On Naguib Mahfouz

At the same time, it is Mahfouz's endless ability to generate types and to pin down their most minute particulars that accounts for his greatness. No corner of Egyptian life was foreign to him: his characters are pharaohs and whores, shopkeepers and bureaucrats, peasants and presidents. Part of Mahfouz's achievement is its sheer extent, its superabundant precision, a kind of indigenous update of the Encyclopedists' Description de l'Egypt.


Naguib Mahfouz was two days short of ninety when I met him at one of his weekly, two-and-a-half-hour nadwas in the Sheraton Hotel on the Nile Corniche. I went with a friend, an American like me, and Mahfouz stood up to greet us, as he did with all his visitors. He was about five feet tall with a dandyish cane and combed white hair, perfectly shrunken. He had a small, oddly adolescent growth of whiskers beneath his chin, as though still considering the role of Confucian sage, weighing it in the balance with the always-pressing demands of vanity. His suit was heavy tweed, maybe a little generous in the shoulders now, and he wore a good cologne.

In broken-down Cairo, where so many forty-year-olds look like senior citizens, Mahfouz’s stylish approach to his tenth decade acquired a special grace. Watching him that night you could guess how he had managed it. He sat up on the leather couch with a straight back, both hands resting on the head of his cane. He sipped coffee and smoked Kents, blowing out through the nose, at timed intervals. It was hard to say how much of the conversation he was able to follow, but he never fidgeted, never showed impatience. At 9:30 he looked at his watch for the first time: he was ready to go. One could imagine this same sequence of movements, precisely repeated every Thursday night, stretching back for years, decades, quarter and half centuries. Watching Mahfouz one could believe in the clockwork universe of deists, in a life made up of minutely interlocking gears and cogs. So long as one remembered to wind it up in the morning, the thing might go on ticking forever—after all, this was a man who published his first book in the same year as Light in August and lived long enough to see Selma Hayek play one of his characters (in Callejón de Milagros, the Mexican version of Midaq Alley).

For me, Mahfouz’s patience seemed doubly heroic. Not only was he close to ninety years old, close to deaf and mostly blind, but he also had to endure this for two-and-a-half hours: the voyeurism of strangers and the conversation of his admirers—newspapermen, playwrights and local wits, all vying for airtime. Talk was conducted in the form of elaborate queries, apparently directed toward Mahfouz but actually meant to impress the rest of us with their flourished erudition. Some questions took five minutes to unfurl. One involved a long wonderment about the sources of American aggression (this was in the midst of the war in Afghanistan) and the speculation that Eric Fromm’s notion of an ‘escape from freedom’ was relevant. Someone else averred that the questioner had misunderstood Fromm. A debate on the merits and demerits of the Frankfurt School followed. Mahfouz stared straight ahead saying nothing, then grimaced and asked for a light.

One of Mahfouz’s companions that night was the playwright Ali Salem, notorious for his memoir of a car trip made to Israel after the Oslo Accords—a book that got him banned from most intellectual circles in Cairo and expelled from the Egyptian Writer’s Union. Now he was working on a column about John Walker Lindt, the captured American jihadi whose unlikely story was all over the press. Salem began reading out loud, shouting really, for Mahfouz’s benefit. Just imagine the embarrassment of being named after an alcoholic beverage! Imagine the shame, the schoolyard taunts! Was it any wonder the poor boy fled to Yemen? But he hadn’t stopped there! Oh no, just like his namesake he had ‘kept walking’—he kept walking all the way to Afghanistan, the only place in the world where they had never even heard of whiskey! The metaphor was extended for many pages.

Salem’s performance reminded one, by way of contrast, of the virtues of Mahfouz’s own prose, where there is no desperate wit, no turgid conceits. The best description I know of Mahfouz’s style—or at any rate the style of his best novels, The Cairo Trilogy—was written by Erich Auerbach, who was writing not about Mahfouz, but Homer. In the famous first chapter of Mimesis, Auerbach retells Odysseus’ encounter, in book 19 of the Odyssey, with the housekeeper Euryclea—how she comes to recognize her old master by the scar on his thigh, and how he restrains her from crying out so that Penelope, who has just been questioning the mysterious guest, is kept ignorant of his true identity. In Auerbach’s words:

All this is scrupulously externalized and narrated in leisurely fashion. The two women express their feelings in copious direct discourse. Feelings though they are, with only a slight admixture of the most general considerations upon human destiny, the syntactical connection between part and part is perfectly clear, no contour is blurred. There is also room and time for orderly, perfectly well-articulated, uniformly illuminated descriptions of implements, ministrations, and gestures … Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible; and not less clear—wholly expressed, orderly even in their ardor—are the feelings and thoughts of the persons involved.

Brightly and uniformly illuminated, that is how the world—its alleys, houseboats, cafes and public squares—appears in Mahfouz’s writing, with hieroglyphic clarity. It is a world saturated by description. Characters do not merely say things in Mahfouz, they say them with “a rough cackle,” “a gloomy frown,” “demurely,” or “tearing at his hair.” This is not how novelists who write in English do things. For them, “show don’t tell” is the last word in craft. It’s a good dictum, a minimalist dictum, but it’s not Mahfouz’s (nor is it Zola’s).

For Mahfouz, realism has less to do with the invention of characters who are free actors of themselves, who reveal themselves gradually through action, than it does with the painstaking description of human beings—their gestures, their dress, their articulated thoughts (spoken out loud or directed to the self)—and their physical environment. It may be that literary Arabic, which is relatively isolated from the spoken dialects of the Arab world, lends itself to this kind of writing, a blend of abstraction and detailed objectivity. And this is also why translations of Mahfouz can seem so stilted, so clotted, to American readers, whose feeling for reality (which is to say, for consciousness) is so intimately related to their feeling for the colloquial language. Mahfouz’s realism is sociological rather than psychological; the clarity of his characterization is the Weberian clarity of types.

This is the weakness of Mahfouz’s fiction and also its strength. The weakness becomes most visible when he attempts to represent change. The Cairo Trilogy tells the story of a middle-class Cairene family—an aging, licentious patriarch, his devoted wife, his rebellious children—and its involvement in the nationalist struggles against British occupation. Thirty years go by between Palace Walk, the first volume, and Sugar Street, the last. The characters get older, they move up or come down in the world, their political ideas blow in the wind, but none of this change happens through self-reflection—transformation is not represented as the process of living, but its result.

At the same time, it is Mahfouz’s endless ability to generate types and to pin down their most minute particulars that accounts for his greatness. No corner of Egyptian life was foreign to him: his characters are pharaohs and whores, shopkeepers and bureaucrats, peasants and presidents. Part of Mahfouz’s achievement is its sheer extent, its superabundant precision, a kind of indigenous update of the Encyclopedists’ Description de l’Egypt. It is the size of his ambitions that make it so natural to compare him with the giants of the nineteenth century—Balzac, Dickens and Zola—and his ambition, as it appears now, at the end of his life, was to submit the entire spectacle of Egyptian history, from Akhnaten to Sadat, to his exhaustive scrutiny. Between 1956 and 1985 Mahfouz published on average a book every year, several of them lengthy novels. For many of his readers, myself included, Mahfouz superimposed his own Egypt over the other, less orderly one, like a vast cobweb adhering to every cranny of life. In downtown Cairo, or in the old part of the city where Mahfouz was born and set many of his early novels, I often catch myself looking up from the hot street into an open window, imagining some drama taking place there inside—a cripple-maker is breaking a beggar’s leg, an apparachnik is smoking hashish with his roly-poly mistress, a young man is raising his fist against his father. It’s always a story I’ve smuggled out of Mahfouz.

Yet for all his eminence among Arab writers, which can hardly be exaggerated, Mahfouz was never a dictator, never polemicized against his fellow novelists, always saw something worthwhile in another’s technique (and indeed his own went through several phases). The Egyptian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize is the Naguib Mahfouz Prize, carrying with it the guarantee of a translation into English and a blurb by the master, which is unfailingly graceful and enthusiastic. Maybe he was compensating for the well-known fact that he worked for years as a government film censor. But there didn’t seem to be anything feigned in his open-mindedness, or in his humility.

Egyptians have a wonderful variety of nonverbal expressions. My favorite is the exclamation, “yeah-eh,” with a stress on the “eh, which is roughly synonymous with “wow!” And as with “wow” there is something boyishly sincere about saying “yeah-eh,” although Egyptians of all ages do it. Toward the end of our night at the Sheraton one of Mahfouz’s friends related, at full volume, a conversation he had with an old-timer from the film industry. They were trying to decide who was the best screenwriter of all time. During the fifties and sixties Mahfouz wrote many scripts for the great Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif. Everybody could see where this story was headed, but the friend drew it out. Who do you think this old-timer said was the greatest ever, he shouted? Was it x, y, or z? Mahfouz was silent, not even indicating he had heard the question. Well, it wasn’t any of those guys. The greatest ever, according to this old-timer (and he would know), was … Naguib Mahfouz! Mahfouz’s eyebrows shot up over the rims of his dark glasses. “Yeah-eh!” he exclaimed, genuinely surprised.

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