Remembering Mahfouz

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 6 Sep 2018

As the anniversary of his death passes, one cannot help but wonder what Egypt’s great novelist would have said about the so-called Arab Spring

I picked up Al-Masry Al-Youm last Friday to find the headline, “We miss you, Uncle Naguib.” It introduced an article by the Egyptian journalist and television presenter Mufid Fawzi who recalls interviews he did many years ago with Naguib Mahfouz, although they seemed as fresh as though they were just done yesterday.

Time for the great writer is unlike time as we know it, where the past is past and the future has yet to be.

For him, time has a different nature. It renews itself with new and totally unfamiliar events and developments, which is when we “miss” the great man and wonder what he would have to say about this particular moment in time.

I should note, here, that, apart from a few occasions to which I will return below, I was not among the votaries who gathered around him in his weekly coffeehouse sessions.

In 1975, when I joined the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, I would be struck dumb with fear whenever I entered the lift to find Tawfik Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, Louis Awad or Zaki Naguib Mahmoud.

For some reason, there would always be several members of this group in the lift at the same time. Maybe this was because they arrived at work at the same time or because this was one of the customs of their generation.

The distance between their offices and our centre on the sixth floor was not great. There was a section of offices in between occupied by Talia magazine and Tharwat Abaza while the great luminaries were located in what we called the front tower of Al-Ahram building.

Eventually, some of them would get to know that group of young folks in our centre dedicated to research in fields related to the conflict with Israel and the mega changes that were taking place in the world. Lutfi Al-Khouli, Louis Awad and Youssef Idris were the first to come to room 626 to talk to “the youth”. It would be many more years before we had a face-to-face meeting with Naguib Mahfouz.

I believe that it was in 2000 that Naguib Mahfouz, in his weekly column, chose to discuss the possibility of holding fair parliamentary elections and suggested that one solution might be for Al-Ahram Centre of Political and Strategic Studies to monitor the polls.

His proposal drew no attention and the elections came and went as usual. However, my colleagues and I in the centre felt that it was our duty and, perhaps, an opportune occasion to go to Mahfouz to express our gratitude and admiration.

A group of us, led by Al-Sayed Yassin, went to his office, occasioning my first meeting with the great writer. When the conversation came around to the Nobel Prize, I related my experience in Washington when I was on my way to a meeting with political science professor Bill Quandt who had served as a member of the National Security Council under the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations and who was at the time a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The weather in the US capital was glorious that day as I passed by that famous bookstore in Dupont Circle where I caught sight of a set of Naguib Mahfouz novels, which I had read several times before in Arabic, in a special display in English translation.

As soon as I entered Quandt’s office, he stood up and opened his arms to welcome me in the warm Middle Eastern fashion and said, in Arabic, “Mabrouk” — congratulations.

Although I had not known the occasion, I guessed from the context that Naguib Mahfouz had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and that this was why his novels were so prominently displayed in the bookstore.

When I finished relating this recollection, Naguib Mahfouz smiled broadly as though he had heard countless similar stories before from others.

There would be several more meetings with Naguib Mahfouz afterwards. Along the way, Raga Al-Naqqash published a biography on the famous novelist.

One of my observations, in my commentary on the book, was that the world of Naguib Mahfouz had always been confined to a narrow geographical strip situated between the Nile and the Citadel and that although he had succeeded in making that narrow world very vast, he missed other Egyptian worlds that would seem marginal or unimportant by comparison.

That comment triggered some negative responses. Some held, for example, that Naguib Mahfouz’s small world encompassed the whole of mankind.

Then came the surprise in the form of a short telegram from Mahfouz, himself, thanking me for my interest. I was not sure whether that was a form of reproach or of unmerited gratitude, but it gave me the incentive to accept an invitation from my friend Reda Helal to accompany him to one of Naguib Mahfouz’s gatherings at the Shepheard Hotel which, at the time, was a hangout for leftwing writers and intellectuals.

I found myself seated right next to Mahfouz. The person given that honour was required to read to him significant news items or extracts from literary works by authors keen to hear Mahfouz’s reactions.

The great writer was losing his hearing, but he was as punctual in his arrivals and departures as ever. I had three more opportunities to repeat this experience, but then I stopped, not because I got bored with the reading out loud but because the attendees always had more to say than the Nobel Prize laureate.

But my point, today, is not to discuss the world of Naguib Mahfouz and his literary works, but rather to ask what that unique intellect would have to say about the second decade of the 21st century. Mahfouz died on 30 August 2006.

That was four years before this region was swept by a spring that sprouted no flowers because its first gentle breezes quickly gave way to hot sandy windstorms.

He had created some powerful patriarchs and strongmen, such as Gebelawi in The Children of Gebelawi, Ashour Al-Nagi in The Harafish, and Sayed Abdel-Gawad in the Trilogy.

In other stories, such as Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth and Qushtumur, we find a kind of trial proceeding from a “charge sheet” to a defence of political systems, leaders and societies. But since his time, the world has gone topsy-turvy and the confusion that prevails requires wise men and novelists.

Naguib Mahfouz was a reformist par excellence. He has been compared to Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the protagonist in the Trilogy who sympathised but feared the left, understood but rejected those who chose the Islamist path, cheered the 1919 and the 1952 revolutions but felt let down by both.

Naguib Mahfouz could share ideas with both Abdel- Nasser and Sadat, but there were times when he chose to ignore politics entirely and explore the mysterious and manifold complexities of human nature.

These works blend Sufism with philosophy and tolerance with both certitude and uncertainty at the same time. What would this man have had to say about our present day with its IS-like phenomena and its revolutions, its hardships and anxieties, and its new generations who are absent and present at the same time?

Who knows? Perhaps another Naguib Mahfouz is on the way, sitting at his keyboard at this moment and writing about the world around us, which we are still unable to fathom.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Remembering Mahfouz

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