(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, September 5, 2006)
Naguib Mahfouz, who died last week at the age of 94, would have found much to satirise at his own funeral. Reuters reported that Egypt’s most acclaimed author was given full state honours—his coffin was draped in a flag, borne in a horse-drawn carriage past a military guard of honour while the President and Prime Minister paid their last respects.
But the ordinary people whose lives Mahfouz had documented in works like The Cairo Trilogy were excluded from the funeral for reasons of security. The report quoted Amal, one of Mahfouz’s many loyal readers: “He doesn’t want a state funeral… Did he write for the flag? Did he write for the horses? He wrote for the poor. We should walk in his funeral.”
All through his life, the people of Egypt and the state made their distinct claims on Mahfouz. The state often won, initially; the people always won, in the end. He worked for most of his life as a bureaucrat. Ironically, one of the key posts held by the man credited with helping Arab authors to speak and write freely was Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art. His criticism of the Nasser government was veiled in allegories and fables; yet he could be outspoken, making no secret of his sympathy for Palestine or his distaste for those Islamists who suppressed women’s rights and free thought.
Mahfouz’s career would have been startlingly different if he had stuck to his original ideals as a writer. His early novels uncovered the history of Egypt and the medieval Arab world layer by layer—he planned a series of 40 novels in this vein that would pay homage to the rich heritage he shared with his people.
As one of his critics commented, the present had a way of breaking into the past, and the more Mahfouz delved into Egypt’s ancient history, the more the contemporary reality he saw before him demanded its own set of stories. His massive work, The Cairo Trilogy , written over a 12-year period, is a vivid rendering of life in the ordinary neighbourhoods of Cairo—each book is named after a different locality. It towers over the rest of his work, perhaps unfairly.
He was often found at the Qasr-al-Nisa café, enjoying the often heated conversations between the young writers of the time. And he was most at home, as our prime minister Manmohan Singh discovered when he met Mahfouz some years ago, walking the streets of Cairo—he refused to buy a car, preferring to know his city at a more intimate level.
When he received the Nobel Prize in 1988, Mahfouz said in his speech that he realised he was unknown to the Western world: “I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one.” This sense of belonging allowed him to feel free to criticise religion and Islam, which he did most notably in the 1959 Children of the Alley , where God and the Prophet featured as characters, and Mahfouz aired his scepticism about organised religion.
In 1989, after Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses came out, a fundamentalist declared: “Had we killed Naguib Mahfouz , Salman Rushdie would not have appeared.” Mahfouz, quite bravely, spoke out against Khomeini’s brand of intellectual terrorism. He also made it clear that while he upheld Rushdie’s right to his opinions, he did not support Rushdie’s views on Islam. It was an unusually nuanced position in a period of implacable certainties. Mahfouz suffered for his views: in 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by a young fundamentalist.
The attack severed the nerve that controlled his writer’s hand, and since he wrote only in longhand, it would take till 1999 before he could write again. He bore this with patience; for nine decades, an eye problem had forced him to stop writing every summer: “Each year I must live for three months as a man who is not a writer.” Now the man who defined himself as a writer first had to accept a much longer silence. Once he was able he returned to writing, without much fuss.
Many will remember Mahfouz by his novels of the city, some will turn to his historical work, and a few to his allegories. The finest epitaph for him might be what he said to The Paris Review in an interview: “At my age it is unseemly to be pessimistic. When you are young you can declare there is no hope for mankind, but when you are older, you learn to avoid encouraging people to hate the world.”