Writer and journalist Mohamed Salmawy, who had a long-standing friendship with Egypt's Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz, whose works are seen as the cornerstone of Egyptian literature, has released his latest book, Hiwarat Naguib Mahfouz (Naguib Mahfouz Dialogues), to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the writer's death.
Mahfouz was once described as the greatest writer in one of the most widely understood languages in the world.
Salmawy, ex-editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Hebdo, signed his new book at Al-Ahram Establishment, the publisher of the book. Mohammed El-Shazyly, head of Al-Ahram Publishing Centre, and Gaber Asfour, ex-minister of culture, ran a discussion with Salmawy.
The interviews collected in the book were originally published in Al-Ahram daily on a weekly basis and were conducted after the failed assassination attempt against Mahfouz in October 1994, which left him unable to use his hands to write, thus forcing him to end writing his weekly column for Al-Ahram daily.
Salmawy, who delivered Mahfouz's Nobel Prize speech in 1988, contextualised the circumstances in which he started to meet Mahfouz every Saturday to interview him about a different topic.
He recorded these interviews in more than 500 hours of audio cassettes which included his opinions on the existence of God, religion, the political situation in Egypt, and many political leaders like Nasser, Lenin, Gandhi, in addition to many issues that Salmawy has not published yet.
The author of The Butterfly Wings took the chance also to detail the assassination attempt, recounting how Naguib told him about the moment when he was stabbed in the neck.
"The occasion of conducting these interviews with Mahfouz was not pleasant, as it took place in the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt in 1994, when he was stabbed in the neck by a young Islamist called Mohammed Nagui, and couldn't go back to writing and could only dictate," Salmawy said.
"As you know, he was getting in a car with his friend who happened to be a doctor to go meet some friends when a young man approached him. He thought he was coming to greet him, so opened his window before the man reached his neck with a knife, stabbing him and running away," Salmawy told his audience.
Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed beside his home in Dokki. His friend rushed him to the Police Hospital, which was metres away from him, and in 10 minutes he was in the operations room, which saved his life.
"After the operation, Mahfouz was in the ICU and visits were not allowed. But he asked to see me. The doctors said I shouldn't be there for more than three minutes and I promised to commit to that. But when Naguib saw me he started to tell me about what happened; he described the stabbing moment as if strong claws had penetrated his neck," Salmawy recounted.
Naguib wondered aloud to Salmawy, "Why this guy would do this to himself? He is a strong man; he could have been a sports player, or any other thing, but now he is going to jail," Salmawy said.
"You seem upset about what is going to happen to him, not upset about what he has done to you," Salmawy said, before Mahfouz replied: "They did this to our youth; they set them up and convinced them with extreme ideas and turned them into killers. I forgive him, but I can't pardon him. It is not in my hands anymore."
Mohamed Nagi, who stabbed Mahfouz, did it because he was ordered to kill him from the emir of his group, who told him that Mahfouz was an infidel.
"I was amazed that Mahfouz forgave the man who stabbed him, so I decided I will go meet [the man] in prison and confront him. I was sure that will change his heart. I went to him and I told him, 'Do you know he forgave you?' But he answered saying that he doesn’t care and if there's anything that he regrets it is not succeeding to kill Mahfouz as he was ordered, and he would do it again if he had the chance," Salmawy said.
"I asked him why. He said because he was an infidel and wrote his blasphemy in Awlad Haritna (Children of the Alley), which was not published in Egypt. I asked him, 'Did you read it or read any work by Mahfouz?' He answered, no but the emir told them so," Salmawy added.
After three weeks in hospital, Mahfouz went home but wasn't able to write his weekly column for Al-Ahram daily. He refused the offer of Al-Ahram to still take his salary without writing till he completely healed, and suggested on Salmawy that the column be replaced by a weekly interview. This is how the interviews started, resulting in 500 hours of audio tapes.
"We agreed to meet at 6:00pm every Saturday for an hour, and the first interview was published on 22 December 1994. I chose to make it about God; it was about the importance of faith and religion. I deliberately chose that topic to be the first." Salmawy explained.
Most of what the tapes include has not been published, according to Salmawy. "What the book (Naguib Mahfouz Dialogues) includes is only five percent of the audio tapes, but I have the ambition to transcribe all of it and publish it."
The audience asked Salmawy to make these tapes public, as they rightfully belong to humanity and not only him. He vowed to make the tapes public in the future, and to give them to any museum dedicated to Naguib Mahfouz, along with many items that belonged to the writer of The Cairo Trilogy.