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The Cruelty of Memory

Amam al-‘Arsh [Before the Throne]

by Naguib Mahfouz
Cairo: Maktabit Misr, 207 pp.

Adrift on the Nile

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Frances Liardet
Anchor, 167 pp., (out of print)

Taht al-Mazella [Under the Shelter]

by Naguib Mahfouz
Cairo: Maktabit Misr, 207 pp.

Children of Gebelaawi

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Philip Stewart
Passeggiata, 497 pp., $17.00 (paper)

The Harafish

by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham
Anchor, 406 pp., $14.00 (paper)


by Naguib Mahfouz, Translated from the Arabic by Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud
Passeggiata, 156 pp., $12.00 (paper)


Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life. But even to them he did not seem to have a style or perspective of his own, partly because the few translations available were very uneven in quality and partly because he did not (and still doesn’t) have one translator (and hence one voice) who made it a life’s project to keep producing Mahfouz’s prose masterpieces in English versions.

In 1980 I tried to interest a New York publisher who was then looking for “third world” books to publish in putting out several of the great writer’s works in first-rate translations, but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language. A few years later I had an amiable and, from my point of view, encouraging correspondence about him with Jacqueline Onassis, who was trying to decide whether to take him on; she then became one of the people responsible for bringing Mahfouz to Doubleday, which is where he now resides, albeit still in rather spotty versions that dribble out without much fanfare or notice. Rights to his English translations are held by the American University in Cairo Press, so poor Mahfouz, who seems to have sold them off without expecting that he would someday be a world-famous author, has no say in what has obviously been an unliterary, largely commercial enterprise without much artistic or linguistic coherence.

To Arab readers Mahfouz does in fact have a distinctive voice, which displays a remarkable mastery of language yet does not call attention to itself. But in English he sounds like each of his translators, most of whom (with one or two exceptions) are not stylists and, I am sorry to say, appear not to have completely understood what he is really about. I shall try to suggest in what follows that he has a decidedly catholic and, in a way, overbearing view of his country, and, like an emperor surveying his realm, he feels capable of summing up, judging, and shaping its long history and complex position as one of the world’s oldest, most fascinating and coveted prizes for conquerors like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, as well as its own natives. In addition Mahfouz has the intellectual and literary means to convey them in a manner entirely his own—powerful, direct, subtle. Like his characters (who are always described right away, as soon as they appear), Mahfouz comes straight at you, immerses you in a thick narrative flow, then lets you swim in it, all the while directing the currents, eddies, and waves of his characters’ lives, Egypt’s his-tory under prime ministers like Saad Zaghloul and Mustapha el Nahas, and dozens of other details of political parties, family histories, and the like, with extraordinary skill. Realism, yes, but something else as well: a vision that aspires to a sort of all-encompassing view not unlike Dante’s in its twinning of earthly actuality with the eternal, but without the Christianity.

There is no way for the English-speaking reader to know that Dweller in Truth (Akhenaten seems to have been added by the US publisher) is a fairly late book (1985) or that in its pharoanic subject matter it is a reversion to Mahfouz’s earliest phase as a novelist. (Rumor has it that the addition was made so that the book could be sold to tourists at the Pyramids.) Born in 1911, between 1939 and 1944 Mahfouz published three, as yet untranslated, novels about ancient Egypt while still an employee at the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments). He also translated James Baikie’s book Ancient Egypt before undertaking his chronicles of modern Cairo in Khan al-Khalili, which appeared in 1945. This period culminated in 1956 and 1957 with the appearance of his superb Cairo Trilogy, completed in 1952. These novels were in effect a summary of modern Egyptian life during the first half of the twentieth century.

The trilogy is a history of the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over three generations. While providing an enormous amount of social and political detail, it is also a study of the intimate relationships between men and women, as well as an account of the search for faith of Abd al-Jawad’s younger son, Kamal, after an early and foreshortened espousal of Islam.

After a period of silence that coincided with the first five years following the 1952 Egyptian revolution, prose works began to pour forth from Mahfouz in unbroken succession—novels, short stories, journalism, memoirs, essays, and screenplays. Since his first attempts to render the ancient world Mahfouz has become an extraordinarily prolific writer, one intimately tied to the history of his time; he was nevertheless bound to have explored ancient Egypt again because its history allowed him to find there aspects of his own time, refracted and distilled to suit rather complex purposes of his own. This, I think, is true of Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, which in its unassuming way is part of Mahfouz’s special concern with power, with the conflict between orthodox religious and completely personal truth, and with the counterpoint between strangely compatible yet highly contradictory perspectives that derive from an often inscrutable and mysterious figure.

Mahfouz has been characterized since he became a recognized world celebrity as either a social realist in the mode of Balzac, Galsworthy, and Zola or a fabulist straight out of the Arabian Nights (as in the view taken by J.M. Coetzee in his disappointing characterization of Mahfouz in these pages1 ). It is closer to the truth to see him, as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury has suggested, as providing in his novels a kind of history of the novel form, from historical fiction to the romance, saga, and picaresque tale, followed by work in realist, modernist, naturalist, symbolist, and absurdist modes.2

Moreover, despite his transparent manner, Mahfouz is dauntingly sophisticated not only as an Arabic stylist but as an assiduous student of social process and epistemology—that is, the way people know their experiences—without equal in his part of the world, and probably elsewhere for that matter. The realistic novels on which his fame rests, far from being only a dutiful sociological mirror of modern Egypt, are also audacious attempts to reveal the highly concrete way power is actually deployed. That power can derive from the divine, as in his parable Awlad Haritna (Children of Gebelaawi) of 1958, banned by the Egyptian authorities until only a few years ago, in which the great estate owner Gebelaawi is a godlike figure who has banished his children from the Garden of Eden or from the throne, the family, and patriarchy itself, or from civil associations such as political parties, universities, government bureaucracy, and so on. This isn’t to say that Mahfouz’s novels are guided by or organized around abstract principles: they are not, otherwise his work would have been far less powerful and interesting to his uncounted Arab readers, and also to his by now extensive international audience.3

Mahfouz’s aim is, I think, to embody ideas so completely in his characters and their actions that nothing theoretical is left exposed. But what has always fascinated him is in fact the way the Absolute—which for a Muslim is of course God as the ultimate power—necessarily becomes material and irrecoverable simultaneously, as when Gebelaawi’s decree of banishment against his children throws them into exile even as he retreats, out of reach forever, to his fortress—his house, which they can always see from their territory. What is felt and what is lived are made manifest and concrete but they cannot readily be grasped while being painstakingly and minutely disclosed in Mahfouz’s remarkable prose.

Malhamat al Harafish (1977) (Epic of the Harafish) extends and deepens this theme from Children of Gebelaawi. His subtle use of language enables him to translate that Absolute into history, character, event, temporal sequence, and place while, at the same time, because it is the first principle of things, it mysteriously maintains its stubborn, original, if also tormenting aloofness. In Akhenaten the sun god changes the young, prematurely monotheistic king forever but never reveals himself, just as Akhenaten himself is seen only at a remove, described in the numerous narratives of his enemies, his friends, and his wife, who tell his story but cannot resolve his mystery.

Nonetheless Mahfouz also has a ferociously antimystical side, but it is riven with recollections and even perceptions of an elusive great power that seems very troubling to him. Consider, for instance, that Akhenaten’s story requires no fewer than fourteen narrators and yet fails to settle the conflicting interpretations of his reign. Every one of Mahfouz’s works that I know has this central but distant personification of power in it, most memorably the dominating senior figure of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in the Cairo Trilogy, whose authoritative presence hovers over the action three generations after his death.

In the trilogy his slowly receding eminence is not simply offstage, but is also being transmuted and devalued through such mundane agencies as Abd al-Jawad’s marriage, his licentious behavior, his children, and changing political involvements. Worldly matters seem to puzzle Mahfouz, and perhaps even compel as well as fascinate him at the same time, particularly in his account of the way the fading legacy of al-Sayyid Abd al-Jawad, whose family is Mahfouz’s actual subject, in the end still manages to hold together the three generations over fifty years, through the 1919 Revolution, the liberal era of Saad Zagloul, the British occupation, and the reign of Fuad the First during the interwar period.

The result is that when you get to the end of one of Mahfouz’s novels you paradoxically experience both regret at what has happened to his characters in their long downward progress (as when, in the Cairo Trilogy, one grandson of Abd al-Jawad goes to prison as a Communist, the other as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) and a barely articulated hope that by going back to the beginning of the story you might be able to recover the sheer force of these people. There is a hint of how gripping this process is in a fragment called “A message” contained in the novelist’s Echoes from an Autobiography (1994): “The cruelty of memory manifests itself in remembering what is dispelled in forgetfulness.” Mahfouz is an unredemptive but highly judgmental and precise recorder of the passage of time.

Thus Mahfouz is anything but a humble storyteller who haunts Cairo’s cafés and essentially works away quietly in his obscure corner. The stubbornness and pride with which he has held to the rigor of his work for a half-century, with its refusal to concede to ordinary weakness, is at the very core of what he does as a writer. What mostly enables him to hold his astonishingly sustained view of the way eternity and time are so closely intertwined is his country, Egypt itself. As a geographical place and as history, Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz’s Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity. Moreover, Egypt has held a unique position among nations. The object of attention by conquerors, adventurers, painters, writers, scientists, and tourists, the country is like no other for the position it has held in human history, and the quasi-timeless vision it has afforded.

  1. 1

    Fabulous Fabulist,” The New York Review, September 22, 1994.

  2. 2

    Elias Khoury, “Mahfouz: The First Arab,” in Mawaqif, Vol. 57 (Winter 1989).

  3. 3

    I have found Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning by Rasheed el-Enany (Routledge, 1993) very useful. It is the most comprehensive work on Mahfouz in English.

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