MAHFOUZ CENTENNIAL: Behind the mask of a master

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 7 Dec 2011

New edition of interviews with Egyptian Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz offers a frank and compelling portrait of the Arab world's greatest-ever novelist


Safahat min mozakerat Naguib Mahfouz (Pages from Naguib Mahfouz’s Diaries) by Ragaa El-Nakkash, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk. pp.383

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winning author, never, like most Arab writers, wrote an autobiography. The reason wasn’t religious or moral, but rather a fear of clashing with society. Mahfouz had survived an assassination attempt by Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya after they claimed one of his novels was heretical. He later discovered the assassin was an illiterate boy who had never read the offending novel.  He concluded that writing about his life would provoke even more controversy and he wasn’t willing to face this.

Instead of writing an autobiography, Mahfouz spoke in detail about his life with major journalists such as Ibrahim Abdel-Aziz, Gamal El-Ghitany and Ghaly Shoukry. Many of the most extensive and important interviews are in this new edition presented by the late critic, Ragaa El-Nakkash, and published by Al-Ahram.

The first edition caused uproar and family conflicts that almost ended up in court. A second edition was published by Al-Shorouk without the offending pages.

The book is the fruit of over a year and a half’s strenuous effort. The initiative was taken by the Ahram Centre for Publication and Translation soon after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988. The idea was to conduct a large number of interviews with Mahfouz, digging deep into his literature and life, to come up with a near-complete picture of the novelist in his own words.

Mahfouz liked the idea, especially after the famous critic Ragaa El-Nakkash (1924-2008) was assigned to the task. The two men trusted each other and the latter was a close follower of Mahfouz’s literature.

The interviews began on 1 August 1990, with El-Nakkash sitting with the author from 8am until 1pm four days a week until late 1991. The interviews took place at a small café near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo called Ali Baba, which Mahfouz frequented every morning following his retirement, reading the newspapers and drinking coffee.

El-Nakkash compiled around 50 complete hours of material which he had edited and proofread over a six year period until the first edition was published in December 1997. The result is the most complete reference on Mahfouz’s nearly 80 years of life.

With the exception of the first chapter, entitled Childhood and Youth, the book is not in chronological order, and even in this chapter El-Nakkash started with a broad question then let Mahfouz talk extensively about his childhood home at 8 Beit El-Kady Square opposite Al-Gamaleya police station; his relationship with his mother, father and siblings; his school, colleagues and friends.

The joy of the book is that Mahfouz spoke freely, without interruption, using his memory to guide him and reveals his stories. The only limits were broad titles such as Work and Literature or Children of the Alley.

The reader will get to know a new Mahfouz, not only the literary author, but also the small child who played football, the young man who fell in love, the son of a simple employee, the husband and father, all of which Mahfouz reveals with complete freedom and frankness.

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