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The master of the Arabic novel
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 09 - 2006


Sabry Hafez pays tribute to Naguib Mahfouz
The death of Naguib Mahfouz constitutes, in addition to the national and cultural loss of the towering genius of modern Arabic literature, a personal loss for me. Because I have known Naguib Mahfouz since I arrived in Cairo, in my late teens, for my university education. Even before going to attend the first lectures at my faculty, I went to Mahfouz's weekly meeting at the Opera Café in 1959. Having discovered and been enchanted by his novels in the library of my secondary school, Qiwisna Secondary School, I continued to follow his work and was eager to attend his weekly meeting in the café. I continued to attend these meetings regularly until it was stopped by the political police, in 1963, then moved to different locations (Nadi Al-Qissa then Riche Café). The suspension of the Opera Café meeting led Mahfouz to rethink its form and structure; subsequent meetings, while different, continued to be marked by free and serious discussions.
These meetings were well attended and buzzing with debates of recent issues in Arabic and European cultures alike. After a long career in European and American universities, I can now testify that Mahfouz's weekly meetings at the Opera Café rival -- in rigor, depth and discipline -- any university seminar in the West that I have attended. The weekly meeting in Opera Café, which lasted for three hours, was well structured, centered every week on a pre- chosen book, and no one would dare to attend without reading the book. Mahfouz's acerbic humour would not spare him/her, and there was no other reason for attending except the joy of partaking in the pleasure of the text and a free intellectual dialogue. Looking back on these meetings, I find them instrumental, not only in my education and literary formation, but also in the education of many critics, poets, novelists and short story writers of my generation whom I met in that context and started long friendships with.
It was, therefore, natural that when I started my career as a critic, in the early 1960s I wrote a series of studies of Mahfouz's novels of that period, from Al-Liss wa-l-Kilab (1961; English translation The Thief and the Dogs ) to Miramar (1967), followed by a book of interviews with him, Ahadith Ma' Naguib Mahfouz, in 1973. This changed our relationship, from a reader or a disciple to a friend and colleague in the literary field, and after working abroad, seeing Mahfouz was the highlight of my regular visits to Egypt. What made such a professional relationship more personal is the warmth of Mahfouz and the fact that he was only one month older than my father; this made him a second father to me, and after the passing of my father three years ago, I feel, with Mahfouz's death, all the more an orphan.
Apart from the personal loss, Naguib Mahfouz's passing marks the end of an era. He was the first, and as yet the only, Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature (in 1988). He is without doubt the greatest novelist the Arab culture has produced to date. His prolific contribution and sustained output gave the Arabic novel its identity and shaped its development during the last seven decades. His career is clearly linked to the rise and development of the Arabic novel from its early historical phase to its post- modernist one. Like Picasso, who created and mastered so many diverse styles, Mahfouz mastered the historical novel to leave it for the realistic one, and as soon as his realistic work culminated in the Cairo Trilogy he left this genre behind to venture into a phase of critical realism, them moved on to allegorical and symbolic phases, then to modernist and postmodernist ones in which he opened new avenues in form, language and technique for the Arabic novel.
In 1911 two unconnected events took place and proved to be crucial for the future of the Arabic novel, one in the Quartier Latin in the heart of Paris, the other in the popular quarter of Gammaliyya in the centre of old Cairo. In Paris, while studying for his doctorate in law, Muhammad Husayn Haykal (1888-1956) completed Zaynab, the novel that is considered by many to mark the birth of the Arabic novel. In Gammaliyya, Naguib Mahfouz was born on 11 December, only three weeks before the end of the year. For many years, Mahfouz used to overlook these three weeks and claim that he was born in 1912, the year of Zaynab 's publication in Cairo. Zaynab presented the rural aspects of the Egyptian character and opened the way for numerous narrative works on the countryside. Mahfouz's urban upbringing in the culturally rich and densely populous quarter of Gammaliyya qualified him to shift the emphasis from the country to the city, construct Egypt's urban novel, and bring this newly emerging genre to full maturity. Furthermore, he succeeded in putting the Arabic novel on the world literary map and winning it a wider readership and international recognition.
Mahfouz was born into the heart of the middle class. His father was a high-ranking civil servant, and provided his family with a comfortable urban life. His home was in Cairo's lively commercial district that was also rich in historical monuments and cultural festivities. As the youngest son of a large family, he enjoyed the attention and affection of everyone and relished his happy childhood in Gammaliyya. His vivid recollections of old Cairo were an everlasting source of inspiration for his work, from his early novels up to his last work, Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha (Dreams of Convalescence, 2005). The novel is considered by many to be the epic of the urban middle class, and being a born and bred middle-class Cairene, Mahfouz was able to provide the genre with its much-needed urban dimension. As a young boy Mahfouz witnessed the 1919 revolution whose major events took place in Cairo, and some of its confrontations with the British in the very square in which he lived. The strong association between the rise of the novel and the awakening of the national consciousness made his experience of this major national event one of the vital developments of his education.
Mahfouz did not acquire his literary education was at home, where there was no library, but through popular storytelling by the bard of the coffee-house next to their home. In addition to the popular narrative of Arabic folktales, The Arabian Nights played a significant role in firing the imagination of the young Mahfouz and inspiring him to become the storyteller of his society. The 30 years between the birth of the Arabic novel and Mahfouz's first work can be seen retrospectively as preparing the ground for the arrival of the master par excellence of this genre in Arabic. The intervening works of Taha Husayn (1889- 1973), Ibrahim Al-Mazini (1890-1949), Mahmud Tahir Lashin (1894-1954) and Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1898-1987), significant as they may be, succeeded only in rooting the conventions of the genre in Arabic culture and acquainted the reader with its rubrics. Aware of the pioneering nature of their work, these writers diversified their literary endeavour and, with the exception of Lashin, did not dedicate themselves to one genre. In contrast, Mahfouz devoted himself almost entirely to the novel. After a few years of what may be considered apprenticeship in the genre of the short story, he devoted himself entirely to the novel for 25 years, before dividing his energy between the two genres for the rest of his career.
Mahfouz's years at Cairo University, where he studied philosophy starting 1930, coincided with the economic crisis and the repressive years of the unstable minority governments in Egypt at the time. The university was teeming with political activities and Mahfouz was a liberal Wafdist -- the Wafd was the patriotic party of the majority at the time, working to end the British occupation of the country. But he was aware of all other political denominations at the time, particularly the Leftists and Muslim Brothers, whose exponents appear in many of his novels. On graduating in 1934 he worked for the university, contemplated postgraduate study and even registered for a PhD in philosophy, with Sufism in Islamic philosophy as the topic of his research. His first publications were a series of philosophical essays in cultural journals, but he soon abandoned this academic endeavour and embarked on a literary career. Yet philosophical concepts and spiritual and Sufi preoccupations continued to pervade his literary work.
In 1938, he published his first book, Hams Al-Junun (Whispers of Madness), a collection of short stories. In 1939 he left the world of academia, opted for an undemanding civil service job and published his first novel , 'Abath Al-Aqdar (The Absurdity of Fates). This and the following two novels were historical works written as part of a grand project to employ the narrative genre in relating the history of Egypt from the time of the pharaohs to the present, conceived as a lifetime project of 40 novels. Since studying Ivanhoe, as part of the English curriculum at secondary school, Mahfouz had been fascinated by the historical novels of Walter Scott and embarked on this project under his influence. But Scott's was not the only influence; for by the time he had completed his education and started his literary endeavour the Arabic novel had developed its first and largely historical stage through numerous works that he avidly read. But Mahfouz's historical novels were clearly different from their predecessors in the genre, such as the works of Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914), 'Ali Al-Jarim (1881-1949) and Farid Abu-Hadid (1893-1967). Although they had some romantic overtones, they were marked by structural coherence and high artistic composition. The historical setting aimed to root the work in Egyptian history, but beneath the historical structure Mahfouz was clearly concerned with the national issues of the time. He projects the present on the past in order to enable the nation to draw both support and guidance from its own history. History was clearly used to shape the imagined community and bolster the bruised national identity.
After writing three historical novels, two of which won important literary prizes, Mahfouz abandoned this genre, and turned his attention to the present. He realised that he had not made a dent in the vast history of Egypt, for he was still in the early pharaonic period. Three factors played an important role in generating this shift: reading 19th century European novels, the outbreak of World War II and its impact on Egypt, and Mahfouz's urban life. When Mahfouz was introduced to the novels of Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Thomas Mann and Dickens, he began to doubt the ability of the historical novel to deal with the rapidly changing reality of his time and the urgent issues of his community. The turbulent years of the war were characterised by protracted social, national and moral crises in Egypt, and Mahfouz became increasingly aware of the need to avoid historical metaphor and deal directly with the burning social issues. Furthermore, he became increasingly aware that his middle-class urban experience and lack of knowledge of the countryside militated against the comprehensive nature of his historical project.
The title of his first "realistic" novel, Al-Qahirah Al-Jadida (New Cairo), written in the first year of the war but not published until 1943, sums up the project of his realistic novels: to articulate the new reality of a changing city. During the remaining years of WWII he wrote three more novels surveying the socio-historical reality of Egypt from the beginning of the twentieth century up to the war period. These novels are concerned with the transformation of Cairo both as a city and as a distinct urban culture. The urban space of old and new Cairo is both the setting and the symbol of the clashes of cultural values, which affect many of the inhabitants of this teeming third world metropolis. The novels of this phase of Mahfouz's literary career reflect various facets of the trauma of change and its social, human and political consequences. They shift the focus of the Arabic novel from the country to the city, from the past to the present, and force it to deal with the conflict between the old and the new, between tradition and modernity and grapple with the problems of change.
The magnum opus of the Cairene urban chronicles is The Trilogy, a grand narrative project that took over six years (1946-52) to accomplish. Inspired by John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, it was the first family saga in modern Arabic literature. Many others have followed, but it remained unique and distinct in its scope and profundity. It emerges as a response to national and personal needs and succeeds in dealing with them. The country was at crossroads of conflicting visions and projects and needed a stocktaking narrative that elaborates its identity and articulates its choices. Mahfouz was also at a personal and political crossroads, he lost faith in, or at least harboured doubts about, his old Wafdist ideology after the Wafd was discredited for accepting, during the 4 February 1942 incident, to form a government at the request of the British. New ideologies and different narratives were sprouting in the national arena and he needed to carefully examine them. Thus, The Trilogy was his personal search for a sense of direction and personal and national history. This makes it one of the landmarks of the modern Arabic novel for it covers both spatially and temporally a vast and dense reality. It should be read both as a realistic representation of its society and as an allegorical rendering of Egypt's quest for nationhood and modernity. This makes it a prime example of the novels that shape what Benedict Anderson calls "imagined community", the nation.
The completion of The Trilogy coincided with Nasser's revolution of 1952 which ended the ancien regime. The radical change brought by this revolution led Mahfouz to five years of contemplation in which he stopped writing to rethink his priorities. In the interim he concentrated on writing film scenarios. But in 1959 Mahfouz published his major novel, Awlad Haratina, (The Children of Gebelawi), which was serialised in Al-Ahram. As soon as its serialisation was complete, the Azhar, under the insistence of the late Muhammad Al-Ghazali, moved a resolution banning it from publication in book form. But in 1966 the book was published in Beirut and was allowed calmly into Cairo until it was banned again on the heels of the Salman Rushdie affair and the rise of fundamentalism in Egypt. The reason for this lies in an interpretation of this allegorical novel which sees it solely as a narrative account of the story of creation and man's spiritual and intellectual development through the three major religions reaching the peak of his intellectual and spiritual maturity with the age of reason. The final section of the novel posits scientific and rational thinking as the new creed for humanity.
This enraged the religious establishment, but the novel can also be seen as Mahfouz's contribution to the search for a new direction after Egypt had achieved its independence. It was his implicit advice to the new officers to adopt a more liberal and rational attitude towards the complex socio-political reality of Egypt at the time, advice that was not heeded. This provoked Mahfouz to start a series of six novels in the 1960s which form what the critics call the period of critical realism in his development. These are highly political novels emphasising the importance of freedom and the dire consequences of its absence from society as a whole. They are documents of defiance and glorification of the spirit of rebellion (as in The Thief and The Dogs ). They lament the blindness and cruelty of change and sympathise with its victims (as in Autumn Quail ). The impossible quest for meaning and search for a way out of the impasse pervades the majority of these novel, and reaches its acme in The Seach and The Beggar. Mahfouz's repartee and sharp sense of humour (particularly in Adrift on the Nile ) turn the novels into powerful critical commentaries on corruption and tyranny.
Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war, realising the prophecy of doom enshrined in Miramar, the last novel of this period, came as a shock nonetheless and led to another period of silence in Mahfouz's career. Instead of turning his attention to writing films, he poured his energy into short stories and one-act plays. These works were marked by their symbolic, even surrealistic, structure in order to portray the complexity and absurdity of the unexpected events that followed the 1967 defeat. His first novel after four years, Love in The Rain, was solely concerned with the impact of this tragic event on the Egyptian psyche. The following novel, Karnak, written immediately after the death of Nasser was a harsh and strongly critical illustration of the police state and its responsibility for the destruction of the spirit of the younger generation and their will to fight for their own country.
The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a marked increase in Mahfouz's productivity. He wrote more than 20 novels and eight collections of short stories. The work of this period starts with the two novels, Al-Maraya (1972; English translation Mirrors ) and Hikayat Haratina (1975), which can be seen as the precursors of the intertextual dialogue with archetypal narrative. Their fragmented narrative, non-linear progression and suppressed plot contribute to the development of new metaphoric rules of reference in which the relationship between text and reality is no longer a mimetic one based on metonymic rules of reference. The following seven novels establish both the new metaphoric rules of reference and the intertextual dialogue with archetypal narrative genres and liberate the novel from its dependence on specific reality and time. These novels include Al-Harafish (1977) with its intertextual dialogue with Egyptian tales and folk narrative and Layali Alf Layla (1982 ) with its bold attempt to transform the archetypal narrative of The Arabian Nights, positing the modern novel as rival to the great classic of Arabic narrative, and succeeding in reproducing the magical world of the old classic but with completely modern content. In addition there are the less successful Amam Al-'Arsh (1983), Rihlat Ibn Fattuma (1983) and Al-'A'ish fi Al-Haqiqa (1985 ).
But Hadith Al-Sabah wa-l-Masa' (Talk of Morning and Evening, 1987) with its fine intertextuality with classical Arabic biographical dictionaries, stands out as the most significant Arabic novel of the 1980s. In this novel Mahfouz proved to be in the forefront of narrative innovation in his portrayal of the fragmentation of Egyptian society under the successive failures of the process of modernisation. This novel is a vast undertaking in its historical scope encompassing a period of two centuries of Egypt's history. It starts before Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 and continues until the 1980s and the aftermath of Sadat's infitah economic policy. One of the major achievements of this novel is its success in finding fragmentary novelistic structure capable of portraying the disintegration of the old coherent system of values, human relationships, ethics, and a strong sense of national identity. The alphabetical ordering of the characters subverts any causal development and demands a high degree of alertness from the reader in order to understand the logic that permeates this ostensibly random structure.
The last work Mahfouz wrote before the Muslim fundamentalists' failed attempt on his life in 1994 left him paralyzed in his right arm is Asda' Al-Sira Al-Dhatiyya (1993; English translation Echoes of An Autobiography. It is a fragmented narrative with strong sufi resonance that pushes the narrative to the limits of poetry and philosophical revelations. This is also the case with Mahfouz's last work Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha. The world of Naguib Mahfouz is a vast and extremely rich one extending from pharaonic times down to the present day. He spans the various changes in the reality, dreams and aspirations of his nation and provides an elaborate record of its attempts to come to terms with the process of modernity. Although his world is mainly Cairo and predominantly the old quarter of Gammaliyya in which he spent his childhood, he made the urban scene an elaborate and highly significant metaphor of the national condition. His narrative world is peopled with characters from all walks of Egyptian life from beggars to aristocrats, with a special place reserved for the intellectuals with whom Mahfouz identifies. On the literary plane, his career spans the whole process of development of the Arabic novel from the historical to the modernistic and lyrical. He earned the Arabic novel respect and popularity and lived to see it flourish in the work of numerous writers throughout the Arab world.


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