"And when December comes, we would all start talking about how we should celebrate the birthday of AlUstaz.”
AlUstaz (the master) is Naguib Mahfouz, who was born on 11 December 1911. The deliberations over the celebration of his birthday is one of the many things that Mahmoud ElShenwany, a medical doctor with a decades-long association with Egypt’s prominent novelist Naguib Mahfouz, recalled in a book that came out recently.
This year, Sefesafa Publishing House organised a signing event on the first week of December to re-launch the second edition of its 2018 book 'Thirty Years in the Company of Naguib Mahfouz' (thalathoun aaman fi sohbat Naguib Mahfouz).
In the small book of around 150 pages, ElShenwany gives a brief and personal account of how he knew Mahfouz and how he later became a permanent member of a group of friends and associates who attended a weekly seminar with Mahfouz. The seminar moved around the city from one café to another, around downtown and Tahrir, before finally being held at a five star hotel to provide privacy and safety for the Nobel Laureate after he survived an attempt on his life in 1994, until he passed away in 2006.
ElShenwany’s book offers no details about the discussions at the seminars, which he started attending in the mid 1970s after he first met Mahfouz, through sheer coincidence, while the prominent novelist was getting a taxi.
“I never kept notes of the conversations – some people did; I did not,” he wrote.
Instead, ElShenwany is sharing recollections and impressions of the mood and the participants of the seminars. He refers to a particular few by name and explains the depth of their association with Mahfouz. He talks about those who continued to attend the seminars all the way through – as he did except for a few years when he had to work overseas – and those who attended the seminars in a particular café and not the other.
ElShenwany refers to one time when Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt made an unexpected appearance at a seminar and tried to participate.
Mahfouz, as ElShenwany recounts, asked him to leave – not because he was opposed to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which was signed in 1979, but because he thought of the seminar as “a free chat among a group of friends” which nobody should attend uninvited or without the full consent of all those present.
ElShenwany also refers to another seminar, when a certain well-dressed lady made a sudden presence to abruptly ask Mahfouz to write an introduction to a book that was scheduled for publication by Maktabit AlOussra (The Family Library, a ministry of culture publication project that offered inexpensive editions of a wide variety of titles) upon the request of then-First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.
Already in frail health and losing his hearing, Mahfouz turned to ElShenwany, who would sit to his left, to enquire about the exact request by the lady. He then asked him to “tell her that I don’t know how to write an introduction to a book.” When the lady insisted, Mahfouz, ElShenwany recalls, turned back to his coffee and cigarette without any further comments.
Throughout the book, ElShenwany only shares what he personally saw or heard Mahfouz say.
ElShenwany also refers to the great admiration that Mahfouz had for the 1919 revolutionary figure Saad Zahgloul. He would also refer to the growing concern Mahfouz had about the domestic political situation just a couple of years before he passed away in August 2006, and certainly, the fascination Mahfouz had for the country’s most celebrated singer, Umm Kolthoum.
ElShenwany quoted Mahfouz saying he remembered seeing Umm Kolthoum in person only once, when Al-Ahram’s editor Mohamed Hassanein Heikal invited her to take part in his birthday celebration. This was in the 1960s when Mahouz was one of AlAhram’s top columnists.
ElShenwany also says that his favourite of Mahouz's is The Harafish (Malhamat AlHarafish).
Published in 1977, The Harafish (broadly translated to "the clan leaders") tells the story of 10 generations of a family that lived in Cairo, possibly starting around the early decades of the 19th century. It is one of the philosophical novels that Mahfouz wrote to explore matters related to death, life and faith.
Unlike the material offered by prominent writers and novelists who knew Mahfouz and attended his seminars, ElShenwany’s book is a truly simple read.
The book tries to offer a particular profile of Mahfouz – as a great intellectual and fascinating novelist but also a very simple and modest man who walked through his life with no inhibitions.
Before and after the Nobel Prize for literature he won in 1988, Mahfouz would write in the morning, take a walk a little later in the day to buy the papers, read them over coffee downtown, and later meet friends and acquaintances at the seminar. At the meeting, he would have a coffee without sugar – having been diagnosed with diabetes – and get straight and neat banknotes to pay his part of the check, which was always double what everyone else was going to pay, before taking off.