By Farooq Sulehria
August 30 was a sad day for international literature. It was
deprived of Naguib Mahfouz, first---and by far the only---Arab/Muslim
author who won the Noble for literature.
Interestingly, the moment his name was announced as Noble laureate
back in 1988, it was greeted with silence by the Cultural Reporters
gathered outside the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. They did not
recognise the name even if Naguib Mahfouz had become a household
name across the Arab world by then.
It was for the same reason a New York publisher, looking for
Third World books to publish, turned down Edward Said's suggestion
to publish Naguib Mahfouz. However, the reason this publisher
cited, when Said inquired, was: 'Arabic was a controversial language'.
Born in Cairo, on 11 December 1911--a day earlier Maurice Maeterlick
received that year's Noble Prize for Literature from King Gustavus
V--Naguib Mahfouz received religious training at a seminary as
kid, developed a liking for music and studied philosophy at university
while developing a flare for writing. Initially, he was influenced
by Egyptian writers like Al Manfaluti and Taha Hussain. Introduction
to Western literature unfurled new horizons and he decided to
take writing seriously. 'The year 1937 was the turning point in
my life', he says. 'That year I decided to dedicate myself to
the craft of fiction writing, after I underwent a terrible conflict
weighing philosophy against literature and choosing between them',
he once told a newspaper. And then there was no looking back.
He wrote endlessly and enriched the Arabic literature with over
50 novels and screen plays, more than 200 short stories, memoirs
and dialogues. Novel, however, remained his preferred genre.
When Mahfouz made his debut, novel as a genre barely existed
in Arabic literature. Not merely he established novel as genre
but his experiments ranging from from historical novel to realism
(Cairo trilogy) to modernism ('Adrift on the Nile' and 'Miramar')
made it possible that now one speaks of Arabic novel just as one
speaks of the Russian novel or the French novel.
But one thing remains common (with exceptions like 'Miramir')
in all his experiments: Cairo. The town of Cairo was his life-time
love. All his life, he hardly left Cairo. Until a month ago before
he was hospitalised, he would frequent cafes by Nile side. Though,
of late, he would not mix with folks as freely as he would do
before 1994 when he was stabbed by a religious fanatic. The attack
left him paralysed. He was not able to write himself anymore.
But his mind remained as fertile as ever and he would dictate
his thoughts to a friend. The attacker was acting upon the advice
of Shaikh Omar Abdur Rehman (now serving jail term in USA on terrorism
charges) who thought Salman Rushdie would not have dared pen down
Satanic Verses had Mahfouz not written his Awlad Haritna ( Children
of Gebelawi to English readers). When interrogated, the mugger
confessed not to have read the book himself. His attacker was
a kind of fanatic retrospectively portrayed by Naguib Mahfouz
in last part of his world-famous Cairo trilogy.
In this trilogy, summarising the Egyptian history of first four
decades into the twentieth century, Naguib Mahfouz narrates the
story of a middle class Cairo family headed by El-Sayed Ahmed
Abdel Gawwad: an authoritarian father leading a double life. At
home, surrounded by his family El Sayed is a father feared/respected
by the family. With his friends, he is lot of fun and enjoys himself
all the 'pleasures' (from women to wine) available. His eldest
son, Yasin, is a flirt, the other, Fehmy, lays his life for the
cause of national freedom while youngest, Kamal, is in search
of faith. Kamal in fact is rendering of young Naguib Mahfouz.
Though trilogy's Kamal embraces atheism, Naguib Mahfouz , however,
in his 'Echoes of a Biography' as well as his last book 'The Seventh
Heaven' appears as a faithful under Sufi influence.
But for Mahfouz, 'Islamic civilization' is not merely a 'talk
about its call for the establishment of a union between all Mankind
under the guardianship of the Creator, based on freedom, equality
Instead, Mahfouz introduces Islamic civilisation ' in a moving
dramatic situation summarizing one of its most conspicuous traits:
In one victorious battle against Byzantium it has given back its
prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient
Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. This is
a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge,
even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded
a fruit of a pagan civilization'.
While embracing Islamic legacy, he does not shed Egypt's pre-Islamic
civilisation. In fact, he calls himself 'son of two civilisations
that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage.
The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic
civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old,
is the Islamic one'.
His deep sense of Egyptian history, old and contemporary, is
reflected in his works. He is capable of summing it up for his
readers as an able history teacher would do it for his students.
Yet his greatness lies in his social realism.
It does not take long to identify with his lower middle class
characters in 'Begining and End', middle class El Syed family
(headed by an authoritarian Abba Jee) of 'Cairo trilogy' or sexually
frustrated men of 'Miramar'. Also, the dark, lively and populated
alleys of old Cairo are not very different from Lahore's Walled
City. Above all, it is not difficult to identify the dilemma of
Egyptian/Muslim middle and lower middle classes trying to cling
by the dying traditions while facing challenges posed by the modernity.
He does not, however, pass judgements. He merely presents the
realities and convinces his readers to accept the reality as it
is. It is, in a way, this realism that earned him the wrath of
certain Western feminists. These feminists thought Mahfouz feminine
characters were nothing but sexual objects. That in fact is not
true. Indeed, he portrays them as honestly as he portrays the
hidden life of gays ( 'Sugar Street').
Politics remains his fascination, however as an individual, he
remained a political moderate unlike his Arab contemporaries like
Saadi Yousaf, a staunch Marxist, or Abdur Rehman Munif, a Baathist.
Still, his life was not free from controversies. His support for
Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel is debated to this day.
But the controversy that marked his life and proved fatal was
around 'Children of Gebelawi'. First serialised in Egyptian newspapers
in 1959, it caused an uproar. Egyptian religious authorities banned
but it was published in Lebanon and later translated into English.
The controversy haunted him back when Ayatollah Khomeini issued
a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses in a 1989.
In a copycat fatwa the same year, Sheik Omar Abdur Rahman said
Mahfouz deserved to die for 'Children of Gebelawi'. The attacker
five years later was inspired by the fatwa. The controversy renewed
yet again in 2005, when a monthly magazine tried to publish the
novel. Mahfouz said he wouldn't agree to republishing it without
the consent of Al-Azhar. His position raised an outcry among many
novelists who said he was bending to religious censorship but
it reflected his non-confrontational style and desire to see consensus.
His desire for consensus, in turn, was driven by his humanism
and his deep sense of universal culture. In one of his interviews,
he said: 'My position on everything I have read throughout my
life--and my readings include the Ancient Egyptian and Arabic
heritage as well as English and French creative works--was, as
far as possible, a neutral, unbiased, one. This in the sense that
all these cultures are, in the last analysis, human cultures,
produced by man, and I am as entitled to the English [literary]
heritage as I am to the Pharaonic heritage. In other words, all
these cultures belong to me in my capacity as a human being'.
Unfortunately, Mahfouz' humanist message is not translating into
a mass Arab movement presently. On the contrary, it is his Jihadist
compatriots of Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad finding a wider hearing.
In this undeclared conflict between Mahfouz and Jihadists, international
brotherhood of Naguib's readers have big stakes. Whatever the
outcome of the conflict, the Arabic expression hissak fil dunya
( your voice echoes in the world) will hold true for Naguib Mahfouz.