Remembering Mustafa Mahmoud

Nesmahar Sayed , Monday 31 Oct 2011

In this Ahram Weekly tribute, Mustafa Mahmoud, a controversial figure who passed away on 31 October 2009, is remembered for his cultural impact

Mustafa Mahmoud
Mustafa Mahmoud

Mustafa Mahmoud passed away on 31 October 2009 at 88.

A controversial figure during the second half of the last century, Mahmoud was famous for his popular TV series that combined nature with religion, and also endeared himself to millions of the middle and lower classes for his charity work. In 1979 he built a mosque in Mohandessin that carries his name.

Known among intellectuals as an Islamic thinker and philosopher, Mahmoud graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Cairo University in 1953. He would spend hours in the morgue, perhaps contemplating the journey from birth to death.

After his graduation from college Mahmoud worked in Umm Al-Masryeen Hospital as a chest physician in addition to writing essays in Rose El-Youssef magazine. According to the veteran cartoonist George Bahgori, Mahmoud's talent was discovered by legendary storyteller Ihsan Abdel-Quddous. Mahmoud resigned from the hospital and decided to devote his time to writing.

Mahmoud was born in 1921 in Shebin El-Kom in Menoufiya. He was lucky to have been born after he was delivered two months prematurely. A twin died soon after delivery. A "son of seven months" is characterised by Egyptians to be weak yet stubborn.

His publications -- 89 books, including selections of fiction, science, religion and philosophy -- were bestsellers for many years in the annual Cairo Book Fair.

At the same time the same books sparked many court cases. The 1960s were the apex when he published his books, A Dialogue Between Me and my Unbeliever Friend, and God and the Human Being. Mahmoud was accused by Al-Azhar scholars of being an unbeliever, but for him it was a way of becoming a true Muslim and a true believer, not just one in official papers.

One of his fiction works was Al-Mostaheel (The Impossible, 1987) which was chosen one of the 100 best films in the history of Egyptian cinema.

Later he wrote articles and books that explained the Torah and rejected Israeli claims to the right of land. Among these books were Al-Torah (1985) and Israel, the Beginning and the End (1997).

According to his son Adham, on a television programme broadcast after his death, Mahmoud was driven out of Al-Ahram newspaper, where he was a columnist. His programme was not aired in the 1990s because of an official letter sent by Osama El-Baz, the president's political adviser at the time, to Ibrahim Nafei, ex- chairman of the board of Al-Ahram, asking Mahmoud to take note of the sensitivity of writing about some issues which affect not only Israelis but Jews. Later Mahmoud was convinced that Israel pushed officials to stop his articles from being published in Al-Ahram and later ban the broadcast of his famous programme. This was the main reason, Adham said, behind a depression his father suffered from during his later years, before cancer attacked his body.

Mahmoud was a pioneer in talking simple science to the man on the street through his programme Science and Faith which totalled 400 episodes and which was broadcast throughout the 1980s. He tried to attract audiences by explaining many scientific facts and relating them to verses from the Quran. It was a trend that many criticised him for but which later became the concept of many programmes around the Islamic world, especially after the advent of satellite TV.

Bahgori remembers Mahmoud as pure and simple. Although he started his career as a writer in Rose El-Youssef magazine with Ahmed Bahaaeddin, Fathi Ghanem and other intellectuals, he was always seen as being "set apart".

"I used to draw the cartoons and paintings published with his articles and essays in the magazine. When caricaturist Ragaai Wanis joined the magazine, Mahmoud liked Wanis's bitter sarcasm," Bahgori said, recounting his old friend whom he had not seen for more than 30 years.

On the roof of his mosque, in a small room with a small bed and a large number of books, when the pair last met, "his spirit and attitude were the same as I met him the first time. He was a special person with a character that liked to give." This was obvious through the charity association and medical centre that served the needy whom Mahmoud cared about throughout his life.

Once describing his childhood, Mahmoud said, "when the rain falls and the playground of the school changes to a small lake, I make boats of paper and imagine that they carry perfumes from India. I watch them as I travel the world in my imagination."

Mahmoud is survived by his son Adham and daughter Amal.

Nesmahar Sayed

Originally published on Al-Ahram Weekly on 5 November 2009

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