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Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz: A wellspring of love
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 09 - 2006


Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz:
A wellspring of love
By Mohamed Salmawy
"Why don't you write an autobiography?" I once asked Naguib Mahfouz. "My life doesn't interest the public. I took from my life what matters most and put it into my books, so nothing is left for me to write about," he said.
The truth is that Mahfouz was a very humble person, and the idea of telling the readers details of his private life didn't appeal to him. He saw autobiographies as being self-promoting and pompous.
"But you're giving others the chance to write what they want about you," I said. "If the biographer doesn't say the truth," Mahfouz responded, "no one would believe him. My life is well known, for I lived it among people. People have a way of knowing truth from the lie."
"And what do you wish to be said about you?" I asked. "I want people to take an interest in my books, but my life is too ordinary," Mahfouz said.
Respectfully, I disagree. Mahfouz didn't lead an ordinary life, nor was he an ordinary man. Since he died, I received hundreds of letters from people I didn't know, letters condoling me and telling me stories about the great novelist.
One letter came from someone called Hassan. In 1977, Hassan was a college student and was held in detention for reasons not quite clear to him. The experience left him embittered and depressed. One day, Hassan decided to write to Mahfouz and tell him about his ordeal. A few days later, he received a letter from the novelist. Hassan sent me a photocopy of that letter, and I can vouch that it is Mahfouz's old handwriting -- the 1994 attack partially paralysed his right hand and affected his ability to write.
In this letter, Mahfouz said: "Dear brother Hassan, I send you my greetings. I have read your letter and was very pained by the events you described. You may not know it, but I receive every week similar letters telling me of the troubles experienced by members of our bright and honourable nation. It is a source of grief for me that I cannot, as you may know, find a solution to your troubles. I am a writer. I am not an institution, nor am I rich, but I wish to God that He gives you the resolve that will help you survive your ordeal. As for meeting me, I get together with a group of writers every Friday evening at Café Qasr Al-Nil between 5.30pm and 7.30pm. You're welcome to join us anytime you want. This is a private gathering, but it is also semi-public in a sense. Best regards, Naguib Mahfouz, 15 November 1979."
In his letter, Hassan recounts his meeting with the novelist: "On the night of 17 November, 1979, barely 21 years of age, I was at Café Qasr Al-Nil as told. And after talking to Naguib Mahfouz for more than an hour before Luis Awad joined us I left to go back home to Suez. First, we talked about my detention in connection with the January 1977 riots. Secondly, we talked about the situation in the country and the conditions of ordinary citizens. Thirdly, we talked about culture in general, and he praised my knowledge of political and economic affairs, both on the domestic and international scenes. He sensed my ability to write and said to me, and I quote: 'Write and I will take care of the publishing.' I said, exaggerating a bit: 'I cannot even afford to buy a pen.' He laughed and took out of his safari jacket a Shaeffer pen and gave it to me. Then he gave me 20 pounds and said: 'This is to buy paper.'"
As I read this letter, I was overwhelmed by how Mahfouz, a very busy man, had time for total strangers. Mahfouz was not just a great writer, but also a wonderful human being. His life may not have seemed interesting enough to him, but it was, and will always remain, an inspiration for the rest of us.


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