Memories of Mahfouz

Recollections of some personal encounters with Naguib Mahfouz, one of the greatest modern Arabic writers, who paid a high price for supporting peace with Israel.

Sasson Somekh
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Sasson Somekh

I spent many hours with Naguib Mahfouz between 1980 and 2006, the year he died. We often met at his apartment, on the first floor of a building on Al-Nil Street, in Cairo's Agouza district, right on the banks of the Nile he so dearly loved. That's where I got to know his family - his wife Atiyattullah and his two daughters, Umm Kulthum and Fatima.

In the summer of 1982, my wife, our daughters Ayelet and Avigal and I were in Cairo getting ready to leave for Luxor in southern Egypt when we received a personal invitation from Mahfouz and his wife to drop by. We had a few hours before our night train was due to depart, so we took our suitcases and went to their home. Thus we passed our few spare hours in a warm, wonderful atmosphere. His daughters spoke English and quickly became friends with our daughters, delighting all of us. A memory that is still etched in my heart to this day.

Naguib Mahfouz.

Mahfouz and I frequently met at cafes, in addition to our weekly Thursday meetings in his office on the fifth floor ("the writers' floor" ) of the Al-Ahram newspaper building in downtown Cairo. If I flew in from Tel Aviv early on a Thursday, I would go straight there from the airport. He shared his small office with a few others, including the writer Bint al-Shati, but on Thursdays the room was his alone.

Around 1985 I arrived one day at noon to find Mahfouz's door closed and lots of young-sounding voices coming from inside. When I got closer, I heard the voices were of Hebrew speakers. I knocked and went in, and found about 20 young Israelis, holding copies of Mahfouz's novels in Hebrew translation. They were wearing sandals and sitting relaxedly on the floor. As soon as Mahfouz saw me, he explained that they were students from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who had studied his works in translation the previous semester, and they had come to ask the author questions about his plots and protagonists. In fact, he said, the literary text is not the author's sole property, and any interpretation given to it by readers is legitimate. And besides, he added with a broad grin, I'm pleased to get to meet young Israelis, and from the city of the patriarch Abraham to boot.

In 1988, Mahfouz moved into the spacious office in that building that had been occupied by the veteran writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, who died the previous year. But he refused to sit at the desk of the renowned playwright, whom he had considered a mentor.

Most of our meetings in the 1980s and early 1990s took place, however, in the various picturesque local cafes that he regularly frequented. They included the Ali Baba Cafe in Tahrir Square, Cleopatra Cafe on the banks of the Nile, Cafe Riche and Groppi's in Talaat Harb Square, the lobby of Shepheard Hotel and more.

Sometimes I would come to the cafe knowing I would find the writer there, and then I'd see him with other friends. So I mostly tried to come either at times that we had scheduled to meet or when I knew I would find him alone, such as in the early morning hours.

When I'd arrive at the cafe, I'd spot him from afar sipping coffee or perusing the morning paper. When he saw me, he would stand up to greet me (I believe he did this whenever anyone came to see him ). And so we would spend a few relaxed hours talking without anyone disturbing us. Once or twice I tried to record our conversations, but I quickly saw that the machine only hindered the natural flow of our encounter; in addition, Mahfouz was a bit hard of hearing and I always had to raise my voice so he could hear me. After he heard my question, he would respond, invariably with a little joke followed by his infectious laughter, and then proceed to answer me in wondrously articulate sentences.

After he received the Nobel Prize in 1988, Mahfouz was so inundated with interview requests that Al-Ahram appointed him a personal secretary and someone to reply to all his mail. When I was head of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, between 1995 and 1998, I kept away from the places he frequented, so that no one would accuse him of contact with "an Israeli agent." Still, I went to the Sunday get-togethers at Shepheard Hotel, where the lobby was filled with young and not-so-young people eager to speak with and listen to him. I would try to enter and leave these encounters without arousing any particular notice, but he would inevitably rise to greet me and immediately ask why I was visiting so infrequently.

We talked a lot about his literary works. As it happened, the 1980s, when most of our discussions took place, were a very prolific period for him: During this decade, Mahfouz published eight novels and four story collections, including lengthy tales full of intriguing plot elements. Often when I came to see him, he would present me with his latest books, inscribed with a dedication that never failed to move me.

A few of his longer short stories (which are like novellas ) address the daily hardships of ordinary people in Egypt following Anwar Sadat's infitah (policy of capitalist-style economic openness ), in contrast to the socialist policy of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In these stories, the quickly accruing wealth of bankers, importers and "free market" leaders is juxtaposed against the deepening privation that became the lot of salaried workers, especially civil servants - the protagonists of many Naguib Mahfouz novels - along with the young university graduates who had difficulty finding decent employment. Government policy mandated that these graduates would be employed in the various government ministries and companies, even if they didn't need more workers. Thus many ended up working in fictitious jobs and were not even given a desk to sit at. They were forced to quietly leave the office for most of the workday and wandered the streets of Cairo in enervating idleness.

One time we became engrossed in a discussion of a story called "Love on the Pyramids Plateau." It's about a fellow who worked at one of these fictitious jobs in a government office, where he met a young, attractive and intelligent woman who also had no real job. Very soon the two were leaving their offices and meeting at a nearby cafe. They fell in love but did not consummate their relationship. At some point, they decided to marry, but were stymied by skyrocketing housing prices, which were then at a peak. Their families lived in modest apartments and neither had room to take in the new couple.

Therefore, both pairs of parents opposed the marriage, particularly the young woman's parents, who pressured her to break off the engagement. At this point, the young man resolved to marry his beloved without letting any of the parents know. After some hesitation, his girlfriend acquiesced. After the marriage ceremony, the two continued meeting in cafes. In order to fulfill their marital obligations, they would periodically rent a cheap hotel room, until the young woman finally got fed up and refused to continue in this way.

The story ends with the couple driving to the Great Pyramids to make love there, as many young couples do. As soon as they find a suitable spot, they are startled by a policeman, who demands a bribe. The man pays him and jokes to his frightened wife: "It's still cheaper than a hotel."

Again and again I was surprised when I read his new works. It was sometimes hard for me to see some of them as part of Mahfouz's oeuvre. One such book was the novel "The Day the Leader was Killed" (1984 ), which depicts young, alienated Cairenes rejoicing at the news of Sadat's assassination on October 6, 1981. Some of the novel's reviewers understood quite well that these cries of joy absolutely did not reflect the feelings of Mahfouz himself, who was among the most ardent supporters of Sadat's peace initiative. But a Cairo theater mounted a stage adaptation of the novel entitled "Cairo '80" - and it provided no trace of the author's true stance; in it, the young revelers are deliberately portrayed as speaking on his behalf. I saw the performance and told him about it. To my astonishment, he did not express regret or criticism, but just repeated something he had told me before: "As soon as I submit a book to the printer, my involvement ends, and what others do with the text afterward is their business, not mine."

I asked him if he was sorry that his intentions and ideas had been distorted by people who disagree with him. He smiled gently, in a way I still vividly remember, like a kind-hearted teacher facing an argumentative pupil, and repeated word for word his principle of the author's liberation from responsibility for the text once it is published.

Another subject that regularly came up in our talks was Israel. Mahfouz was very keen to hear about this because, like many of his countrymen, he had no real familiarity with our country and its way of life. He knew about the revival of the Hebrew language and its transformation from a literary and bilical language to a spoken language, but he had trouble grasping this. For the Hebrew language was a language of prayer, wholly separate from the language of mundane daily actions, he would say. How can you Israelis possibly live a full linguistic life by means of this language? Hadn't the waves of immigration to Israel since the state's founding undermined Hebrew's hold on the population? And were the new immigrants truly managing to integrate into the Israeli linguistic landscape?

I sometimes brought him Arabic and English translations of Hebrew literature. One time, I gave him an Arabic version of a collection of works by S.Y. Agnon, including stories like "And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight" and "Tehila." He eagerly read the stories and told me that he found them unique and positive. (This was so unlike certain Egyptian critics who scorned Agnon without ever having read his works. When Agnon received the Nobel Prize in 1966, they generally attributed the award to nothing more than "Zionist influence." )

A.B. Yehoshua's book "The Lover" was published in Arabic translation in Israel in 1980. I brought Mahfouz a copy as soon as it came out. He read the book quickly and at our next meeting we talked about it at length. He was captivated by the character of Na'im, the Arab mechanic, and asked if it were really possible for an Arab man and Jewish woman to be intimate and if we were really that "permissive." His question was based on a comparison with his own societal norms, it was not some sort of crude denunciation.

Between 1981 and 1987, Sami Michael translated Mahfouz's "Cairo Trilogy" into Hebrew. I brought each volume to him as soon as it was published by Sifriat Hapoalim. I later discovered that the three Hebrew volumes were prominently placed near his desk at home. Curious, I asked him why - since he didn't read Hebrew, after all. He replied simply: It has symbolic value and I get pleasure every time I look at these volumes. He knew that Michael was a close friend of mine and that he was also a novelist.

Unfortunately, Michael's works have yet to be translated into Arabic. Mahfouz later met Michael a few times, in Cairo and Alexandria, and they struck up an immediate friendship filled with humorous exchanges in eloquent Arabic.

Of course, many of our discussions revolved around Arabic literature, especially modern Egyptian literature. I myself had written extensively not only about Mahfouz, but also about his contemporary Yusuf Idris (1926-1991 ), but I was apprehensive about talking with Mahfouz about him. Idris and Mahfouz were not exactly friends, even though they had had adjacent offices on the writers' floor of the Al-Ahram building. Although Idris never seemed pleased that people identified him with Mahfouz, neither ever spoke ill of the other to me. When Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize, Idris was furious and went on a tirade against Mahfouz, claiming that he, Idris, had been "promised" the prize, but that it was given to Mahfouz instead due to last-minute Jewish and Zionist interference.

The renowned playwright and storyteller Tawfiq al-Hakim was often present at my meetings with Mahfouz at the Al-Ahram building. Every time he saw me sitting with Mahfouz, he would invite us over to his spacious office on the writers' floor. From the early 1930s, Al-Hakim was considered one of the greatest modern Arab writers. In the 1970s he supported Sadat's peace initiative, and when the peace agreement was signed, he boasted widely that his book "Diary of a Country Prosecutor" had been translated into English back in 1947 by none other than Abba Eban, Israel's foreign minister. Al-Hakim's attitude toward Mahfouz was paternal and somewhat patronizing, like that of a founding father toward his successor. Mahfouz warmly accepted this treatment; of course ultimately he won the Nobel Prize and not Al-Hakim.

Another Egyptian writer whose name frequently came up in our talks was Hussein Fawzi, a key intellectual in modern Egypt, a scientist and esteemed writer. Fawzi also had an office on the writers' floor, and he would sometimes join us as we sat with Al-Hakim. Fawzi was the first intellectual to visit Israel after the signing of the peace agreement in 1979 and was even awarded an honorary doctorate by Tel Aviv University. At these meetings in Cairo he would tell the two writers, his very good friends, about what he had seen in Israel, and you could just see the envy in their eyes upon hearing about the Sinbadian wonders (most of Fawzi's books had the name Sinbad in their titles, and the author himself was a highly regarded marine biologist who often wrote about his scientific expeditions in the Indian Ocean ).

Other writers would occasionally pop in on our discussions in Mahfouz's office, and sometimes sit down and join our little group. I will mention just one: Louis Awad (1915-1990 ). Awad was a highly regarded Coptic intellectual, who suffered much discrimination for being Christian. The four writers I mentioned here were among his greatest admirers, and always staunchly defended him. After he was dismissed from the university, he worked for the literary section of Al-Ahram, but around 1980 he clashed with the newspaper's editors over a book he wrote about the Islamic activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who in the late 19th century sought to arouse Muslim solidarity in Egypt and Europe. Awad's research was rejected by the paper's editors because they thought he was too frivolous in his approach to Al-Afghani's Muslim faith.

Thunderstruck by their refusal to publish his book, Awad resigned from the newspaper and shut himself up in his house, where he wrote a book about the history of language in general, and about Arabic in particular. Fortune did not smile upon this book either, and when it was published, Awad was savagely criticized for supposedly focusing more on other languages instead of Arabic and ignoring the widespread Muslim belief that the language of the Koran is "the mother of languages," and the language in which Allah "brought down" the Koran to the world.

In the 1980s, after the Arab League declared a boycott of Mahfouz's works because of his support for peace with Israel, I often heard him rant about the boycotters' hypocrisy. When the Egyptian editions of his works were banned around the Arab world, resourceful publishers from Beirut printed pirate editions of them. Mahfouz did not receive any royalties all those years, and it especially upset him that the pirate editions were not proofread at all. From time to time, a friend would bring him one of the books printed in Beirut, and the writer's anger would boil over as soon as he spied the typos.

"This is how tens of thousands of readers will read me in the Arab world," he said, agitated. "This is how I will be quoted. They boycotted my work but created a literary monster in the form of my distorted writings. The greedy publishers are making a fortune, and all because of my political views."

Sasson Somekh is a scholar of Arabic literature and an Israel Prize laureate.



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