Were it not for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who signed Naguib Mahfouz to join her growing repertoire of developing world writers at Doubleday, few English-readers would have discovered the Arab Honoré de Balzac. Though a widely-read author in Egypt and the Arab world, his political contributions were uniquely valuable, even if his literary activities earned him the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. An opponent of the Jamal Abdul Nasser regime after the 1952 coup d'état, Mahfouz supported president Anwar Sadat and the latter's Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978, not because he agreed with the policy but because he concluded that Nasser would serve Egypt better if he first dealt with its "genuine and historic enemies — poverty, ignorance, disease and dictatorship". In fact, the writer's relationship with the enormously popular revolutionary president was so difficult that he literally stopped writing for five years, after Nasser overthrew the monarchy.
Still, if Nasser attempted to remake Egypt into a revolutionary image, Mahfouz loathed the subservience to Moscow and, even worse, the rise of a police state in the name of security. Mahfouz never forgave Nasser for disregarding permanent Egyptian national interests and often cited the adoption of the fictional "United Arab Republic", the ill-fated union with Syria, as an illustration of chimerical dreams that seldom advanced Cairo's welfare. A stalwart Egyptian patriot swimming against the tide of the Arab Ummah, the future laureate had "a love affair with Egypt", composing numerous essays that revealed his scathing contempt for anyone who took liberties with his beloved nation.
Although most of Mahfouz's essays were set in Gamaliyyah, originally to cover the whole history of Egypt in a series of historical novels, that project was dropped after three novels. Instead, Mahfouz shifted his interest to the psychological impact of British occupation and, after the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, on how such an epochal event literally changed the lives of ordinary people. His central work in the 1950s was The Cairo Trilogy, a monumental work of 1,500 pages, which the author completed before the July Revolution. Set in the parts of Cairo where he grew up, the novels were titled with the street names Palace Walk,Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, depicting the life of a family patriarch, Sayyid Ahmad Abdul Jawad and his progeny over three generations from the First World War to 1952. These beautifully written books wove incredibly complex characters that anticipated permanent changes in society. Yet after the overthrow of the monarchy, Mahfouz waited to see what the Nasser regime might do, which was little of substance as far the Cairenese was concerned.
In 1959, Mahfouz published Awlad Haritnah (“Children of the Alley”, printed under the title The Children of Gebelawi), which portrayed average Egyptians living the lives of Cain, Abel, Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The allegorical story hovered around a mansion in an oasis in the middle of a barren desert that became the scene of a family feud which continued for generations.
Not surprisingly, the book was quickly banned throughout the Arab world, with the exception of Lebanon, although the theme that humanity was moving further away from God increasingly preoccupied the novelist. Throughout the 1960s Mahfouz composed books that stressed this existentialist quest to better understand what moved Egypt.
In The Thief and the Dogs (1961) he portrayed the fate a Marxist robber who planned revenge as soon as he was released from prison. Though the burglar’s fate is tragic, Mahfouz constructed his novels freely, often using interior monologues.
In Miramar (1967) he “developed a form of multiple first-person narration, as four narrators, among them a Socialist and a Nasserite opportunist, represent different political views”. Likewise, in Arabian Nights and Days (1981) and in The Journey of Ibn Fatuma (1983), Mahfouz drew on traditional Arabic narratives subtexts, while in Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985), he focused on rising conflicts between old and new religious truths.
In the words of the late professor Edward W. Said, Mahfouz concentrated on the geographical place that was Egypt, to highlight its “immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity”.
This truism notwithstanding, Mahfouz’s real contribution was to identify, or perhaps even shape, the post-revolutionary direction embarked upon after independence. His educated preference was for a more liberal and rational attitude towards the complex socio-political reality of Egypt, which was certainly not heeded.
Realising the lost opportunities, Mahfouz wrote six highly political novels that emphasised the importance of freedom and the dire consequences of its absence from Egyptian society. Though chiefly disappointed with Nasser, The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail (1962), The Search (1964), The Beggar (1965), Adrift on the Nile (1966) and Children of Gebelawi illustrated the author’s defiance and the overall glorification of the spirit of rebellion.
Various themes were touched upon with a sharp sense of humour, which highlighted inherent weaknesses, including the blindness and cruelty of change, sympathies with victims, the consequences of corruption and tyranny and similar sentiments.
Inasmuch as most of Mahfouz’s writings dealt primarily with political issues — something that the author accepted when he declared: “In all my writings, you will find politics. You may find a story that ignores love or any other subject but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking” — the future Nobel laureate did not spare Nasser. After the latter’s sudden death in 1970, he published Karnak (1971) that portrayed the horrible police-state model that was in place.
To his credit, Mahfouz assessed the long-term consequences of such policies, arguing that they destroyed the very spirit of young Egyptians to preserve and protect their country. A partisan of the Wafd Party, Mahfouz sympathised with socialist ideals early on in his youth but quickly distanced himself from its extreme beliefs.
Parallel to this sympathy for what may be termed as social-democratic principles was his genuine antipathy towards extremism, especially some of the measures adopted and propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood movement in his native country.
In fact, a careful reading of his numerous essays, short stories and prolific newspaper commentaries reflect a strong criticism of what we now call radical religiosity. Mahfouz almost always perceived “Islamism” as a critically delineated phenomenon that insulted his faith. A devout Muslim, he concluded that “Islamism” was unsuitable for all Muslims at all times, which certainly did not endear him to some of his countrymen. His knack of tackling sensitive religious issues was legendary, which resulted in many of his books being quickly banned.
Such literary and political opprobrium notwithstanding, and like the weekly magazine October columnist Faraj Fouda, who was gunned down in June 1992 at the hands of a member of Al Gamaa Al Islamiyyah, Mahfouz was on a “death list” of fundamentalists. One of his offences was to defend Salman Rushdie after the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned the British author to death.
Though Mahfouz updated his reading of Rushdie — determining that The Satanic Verses were “insulting” to Islam — he did not escape the wrath of the fundamentalists. Two assailants stabbed him in the neck with a kitchen knife in October 1994 and were sentenced to death for attempted murder. Whether Mahfouz’s anti-fundamentalist writings contributed to the attack was never determined, although one of the condemned men confessed that he had not actually read any of the allegorical stories but had only heard about them.
Mahfouz was of course well versed in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, whom he knew personally in his youth when the latter was also engaged in literary criticism. To his credit, Qutb was an early admirer of Mahfouz’s talent and the two men saw each other frequently. Reporters confirmed that Mahfouz visited Qutb when the latter was in the hospital, which illustrated the writer’s compassion even when he fundamentally disagreed with someone’s political views.
In the event, Mahfouz grew old with his principles and after illness slowed him down, he acquired the habit of dictating to his friend, the journalist Mohammad Salmawy, some of the “dreams” he wished to recount. Salmawy called Mahfouz “Ustaz” (Professor) and the collaboration resulted in a serialised feature for a weekly women’s magazine, Nisf Al Dunyyah, which was collected in Dreams (2003).
In his last dream, “Mahfouz saw himself preparing the table and listening to the voices of his mother, brothers and sisters in the next room, then falling asleep and awakening: ‘I found the room completely empty, totally silent and for a minute I was frightened before I gradually remembered that they had all passed away and that I had attended their funerals, one after the other’,” he recalled, which illustrated his complex character.
In the words of Menahem Milson, who wrote The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo (1998), Mahfouz was both “Egypt’s most popular writer” and “the literary conscience of his country”. While this was not a common pairing, it was appropriate for the “Balzac of Egypt”, as he carefully described the development of his country in the 20th century much like the Frenchman did for 19th-century France.
Mahfouz certainly combined intellectual and cultural influences from a variety of sources and added originality in the florid classical Arabic for which he received widespread praise throughout the Arabic-reading world. His enduring legacy, however, was to look for the value of ordinary people and how they tried to cope with the modernisation of the Egyptian society that experienced occupation and revolution.
Above all else, Mahfouz wished to sensitise his readers, from uneducated peasants to the most erudite elites, that they should protect themselves from the temptations of alien values while upholding what were intrinsically worth, from freedom and respect of the other to liberty and prosperity for most.
Chronicle of the writer’s life
Naguib Mahfouz (sometimes spelt Mahfuz) was born into a lower middle-class Muslim family in Gamaliya (or Jamaliyyah) near Cairo, on December 11, 1911, and became the first Egyptian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. His native town and the one he moved to in 1924, Abbasiyyah, another Cairo suburb, provided the colourful backdrop for many of the author’s numerous writings. His father, in the son’s own words, an “old-fashioned” civil servant, served as a role model and Mahfouz eventually followed in his elder’s footsteps.
The seventh and the youngest child in a family that had five boys and two girls, Mahfouz was a curious child, eager to read extensively. It may be said that the 1919 revolution in Egypt, when he was 8, left an impact on the young man. After completing his secondary education, Mahfouz entered the King Fouad I University, now the University of Cairo, where he studied philosophy, graduating in 1934. By 1936, with almost a year of work towards a masters, he decided to become a professional writer, first as a journalist with ‘Al Risala’, and then with the more established ‘Al Hilal’ and ‘Al Ahram’. His first book, ‘Hams Al Junun’ (Whispers of Madness), was a collection of short stories.
A bachelor until the age of 43, Mahfouz married Atiyyatallah Ebrahim in 1954 and moved from the family house in Abbasiyyah to an apartment overlooking the Nile in Giza. They had two daughters — Fatima and Umm Kalthum.
Early in his career, and to ensure a steady paycheque, Mahfouz became a civil servant, which he maintained for 35 years, first at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, then as the director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art, before becoming a Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema. His last bureaucratic position was that of a consultant on cinema affairs at the Ministry of Culture until his retirement in 1972.
The body of his work concentrated on a great family saga of modern Arabic literature and the work that enshrines middle-class morality and culture. He was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature and, in 1989 Mahfouz received the Presidential Medal from the American University in Cairo, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate in June 1995. In 1992 he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 2002, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In July 2006, Mahfouz sustained an injury to his head as a result of a fall and remained ill until his death on August 30, 2006, in a Cairo hospital. He was accorded a state funeral with full military honours on August 31, with final rites taking place in the Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City.