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Fabulous Fabulist

The Harafish

by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Catherine Cobham
Doubleday, 406 pp., $22.95

Midaq Alley

translated by Trevor Le Gassick
Doubleday/Anchor, 285 pp., $9.00 (paper)

Palace of Desire

translated by William M. Hutchins, translated by Lorne M. Kenny, translated by Olive E. Kenny
Doubleday/Anchor, 422 pp., $11.00 (paper)

Sugar Street

translated by William M. Hutchins, translated by Angele B. Samaan
Doubleday/Anchor, 308 pp., $11.00 (paper)

The Beginning and the End

translated by Ramses Awad
Doubleday/Anchor, 412 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Children of Gebelawi

translated by Philip Stewart
Three Continents, 368 pp., $16.00 (paper)

The Thief and the Dogs

translated by Trevor Le Gassick, translated by M.M. Badawi
Doubleday/Anchor, 158 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Adrift on the Nile

translated by Frances Liardet
Doubleday/Anchor, 167 pp., $9.95

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma

translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
Doubleday/Anchor, 148 pp., $9.95 (paper)


When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the slumbers of the Arab Near East were rudely broken. First Egypt and then the whole of the region was forced to turn away from Turkey and toward Europe. A body of secular European ideas—those that had inspired the French Revolution—broke through the barrier separating Islam from the West, setting off a crisis which has not to this day been resolved.

Even before 1798 the Islamic world had a place in the field of Western scholarship and myth that Edward Said has called Orientalism: knowledge of Islam, true and false, as an armature of power. Islam, on the other hand, knew (and cared to know) little about the West. It had nothing to show that could be called Occidentalism, a view of the West through the eyes of Eastern arts and sciences. In the century and a half that followed, a variety of Western concepts and institutions identified as crucial to the modern outlook were taken over in Islamic countries. Much of the unsettledness of the region today results from a failure to find ways of domesticating such essentially secular concepts as democracy, liberalism, and socialism.

The underlying question is whether a culture can become modern without internalizing the genealogy of modernity, that is, without living through the epistemological revolution, in all its implications, out of which Western science grew. “The new outlook [in the Islamic world] is modern in a way, but it is a mutilated outlook,” writes the critic Daryush Shayegan. Modern perspectives and institutions have been absorbed, but only in a “truncated” way. Internally the Islamic world is still “trailing behind modernity.” Octavio Paz makes a comparable diagnosis of the woes of Latin America: Latin American democracies continue to falter because they have taken over democratic forms without the “critical and modern intellectual current” out of which Western democracy grew.

One of the forms the Islamic world imported from the West has been the novel. As a storytelling genre, the novel, particularly the realist novel, comes with heavy intellectual baggage. Originating from a satire on medieval romance (Don Quixote), it concerns itself not with exemplary lives but with individual strivings and individual destiny. Toward tradition it is hostile: it values originality, self-generation. It follows the mode of the scientific case study or the law brief rather than the hearthside fairy tale. It prides itself on a language bereft of ornament, on the steady, prosaic observation and recording of detail. It is just the kind of vehicle one would expect Europe’s merchant bourgeoisie to invent in order to celebrate its own ideals and achievements.

The first Western-style novels in Arabic appeared a century ago. The genre has particularly flourished in Egypt, with its comparatively durable civil society and firm sense of national identity. There the great middleman has been Naguib Mahfouz, born in 1911 and crowned with the Nobel Prize in 1988. Though Mahfouz may receive less attention in Arab letters today than he did in the 1950s and 1960s, it was his example above all that spurred the advance of the novel in Arabic, from Morocco to Bahrain.

Mahfouz is above all a novelist of Cairo, and specifically of medieval Cairo, an area of about one square kilometer in the heart of the huge Cairene megalopolis (present population: 16 million). As a child, Mahfouz recalls, he had stood at the window of the family house in the al-Gamaliyya quarter watching British soldiers trying to halt the street demonstrations of 1919 (the scene is replayed in Palace Walk). Though his family left al-Gamaliyya when he was twelve, its alleys, with their blend of social classes, have remained the center of his fictional world. “In the same alley,” writes the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, “one could easily find a mansion surrounded by a beautiful, spacious garden and right next to it the modest house of a merchant. In the vicinity there would be…a tenement for dozens of poor people.” (Since the 1930s the quarter has been in a decline, however, and the poverty of the alleys is now unrelieved.)

The novels of Mahfouz’s realist phase, notably Midaq Alley (1947) and the Cairo trilogy (1956-1957), use al-Gamaliyya as a setting with meticulous accuracy. With Children of Gebelawi (1959), however, Mahfouz’s concern with verisimilitude diminishes and the alleys of the quarter acquire some of the fabulous quality of the streets of the Baghdad of The Thousand and One Nights.

Mahfouz’s realist novels concentrate on city people. There is no trace of the peasantry or the countryside: his city-dwellers seem not even to have country relatives. If he opposes the city to anything, it is to itself at an earlier stage of its growth, not to the village. He deals particularly with people of limited means trying to keep their heads above water in hard times, doing their best to maintain middle-class standards of conduct and appearance.

The narrowness of focus that results has been criticized by the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, who sees these standards as having less to do with Egyptian tradition than with Victorian respectability. This reading, which suggests that Mahfouz’s heart lies with anxiously imitated (and soon to be outdated) Western models, misses what, in his darker mode, Mahfouz has to say about the ethic of respectability. The Beginning and the End (1949), for instance, which explores the self-sacrificing efforts of a petit-bourgeois family trying to finance the climb of one of its sons into the Egyptian officer class, and the subsequent efforts of that son to hide his shameful social origins, is as bleak and relentless as anything in Dreiser.

Mahfouz’s reputation rests—and rightly so—on the solid achievement of the Cairo trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street), which when it appeared was at once recognized as setting a new standard for the novel in Arabic. The trilogy traces the vicissitudes of two generations of a middle-class Cairo family from the revolution of 1919 to World War II.

The trilogy’s leisurely pages record the gradual emancipation of women, the decline of religious adherence among the middle class, and the growing prestige of science and of Western cultural forms in general. Among a cast of vivid characters the grocer al-Sayyid Ahmad stands out: at home a forbidding tyrant over his wife and children, but on his evenings out gay and spontaneous, a wit and bon viveur, an accomplished singer and generous lover of women of the demi-monde. His docile and devoted wife is so obedient to his will that for a quarter of a century she barely leaves the house (and then, when her children persuade her to sneak out, suffers a humiliating accident, as if to prove him right). Among their children Yasin is passionate but clumsy, trying to imitate the way of life of his bull-like father but succeeding only in becoming an anxious parody; Khadija constantly snaps at her more beautiful sister Aisha, spies on her, denigrates her, yet is bound to her with a love intensified rather than diminished by her jealousy; and Kemal (coeval with Mahfouz himself) is a brilliant and adored son, and later a troubled young nationalist intellectual.

In style and narrative method, the trilogy (completed by 1952 but not published for another four years) and its predecessor, The Beginning and the End, grew out of a methodical study of the Western novel that Mahfouz undertook as a young man. They follow the soberer masters of Western realism—Galsworthy and Thomas Mann rather than the more mercurial Balzac or Dickens—but at their best they rise above the scrupulous chronicling of family fortunes and the dissection of moeurs to an unwavering yet compassionate unveiling of the lies that people—particularly middle-class people—find it convenient to live by, with a sureness that reminds one of Tolstoy.

Like Salman Rushdie, Mahfouz has had a serious brush with Islamic religious authorities. The fact that he has emerged unscathed testifies to greater political savvy on his part, to a readiness to make symbolic concessions where necessary. The occasion of conflict was his novel Children of Gebelawi, serialized in Al-Ahram in 1959 but never published in Egypt as a book (it appeared in integral form in Beirut in 1967).

Children of Gebelawi, set like several other novels in a single Cairo alley, is a complex allegory that functions on both religious and political levels. As a religious allegory, it starts with the founding of a great estate by the godlike al-Gebelawi, and recounts the betrayal of his trust by his younger son, Adham or Adam, the subsequent building of the alley, and the efforts of a series of four heroic leaders, the first three corresponding to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed, the fourth a modern man, a scientist, to wrest back the destiny of the alley and the common folk who live there from the gangsters who have taken control. The political implications of the book were made clear by Mahfouz in a 1975 interview. The gangsters who run the alley correspond to Nasser’s army officers: “The question which…bothered me was: are we moving toward socialism or to a new kind of feudalism?”

Not surprisingly, Children of Gebelawi was attacked for heresy. Out of respect for religious feelings, Mahfouz declined to contest the ruling of Al-Azhar, the highest Islamic institution in the country, proscribing the work: he argued that it would be unwise to alienate Al-Azhar over a relatively minor matter when its support might be needed against what he called “the other medieval form of Islam,” that is to say, the growing fundamentalist movement.

This compromise seemed to head off a confrontation with the religious authorities. In 1988, however, the award of the Nobel Prize brought renewed pressure for the book to be published in Egypt. When, shortly thereafter, the storm burst over Salman Rushdie, Children of Gebelawi was coupled with The Satanic Verses, and Mahfouz was pressed to make public statements on the position of the writer in Islamic societies. He spoke openly in favor of freedom of speech and condemned Khomeini’s fatwa on Rushdie. Fundamentalists counterattacked, accusing him of “blasphemy, apostasy, and Freemasonry,” and a fatwa was pronounced on him by the mufti of a fundamentalist group: “Mahfouz…is an apostate. Anyone who wrongs Islam is an apostate…. If they do not repent, they must be killed.” There can be little doubt that behind this attack lay resentment against Mahfouz’s support for a form of co-existence with Israel, which he had first expressed in 1975 following the Yom Kippur War.

The 1960s were dark times for Egypt. As Nasser’s regime became more repressive, disillusionment set in, particularly among the country’s intellectuals. Mahfouz expressed his own distress—somewhat obliquely—in such novels as The Thief and the Dogs (1961). Adrift on the Nile (1966), with its attack on the frivolity and escapism of Egyptian upper-class society, aroused Nasser’s ire because of its parodic elements; publication was allowed only after interventions on the author’s behalf. After Egypt’s defeat in 1967 the environment grew distinctly uncomfortable for doubters, and Mahfouz could no longer count on patrons like the then minister of culture, Tharwat Ukasha, to protect him. Nasser’s death brought relief; in Al-Karnak (1974)—published, it must be said, only after Nasser’s excesses had already been criticized by Anwar Sadat—Mahfouz documented the more gruesome practices of Nasser’s secret police.

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