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.
To have taken history not only seriously but also literally is the central achievement of Mahfouz’s work and, as with Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn, one gets the measure of his literary personality by the sheer audacity and even the overreaching arrogance of his scope. To articulate large swathes of Egypt’s history on behalf of that history, and to feel himself capable of presenting its citizens for scrutiny as its representatives: this sort of ambition is rarely seen in contemporary writers. As for the prominent figures who shaped Egypt’s history, they too are subject to Mahfouz’s severe gaze. For in a remarkable, as yet untranslated, book that appeared in 1983, Amam al-‘Arsh (Before the Throne), Mahfouz does no less than bring Egypt’s rulers up before a court of eternal judgment consisting of Osiris on a golden throne with Isis and Horus on either side of him: the three are to assess the qualities of the major actors that Mahfouz considers responsible for making Egypt what it is.
Apparently written out of the same desire to excavate Egypt’s distant past as Akhenaten, Before the Throne starts out with the trial of Menes, the country’s founding father, and, dealing with quite a few celebrated figures along the way, comes right up to Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, whose assassination occurred a short time before the book appeared. What is peculiar about this exercise is that it was undertaken at all, as if the novelist felt it a part of his narrative, and his personal obligation, to examine in one deep breath the people who created Egypt’s history.
Not only does the book attest to Mahfouz’s ambition, it also reveals the continuity he sees in what might appear to have been only a long series of disjunct episodes. And that he should imagine the sequence in terms that connect despotic pharaohs with revolutionary men of the people such as Sadat, Nasser, and Mostapha Nahas, along with Ottoman khedives like Mohammed Ali and Ismail, Coptic patriarchs, Sufi women, poets, and courtiers, further reveals Mahfouz’s profound concern, not to say rivalry, as its jealous chronicler, with authority. The early figures called to account remain in the court chamber for the testimony of their successors, whom they occasionally question, denounce, praise, or otherwise discuss. What results then is a dense texture of the strands that make up Egypt’s historical personality as interwoven by its great figures through the ages.
It is worth noting parenthetically that since the early 1960s a debate has been occurring over the true nature of Egypt’s cultural personality; the debate continues to this day. It was originally stimulated by Nasser’s pan-Arabism, which, according to writers like Lewis Awad and Mahfouz himself, resulted in mutilations of Egypt’s non-Arab history by solecisms (introduced by Arab nationalist enthusiasts) such as “Arab” history, “Arab” socialism, and so on. Later the debate was joined by Islamic parties and individuals who thought that what ought to be stressed was Egypt’s Muslim character, since al-Azhar, the oldest learned Muslim institution devoted to sunnah, or orthodoxy, still flourishingis, after all, in Cairo.
In fact, for the past several months a very intense continuing controversy has been provoked by a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, A Banquet for Seaweed, which some people vociferously consider unfit to be cir-culated in Islamic Egypt, on grounds of blasphemy and obscenity (principally).4 The debate over Egypt’s mission, its essence and cultural identity, has not died down, which is one reason why Mahfouz’s work is so central both to Egyptians and to other Arabs.
Not surprisingly, therefore, in Before the Throne, only Gamal Abdel Nasser comes in for rough treatment at the hands of his judges and witnesses. Ramses II, for example, tells Nasser of his admiration and sense of kinship with him as a great leader, but regrets that whereas his own Egypt was a major power, Nasser’s was a small country not up to the large ambitions he had for it. Nasser is criticized by Menes for sinking Egypt’s unique destiny into pan-Arabism. Coming from Menes, sovereign over its unified North and South, this is a serious charge. No less serious is the impassioned denunciation by Mostapha al-Nahas, the country’s last major politician under the monarchy, a man known for his and his wife’s opulent taste and sometimes ostentatious corruption. Mahfouz not only allows him a place among Egypt’s great men, but also has him attack Nasser for his abrogation of human rights, his destruction of the intellectuals, “the avant- garde of Egypt’s people,” by humiliating and dehumanizing them, his corruption of education, his destruction of the public sector, his disastrous military campaigns, all of which led (in one of Mahfouz’s finest phrases) to “empty myths deposited on a hill of ruination.”
When Nasser responds, somewhat weakly I think, that at least he was able to shake up the country as well as the other Arab nations and move them from a condition of defeat, Nahas is again on the attack: Would that you had been more modest in your ambitions, he says, and opened your country to reform and progress, remembering that developing the Egyptian village is more important than world revolution, that scientific research is more important than the Yemen campaign. Osiris closes the hearing by recognizing Nasser paradoxically as the first of Egypt’s leaders to have really cared for its people, but after saying that, the great god allows him only a conditional place among “the immortals” until the unspecified time comes to pass final judgment on all his deeds in an appropriate court.
Mahfouz concludes this revealing book of personal judgments on Egypt’s politics throughout history with Sadat’s trial, an altogether more benign affair at the outset than Nasser’s. Two things deserve notice here. One is that Akhenaten suddenly interjects himself into the discussion by assuring Sadat that he and the assassinated modern pharaoh shared the same dedication to peace and, alas, the same accusation of perfidious treachery. Second is a heated debate between Sadat and Nasser, a semi-bantering, semi-bitter back-and-forth staccato dialogue that has the two men engaged as former co-conspirators and comrades in arms as well as totally opposed rulers of modern Egypt. Only someone as familiar with Egyptian speech as Mahfouz and also as much a master of Arabic literary prose could have pulled this scene off so amusingly, and at the same time, so earnestly:
Gamal Abd al-Nasser asked him: How could it be of such little importance to you to fashion so treacherous a position out of my legacy?
Anwar al-Sadat answered: I was forced to take such a position since my politics were in their essence a correction of the mistakes that I inherited from you.
Nasser: But I delegated [the presidency] to you with my approval as a supporter and a friend.
Sadat: It is unjust to hold a person responsible for a position taken during a period of black terror in which a father feared his son and a brother feared his own brother.
Nasser: The victory you achieved is only the result of my long preparation.
Sadat: There was no way for a defeated person such as yourself to realize victory, but I gave the people back their freedom and dignity, then I led them to a sure victory.
Nasser: Then you compromised everything on behalf of a demeaning peace and you tore apart the unity of the Arabs while condemning Egypt to isolation.
So Sadat said: I inherited a nation hovering on the edge of the precipice of oblivion at a time when the Arabs would not give me a real helping hand. So it became clear that they neither wanted us dead nor strong so that we would continue to prostrate ourselves begging for their money. No, I didn’t hesitate to make my decisions.
Nasser: So you exchanged a giant who has always supported us for a giant who has always been a hostile enemy.
Sadat: I went to a giant who had a real solution. [Later] events confirmed my belief.
Nasser: You rushed headlong into the infitah [Sadat’s “opening up” of Egypt to unrestricted private and foreign investment] to the point where you submerged the country in a wave of inflation and corruption. As much as Iprovided security for the poor in my era, you provided security for the rich and the thieves.
So Anwar al-Sadat stated: I worked for the good of Egypt but the opportunists worked behind my back.
Much the same examination as in Before the Throne is at the heart of the somber Akhenaten, in which Mahfouz also reverts to the Rashomon-like procedures of his earlier masterpiece about Alexandria, Miramar (1967). Miramar takes place in a pension where Zahra, an attractive provincial woman, works as a maid, lusted after by the men who live there. Each of the narrators is a man personifying some aspect of Egypt’s political spectrum during the late years of the officers’ revolution of the early 1950s. Hence, we are presented with the narrative of a Wafdist, a disenchanted socialist, a Nasserite opportunist.
In Akhenaten a young man, Meriamun, and his father are drifting south along the Nile and pass a deserted city. Intrigued by what he sees, the young man learns just enough from the older man to decide to seek out the truth about the city, its deceased ruler, and his now isolated widowed queen. He does so by getting the main participants in Akhenaten’s story to tell him their version of what happened. Meriamun then explains why he undertakes his quest: “For Father himself had a passion for knowledge and recording the truth, a fact that made our palace a gathering point for men of both worldly and religious affairs.” The problem with this sentence is that “recording the truth” is the translator’s interpolation, which (admittedly in a small way) alters the somewhat retentive leanness of Mahfouz’s own prose.
Now I should say immediately that I am not, and never will be, a translator, but the one thing that came up whenever I compared the Arabic with the English version of Akhenaten is the many liberties—most of them explications or interpolations—that have been taken with the original. What has always struck me about Mahfouz is not only the lapidary quality of his writing in Arabic but also the luxuriant possibilities of meaning, which he always leaves unstated, packed in under the words, so to speak. In the passage quoted above the translator has taken an unnecessarily obtrusive step forward at exactly the point where the Arabic simply leaves off. The words for “had a passion for” in Arabic are changed peremptorily by the translator from Mahfouz’s original, more passive phrase meaning “was embedded in,” or “rooted in” and “anchored in,” which allows him to imply a comparison between the old man’s sedentary life and the son’s itinerant search for knowledge in the rest of the novel.
In any case, armed with letters of introduction, the young narrator, Meriamun, proceeds to interview all the principal figures (the last of whom is Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s surviving wife) in the young king’s tragedy, his disastrous reign of peace, the various priestly, military, and palace intrigues that surrounded him and finally seem to have left him to perish bewildered, alone, and most probably betrayed. In many ways Akhenaten is the exact opposite of Conrad’s Kurtz, a figure of light as opposed to darkness. (Heart of Darkness is one of the works that Mahfouz speaks of with unqualified admiration.) The enigmatic king is recalled by his relatives, courtiers, generals, siblings, policemen, artists, and priests in response to the questions of the importunate Meriamun, who gives us his impressions but not always his conclusions. The material itself is both rich and often confusingly complex, a contrapuntal mixture of themes and counterthemes turning on such questions as whether Akhenaten and his mother were lovers, whether Nefertiti was a power-mad schemer or a devoted consort, and whether the king was saner or sicker than most, which compound, elaborate, deepen, and enhance Akhenaten’s mystery.
The heart of that mystery is whether Akhenaten was a great monotheistic visionary, whose belief in the one ineffable god and the gospel of peace was ahead of and too much for its time; or whether he was a weak, manipulative, and incompetent heretic (which, as someone who banished all the other gods, he seemed to followers of the god Amun, for instance) who let Egypt sink into the civil dissension that threatened its unity and even its borders. Yet, to return for a moment to Before the Throne, the difference between the mysterious pharaoh and Sadat (who seems to be paired with his ancient predecessor in Mahfouz’s mind) is that whereas the pharaonic ruler claimed to have been serving a deity, Sadat did no such thing and remained instead a flamboyant egoist. Thus for Mahfouz the fascination in this ancient episode is not only that we can never know the main character, but that this character’s search for an even more distant truth makes him harder still to fathom.
In Akhenaten the authority, and even the integrity, of Egypt’s identity is either carried on or, as several of the hostile witnesses believe, it is threatened. In either case, power, its maintenance and its decline, is central to the novel, principally because Akhenaten himself does not know how to use it to advance his cause. I don’t think that Mahfouz’s task as novelist is made easier by his almost certain knowledge that Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamen, Akhenaten’s young successor, are the three most famous characters from ancient Egyptian history, first of all because so much is known about them, and second because, more than Amenhotep I, Ramses II, or Thutmose IV, they have an appealing humanity that has made them the favorites of contemporary interpreters. One example of what I mean is the movie The Egyptian (1954), starring Michael Wilding as Akhenaten, Gene Tierney as Nefertiti, and Victor Mature as Akhenaten’s childhood friend Horemhab. This was a Hollywood film that made a great impression on me when I saw it in Cairo as a young man many years ago, even though I grew up surrounded by the lore, the real sites, and the imposing objects of ancient Egypt. The conflict between spirituality and worldly power was well, if sometimes hokily, staged in that film.
More recently, Tut has been represented in opulent exhibitions all over the West, and Akhenaten too has gotten his share of attention in sev-eral shows (including one earlier this year at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts5 ) that highlight and even domesticate the king’s city, Amarna, as well as the peculiarly elongated, softly adipose, and distinctly effeminate figurative style of his reign. A new book on Tutankhamen by Christine El Mahdy6 goes strenuously in the other direction by saying that Akhenaten did not really have an original religious vision, and was most probably gay, a thought that seems not to have crossed Mahfouz’s mind.
Some other matters need to be mentioned here. One is Mahfouz’s fascination with the sheer mechanics of the way information is transmitted and how in the process historical time is transmuted into the details (always clear but always inconclusive)of everyday life. For him language is designed not just to convey information but to show the inexorable distortions that are revealed in words by character, passion, material interest, and identity. After having listened to Akhenaten’s enemies and his friends, Meriamun finally meets his wife, Nefertiti, who was closest of all to Akhenaten: there is every expectation that she will resolve matters by revealing her husband to be the eager searcher for the truth Meriamun believes him to be. She confesses to having left him in order to save his life (perhaps, she thought, the ecstatic pharaoh’s indecision about acting forcefully to save the country from invaders might be overcome if she were to leave his side—as a result, he might take action).
But even Nefertiti will never know the final truth about her husband and can only rely on a terse report that “the heretic” died alone, of illness, even though he may have been murdered. All the testimonies are therefore shimmeringly ambiguous, without confirmation, except that everyone who has encountered him thinks that Akhenaten felt his faith and could neither completely convey it to others nor make it survive his own reign. Yet otherwise all the testimony, including his own, is a misrepresentation of some sort, as if with each transmission and declaration the truth recedes at the same time that the Pharaoh’s power diminishes. The more his passion claims him, the less powerful a ruler he becomes, and the conviction he tries to convey grows more esoteric. Locked up within himself, elusive—in human terms it comes more and more to resemble death.
A few common views emerge from the various narratives given to Meriamun by such personages as Tiye, Akhenaten’s powerful Nubian mother, who is said to be his lover; Ay, Nefertiti’s father; Toto, the chief epistler; Meri-Ra, the high priest of Akhenaten’s One and Only God; and Maho, chief of police for Akhenaten. Most impressive for all of them is Akhenaten’s total conviction in his invisible and silent god. He is adamantly unwilling to allow the other, traditional gods any place in Egypt. These beliefs are given lyrical utterance in the various ecstatic hymns he is reported as singing to his increasingly personal, as well as distant, god.
Another is his absolute dedication to peace, his refusal to use force or violence, his desire to irradiate his kingdom with love. Mahfouz gives no indication at all that he approves of Akhenaten’s incompetence as a ruler and, in fact, to judge the Pharaoh from Mahfouz’s other works, he seems to feel not only no evident compassion but a tinge of scorn along with the admiration he has for Akhenaten’s religious fervor. Still another motif is the mild Pharaoh’s absolute disregard for worldly symbols and authority; this will finally cost him the support of his friend Haremhab, a great military man who late in Akhenaten’s reign takes his power away from him.
What clearly concerns Mahfouz, however, is that there is a radical irreconcilability between Akhenaten’s generous and strict beliefs and the maintenance of Egypt’s coherence as a state and as an idea while he is its ruler. The trouble is that Akhenaten allows no compromises at all, and refuses to have anything to do with politics. So is he a saint or, in fact, a dangerous man, a man willing to sacrifice the good of his country (e.g., by refusing to defend its borders) for his beliefs?
The novel allows no completely satisfying answer except to underline and deepen the dilemma, in the process removing it from the realm of epistemology to that of “worldly” history. (The word for “this world” as opposed to the “other world” recurs frequently in the Arabic: al-dunia.) Mahfouz suggests that the best and most elevated ideas can never override the animosities and rivalries, the vested interests of history, not because noble ideas are not powerful enough, but because there isn’t uncomplicated, unpeopled time enough to let those ideas work their redemptive or healing power. The other problem is that al-dunia requires some sort of centralized order to keep it from the whirling disorder Mahfouz sometimes elicits in his later stories and novels, for which he often blames the intelligentsia.
A group of novels set in the period from 1967 to the mid-1980s depicts such a situation, notably Tharthara fawq al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile) and Taht al-Mazalla (Under the Shelter). The former is about some friends who have gathered on a Nile houseboat around Anis Zaki, a government clerk who has lost his wife and daughter. Like him, his friends live in a world of narcotic intoxication and wordy frustration; they are involved in a car accident in which a peasant is killed but no one has the courage to report it. The spirit of Under the Shelter, a set of six stories and five plays, is best described as expressionist. The title story depicts people standing aimlessly under a bus shelter, passively watching all sorts of bizarre occurrences (orgies, heads rolling in the dust, car accidents, etc.) with no central theme or purpose.
So Mahfouz’s Egypt is a charged one, strikingly vivid for the accuracy and humor with which he portrays it, in a mode that is neither completely taken with great heroes nor able to do without some dream of total harmony of the kind Akhenaten so desperately strives to keep but cannot sustain. Without a powerful controlling center, Egypt can easily dissolve into anarchy or an absurd, gratuitous tyranny based either on religious dogma or on a personal dictatorship.
Mahfouz is now eighty-nine years old, nearly blind, and, after he was physically assaulted by religious fanatics in 1994 because of his moderate position on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, is said to be a recluse. What is both remarkable and poignant about him is how, given the largeness of his vision and his work, he still seems to guard his nineteenth-century liberal belief in a decent, humane society for Egypt even though the evidence he keeps dredging up and writing about in contemporary life and in history continues to refute that belief. The irony is that, more than anyone else, he has dramatized in his work the almost cosmic antagonism that he sees Egypt as embodying between majestic absolutes on the one hand and, on the other, the gnawing at and wearing down of these absolutes by people, history, society. These opposites he never really reconciles. Yet as a citizen Mahfouz sees civility and the continuity of a transnational, abiding, Egyptian personality in his work as perhaps surviving the debilitating processes of conflict and historical degeneration which he, more than anyone else I have read, has so powerfully depicted.
November 30, 2000
“Fabulous Fabulist,” The New York Review, September 22, 1994. ↩
Elias Khoury, “Mahfouz: The First Arab,” in Mawaqif, Vol. 57 (Winter 1989). ↩
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. ↩
See Max Rodenbeck’s article on this subject, “Witch Hunt in Egypt,” The New York Review, November 16, 2000, and Sabry Hafez, “The Novel, Politics and Islam,” New Left Review, Vol. 5, Second Series (September-October 2000), pp. 117-141. ↩
“Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen,” November 14, 1999-February 6, 2000. ↩
Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King (St. Martin’s, 2000). ↩