Book Review: Why did the Greek girl love Naguib Mahfouz?

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 19 Oct 2017

Translator Persa Koumoutsi has rendered many of Mahfouz's novels into Greek. Her autobiographical book reveals a lifelong passion for the great Egyptian novelist

Nuzha ma’a Naguib Mahfouz (An Outing with Naguib Mafouz), by Persa Koumoutsi, translated from Greek by Dr. Khaled Ra’ouf, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Awards Series, 2016. pp.203

Despite its publication within a series devoted to translating award-winning foreign novels into Arabic, we cannot by any means consider this book a novel. In truth, it is an autobiography, blending the author's childhood with her journey as a translator, along with immigration from her second home of Egypt to her original homeland of Greece, and her frequent visits to the North African country.

It is not, in fact, important to which genre this book belongs. It is actually a long love story linking the authoress with Egyptian Nobel Laureate in Literature Naguib Mahfouz – a story that continued for thirty years without Mahfouz knowing anything about it!

The writer says that she met Mahfouz when she was five or six years old, when he would visit a building belonging to the Ministry of Culture in front of her family home. He was kind and playful with the children he met on his way to the building.

Koumoutsi says she felt there was something hidden that connected her with this man, who was always smiling, in spite of the black glasses he wore, concealing his features. She once approached Mahfouz and began to talk to him. When he asked for her name, Mahfouz was astonished by her reply: she gave her nickname "Elsa" and added that she was Greek. In response, he patted her on the head.

An affectionate relationship started between them, for she would hurry towards him whenever she saw him approaching the building. Mahfouz was not the only famous figure visiting the building; the author writes that she saw others whose names she would one day learn: Tawfiq Al-Hakim and Anis Mansour, among other writers and intellectuals.

Koumoutsi is of Greek origin but was born in Egypt in the early sixties. One fascinating aspect of the book is its exclusive focus on her Egyptian life; her Greek roots are noticeably absent. Thus, she gives an account of her Egyptian friends, her first love in adolescence and her neighbours.

With the exception of the Greek school she attended prior to enrolling in Cairo University's faculty of arts, Elsa lived as an Egyptian. She went through the military defeat of 1967, the whole of Sadat’s rule and the early years of Mubarak. Of course, she was fluent in colloquial Arabic to an extent that won the admiration of Mahfouz the one time she spoke to him.

The expression “Egypt ... the homeland of my heart” recurs many times in the book. Egypt was her childhood and youth, until the end of her university education.

The author was obliged to leave Egypt for Greece after the majority of the Greeks left, amid the onset of religious bigotry and extremism that was changing the country she knew and loved.

As for Mahfouz, she had no idea who he was, only discovering by chance when a neighbour told her that the man who frequented the adjacent building was a big author and that his father kept all his novels in his library.

One day, Mahfouz stopped visiting the building. Koumoutsi didn’t see him until years later, when she spotted him sitting in a cart with his daughters in Alexandria – but she was too shy to remember herself to him.

More long years passed, during which she left Egypt. Then, on a short return visit, she saw the now elderly Mahfouz, who had by that time survived an assasination attempt, leaving a café close to Cairo's Khan El-Khalili. She couldn’t speak to him due to the crowd, although by that time she had already translated more than ten of his novels into Greek.

Koumoutsi's book is replete with quotations, passages and examples from Mahfouz’s work and the details of his world; characters and ideas permeate the book’s fabric.

Koumoutsi writes: “As a matter of fact, every work of his affected me, taught me in a unique way and left in my soul an indescribable taste of completeness, contentment and sweetness. These things I didn’t find in anything I’ve made in my life."

Throughout her career in translation, Koumoutsi rendered unique Greek translations for dozens of Mahfouz's novels. Thanks to these well-versed and competent translations, Mahfouz has gained a growing number of Greek followers, prompting her Greek publisher to issue another of Mahfouz’s works to meet the demand.

The author only laments that she didn't realise her childhood dream of getting to know her literary hero.

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