It upset me to learn that the eminent literary critic Ceza Qassem called Naguib Mahfouz a “coward” — on the same day as the 12th anniversary of his death, moreover.
In fact, that accusation has been reiterated for some time, albeit in less blunt ways, by members of the Egyptian left. It is old news that Naguib Mahfouz never openly opposed prevailing policies or took a confrontationist stance against the ruling regime.
But the problem, here, has more to do with a failure to understand the role of the novelist than it does with any possible lack of courage on the part of Egypt’s great novelist.
No one was more committed than Naguib Mahfouz to the role of the writer, to which he dedicated his entire professional and personal life.
He believed that the writer’s job is to write and that writing is both his means of expression and his weapon. He was a consummate expert at wielding that weapon.
Anyone who thinks that Mahfouz took no political positions in his writings either has not read his works or read them but failed to comprehend them.
Mahfouz expressed his political ideas in his works in a manner consistent with the requirements of fictional narrative. No discerning reader could miss his criticisms of certain political practices and behaviours in the 1960s.
In Adrift on the Nile (1966), he attacked the flaws of the government apparatus, such as the offences perpetrated by the intelligence agency under çand the opportunism and self-serving hypocrisy of many officials in the Arab Socialist Union, the sole political party in the Nasserist regime.
Naguib Mahfouz came very close to being arrested after Adrift on the Nile came out. Sami Sharaf told me how Gamal Abdel-Nasser stopped the execution of the order issued by Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer.
If I related the details of that incident in my book, In the Presence of Naguib Mahfouz, it was already an open secret at the time it occurred. Naguib Mahfouz, himself, learned about his near arrest. So, what makes some people think that he lacked courage?
Miramar was even more critical of the Nasserist regime. Appearing only a month before the 1967 defeat, it foresees an impending catastrophe due to the corruption in the regime.
How can any sane person who read Miramar say that Mahfouz was a coward and lacked political convictions?
Naguib Mahfouz’s works are filled with political criticisms that require considerable courage to voice. Another example is his short story, Fear.
He once told me that no other story caused him as much trepidation because its potential consequences for himself as this story whose protagonist was a tyrannical officer. It required little effort to guess the source of inspiration for that character.
No, Naguib Mahfouz did not lack courage. Nor did he avoid confrontation. After Children of Gebelawi came out in 1959, Sabri Al-Khouli, who at the time was head of the State Information Service, asked Mahfouz whether he was willing to meet with the sheikhs who attacked the novel on religious grounds.
Mahfouz said that he was. Mahfouz arrived at Al-Khouli’s office at the agreed upon time and the two men waited together for the sheikhs to arrive. Not one of them did. It was them who avoided confrontation, not Mahfouz.
It is wrong and naive to imagine that the only form of political opposition is to take to the streets like students and shout slogans and wave placards.
Every group in society has its own means of political expression. That of university students is different from that of the intelligentsia. That of political party members is different from that of the less organised masses.
The intellectual or literary work may have a more powerful impact than the roars of demonstrators.
Because I was abroad at the time, I was unable to attend the book-signing ceremony for Mohamed Shoir’s outstanding work, Children of Gebelawi: The Story of A Banned Novel.
It was in that event that Ceza Qassem called Naguib Mahfouz a coward. However, as I understood it, the context in which she said this implied specifically that he did not have the courage to say openly that the Children of Gebelawi had religious significations.
To me, this is a purely literary question. It relates to the role and function of the fiction writer and the role and responsibilities of the literary critic.
It is important not to confuse the two disciplines. Since when is it a duty of the novelist to tell us what his literary works mean? If he does, what weight would this carry with respect to conclusions drawn by the literary critic or scholar, even if such conclusions do not please the author? Dr Ceza Qassem is a prominent critic and scholar who authored, among other things, an outstanding study on Mahfouz’s Trilogy.
But, in this case, I fear she is confusing the disciplines. She is abandoning her role as critic by asking the novelist to explain what he wrote. That does not seem right.
If it is, then why do we need literary criticism and analysis? Let’s have the fiction writers themselves explain what they really mean in their works. Then, if they refuse we can call them cowards.
No, Dr Qassem, Naguib Mahfouz was not a coward. He was just a writer of fiction. After completing a work, he would let the critics do their job.
In fact, by not offering an interpretation of his work, Mahfouz better respected and appreciated the role of the critic and your job as a major scholar whose contributions to the library of Arabic literary criticism we cherish.
Your invaluable study on the structure of the novel is all the more reason why we ask you not to confuse the disciplines and not to abandon your role as literary critic so that you can treat us to more of your robust and cogent critical works on literature and structural analysis in which there is no room for character judgements.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Mahfouz