Writer and lecturer Danny Bernardi pays tribute to the man who invented the Arab Novel who died in 2006
A friend’s recently divorced mother introduced me to the novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. She’d just returned from a Shirley Valentine style sojourn to Egypt where she’d fallen for a waiter on a Nile cruise ship. I owe this Arab Lothario a debt because he kindly gifted his newly acquired girlfriend his only book – an English translation of The Beginning and the End, Mahfouz’s portrayal of a lower middle class Egyptian family confronted by material, moral and spiritual problems. The book was passed onto me as an after thought, solely on the basis that I am the grandson of an Egyptian Copt. Not being particularly interested in my heritage at that time, the novel lay gathering dust on my bedside table for a number of weeks until I picked it up as an antidote to insomnia. It didn’t work-I remained awake and absorbed in this tragic tale. I instantly recognised something eerily familiar in Mahfouz’s characters but to this day I am unable to put into words precisely what that was. The chapters in The Beginning and the End were precociously short and the prose poetic without being wordy but it was the scale of the story which impressed me most. At the time I knew nothing about the writer. It was only a decade or so later, with the advent of the internet, that I was able to discover more.
Naguib Mahfouz is, without a doubt, one of the foremost writers in modern Arabic literature. Born in 1911 in the al-Jamaliyya district of Cairo he studied philosophy at Cairo University, graduating in 1934 (he began an MA in philosophy which he abandoned, deciding instead to dedicate himself to writing). His first novel was published in 1939 and he subsequently wrote some 32 novels as well as thirteen collections of short stories and numerous essays and journalistic articles. This prodigious output alone is impressive but what is more remarkable is that he virtually single handedly invented the Arab novel form. In 1988 Mahfouz became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until retiring from the civil service at sixty, he wrote at night, in his spare time-unable, despite his critical successes, to rely on writing for a living.
It is difficult to describe to readers outside his native land just how popular Mahfouz’s novels are in the Arab world. In his characters and stories he succeeded in articulating the hopes and frustrations of a whole nation. Arab readers have routinely identified themselves with his work, much of which has been adapted for the cinema, theatre and television. Such popular appeal did not mean however that his writing avoided confronting the universal nature of the human condition and the prevalent social and political issues of the time.
Since the first English translation of the 1966 novel, Midaq Alley, Mahfouz’s work has also been widely read outside the Arab world. His death in August 2006 was the cause of national mourning in Egypt, and although it made a few of the obituary pages in Europe, it passed largely unnoticed in the Western world. It is therefore an ironic co-incidence that in October 2006 the BBC finally got around to broadcasting it’s first major adaptation of a Mahfouz novel – The Cairo Trilogy, a three-thousand page epic portraying life in middle-class Cairo between the world wars.
On occasions Mahfouz’s style is grand and poetic. Even his shorter novels are densely populated, providing a fascinating glimpse into the pre-occupations of contemporary Egyptian society; ranging from the British occupation through to the daily struggle to put food on the table. The spirit and stoicism of the Egyptians leaps from the page at every turn. What is less well known is that Mahfouz has been brave in being a socially committed writer with a deep concern for social injustice. This has not been easy in a country without a truly free press and with a curious kind of democracy which appears to severely restrict voter choice, resulting in the same old faces returning to the top table. In spite of this Mahfouz has managed to comment astutely upon the ills of his society and it’s government by employing skillfully subtle metaphor and analogy.
Reading the work of Naguib Mahfouz is a rewarding and enlightening experience as well as an entertaining glimpse into the Arab psyche. Shortly before his death another of his books came into my life. This time, Echoes of an Autobiography which comprises a series of short pieces about the key themes and events in the writer’s long life, including the attack inflicted upon him by a Muslim radical who injured the tendons in his writing hand. In spite of this Mahfouz managed to write until the end and his death came as the result of a fall during a midnight stroll.
Throughout his productive life he achieved much but perhaps it would be surprising for him to know how he succeeded in transporting the grandson an Egyptian doctor from the gloom and damp of the English mid-winter to the hot, dusty streets of Cairo with such evocatively brilliant prose.
I had little interest in my grandfather’s country until Mahfouz introduced me to it. When I made my first visit to Cairo in 2004 I felt The Nobel Laureate had achieved more than any expensive guide book could. He had introduced me to the city’s people as well as it’s sights and sounds. As I strolled around Cairo I was a stranger in a strange land but in spite of this I felt it was somewhere I had been before, somewhere I had known all my life and a place to which I would constantly return.