The novelist Naguib Mahfouz is not known for surprising plot twists. Egypt’s sole Nobel Prize winner in literature specialised in the slow meandering of ordinary events and the unfolding of the daily lives of his characters.
This emphasis reflected Mahfouz’s view of the transformations that the society of Cairo and Alexandria had undergone in the first two thirds of the 20th century. His novels are journeys in which his readers explore at a tranquil pace the story of modern Egypt.
The story began with the rise of the desire for independence from the Ottomans and the British. For Mahfouz, the 1910s and 1920s were a golden age because they were the time of modern Egypt’s youth. The country had accumulated energy from its modernisation throughout the 19th century, had grown wealthy as it eschewed the devastation of World War I, and had attracted many of the best and brightest from the Mediterranean basin.
Egypt’s identity was a unique mix of the country’s ancient, Christian, and Islamic history, and its recent multicultural past in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The country was looking resolutely across the Mediterranean for its future and in the direction of European modernity. The desired end was not a return to any romanticised past, but instead further modernisation and the development of a free and open society.
Mahfouz had no illusions about Egyptian society in the period between World Wars I and II. He depicted the ills that wealth and an openness to modernity had brought to a society in which segments were not prepared for the winds of change that often seemed to uproot what had been the known and the familiar from centuries before.
But hope abounded – those winds were carrying with them the seeds of growth and potential transformation towards more freedom and wealth. The characters in Mahfouz’s novels that seemed to represent Egypt at that time were always lively and vivacious. Faced with tragedy, they embodied a determination to get up and move on. Something in their being – a flame ignited by the freedoms of the age and nurtured by the rich experiences of the 19th and early 20th centuries – gave them faith in themselves and in the future.
A downward trajectory began with the collapse of liberalism in the early 1950s, however. For Mahfouz, this took with it not only many of the freedoms that liberal Egypt had taken for granted, but it also replaced those freedoms with an oppressiveness that transcended political or cultural life. The lightness, refinement, and elevation of features of Egyptian society in the early decades of the 20th century began to disappear, leaving centre stage to a kind of heavy handedness in politics and culture.
The characters in Mahfouz’s novels became burdened with societal injustices and moral dilemmas. Gloom and melancholy filled their emotional space. The key change was not in their circumstances as much as in how they perceived the milieu surrounding them. Faith in themselves and in the future was replaced by apprehension. Mahfouz, a sharp reader of the Egyptian mood, detected and portrayed the effects of the slow evaporation of freedom on Egypt’s view of itself.
Space was also key to Mahfouz’s renderings of modern Egypt. Many of the titles of his novels are the names of Cairo and Alexandria neighbourhoods, and these places were often the backgrounds of the novels. But perhaps things were actually the other way around: the changes that his characters underwent in the novels were actually the backgrounds to the more important and lasting transformations that Mahfouz set out to chronicle in the districts of Cairo and Alexandria.
Mahfouz’s most famous work is the Cairo Trilogy, which follows the lives of three generations of a Cairo family. It is a prime example of novelistic chronicles of this sort and constitutes a vast canvas on which the social transformation of Egypt in first half of the 20th century can be read.
His later work, however, was deeper and perhaps also richer. In novels such as Autumn Quail, Adrift on the Nile, and Qushtumor, Mahfouz exposed the fraught turns that modern Egyptian history had taken and the costs that society had had to pay over often many decades. Not only were these novels darker in tone and feeling than Mahfouz’s earlier and more famous work, but they were also more insightful readings of the turmoil that Egypt was undergoing as the country found itself more and more deprived of what had shaped it in the liberal age.
Mahfouz always came across as straightforward, humble, and softly spoken in manner, and he always had a wide smile that seemed engraved on his face. Beneath that facade, however, lay a deep and courageous thinker. He wanted to understand the Egyptian psyche. And nothing had shaped that psyche more than ideas about fate and free will.
He began his writing career with three novels set in ancient Egypt, a civilisation built around certain ideas about the divine and its interactions with and missions for humanity. At the height of his career, Mahfouz returned to perceptions of the divine, even though he was not particularly interested in theology. Instead, what he was aiming at and wanted to deploy in his telling of the story of modern Egypt was how society had perceived and thought about and reacted to what it had deemed divine will and destiny.
This interplay between human agency and the abdication of the will has always been of immense significance throughout Egyptian history. No modern Egyptian writer or thinker has managed to analyse this dynamic and its impact on modern Egypt more profoundly and engagingly than Mahfouz.
Whereas Tawfik Al-Hakim, a writer discussed earlier in this series, chose to keep his ideas about the same subject private and only available to a few confidants, Mahfouz put his thinking on these issues forward.
As a result, he paid a price: at the age of 82, he was stabbed several times in the neck by a 22-year-old Egyptian man who apparently had never read any of Mahfouz’s works, but who had been told that he was an apostate. It took years for Mahfouz to teach himself how to write again as a result of injuries. When he had done so, he gave us the last of his writings in a set of “dreams.”
Some thought that these short paragraphs, apparently belonging to the genre of magical realism, were literal dreams that an old man was having. But they were hardly the stuff of sleep. Instead, taking great pains and with immense personal effort, Mahfouz had decided to defy those who wanted to silence him. Instead of succumbing to a slow death, in these scattered paragraphs he gave us succinct imaginative reflections on his work and how it had attempted to tell the story of Cairo and Alexandria, cities he was always in love with.
Mahfouz remains one of the most widely read modern writers in Egypt and abroad. This is how it should be, as modern Egypt has had no better chronicler.
* 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 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly