The Shroud of Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz; drawing by David Levine

In the acceptance speech he sent to the Nobel Prize committee to substitute for his presence, Naguib Mahfouz asked the permission of his far-off audience to present himself as the son of two civilizations “that at a certain time in history have formed a happy marriage”—the civilization of the Pharaohs and that of Islam. Then he told an abrupt little story about each. After a victorious battle against Byzantium, he said, the Muslims gave back prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. “This was a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge,” Mahfouz said, “even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of pagan civilization.”

Jorge Luis Borges, who might have envied this Egyptian descendant of Averroës the honor that had befallen him, would also have detected in this cryptic anecdote the whimsical tricks of repetition that history often plays in his own writings. Was Aristotle’s Poetics, that wonderful “fruit of pagan civilization,” among these ransomed books? That would have probably been the first question to come to Borges’s mind. Averroës, known to the Arabs as Ibn Rushd, was the philosopher and physician who, in the twelfth century in Islamic Spain, saved the Poetics from oblivion in his commentary on Aristotle—a book that would “justify him in the eyes of mankind,” as Borges says.

In the charming tale entitled “Averroës’ Search,” Borges describes the failure of Ibn Rushd to translate into Arabic the two words mentioned at the beginning of the Poetics: “comedy” and “tragedy.” Circumscribed by Islam, where the word “theater” did not exist, Averroës could never have known the meaning of these two arcane words that pervaded the Poetics. Loitering over the riddle, he is distracted by “a kind of melody”—the noise of some children who are playing in the courtyard of his house in Cordoba. One is playing the part of the muezzin, the other is crouched motionlessly beneath him as if he is a minaret, and the third, abject in the dust, is the faithful worshiper. The “melody” of their noise does not connect with anything else in Averroës’s mind. Later, at a friend’s house, he listens to an Arab traveler who has been to China, where he attended a theatrical performance of sorts, without knowing what it was. The other guests do not seem to understand why such a large number of people would be needed in order to tell just one story—“a single speaker can relate anything, however complex it may be.” Averroës goes back to his house and writes:

Aristu [Aristotle for the Arabs] calls panegyrics by the name of tragedy, and satires and anathemas he calls comedies. The Koran abounds in remarkable tragedies and comedies.

“History,” Borges adds, “records few acts more beautiful and more pathetic than this…

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