September 01, 2006
Naguib Mahfouz, 1911-2006
Back when I was planning my first trip to Egypt, I asked a Lebanese friend of mine what one should read to get a feel for the country. Her immediate, breathless response was "Naguib Mahfouz! Omigod you have to read him!!" (yes, a bit of an airhead, but also adorable). Her first recommendation was the Palace Walk series, but recognizing the impracticalities of lugging three books around in my suitcase, she told me to read Midaq Alley instead.
My first night in Cairo was a blur of people, cars and smoggy air. I recall standing near the open window of my hotel room at 1am and wondering why it still sounded like the city was in the middle of rushhour traffic. Despite having come from a large (albeit orderly) city myself, I had trouble adjusting to all the noise and chaos, not to mention the small problem of air so thick you could almost grab it. An hour later, I found my way to a tiny 24-hour internet cafe. The only other person there was a chainsmoking American expat who laughed when I complained about the pollution and suggested I breathe through a filter, like he did.
In short, my initial experience was jarring and lacked the intimacy and charm of Mahfouz's depictions. Of course, I didn't have much opportunity to explore Cairo before catching a train to Aswan for the requisite Nile cruise (I was on vacation after all).
Some days later, after touring various ancient Egyptian temples/tombs and swimming in the Red Sea, I returned to the mad city to catch a plane. With less than 24 hours left before my departure, I made a list of places in historic Cairo (as dictated to me by the esteemed Lounsbury) and asked my travel agent to get me a driver for the rest of the afternoon.
Driving through the old city, I finally caught a glimpse of the Cairo that Naguib Mahfouz loved so well. It was much quieter, and the obnoxious sounds of traffic were reduced to a dull roar in the background. The streets weren't clogged with people and nobody catcalled or tried to sell me cheap tourist souvenirs. There was still a generous coating of dust and grime on all the buildings, but the architecture was far more interesting. Best of all were the old mosques, Al Hassan, Al Rifa'i, ibn Tulun and 'Amr ibn al-'As (first built in 642 and probably the oldest mosque in Africa).
It was as if the entire character of the city had changed. Beyond the areas frequented by foreigners and tourists, away from noisy streets lined with Mubarak's soldiers, there really are quiet neighbourhoods with little cafes filled with wizened old men arguing about everything under the sun. Mahfouz captures the lives of ordinary Cairenes beautifully, and his protagonists are invariably complicated and interesting. Issandr El Amrani touches on this in an entry about the author's life:
The Professor (Al Ustaz), as he is called, weaved vast sociological tapestries of Egyptian life as he knew it - particularly the urban life of Cairo's traditional neighbourhoods, where he was born and raised. These portraits were eminently recognisable, and it's hard to wander down a Cairo street and not see Mahfouzian characters at every turn.
Now, I have a tendency to romanticize old cities (cf. my abiding love for Istanbul) even if they're crowded, chaotic and polluted. Cairo is neither a model for good urban planning nor sound environmental policy, but it is intriguing, engaging and has an incredible history, all of which is captured in Mahfouz's writing.
So, to echo my lovely and slightly vapid Lebanese friend, Naguib Mahfouz is like, good for the soul. Especially if you're going to Cairo.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
As a non Arabic speaker recently, about a few days ago, was the first time I had ever heard of the man. The sentiments are mixed about the writer. I hope to read him some day. I've gotta finish Souls of Black Folks first. See you in about two years.
Consider Angry Arabs eulogy of the man. Talk about cynicism.
Angry Arabs echoes the sentiment of Mourid Barghouti in that many Arab writers desire to be read by Westerners so they may be read by Arabs. Strange huh.
Posted by: bikhair at September 1, 2006 05:24 PM
Well, I do find the tendency to politicize everything rather tiresome, especially in terms of post-colonial-imperialist blah blah blah. Boring.
To run off on a tangent after having read some comments at Angry Arab, I do agree that Salman Rushdie's popularity is largely due to the fatwa for Satanic Verses, as he seems to be a mediocre writer on the whole (and rather self-absorbed).
Mahfouz, well, I don't give a fuck if he supported Camp David.
Posted by: eerie at September 1, 2006 06:35 PM
"Mahfouz, well, I don't give a fuck if he supported Camp David."
And like that's a bad thing.
Posted by: matthew hogan at September 1, 2006 09:12 PM
hm, angry arrrrb sounds like an unrecognized artist at his death bed, intensely bitter and hateful he didn't get it himself. Christ almighty.
reminds me a little of a post-colonial literature course I had once. Post-colonial literature was in fact everything English, but not British or American, and for some reason Irish. I half-jokingly complained that that definition was rather ethnocentric, defining countries from their relation to the empire. Everything we read was some way or another about Europe. meh. Meaning that, just because you're aussie or egyptian, you don't necessarily have to write from a political-historical perspective. Heck, how about some love poems. No, won't do for the university. So it's a constraining, if not stereotyping perspective. But tell that to the lecturers. And the angry one.
Posted by: Klaus at September 2, 2006 07:38 AM
and, in that vein, that all female writers should write about feminist issues, and blacks should write about race ones.
Posted by: Klaus at September 2, 2006 07:40 AM
Well, I do think it's silly for AA accuse Mahfouz of being an uncle tom because he doesn't agree with his politics. And it is a rather convenient (if transparent) way to strip away someone's accomplishments.
AA could've criticized Mahfouz from a purely literary perspective. But to immediately frame the issue in terms of politics (specifically I-P/pan-Arab politics) shrieks of bitterness and unresolved issues.
Posted by: eerie at September 2, 2006 11:22 AM
Well, not that I want to be the devil's advocate, but I do think Angry Arab has criticised Mahfouz on litterary grounds: "I never thought of Mahfouz as an adib (a man of belle lettres); I always viewed him as a successful writer and novelist, only a step ahead of Yusuf Sib`i and Ihsan `Abdul-Quddus. As Faysal Darraj, or was it Edward Kharat, said: he was a traditionalist adherent of the extreme realism school. I enjoyed reading the trilogy and his other works, but still did not think of his books as “literature.” And if you want to give awards for Arabic literature: you think of the poets too: Adonis, Mahmud Darwish, Nazik Al-Mala’ikah, Badr Shakir As-Sayyab, Khalil Hawi, `Abdul-Wahab Al-Bayyati, and others" - cf. http://angryarab.blogspot.com/2006/08/naguib-mahfouz-this-is_30.html.
Contrary to what has been said here, he says that Mahfouz litterary recognition in the west rose with his adherence to the Camp David agreements. This clearly bothers AA, but this altogether different from ditching Mahfouz on political grounds alone - AA does so on both litterary and political grounds.
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at September 2, 2006 04:03 PM
It's snide comments like "Many Arabs did not admire Mahfouz until the White Man expressed his admiration. The colonized still mimic their colonizers" that make me wonder if AA has a serious complex.
Claiming his work is not "literature" (even as he notes that Mahfouz is part of the realist school) without offering a reason is not a critique.
Contrary to what has been said here, he says that Mahfouz litterary recognition in the west rose with his adherence to the Camp David agreements.
Obviously Mahfouz became well known in the West after winning the Nobel Prize, but that's because his books were widely translated afterwards. Same thing happens to every author who wins a major book prize. Did he win because he supported Camp David? Tough to prove that one.
Actually, this discussion is making me think of parallels between Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk.
Posted by: eerie at September 2, 2006 05:59 PM
Actually, this is something `Aqoul could use a little more of -- literary posts, apart from the nonfiction reviews in the Books section. Economy, politics (and, yes, sex) are very well covered, but some cultural input would round that off nicely. Perhaps even something on music every now and then? (Like the inshaad posts, which were excellent & original stuff.)
Of course, I could be the only one who think that, and, of course, you should all write only what you feel for, and, of course, this should have been posted in the new month open thread. But still. If there's a book geek among you that's secretly holding back, don't.
Posted by: alle at September 2, 2006 10:28 PM
I hope you didnt take my postings of angry arab the wrong way. I dont share his views generally, I was just spreading his point of view. I hope we are all wearing protection.
Ha Ha Ha. That was funny.
Posted by: bikhair at September 2, 2006 10:36 PM
alle: Probably a good idea. Depends on the whims of our contributors of course.
bikhair: The AA comments ended up being quite thought-provoking, glad you linked them.
Posted by: eerie at September 2, 2006 11:21 PM
alle, then you don't want to miss this masterpiece:
a model analysis, pure and simple.
Posted by: Klaus at September 2, 2006 11:41 PM
I had kept meaning to read more of Naguib Mahfouz in recent years but never managed to. News of his death has rejuvenated that interest, so I'll be headed to the library pretty soon I expect. But whatever I've read from him so far has been quite wonderful.
Posted by: Ali at September 5, 2006 01:47 AM
My own obituary for the man.
Posted by: Ali at September 5, 2006 02:34 PM