a point which was missed by an extremist theologian named Omar Abdul Rahman who in April announced that Mahfouz was an apostate and must be killed for writing it, considering it (or having heard it described as) a work of abominable heresy. It’s ironic that it should have been consigned to hell in the same handbasket as the mischievous Satanic Verses, considering its message.
Mahfouz said in reply to the theologian’s pronouncement, ‘At my age, assassination is equal to a natural death, and perhaps it would be more merciful than dying of cancer or a kidney failure.’ One imagines the eminent divine reading this in Al-Ahram, and snapping the paper down in disgust at this sweet, unworried and thoroughly unsporting reaction, exclaiming, ‘Then let him die of kidney failure,’ because the threat was never repeated nor taken up by other radicals, and Mahfouz continues to live a happy and untroubled life.