The Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz sculpted characters not just in his novels but also in the minds of his readers. Cinema also helped him. No Arab novelist has had more films made based on his novels. As a result, his written words and the films that different filmmakers have made of them allowed Mahfouz to imprint his characters deep in the Arab imagination.
There is a kind of dictatorship in talent. Mahfouz did not leave his readers with options about how to think about his characters. They are free to judge, of course. But they are also given all the details, from the externals (decisions, actions, choices and how they are made and carried out) to the internals (the why of what happens, typically delivered gradually in Mahfouz’s trademark internal monologues).
Although these internal expositions are difficult to portray in moving pictures, filmmakers have been faithful to this Mahfouz-esque way of revealing the layers of his characters. Mahfouz did not even leave readers with words and phrases they were familiar with, even if they were native Arabic speakers with adequate exposure to Egypt’s different verbal registers. He invented “speaking flows” for his characters, not just styles of talking that actors could adopt in portraying the characters in films. These flows were intended to show in all their rawness how his characters thought.
Many of Mahfouz’s characters became synonymous with certain themes, transcending collections of phrases and coming, in the Arab collective consciousness, to encapsulate certain meanings. Certain characters, as Mahfouz formed them, become associated with certain emotions, say melancholy for a lost era (in the novel Miramar for example), or suppressed anger coming to the surface as pleasure-seeking nihilism (in Chatter on the Nile). Whereas for many of his international readers, Mahfouz was the creator of a universe of Egyptianness that they could sail into, stopping at different constellations, the Cairo Trilogy, for example, or even black holes of grief (such as Autumn Quail), for his Egyptian and probably also many Arab readers, Mahfouz was a creator of characters that are primarily understood as concentrations of themes.
His success was colossal, and yet at the moment when Mahfouz had all the freedom he could wish for in order to write what he wanted in the way that he wanted he stopped making characters. In fact, he banished them completely from his writings.
This freedom was important to him, but it had been long in coming. Mahfouz began writing seriously in the 1940s when his favourite political party, the Wafd, was in open disagreement with former king Farouk. During the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the1950s and 1960s, Mahfouz was careful about what he wrote. While he published arguably his deepest socio-political work in these decades, he did so without antagonising the powers that be. By the 1970s and early 1980s, age was taking its toll.
The Nobel Prize for Literature came in old age. With it came a financial windfall for a man with two daughters who, like all Egyptian men of his generation, was concerned about the cost of finding “al-gehaz” (their dowries). With the Nobel Prize also came Mahfouz’s untouchability by any censor or critic. Who would dare criticise the work of the only Arab author ever to achieve such a prestigious international accolade?
Freedom also came after a knifing in the neck. Asked what he thought of the 22-year-old who attempted to kill him in the 1990s because he had heard Muslim sheikhs denounce his writings as heretical, the 82-year-old Mahfouz said he wished the young man in question had read his work and thought about it for himself.
In these precious years until his death roughly a decade after the attack, Mahfouz stripped his ideas from his characters. He soared away from his beloved Cairo, with its political, societal and emotional complications. Instead, he flew inside himself, seeing in the internal what is external, connecting his own world of ideas with what he imagined was a cosmos of ideals. In these years, Mahfouz wrote of the beyond and of what many critics saw as an old man’s reflections on death. But his beyond was more than abstractions abut the end of life, for Mahfouz’s words were as much about beginnings as they were about endings.
He consistently chose to label many of his writings of this last period “dreams”. But their coherence, direction and subtle confidence were far from the vagueness, circularity and beguiling fluidity of dreams. Mahfouz’s “dreams” were intentional dives into an ocean of meanings, out of which he selected, put together and then put forward what he wanted his readers to think of as his last words.
His insistence on making these dreams devoid of any key characters, including himself, could not be anything but intentional. In contrast to his works over the previous six decades, in this last period Mahfouz pushed ideas and ideals to the forefront, allowing them to penetrate his readers’ minds without any coating of the flesh of characters or circumstances. Just before waving goodbye, or perhaps au revoir, the old man made sure that his last thoughts, his last words, carried nothing but their innate meanings.
This direct aim at meaning might have been a reflection of where Mahfouz found himself in this last stage of his life. Perhaps, freed from the shackles of navigating society’s politics and norms and freed from the need to create for a living, he had found an easier way to long-sought meanings. Instead of unfolding meanings through the protracted journeys of complex characters in novel form, he found that going directly towards the desired ends paid off more quickly and effectively.
Some think of these last works by Mahfouz in a Roman Catholic sense, seeing in them his admission of an earlier sin of omission. It was as if those last words were his way of saying what he could not have said in the earlier six decades. However, this is not true. Mahfouz had earlier been cautious, but that was not the point. What he had said in the previous six decades and in the long journeys of characters whose lives he had laboriously laid out in front of us in his novels had been necessary for Mahfouz himself and was also necessary for those who read his later work to arrive at understanding the new direct routes he was taking. In a way, the long journeys had been a process of growth for Mahfouz that was necessary for the directness that was to follow.
An old saying says that books take on lives of their own after publication. This will happen to Mahfouz’s last collections of reflections and dreams. Although these later works are now generally treated as separate from his novels, I think they will come to be seen as the seal of his literary output. Perhaps in his own way, Mahfouz was following the Islamic schools of gnosis that have sought to subtly educate before raising the eyes to heaven with the mantra “O Omniscient, I have been informed.”
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.