Reading a novelist, &c.


I think I mentioned in a previous column that I have a piece in the current NR on Naguib Mahfouz. He is the Egyptian novelist who died at the end of last month. He made a considerable impact on me, as he did on many others, worldwide.

I have labeled that piece in NR a “personal appreciation,” and so it is. I said the essence of what I wished to say in that piece. But let me say just a little bit more, here in this column — couple of tidbits, couple of observations.

Mahfouz was born Naguib Mahfouz Abdelaziz, but he dropped his last name — his father’s name — keeping just his first and middle names. He was named after the physician who delivered him: Naguib Mahfouz. Oddly enough, another recent subject of mine, Lynn Swann — the former football star and current gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania — was also named after his physician: Lynn Curtis. (Swann’s full name is Lynn Curtis Swann.)

As it happens, “Naguib Mahfouz” is a Christian name, and this cost our man at one point: He applied for a scholarship but was denied it. The authorities, logically enough, assumed that the applicant was Christian (though he was, in fact, a Muslim).

Mahfouz’s masterpiece, as you know, is The Cairo Trilogy, and I read it under rather unusual circumstances. As I recount in my NR piece, it was in the fall of 2000. I was working on the George W. Bush campaign, having taken a leave of absence from the magazine. Why was I immersed in Mahfouz? Because I was going to take a trip to Egypt — my first — shortly after the election. (As it turned out, the election lasted until mid-December, but that could not have been known.)

So, I was battling Al Gore (ha, ha) by day, and thrilling to Mahfouz by night. Seldom have I been so absorbed in a work of fiction, or in anything. Like many another reader, I was hooked from the first. You know that line from a movie? “You had me at hello”? I was that way with the Trilogy.

Here is how Mahfouz opens Palace Walk, first of the three novels: “She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock.”

Mahfouz is talking about Amina, wife of the books’ patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad. And I have always assumed that Mahfouz loved women, because he describes them so fully and well:

In her forties and of medium build, she looked slender, although her body’s soft skin was filled out to its narrow limits in a charmingly harmonious and symmetrical way. Her face was oblong, with a high forehead and delicate features. She had beautiful, small eyes with a sweet dreamy look. Her nose was petite and thin, flaring out a little at the nostrils. Beneath her tender lips, a tapered chin descended. The pure, fair skin of her cheek revealed a beauty spot of intensely pure black.

The Cairo Trilogy is “old-fashioned,” in that it tells a story, enchanting the reader, sweeping him up. Later, Mahfouz was to write many other kinds of novels. But the Trilogy is in the grand, often-belittled, often-abandoned tradition.

Unlike some other writers, Mahfouz wanted readers — many readers — and he wanted them so much, he wrote all over the place. He even did a weekly column in the state newspaper al-Ahram. (A wicked rag, but leave that aside for now.)

In reading up on Mahfouz, I learned that Palace Walk sold over a million copies in Lebanon — in a pirated version. Mahfouz once remarked, “If my books weren’t pirated so much, I’d be very rich today. But thank God anyway.”

There is a writer.

In my NR piece, I quote his Nobel lecture (1988) a little. I also comment on it. I don’t think I’ll comment on it now, but I’d like to excerpt some of it, and you may want to look at the whole thing. It makes fascinating reading, particularly in light of the struggle in which we’re now locked.

Mahfouz informed his Stockholm audience — he did so by proxy, for he rarely traveled — that “I am the son of two civilizations . . . The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one.”

After discussing ancient Egypt, he said,

As for Islamic civilization I will not talk about its call for the establishment of a union between all Mankind under the guardianship of the Creator, based on freedom, equality and forgiveness. Nor will I talk about the greatness of its prophet. For among your thinkers there are those who regard him the greatest man in history. I will not talk of its conquests which have planted thousands of minarets calling for worship, devoutness and good throughout great expanses of land from the environs of India and China to the boundaries of France. Nor will I talk of the fraternity between religions and races that has been achieved in its embrace in a spirit of tolerance unknown to Mankind neither before nor since.

While you are reeling from that, let me mention that I attribute any awkwardness of language to the translator. Mahfouz, by all accounts, was a supremely elegant writer, and The Cairo Trilogy is elegantly translated by a team led by William Maynard Hutchins (in the Anchor edition).

Anyway, Mahfouz continued,

I will, instead, introduce that civilization in a moving dramatic situation summarizing one of its most conspicuous traits: In one victorious battle against Byzantium it has given back its prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. This is a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge, even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of a pagan civilization.

Just one more excerpt, if I may:

The developed world and the Third World are but one family. Each human being bears responsibility towards it by the degree of what he has obtained of knowledge, wisdom, and civilization. I would not be exceeding the limits of my duty if I told them in the name of the Third World: Be not spectators to our miseries. You have to play therein a noble role befitting your status. From your position of superiority you are responsible for any misdirection of animal, or plant, to say nothing of Man, in any of the four corners of the world. We have had enough of words. Now is the time for action.

Yet when George Bush took action — destroying the Taliban, that prime inflicter of misery — Mahfouz was none too pleased. And that was just the half of it.

At any rate . . . a couple of notes, as I said, on a major and compelling figure. Read your NR (please)!

You remember the “non-aligned nations,” don’t you? These were nations — governments, actually — that were fairly clearly aligned with the Soviet Union but chose to call themselves non-aligned. One of the main such governments was Fidel Castro’s. Yes, Castro’s.

Well, the “non-aligned” are still holding summits, and Castro is still prominent in this “movement.” But with what nations or blocs are these guys non-aligned (if you can follow me)? The liberal-democratic West versus Islamofascism?

Or maybe they just can’t give up the name — sort of like MoveOn.

My friend Ed Capano — recently retired as NR publisher (for a tribute, go here) — noticed that the City of New York is putting in a bike lane. He reminds me that this was part of Bill Buckley’s platform when he ran for mayor in 1965.

George Will once said that Goldwater ran for president in 1964 and 16 years later, when all the votes were counted, he won.

Well, in the same spirit, has WFB won, 41 years later?

Was sort of moved by something Toby Harnden wrote in The (London) Spectator. He wrote of Oliver Stone’s movie, World Trade Center, and said “the only mention of those who might have been responsible” for the atrocities “is in a diner in Wisconsin, where someone denounces ‘those bastards.’”

He added that these were “the same words my father used when in 1979 I told him the IRA had blown up Lord Mountbatten — the first time I heard him swear.”

Yes, when someone swears seldom, and then does, it makes an impact.

And what a despicable crime — a particularly despicable crime — the murder of Mountbatten.

Readers may remember that I once wrote about the Lincoln Memorial, and its state of repair, or disrepair. I was particularly distressed by the streaking — sort of the green smudging — of the letters. Given that this is our national shrine, couldn’t we do better? Especially in view of our enormous federal budget?

Here was one federal expenditure or initiative I could support! The Lincoln Memorial is inarguable.

Well, I was up in the memorial two days ago — before interviewing Secretary Rumsfeld (please stay tuned) — and I noticed that the place was clean and neat. No streaking, no smudging.

So good to see.

Incidentally, I’m up in the memorial pretty much every time I’m in Washington. Unlike Nixon, I don’t go in the middle of the night (usually).

Observed quite a bit of Mitt Romney on Wednesday. No, I wasn’t interviewing, or stalking — same shuttle is all. Has an unfortunate politician’s laugh: stiff, quasi-programmed. That doesn’t mean it isn’t natural; I’m talking about the impression it gives. And the hair? Very, very dark. Black.

Is it live or is it Memorex?

Anyway, the GOP has a tradition of dye-aided candidates. Bob Dole used to say Grecian Formula was okay, once you got used to the taste. (One of his best lines.)

And remember when Congressman Gephardt — not a Republican, of course — dyed his eyebrows?

Back to Romney: He has the Ken Doll thing going, and he’s also looking a little bit more like his dad, the older he gets. George Romney was governor of my home state. He did not quite win the big prize. Will the son succeed where the father came up short?

We have plenty — plenty — of time to discuss all that . . .

Like you, I’m sure, I am constantly receiving spam that says I am “subscribed” to this or that. “You are subscribed . . .” I have to “unsubscribe.”

Which is fine (not really) — except that I never subscribed in the first place!

I mean, if you sign up for Architecture Today or National Geographic, you have subscribed; if you receive spam — you have done something other than subscribe. Actually, you have done nothing; you have simply been spammed.


A “milblogger” — a military blogger — alerted me to a new book, The Blog of War, giving us “front-line dispatches from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” A cutesy title, but one that had to be hard to resist. I can’t tell you anything about this book, not having seen it. But I can tell you that milbloggers have been invaluable these last several years. We complain about the MSM? Yes, but we don’t have to be hostage to them, either.

A reader tells a common tale: 

I have the need to vent, and I have chosen to vent to you. [Happens a lot.] I voted in the D.C. Republican primary today. I did this mainly out of a sense of duty, because, unlike the lengthy Democratic ballot, the Republican ballot had two names on it. Total. (One for mayor, one for city council.) I joked with the poll worker that it wasn’t much of a ballot. The response (with the requisite disdain and curled lip) was, “Not much of a president, either.”

Aren’t poll workers supposed to be neutral, at least in their dealings with voters? It’s just so typical . . .

Yes, it is just so typical. I don’t know whether our Constitution requires poll workers to be left-wing harridans, but you would think so, if you had my voting experience.

Try another letter:

Dear Mr. Nordlinger:

One of your readers mentioned the incredibly obnoxious bumper sticker “How many Iraqi children must die for you to feel safe?”

Why do we never see counter-stickers? I suggest, “How many Kurds did Saddam have to gas before you paid attention?” And we could branch into, “How many dissidents does Castro have to jail before you stop wearing your Che shirt?”

Spunkily said.

And I thought this letter was positively brilliant. I had mentioned a recent SDI test, and the cheering and groaning that goes on after each one of them. 

Dear Mr. Nordlinger,

Have you noticed there’s no such thing as an SDI experiment, only an SDI test? Think about the rhetorical significance. If a chemist with Einstein hair and a white lab coat performs an experiment 100 times, failing the first 99 and then succeeding on the 100th, he cries “Eureka!” and writes up a scholarly paper about his great success. Along the way to success, the individual failures do not prove that success is impossible.

But change the word “experiment” to “test” and suddenly you’ve got the rhetorical deck stacked against SDI, because failing a test is unambiguously bad. We think of the chemist performing the same experiment repeatedly, but we don’t think of tests that way.

Granted, those on “our” side — the pro-SDI side — go along with calling these events tests, so I’m not accusing the other side of dishonesty. I am simply pointing out a rhetorical inaccuracy committed by both sides.

What a wonderful point.

Finally, I got a lotta — lotta — letters on early homework, by which I mean homework assigned to shavers: third-graders, second-graders, first-graders, kindergarteners . . .

One lady wrote,

I have long thought that giving homework to children under ten starts everyone on the path of parents’ being responsible for children’s homework. After all, a five-year-old can’t remember to take his homework back to school; it’s Mom who must remember it. I have never thought that was a good idea. Wait until they’re old enough to be responsible for it themselves.

Oh, one more thing: Thought you might like to have a little music, in the form of pieces published in the New York Sun: For a review of Opening Night at the New York Philharmonic, go here; and for a recordings roundup — Vivica Genaux, “Anna Netrebko & Friends,” Neville Marriner, and hymns — go here.

And have a terrific, early-fall, football-filled (or whatever) weekend.


<title>The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz</title>


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