What Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz Can Teach Us Egyptians
As usual I sat at the front, close to the blackboard because I'm short-sighted, and to the left, so the teacher's body wouldn't hide what he wrote.
On that particular day the teacher was absent. I don't remember what he taught us or even who he was, but I remember the substitute who came instead: An Arabic teacher who had taught me the year before and whom I had understood very little from. Instantly the memory of incomprehension came back, along with the idea that he was a bad teacher. A few of my classmates surrounded him, but he didn't seem to care for the mess, the shouting or the kids standing around him, or even for the kids sitting like me, chatting with their neighbors.
Suddenly I heard someone ask him about Naguib Mahfouz, who had won the Nobel Prize a few days before. I'd heard about it in the news and what he did wasn't a mystery to me — I knew he was a novelist and I knew of the prize-winning novel, but I didn't remember who had told me.
As if he had been waiting for a question to bring order to the class, the sub said: "If you want to know about Mahfouz, you have to return to your seats." Those around him did sit down, the rest quickly followed, and we all listened.
He said that Naguib Mahfouz was an atheist Egyptian writer who did not believe in God and that he had written an atheist, infidel book, which said "God has died" on the first page. He didn't tell us the title of the book, of course, fearing that we would read it, and none of us asked for further details because of his excessive harshness and the idea of Mahfouz-ian heresy that was deserving of execution.
Maybe many of us didn't give much thought to the awful details related by the substitute teacher, but something settled in my mind and refused to leave. For years I kept asking around and looking for Mahfouz's phrase, "God has died," in every magazine or newspaper I put my hands on. I eventually learned that it appeared in his novel Awlad Haretna (Children of Gebelawi, 1959). I read a lot about it, but never succeeded in finding a copy.
I heard the news on the car radio. My father was driving me to school and he was listening very carefully: Naguib Mahfouz had been stabbed while walking down the street but he hadn't died. He was in a stable condition in hospital.
Dozens of images came to my mind of his turtleneck sweater, his neutral gray jacket, his slow walk and his back bent under the brunt of something I didn't comprehend. I remembered that I'd been lazy and hadn't yet finished all of his novels, as I'd planned to do that year. Something told me that if I didn't finish, the man would die and it would be my fault.
It didn't take much intelligence to realize that the teacher who called Mahfouz an infidel had something to do with what had happened that day. The desire to enter heaven, to purge an infidel society or to set the rules of Islam — these are three of many motives driving Mahfouz's stabber and other potential stabbers, and it all starts in school when a person we trust, whom our parents also trust, tells us without doubt that Mahfouz is an infidel.
I was still faced with a dilemma — I had yet to find Children of Gebelawi. I didn't want to miss reading it. For some reason I'd decided to read Mahfouz by order of publication date. My mistake was to neglect his short stories, so I only read them later. Anyway, the absence of Children of Gebelawi from the shelves of our small library was an inescapable stumbling block.
One of my friends was holding a copy of Al-Tariq (The Search, 1964) and saying: "Mahfouz, that infidel!" We met at a books stand in Heliopolis, and he pulled the book from its place and put the stigma of disbelief on the man, just like that. The stabbed man was still recovering but the blasphemy accusations never ceased, even from a young man my age who drank beer, smoked hashish and listened to heavy metal.
Mahfouz in the poster of the Cairo Book Fair — Photo: Diisbona
We proceeded together toward downtown Cairo, walking a long way before he left me at Taalat Harb Square. There, at one of the bookstands, I finally found Children of Gebelawi — and in an unusually large size. The vendor handed it to me with a beautiful smile and said: "Absolute infidelity!" This was getting boring.
I went home and started reading the book, fell asleep three hours later from fatigue, then woke up after dawn and continued to read. When I read that Gebelawi had died, I was shaking.
But this did not start in the 1980s.
It's said that whenThartharah fawqa al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile) was published in 1966, military commander Abdel Hakim Amer was infuriated by its descriptions of hash-smokers' gatherings. It's said that he called (former president) Gamal Abdel Nasser and said Mahfouz should be imprisoned, to which Nasser responded: "How many Mahfouzes do we have, Amer?"
The story is clearly false. It's one of those stories "the Egyptian state" (that complex and mysterious phrase) spread to put Nasser in a good light and everyone else in a bad light. It reeks of the Egyptian state not only because it presents Nasser as aware and understanding but also because it treats Egyptians — in this case Mahfouz — as chess pieces manipulated by the state to tell stories with a specific purpose.
Stories about the state's mistreatment of Mahfouz are many. They include the censor's brutal treatment of Karnak Café (1974), cutting so much of the book that it became riddled with plot holes and appeared more like a draft than a novel by Mahfouz at the height of his craft and creativity. They include Anwar Sadat's insulting treatment of him — and others — for signing Tawfiq al-Hakim's 1972 petition denouncing the state of "no war and no peace" since Israel occupied Sinai in 1967. And there are stories that criticized Mahfouz for talking about "democracy" and other heresies that threatened the Egyptian state.
Here's a story I never get tired of telling. I was attending an event in Mansoura, in a large theater where some veteran actors were preparing to read selections from Mahfouz's Ahlam fatrat al-Naqaha (Dreams of the Rehabilitation Period, 2004). Helmy al-Namnam (then a representative of the Culture Minister) was speaking onstage about the connection between Mahfouz and Egypt getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood a few months before. He said the knife that stabbed the author was close to stabbing Egypt itself. He was cleverly tying together the fates of Mahfouz and Egypt, alive and timeless, now and forever.
Namnam then left the stage and the actors went on, each reading a "dream," each with their own style and voice. It seems the person who chose the texts was smart, as half of the "dreams' read included harsh criticisms of the Egyptian state, of a ruler who is a fraud, a thief, an embezzler, an oppressor and who treats Egyptians like chess pieces to move as he pleases, without care for their will or desires.
The same year again. On a panel I participated in at the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an Egyptian woman reacted sharply when I criticized how Egyptians dealt with their colonizers. Angrily, she asked me not interfere with history, not to mess with it, and unhesitatingly used the example of Mahfouz, who "told the history" of Egypt in his novels.
Mahfouz (rt) with a friend in the 1990s — Photo: Wikipedia
The first thing that came to my mind was Mahfouz's Zaqaq al-Midaq (Midaq Alley, 1947), which was written when Egypt was still under British occupation yet has no depiction of the Egyptian resistance, even though the freedom fighter is ubiquitous in television, movies and books about that era. I thought of citing Midaq Alley and Mahfouz's dismissal of the "freedom fighter," maybe because he thought the resistance was not serious, not enough to warrant the label, or maybe because he was writing a novel not a history book, writing down his view not "telling the history" of Egypt. But I chose to stay silent. It was obvious the woman had not read the book that the panel was about. It also seemed she had never read a word by Mahfouz.
The Egyptian state was in crisis, as usual. A weak economy, endless fights, a "democracy" with one party monopolizing everything and Hosni Mubarak, who knew almost nothing of what was happening around him, earning an enduring nickname: "la vache qui rit" (the laughing cow). If not for a few smart advisors, it would have been a disaster for all. Suddenly, everyone got a surprise: Naguib Mahfouz had won the Nobel Prize. The first Arab, the first Egyptian, and not in a scientific field but a creative field that everyone finds mysterious and attractive.
Mahfouz instantly became a star and the state decided to forget the grudge it bore with this old chess piece, but without forgetting the role it gave him. Indeed, it planned to make him the best, most active piece in the coming years: massive praise in newspapers, endless articles, countless titles ("Egypt's fourth pyramid," "the Arabs' Nobel," etc), magazine pullouts, books and the Order of the Nile awarded by Mubarak — the highest praise the state can offer a chess piece.
Mahfouz, intelligently, accepted all this with contentment. An elderly man cannot face the Egyptian state. Even a young man full of enthusiasm can't. I think he thought it was all serving his literature in some way, that the state's interest in him would create wider readership for his work.
He only hoped to spread his word more, and the state hoped to put itself in a good light, betting on the idea that Egyptians don't read, an idea it planted in everyone's mind years ago: books will ruin your head, drive you mad, get you arrested. In the end, Mahfouz's hope didn't materialize but the state's plan worked to completion.
The fallout of novelist Ahmed Naji"s case is endless, even after his recent release, because he "violated the decency" of a citizen with his writings. Part of this fallout was an Egyptian prime minister announcing that Mahfouz had also "violated public decency" with his Cairo Trilogy (1956-7), and he was not tried then only because no one presented a case against him, but he was still a criminal in the eyes of Egyptian law. If Mahfouz was alive today, he added, he would have been tried and sentenced. Rejoice, Naji — your name was mentioned the same sentence as Mahfouz, you were accused of the same thing and if he were alive you could have been cell mates in prison.
It was truly a rare moment. The Egyptian state announced its secret view of Mahfouz, the chess piece used for years against his will. Such moments come after the state has an overwhelming triumph, as we see in every corner in Egypt right now: no one objects, no one opposes, whoever speaks is a traitor, whoever writes is immoral, whoever comments must be tried and whoever thinks is an infidel. Intellectual terrorism with every sentence and every thought. Nothing can stop the Egyptian state's holy march. It hasn't beaten the other chess player; there is no other player. The state has defeated the chess pieces themselves: Mahfouz and all other Egyptians.
But the state has not been the only one to wrong Mahfouz. We have all wronged him: when we called him an infidel, claimed Mahfouz "wrote the history" of Egypt and called for his imprisonment. We, fellow oppressed chess pieces, wronged someone who wrote for us and showed us everything that was inside him, all his puzzlement, questions, doubt, faith and the love with which he replaced everything. We wronged him more than the state did because we never read what he wrote.
This piece originally appeared in Arabic. It was translated by Ahmed Bakr.