Egypt sees 103 new coronavirus cases to reach 1173; death toll up 7 to 78    EGX starts week in red amid Arab, foreign selling    Ahmad Abdalla's Exterior/Night comes fourth on Netflix daily rankings in Egypt    The Minister of International Cooperation launches the results of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation Survey    South Sudan has 1st virus case, is 51st country in Africa    Disney+ content to make exclusive Middle East debut on OSN    4.3 magnitude earthquake hits East Nueweiba    Worldwide coronavirus cases cross 1 million, death toll passes 64,000    ‘Screens and Streams': Arab Fund for Arts and Culture releases films and music online    'Complete collapse of economies' ahead as Africa faces virus    Pope begins Holy Week events without the public    Art Alert: Cairo Steps and Um Kulthoum are highlights of culture ministry YouTube channel's new releases    Serbian player sentenced to 3 months at home for flouting curfew    Egypt non-oil private sector contracts faster as virus hits -PMI    Kenny replaces McCarthy as Ireland manager    ‘Stay home. Save lives': Google Doodle provides tips to help stop spread of Coronavirus    Egypt's swimmer Osman quarantined in Red Sea resort after returning from US    Tesla cuts contractors from California, Nevada factories: CNBC    17 doctors, nurses at Egypt's National Cancer Institute test positive for coronavirus    Egypt delays launch of mega projects to 2021 due to coronavirus    Sisi: Egypt in solidarity with people of whole world in coronavirus    Japan ready to give coronavirus-hit nations anti-flu drug Avigan for free    Egypt's Zamalek to extend Carteron's contract after end of coronavirus    Amazon to postpone Prime Day sales event due to coronavirus    Comedy puppet Abla Fahita returns to screens during Egypt's curfew    Broadcaster predicts Spain's La Liga restart in July with no fans    Apple to stop taking cut of some Amazon video purchases on App Store    Filling GERD will begin this rainy season: Ethiopian PM    Egypt's Supreme Council of Culture launches three new competitions    Freed from detention    Huawei to explore the ultimate potential on its Huawei P40 series    Egypt, MENA growth forecast at 2.7%, -0.3% respectively: IIF    Prosecution warns of EGP 300k fine or 2-year jail for spreading fake coronavirus news    Al-Sisi discusses joint coronavirus efforts with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince    Saudi Arabia intercepts missiles over Riyadh    CBE temporarily regulates cash deposits, withdrawals    Lagging COVID-19 response to shield frail economy: Rouhani    Farwell to Egyptian comedian George Sidhom    Weekend's virtual concerts, plays, and festivals people can stream at home    Amid coronavirus outbreak, Egyptian Premier League cancellation seems inevitable    Brazilian football stadiums transformed into hospitals to treat coronavirus patients    Stay At Home: Ministry of Culture to publish free books online for public browsing    What to watch to kill time in quarantine?    Ethiopia has not sent Egypt latest designs for GERD: Minister of Irrigation    Nigerien President hails Egypt's diplomatic attempts to reach agreement over GERD    Al-Sisi appreciates Kenya's support to Egypt's stance on GERD    Cairo court acquits Mubarak's sons of stock market manipulation    Egypt's President Sisi pardons some prisoners on 25 Jan. Revolution anniversary    

Thank you for reporting!
This image will be automatically disabled when it gets reported by several people.

The search for Naguib Mahfouz
Published in Ahram Online on 04 - 02 - 2020

The Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz sculpted characters not just in his novels but also in the minds of his readers. Cinema also helped him. No Arab novelist has had more films made based on his novels. As a result, his written words and the films that different filmmakers have made of them allowed Mahfouz to imprint his characters deep in the Arab imagination.
There is a kind of dictatorship in talent. Mahfouz did not leave his readers with options about how to think about his characters. They are free to judge, of course. But they are also given all the details, from the externals (decisions, actions, choices and how they are made and carried out) to the internals (the why of what happens, typically delivered gradually in Mahfouz's trademark internal monologues).
Although these internal expositions are difficult to portray in moving pictures, filmmakers have been faithful to this Mahfouz-esque way of revealing the layers of his characters. Mahfouz did not even leave readers with words and phrases they were familiar with, even if they were native Arabic speakers with adequate exposure to Egypt's different verbal registers. He invented “speaking flows” for his characters, not just styles of talking that actors could adopt in portraying the characters in films. These flows were intended to show in all their rawness how his characters thought.
Many of Mahfouz's characters became synonymous with certain themes, transcending collections of phrases and coming, in the Arab collective consciousness, to encapsulate certain meanings. Certain characters, as Mahfouz formed them, become associated with certain emotions, say melancholy for a lost era (in the novel Miramar for example), or suppressed anger coming to the surface as pleasure-seeking nihilism (in Chatter on the Nile). Whereas for many of his international readers, Mahfouz was the creator of a universe of Egyptianness that they could sail into, stopping at different constellations, the Cairo Trilogy, for example, or even black holes of grief (such as Autumn Quail), for his Egyptian and probably also many Arab readers, Mahfouz was a creator of characters that are primarily understood as concentrations of themes.
His success was colossal, and yet at the moment when Mahfouz had all the freedom he could wish for in order to write what he wanted in the way that he wanted he stopped making characters. In fact, he banished them completely from his writings.
This freedom was important to him, but it had been long in coming. Mahfouz began writing seriously in the 1940s when his favourite political party, the Wafd, was in open disagreement with former king Farouk. During the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the1950s and 1960s, Mahfouz was careful about what he wrote. While he published arguably his deepest socio-political work in these decades, he did so without antagonising the powers that be. By the 1970s and early 1980s, age was taking its toll.
The Nobel Prize for Literature came in old age. With it came a financial windfall for a man with two daughters who, like all Egyptian men of his generation, was concerned about the cost of finding “al-gehaz” (their dowries). With the Nobel Prize also came Mahfouz's untouchability by any censor or critic. Who would dare criticise the work of the only Arab author ever to achieve such a prestigious international accolade?
Freedom also came after a knifing in the neck. Asked what he thought of the 22-year-old who attempted to kill him in the 1990s because he had heard Muslim sheikhs denounce his writings as heretical, the 82-year-old Mahfouz said he wished the young man in question had read his work and thought about it for himself.
In these precious years until his death roughly a decade after the attack, Mahfouz stripped his ideas from his characters. He soared away from his beloved Cairo, with its political, societal and emotional complications. Instead, he flew inside himself, seeing in the internal what is external, connecting his own world of ideas with what he imagined was a cosmos of ideals. In these years, Mahfouz wrote of the beyond and of what many critics saw as an old man's reflections on death. But his beyond was more than abstractions abut the end of life, for Mahfouz's words were as much about beginnings as they were about endings.
He consistently chose to label many of his writings of this last period “dreams”. But their coherence, direction and subtle confidence were far from the vagueness, circularity and beguiling fluidity of dreams. Mahfouz's “dreams” were intentional dives into an ocean of meanings, out of which he selected, put together and then put forward what he wanted his readers to think of as his last words.
His insistence on making these dreams devoid of any key characters, including himself, could not be anything but intentional. In contrast to his works over the previous six decades, in this last period Mahfouz pushed ideas and ideals to the forefront, allowing them to penetrate his readers' minds without any coating of the flesh of characters or circumstances. Just before waving goodbye, or perhaps au revoir, the old man made sure that his last thoughts, his last words, carried nothing but their innate meanings.
This direct aim at meaning might have been a reflection of where Mahfouz found himself in this last stage of his life. Perhaps, freed from the shackles of navigating society's politics and norms and freed from the need to create for a living, he had found an easier way to long-sought meanings. Instead of unfolding meanings through the protracted journeys of complex characters in novel form, he found that going directly towards the desired ends paid off more quickly and effectively.
Some think of these last works by Mahfouz in a Roman Catholic sense, seeing in them his admission of an earlier sin of omission. It was as if those last words were his way of saying what he could not have said in the earlier six decades. However, this is not true. Mahfouz had earlier been cautious, but that was not the point. What he had said in the previous six decades and in the long journeys of characters whose lives he had laboriously laid out in front of us in his novels had been necessary for Mahfouz himself and was also necessary for those who read his later work to arrive at understanding the new direct routes he was taking. In a way, the long journeys had been a process of growth for Mahfouz that was necessary for the directness that was to follow.
An old saying says that books take on lives of their own after publication. This will happen to Mahfouz's last collections of reflections and dreams. Although these later works are now generally treated as separate from his novels, I think they will come to be seen as the seal of his literary output. Perhaps in his own way, Mahfouz was following the Islamic schools of gnosis that have sought to subtly educate before raising the eyes to heaven with the mantra “O Omniscient, I have been informed.”
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Clic here to read the story from its source.