Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo
by Menahem Milson
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The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (as his name is more commonly spelled) is one of those authors - like Norman Mailer or Salman Rushdie - whose biography and political views sometimes overshadow his fiction. Although Mahfouz fills a decidedly smaller stage than Mailer or Rushdie (the Arabic-speaking world rather than the English-speaking one), he dominates it far more thoroughly than does any novelist here. His comments are sought on a huge range of subjects, his life is the stuff of gossip sheets, his influence is felt from think tanks to movie studios, and politicians dare not ignore his views. Indeed, as Menahem Milson writes in his lucid and insightful review of Mahfouz's career, he is both "Egypt's most popular writer" and "the literary conscience of his country" - not a common pairing.
The good news is that this colossus of the Arab cultural world has highly attractive views. On key issues facing Egyptians - the patriarchal order, the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and fundamentalist Islam - he consistently advocates a moderate and sensible outlook. Mahfouz loathed Nasser, the enormously popular ruler of Egypt from 1952 to 1970. He hated the attempt to remake Egypt through revolution, the subservience to Moscow, and the police state. But perhaps Mahfouz minded worst of all Nasser's disregard for Egyptian national interests, as symbolized by his erasing Egypt's name from the map in favor of the fictional "United Arab Republic." Mahfouz is a stalwart Egyptian patriot; in the words of an Egyptian critic, he "has a love affair with Egypt" and he expresses this almost-romantic feeling with the trope of Egypt as female and its rapacious rulers as male. His works reveal a scathing contempt for rulers such as Nasser who take liberties with his beloved country.
Mahfouz had hoped in 1952 that the new regime would first deal with "the genuine and historic enemies - poverty, ignorance, disease and dictatorship" - before taking on foreign enemies. Instead, it made anti-Zionism the center of its program. Mahfouz despairs of this mistake and has long advocated closing down the conflict with Israel. He does so not out of affection for the Jewish state but from a recognition of the damage this confrontation has done to Egypt - the lives lost, the economic sacrifice, the authoritarian rule. In his view, no foreign land justifies such a price.
Although a Muslim himself, Mahfouz deeply mistrusts fundamentalist Muslims. Already in 1959, he wrote an allegorical tale, Sons of Our Quarter, that much perturbed them. And it still does: in 1989, shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini's edict against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, one Egyptian fundamentalist declared, "If only we had behaved in the proper Islamic manner with Naguib Mahfouz, we would not have been assailed by the appearance of Salman Rushdie. Had we killed Naguib Mahfouz, Salman Rushdie would not have appeared." Not to be outdone, Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian sheikh now resident in Leavenworth, Kansas (serving many life sentences for his role inspiring terrorism in New York City), condemned Mahfouz to death. In October 1994 a young fundamentalist Muslim stabbed the then 83-year-old Mahfouz in the neck, an act of vengeance for his anti-fundamentalist attitudes.
Mahfouz's bland biography does contain a few surprises. Born in 1911, the youngest of seven children in a middle-class family, he has always lived in Cairo. His mother had a difficult childbirth and gratefully named him after the doctor who delivered him. An ardent student of philosophy, Mahfouz first appeared in print, writing on religion and socialism in a prominent magazine, when still a teenager. He applied for a government scholarship in 1934 to study philosophy in Europe but was passed over, presumably because the committee thought him a Christian (due to his name).
Forced to take a job, Mahfouz became a secretary at a university, the first of a long series of administrative positions. In 1936 he decided to make writing his career. Mahfouz endured years of frustration as a novelist and took refuge writing film scripts. Only with his Cairene trilogy, published in 1957 did he at the age of 46 win the acclaim that he has maintained ever since.
Somewhat like the English novelist Anthony Trollope, Mahfouz performed ably at his civil service day job, then did his writing during spare time (though Trollope wrote early in the morning and Mahfouz only after coming home from work). He wrote a huge corpus (fifty-two books plus innumerable articles and screenplays) by keeping to an extremely rigorous schedule; friends joked about setting their watches by his regular daily movements. He barely traveled; Milson notes that he "has never vacationed, let alone lived, outside of Egypt, except for two short trips he made as a member of official delegations to Yugoslavia and to Yemen."
Yet Mahfouz's career was not all clockwork. He married in 1954 but kept the liaison secret from virtually everyone, including his own mother, for years. For twenty-two years this paragon of free expression filled the position of chief censor in the Ministry of Culture - and for half of that time working for the despised Nasser. Throughout his career, Mahfouz has taken particular care not to provoke a confrontation. He worried about angering the state (and being banished Solzhenitsyn-style from his homeland), but he also kept his eye on the other forces swirling through Egypt's public life. Milson breaks new ground in The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo by demonstrating just how wily Mahfouz was, using allegories, myths, mimesis, and other hints to express his views. Indeed, Milson devotes a full third of his study to decipher the significance of personal names Mahfouz assigned to characters - a little bit like Dickens but less playfully and more fearfully. As Milson rightly observes, when reading Mahfouz, "words always have more than one level of meaning."
Mahfouz exerts a benign and moderating influence on the turbulent politics of the Arabic-speaking countries, and for this one must be grateful. But actually, as an artist, how good is he? He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, a pretty impressive credential, to be sure. But the sages of Stockholm have been known to respond to political pressures, and the absence of any Arabic writer among the ranks of the world's most prestigious literary laureates weighed heavily on them. They selected Mahfouz because he was the confirmed giant among Arab writers - not because they found him to be the leading belle-lettrist in a worldwide competition.
This reviewer once spent an academic year in Cairo enrolled in a program to learn the Arabic language that amounted to a crash course in modern Egyptian literature. The many novels I read left me deeply unimpressed by the general quality of the artistry. I found stories contrived, characters thin, and language stilted. Had they been written in English, I concluded, most of these Arabic novels would likely not have been published. This is not entirely surprising, for the novel is a Western form very new to Arabs. Poetry is the glory of Arabic literature; novels remain derivative and experimental. Mahfouz is no doubt right that "The novel is the poetry of the modern world," but his is a format that Arab authors have yet fully to master.
By this unexacting standard, Mahfouz does shine; by international standards, however, he is a middling novelist. Two of his works are truly compelling: Palace Walk (1956), the first volume of the trilogy, with its very comprehensive account of three generations of a rather typical, if prosperous, Cairene family, depicts a dictatorial husband in the 1910s who insists that his family live a thoroughly Islamic life but then goes off nearly every evening to pursue his sybaritic pleasure. The contrast between his domineering personality at home and the good-time Ahmad out on the town is unforgettable. Arabian Nights and Days (1982) tells a wonderful set of fantastical stories about the town where the original Thousand and One Nights are supposed to have occurred. It's a modernized version of an ancient fable and it works surprisingly well.
But the other volumes fall off and most of his other major works (The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, Miramar) somewhat repeatedly and tediously pursue the same themes. Though compared to Balzac, Mahfouz's vision is far more constricted, so his stories fall way short of that master's. A Balzac or an Austin could display the human comedy within narrow confines, but not Mahfouz, who only glancingly touches on it. Worse, Mahfouz is a committed artist, much of whose fiction, Milson explains, "is the outcome of his desire to reform society, and his primary purpose throughout is to convey ideas." However laudable those ideas may be, this political purpose gives his work a didactic and sometimes stifling quality.
This, then, is an author better read about than read. And one cannot do better than to read about him than in Milson's fine appreciation.
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