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)!