Book Review - Personal memories of Naguib Mahfouz

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Saturday 24 Jan 2015

Friend of the writer's recounts his memories of Mahfouz from the 1980s onwards


Naguib Mahfouz Sadaqa Mumteda (Naguib Mahfouz Extended Friendship) by Dr. Zaki Salem, Dar Al-Hilal, Al-Hilal Book Series, December issue, Cairo, 2014. pp.288

Dozens of books have been published about Naguib Mahfouz, whether during his life or after he passed away in August 2006. The same goes for the criticism books tackling his fictive world.

But on his 104th birthday, one of his friends has written a book about their common memories, covering almost thirty years. The friend is Zaki Salem, who has published several short story collections, two novels and other works.

The significance of the book lies in that its author was keen to record what happened in terms of incidents and events. Mahfouz permitted him solely, at the end of the 1980s – after his retirement – to meet him for an hour or two in a café or a hotel for a number of days on a weekly basis.

Because the café played a pivotal role in Mahfouz's life, Salem was able to meet him daily. For Mahfouz used to have fixed dates on most days of the week for different cafes where he would meet friends and acquaintances. These meetings were transformed with the passage of time into literary forums which Salem was keen to attend, to sit in an audience with the master.

It is known that security authorities followed a number of these meetings and disrupted others, such as the Opera Casino forum in the 1950s and the Riche Café forum on every Friday evening which continued for years in the 1960s. The security authorities obliged the café owner to shut the cafe on Fridays in particular.     

Salem’s memories were recorded accurately and in detail regarding the period following Mahfouz's being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988 until his death. The period includes the attempt made to assassinate him in October 1994, because of a fatwa (religious edict) made by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman condemning Mahfouz as an infidel because of his novel The Children of Gebelawi.  

If being awarded Nobel Prize afflicted Mahfouz's strict lifestyle with disruption, the attempt on his life made him suffer psychologically and physically in a far more violent way.

According to Salem's recounting, the Nobel Prize and its repercussions tired the 77-year-old very much. As a result of the award, the Egyptian, Arab and international media breached Mahfouz's voluntary seclusion and disturbed his disciplined lifestyle.

The heinous assassination attempt led to a more comprehensive and violent disruption. For instance, Mahfouz was no longer free in his daily comings and goings and to meet friends. Instead, the security authorities handled his life. He was to be accompanied by police officers, imposing on him restrictions which were difficult for him to adapt to.

There was a constant sentry in front of his home. In addition, his right hand, which he used to write with, suffered severely to the extent that he was unable to hold anything in a balanced way.

As Salem recounts: “What would Naguib Mahfouz do after he lost the ability to read and write, to watch television, listen to radio, to go out and walk freely alone in Cairo’s streets and alleys? How could Mahfouz be deprived of his most basic human rights in wandering around alone as his daily pastime – among the people whom he wrote about – in his Cairo, which he adored, and in Alexandria, which he loved?”

However, Mahfouz had a will of steel, for he was keen to follow the physiotherapy exercises and began to regain gradually part of his ability to walk by exercising within the walls of his room. As for the psychological impact, Dr. Yehia Al-Rakhawi, a professor in psychiatry, played an important role, according to Salem.

In that period, Salem become close to Mahfouz, visited him and was visited by him. Their friendship became firmly established despite the age difference. He had a full weekly programme, for everyday of the week he used to go to one of Cairo hotels and even on Fridays he went to Al-Rakhawi's home with a selected group of friends.

Thus, Mahfouz returned once again to the life which he was passionate about. His optimism returned and his meetings with the actors, artists, writers, politicians, journalists and personal friends became numerous and took place on an almost daily basis. Intellectuals and public figures visiting Egypt were also eager to meet him.

But what really amounted to a miracle was his persistence to learn how to write anew. His right hand was afflicted after the assassination attempt in a way that prevented him from writing, but he trained himself strenuously to hold the pen, then trained himself to write without seeing what he was writing. Salem quotes from a book by Dr. Yehia Al-Rakhawi:

"There is no neurology doctor in the whole world who can imagine the amount of damage that hit the nerve responsible for the movement of the right hand and fingers of our master…The great old man insisted on continuing his life and continuing giving and creating. Our old man made it through by miraculous persistence which I witnessed day after day.”

This undoubtedly entertaining book is filled with warmth, gratitude and reverence for Mahfouz as a friend as well as a writer.

On the other hand, Salem presents an image which is more than idealised, in which the reader doesn't glimpse Mahfouz the human being who makes mistakes and is sometimes overcome by negative feelings.

Throughout the book's three hundred or so pages, we don't hear of a single mistake committed by Mahfouz. It is as if Salem has elevated him to the status of a saint.


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