The Relevance of Naguib Mahfouz
In 1988, the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz “who, through works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous – has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”
Unlike many recent recipients of the Literature Nobel Prize, whose political leanings figured prominently in the award, Naguib Mahfouz deserved his honor, as his peers and discerning critics throughout the literary world acknowledged.
Until his Nobel, though, Naguib Mahfouz was not well-known beyond Arabia but that changed when international recognition made his translated works available to readers everywhere. And what a good thing that was, considering that so many of us would have missed out on one of the most perceptive observers of the human condition.
His setting may have been the labyrinth alleyways of Cairo but it could have been anywhere – old Dhaka, sprawling Mumbai, storied London, kaleidoscopic New York – because he wrote of dreams and longings tempered by reality and inexplicable forces that shaped character and destiny. What could be more universal than that?
Mahfouz wrote more than 30 novels and several collections of short stories, memoirs, essays and screenplays, but his masterpiece is the Cairo Trilogy. Named after actual streets in Cairo – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street – the trilogy deals with three generations of the Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad family and extends from 1917 to 1945, during which Egypt was fighting for independence from British rule.
The three volumes record in rich detail the daily events in a middle-class Egyptian family, offering insight into a way of life vanishing under western influence and encroaching modernity.
But nostalgia is not what Mahfouz is after. Any society is better off jettisoning some aspects of the old way, misogyny and corruption in the name of religion, to name two. Mahfouz is more ambitious. Delving deep into the hearts of his protagonists - desire for control, hunger for recognition, lure of extremism, opposing pulls of selfishness and altruism, tradition and modernity, faith and reason, body and soul, temporal and eternal, love and responsibility - and weaving those elements together with tenderness, humor and sensitivity, he reminds us that the one constant in life is change, that unless we are open to change, fate will drag us into its abyss. In contrast, if we embrace change without compromising universal values of decency, justice, freedom and moderation, our lives will be enriched in unexpected ways.
The Cairo trilogy is a gripping read. Once I began with Palace Walk (Doubleday issued the paperbacks in the USA in 1992 after he won the Nobel), I could not stop until I had finished reading Sugar Street.
As is common with any great work of literature, one experiences a certain sense of loss in leaving the saga of the al-Jawad family. So many currents and undercurrents run through the 1,500-page narrative, “now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous,” that the reader willingly and rapturously submits to the flow.
Consider, for instance, Mahfouz’s lyrical evocation of bittersweet love in Palace of Desire: Why had he (Kamal) been looking forward so impatiently to this day? What did he hope to gain from it? … Did he dream of a miracle that would unexpectedly cause his beloved (Aida) to be friendly again for no conceivable reason, exactly as she had grown angry? Or was he trying to stoke the fires of hell so that he might taste cold ashes all the sooner? … Whenever he went to visit the mansion he approached it with anxious eyes, as he wavered between hope and despair. He would steal a glance at the front balcony and another at the window overlooking the side path … As he sat with his friends, his long reveries featured the happy surprise that just did not take place. When they split up after their conversation, he would keep looking stealthily and sadly at the window and the balconies, especially at the window over the side path, for it frequently served as a frame for his beloved’s image in his daydreams … These are feelings familiar to any lovesick youth experiencing the pangs of first love.
Naguib Mahfouz had nothing but contempt for the monarchs, tyrants and militants of the Arab world. Although he could be contradictory at times, he never wavered in his faith in the basic dignity and courage of the common man. It was around them - the oppressed housewife in a patriarchal household, the waiter in the café, the destitute child in the bazaar, the young girl forced into prostitution who rebels, the boatman plying the Nile - that he articulated his vision of Arab renaissance.
Some Arab countries banned his books for supporting Anwar Sadat’s peace overture to Israel in 1977. But this conscience of Egypt who believed in the separation of mosque and state repeatedly warned his countrymen that postponing political and social reform would be “playing with fire.”
For his troubles, he was stabbed in the neck by a young assailant in 1994 while sitting in a car, waiting for a friend to drive him to his beloved Kasr al-Nil café in Cairo overlooking the Nile. He had spent every Friday evening for thirty years at this café, the iconic “Friday sitting,” meeting with writers, intellectuals and disciples. Already in failing health, Mahfouz never fully recovered from the wound, slowly and agonizingly turning blind and deaf and losing the use of his writing hand. Even in such condition, he refused to see the world in Manichean, black-and-white terms. Revenge held no meaning for him.
Mahfouz’s passing away on August 30 at the age of 94 in Cairo is also a reminder for American Muslims to confront a critical issue facing them.
Five years after 9/11, we find ourselves divided into two broad camps. There are those who want to be both American and Muslim, who seek integration with mainstream culture without undermining basic Islamic principles, and who wish to become ambassadors of their faith to America.
There are others who have chosen to withdraw into their mosques and enclaves promoting a ghetto mentality, and who stridently assert their Islamic identity through dress and mannerisms in response to government profiling and suspicion and distrust of some of their fellow-Americans.
Based on what he said and did in a long and meticulous life, it is clear that Mahfouz would have sided with the first group. As he saw it, retreat and rejection served only to strengthen prejudice and misunderstanding. Hope, in his world, always trumped despair.
“What are the stars,” wrote the great Arabian writer, “in fact, but single worlds that chose solitude.” But this star of the world’s literary firmament shunned solitude in favor of spirited discussions with aspiring and established intellectuals on the turbulent issues of the times.
Mahfouz never ventured beyond Egypt - he sent his two daughters to Stockholm to accept the Nobel award on his behalf – but his mind ranged far and wide even as it plumbed the depths of the human soul. One can only hope that a new generation of young Arabs and Muslims will heed his call to reflect and reform and bring about the renaissance that so animated his writings.