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 Arabic physician’s consecration to the thoughts of a man from whom he was separated by fourteen centuries.”

Averroës died on December 10, 1198. Naguib Mahfouz, 790 years later, celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday on the morning after the Nobel Prize ceremony of December 10, 1988. Mahfouz was born in 1911, the year that the first Arabic novel, Zainab (a name he also would use later), was being written in Paris, by another Egyptian writer, Muhammad Hussein Haikal. Forty years before, the first Arabic play had made its debut in Cairo.

Mahfouz published his own first novel in 1939, at the age of twenty-eight. Seven years later, when he started writing his masterpiece, The Cairene Trilogy, the Arabic novel was still far from having emerged as a mature form. In the twelfth century of Averroës’s Spain, and simultaneously in Egypt, Arab culture was grappling with the texts of ancient Greece and was refining the art of storytelling of The Arabian Nights. Eight hundred years later, by the end of the nineteenth century, this literary tradition had already deteriorated and was not able to provide the “single speakers” with voices of their own. The storyteller of The Arabian Nights, in his Second Coming to the Orient, had to learn it all anew, from scratch, through Western eyes. And he came back singlehanded—that is, one could say, without his left arm. The Arabian Nights has a polyphonic style of storytelling in which, as in a piano piece, the left hand provides a framing accompaniment that fills out the harmonic texture, a basic story, and lets the right hand carry out the melody of a subsidiary tale and then return to the bass and leave it again with another melody.

The “ground” is not always a framing story; it is often the evoked cultural and historical setting that gives a sense of local validity to a novel. Such a ubiquitous yet elusive cultural presence underlies Don Quixote, the presence of the lofty, yet impractical and vanishing world of chivalry in Spain at the turn of the seventeenth century. This world is conveyed, as it were, by Cervantes’s left hand—a world of popular, knightly romances that he is drawing on and mocking at the same time. What makes the works of Gabriel García Márquez so different from those of his contemporaries in Arabic literature is, among other things, his ability to squeeze into Macondo the qualities that give the place both a local validity through its mastery of the Colombian “ground” (imagined as that might be) and the fictional validity of the stories he tells. This polyphonic style became homophonic in Arabic literature. Márquez, whose literary origins go back to Andalusia, can be seen as a more privileged Mahfouz: his storyteller came to him intact, with two hands, via Don Quixote. Mahfouz—and all other modern Arabic writers for that matter—are the bereft ones: their storyteller came back to them with an amputated left hand. A perfect Western revenge.


Why couldn’t Averroës understand the meaning of tragedy and comedy; why couldn’t he relate to the “melody” played in his courtyard by those children? Douglas R. Hofstadter, who in Gödel, Escher, Bach discusses the concepts of “figure” and “ground” in various contexts (mathematics, art, and music), could have given us a different, less Borgesian, answer. Hofstadter would contend that the same could have happened to Averroës had he lived until 1720 and listened to one of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas for violin. In music, especially in Baroque music, there is often a distinction between figure and ground, between melody and accompaniment—the melody is usually in the forefront of our attention, while the accompaniment (the harmony) is subsidiary in some sense. In a Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin, the accompaniment, or the ground, is not even there; it exists only in the cultural mind of the listener, who implicitly “plays” it while listening to the melody. How could Averroës, then, listen to the melody of “comedy” and “tragedy” if he had not known what the ground for these two figures is all about?

In a gesture that recalls Hemingway’s in 1954, Mahfouz, who has left Egypt only twice in his life, did not show up at the Nobel Prize ceremony last December in Stockholm. He sent his two daughters to collect the award. Ian Wooldridge, who introduced the recent TV program on the 1988 Nobel Prizes (a TV special, produced by Turner Broadcasting for cable television), told the viewers from his chair at the Thousand-And-One-Guest-Banquet that followed the ceremony: “It’s a great shame that our literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, can’t be here tonight, but in his honor we have some music from his country, a taste of Egypt.” What followed were three seated Egyptians, in traditional dress, entertaining the white-tie audience with “some music.” The central “figure” was a traditional singer who also played the oud (the precursor of the lute), flanked by a drummer and a flutist who provided the accompaniment. The song was in praise of the faithful believer; how rich he is despite his poverty. At one point the camera focused on the face of the King of Sweden listening to this belated act of Arab revenge: the three children playing in the long forgotten Andalusian courtyard of Averroës were here now in his court. They had refined their art, but instead of playing the active roles of the faithful worshiper and the muezzin, they were providing merely a dying echo of the children’s play. And, like Averroës “striving to imagine a drama without ever having suspected what a theater was,” there was the King of Sweden with what might have been the expression of the same effort on his face.

The history of the Nobel Prize “records few acts more beautiful and more pathetic” than these folk Egyptian singers, trying to “represent” their country’s cultural spirit, especially if their music is juxtaposed with an “Orientalist” piece for cello played earlier during the ceremony—“Arab Village,” by Gunther Schuller. The flat, straightforward song of the Egyptian trio, performed during the banquet while everybody was being served the royal hors d’oeuvres, set the right note for the evening. What sounds like a nice piece of Egyptian folk music when played in a Cairene nightclub can only be kitsch when taken out of its setting and made to “represent” modern Arabic literature in a celebration that has been long overdue.

The same embarrassing reaction might occur when one reads Mahfouz’s acceptance speech in its English translation. A virtuoso of multilayered, highly orchestrated storytelling, Mahfouz might have written another Faulknerian speech if he had wanted to (“I decline to accept the end of man”). Instead, he sent a rather trite speech, in which, at one point, he says to his listeners, Mahfouzian tongue in Egyptian cheek: “But what do you expect from one coming from the third world?” When the Israeli-Jewish writer Agnon won the award in 1966, it seemed that choosing an Arab writer for the Nobel would be just a matter of time. So this speech should have been drafted twenty-two years ago, yet it reads exactly like most of the novels and short stories that the copious Mahfouz has published after 1975 (at the rate of almost three books every two years). These are sketchy texts that sound as if they were written at random, desperately in need of a meticulous, compassionate editor.


The year 1975 marks also an important phase in Mahfouz’s political involvement. In his weekly column in the daily Al-Ahram, he wrote that the Arabs must seek for peaceful ways to live with Israel. This was the first time that any Arab intellectual of his standing had broken the circle of consensus in Arab politics. Consequently, his books and the films whose scripts he had written or which were adapted from his works were banned in many Arab countries. And when in 1977 he was one of the few Egyptian intellectuals to adamantly support Sadat’s initiative for peace with Israel, and later to endorse the Camp David accords, many Arab, and especially Palestinian, intellectuals felt that their god had failed. However, his reputation as the leading Arab writer hardly suffered.

It must have been The Cairene Trilogy particularly, published in 1956–1957, and the other works written before 1975, that the Swedish Academy had in mind when it said in its citation that Mahfouz won the award for “works rich in nuance, now clearsightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous.” When asked by the Reuters correspondent in Cairo for a comment on October 13, the Egyptian writer said: “Clarity is valuable, but ambiguity sometimes has its values too.” However, in his speech he chose to be utterly unequivocal on the Palestinian issue:

In the West Bank and Gaza there are people who are lost in spite of the fact that they are living on their own land; land of their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. They have risen to demand the first right secured by primitive Man; namely, that they should have their proper place recognized by others as their own. They were paid back for their brave and noble move—men, women, youth and children alike—by the breaking of bones, killing with bullets, destroying of houses and torture in prisons and camps.

Mahfouz’s fame as the leading Arab writer was acquired with the publication of his Cairene Trilogy. This work, fortunately, is not among the fourteen books by Mahfouz translated into English; it came out in a quite good Hebrew translation, though, some years ago. Even now, thirty years later, the Trilogy is seen by young Arab writers as a wall of China that stands in their way. Most of what has been translated from Mahfouz (except for the novel Midaq Alley perhaps) are works limited to the “figure”: it takes a great deal of charity on the part of the reader to enjoy these superb, albeit unaccompanied, melodies in their English translation. In the Trilogy, however, the ground bass also is abundantly present. Three generations of a Cairene family come to life through 1,500 pages. Besides being, in a way, the disguised intellectual autobiography of Mahfouz, the Trilogy also, as the Israeli critic Sasson Somekh has noted,

portrays the political scene of Egypt, and the daily life of the middle-class Cairene through a period of twenty-seven years (1917–1944)…. The change of social patterns is not less admirably recorded…. But while the process of change is at the forefront of this work, the world of yesterday, that which is rapidly losing ground, receives no less meticulous a treatment…. The people of Cairo in the early twenties come alive before us, as do their habits, entertainments, songs, prejudices, dress and furniture.

Kamal Abd al-Gawad, of the second generation, and the central character especially in the second part of the trilogy, is Mahfouz himself in disguise, who creates the history of modern Egypt through the lives of three generations of the Abd al-Gawad family.

The first volume opens in November 1917 and covers a period of seventeen months, culminating in the rebellion of 1919 against the British. The effects of the Great War, the fraying of the old system of political control, and demonstrations against it by the supporters of the Wafd party, are part of the background for the slow-moving story of life in the house of a well-to-do Cairene family. The father, Al-Sayyid, is a Janus figure, the master of the double standard: every night he returns in the small hours from wild evenings of wine and women, expecting his submissive, worried wife, Amina, to be waiting for him at the top of the stairs, holding the lantern to light his way.

Amina is the prisoner of such expectations and of the huge house itself. She is confined within a shadowy world of spirits and later by the burdens of motherhood. Yaseen, her stepchild, a clerk in a school, is a rougher and more vulgar version of his father, and at times his rival in pursuing women. Her son Fahmi is a law student who, after a frustrating love affair, turns to politics, and eventually, at the end of the first volume, is shot dead in a demonstration. The second son, Kamal, a vigorous, imaginative child in the first volume, turns in the next volumes into a passive intellectual. To a certain extent he is not only Mahfouz in disguise but also seems meant to suggest the collective situation of Arab intellectuals toward the end of 1944; having left, or having wanted to leave, the old house of tradition, he now faces the modern Western forces and values that are both tempting and seem to require him to take determined action to change his world. The sudden exposure to new kinds of choice makes him retreat, a victim of his own inaction. A graduate of a teacher’s college, he teaches English and contributes hackneyed articles on modern philosophy to literary magazines. He can no longer reconcile his inherited faith with his acquired knowledge, and finds himself drifting to atheism, much to his father’s chagrin.

Kamal is juxtaposed, especially in the third volume of the Trilogy, with the third generation of the family, each of whose members wants to try out his own answers to the predicaments of the fathers. Two of his nephews—his sister’s sons—choose separate, contradictory political careers: one finds refuge in the Muslim Brotherhood, the other in Communism. Yaseen’s son opportunistically uses his homosexuality to develop relationships with high political figures, and so helps his relatives get better jobs. Though published in 1956–1957, the Trilogy ends in 1944, eight years before the revolution led by Naguib and Nasser.

Young Arab writers have found it difficult to break through the wall of China from the inside. A leading writer of the younger generation in Egypt once confided to the literary critic Muhammad Siddiq:

Before any younger writer sits down to write anything, he must make sure that Mahfouz has not already written that novel. And if he is lucky and Mahfouz hasn’t done it already, that is still no guarantee that he will not have done so before the younger writer gets around to writing his.

It so happened that on the same day that Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize was announced in October, the Roman Catholic Church announced that the Shroud of Turin, venerated by millions of Christians over the centuries as the burial cloth of Jesus, turned out to be a fake. It occurred to me, without for a moment implying that Mahfouz is a fake, that most Arab novels written after the Trilogy bear, in some way or another, the negative image of Mahfouz—an image, one might say, that inexorably filters through the shrouds used to cover the face of the Cairene Christ as part of a rebellion against him. Only three Arab writers have achieved the nearly impossible task of escaping Mahfouz’s imprint, to my mind: the Sudanese Tayeb Salih in his Season of Migration to the North (1966), which was written in London (English translation published in the UK in 1970); the Palestinian Emile Habiby in his Pessoptimist (1974; the English translation was published in the US in 1982); and the Syrian Salim Barakat in his Fuqaha’ al-Zalam (Sages of Darkness, to be published by PROTA, the Project of the Translation from Arabic), which was written in Cyprus and published in 1985.

In the interview I have mentioned, Mahfouz attributed his winning the Nobel Prize to hard work, good luck, and a French translation of his trilogy. Besides the fourteen English translations from his work, and the best study of him by Sasson Somekh (The Changing Rhythm), one might add to the list of credits the continuous efforts of several publishing houses in the West to render for English-speaking readers some specimens of modern Arabic literature. PROTA, founded in 1978 and directed by the Palestinian poet and critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi, through its scholarly translations did much to attract attention to modern Arabic literature, thus helping to provide an adequate “ground.”

I browsed through the translations of Mahfouz into English, and came across one of my favorite short stories, Al-Khala‘, translated into English as “The Wilderness” (in God’s World, translated by Akef Abadir and Roger Allen, 1973), from his collection The Black Cat Tavern, published in Arabic in 1968.

It is the story of a minor tragedy about betrayal and revenge, one of Borges’s favorite themes. Sharshara, who was banished from his Cairene neighborhood to Alexandria on the night of his wedding, after he had been forced by one Lahluba to divorce his bride, Zainab, is coming back now after twenty years, driven by the vengeance that has given him a reason to live. Surrounded by his thugs, he is heading for a showdown with Lahluba, the gang leader who robbed him of his Zainab, as well as his dignity and freedom.

Why did Roger Allen, an ardent promoter of Mahfouz and Arabic literature in the United States, and Akef Abadir, the cotranslator of this story, translate the title Al-Khala’ as “The Wilderness”? The Arabic word, which occurs elsewhere in the story, according to my Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary, means, among other things: emptiness; empty space, vacancy; open country; (and in certain phrases) under the open sky; outdoors, in the open air. In Mahfouz’s story, and in my village in the Galilee, khala’ means where the village houses end and the vacant lands begin, where human beings no longer have dominion. “The Wilderness” of the English translation adds, perhaps inadvertently (which is worse), a Christian touch to the original Arabic (“The voice of one crying in the wilderness…./ And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. / And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan.” Mark 1:3, 12–13). So the vengeful Sharshara, returning from his “wilderness,” his exile in Alexandria, to the scene of his humiliation, may become for some readers an inverted Christ figure of sorts, a man with a blood mission to settle the score with Lahluba the Pharisee.

But Sharshara is just another one-track minded, simple thug. He is driven by blind revenge, the desire to restore his abject manhood and dignity, to kill Lahluba and get back his bride. He resembles neither Christ nor the vengeful St. George having a showdown with the dragon Lahluba. To impose Christian overtones on this character is to mock his private agony; and to turn his plight into kitsch by dispossessing him of his own ground. (Most of the translations of Mahfouz into English are done with the zeal of committees, but at times they show the ardor of a genuine lover. Either way their contribution hardly seems to justify the Nobel award. One hopes for better treatment for the Trilogy.)

The first sentence in the translation of “The Wilderness,” the sentence that should set the tone for the story, is, to say the least, sloppy and loose:

It would be a savage, bloody battle. Twenty years of patient anticipation and waiting would be expunged.

This is a faint paraphrase of the original’s gasped-out rhythm:

Let it be a violent, savage battle, and let it quench the thirst of twenty years of patience, lurking and wait.

On the next page, the translation runs:

Treachery may succeed, but it won’t expunge the revenge.

While the Arabic reads:

Surprising him might bring victory, but this won’t quench my thirst.

So Sharshara walks on, and when he reaches his enemy’s neighborhood he finds out that Lahluba has been dead for some years, and that his bride, Zainab, is now just a vendor of eggs at the souk. He sends off his gang to wait for him, and goes to see her. But it is over now. “All that’s over and gone,” Zainab tells him. To get her back without a fight would mean getting her back with a loss of pride. Besides, her children are grown up now, and what’s the point? The word khala’ and its derivatives become more recurrent, until the final episode, when Sharshara has to make up his mind which road to take in order to meet again with his henchmen. Wishing to be left alone with his grief, he heads for the road—one would be tempted to say less traveled by, taking the empty path that passes through the vacant, open country. He does this, in the final sentence of the story, without the exhausted help of Christ or Robert Frost, and without knowing that a woman called Zainab had also been the heroine of the first Arabic novel, written in Paris the year Mahfouz was born:

So there was the road to the wilderness; and that’s the one he took, into the wilderness….

The ellipsis, otherwise the most popular literary device among modern Arabic writers, including Mahfouz, is here contributed by the translator. It expands the limits of the wilderness, just in case there is not enough room for Sharshara’s grief.

Averroës could not know what comedy and tragedy meant; and eight hundred years later the translators of Mahfouz, who could, made a Christian farce out of Muslim Sharshara’s little tragedy. Another subject for Borges.

This Issue

February 2, 1989