Mahfouz Surveys 'Fertile Soil' of Future: Optimism Survives Literary, Bodily Blow

Al Jadid Staff

The immediate reaction to awarding Naguib Mahfouz the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 was mixed among some Arab intellectuals. Some attribute this to the tarnished image of the Nobel Committee, which earlier awarded the Peace Price to the Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin and to the Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat for their role in concluding the first peace treaty between the Jewish state and an Arab country. Neither winner enjoyed much sympathy among Arab intellectuals. Another reason for the lukewarm reaction is Mahfouz himself, who supported the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the Camp David Accords, thus earning him the wrath of many intellectuals.

But the resentment of Mahfouz began to subside, coinciding with the terrorist campaign waged by Egyptian fundamentalist groups against secular intellectuals and literary figures, including the stabbing of Mahfouz in 1994. Another factor driving the rehabilitation was the world-wide recognition Mahfouz achieved, with  his works translated into multitude of languages and being read far more by non-Arabs than by Arabs.

A decade has passed since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and with less than two years until the onset of the 21st Century, Mahfouz shared his thoughts on these key events through interviews with two Arabic publications: the first with the Lebanese daily An Nahar in 1997, conducted by Dalal Abu Ghazala; the second with the London-based Arabic weekly Al Wasat in 1998, conducted by Amani Muhammad. In both interviews, he discusses the novel in the 21st century, literary and artistic freedoms in the age of satellites and the internet, the role of women in his works, as well as terrorism, the future of children’s literature and science fiction and the topic of his next novel.

Naguib Mahfouz does not seem disturbed by the rapid technological change and the computerization of all facets of society at the global and the national level. Speaking with Al Wasat about the novel in the next century, he expects the visual drama – that shown on TV, films and the internet – to attract most people and predicts that it will be the “primary source of culture.” Mahfouz, however, fell short of writing an obituary of the printed word. “The written novel will have a base, a readership, but less than the visual one. There are intellectuals and artists who adhere to the printed word and refuse to relinquish it for film or TV.”  He acknowledges the existence of a segment that will have its intellectual needs satisfied by no other means than the printed word, but this group will be limited when compared with the consumers of the visual image and similar forms of media.

Mahfouz was reminded of a painful decision, when he ceased his request of the Egyptian government to publish his “Awlad Haritna” (Children of Gebelaawi). His decision, according to An Nahar, was the result of an agreement with the Egyptian government to avert angering Al Azhar, but he expressed his sadness and admitted that “Awlad Haritna” has hurt him very much.

Since what Mahfouz did qualifies as self-censorship, he was asked if conditions today are different, in that they might rule out the need for censorship. For Mahfouz, technology is about to invalidate the premise of that question. Technological developments, satellite dishes and the internet have made censorship ineffectual, especially when it comes to art. Speaking with Al Wasat, Mahfouz said that freedom must spread and dominate all over the world.  “The whole world is headed toward democracy. . . If the Arabs fail to develop intellectually, politically, economically and do not learn how to use media, they are on their way to perishing.”

In answering the charge that he is to blame for preventing the emergence of great Arab novelists, he denies responsibility and attributes the cause to the satellites and visual media, which are geared to a star system. To be a star becomes the “precondition to reach large audiences.”

The question on his favorite Arab nominee, a novelist or poet, for the Nobel Prize for literature, reveals more about the health of Mahfouz than about a candidate. Mahfouz declined to nominate anyone simply because for the last six years his weak sight has prevented him from reading or watching television and films, thus severing the only links between him and the sources of culture, according to An Nahar. “All my connection with the outside world is a man who reads for me Al Ahram newspaper on a daily basis, and we barely have the time to read articles. Thus there is a new generation of authors whom I do not know, and the few I do, I know through friends.”

In writing his novels, Mahfouz was influenced by different philosophical schools. Was there a particular philosophy that inspired his writing, asked An Nahar. “My philosophy is to show the Arab peculiarity,” he responded, adding that his novel draws on both national and world traditions, which make their way into his works.

Mahfouz rejects the categorization of being traditional, especially when compared with Toufic Al Hakim, another major figure in Egyptian and Arabic literature. Mahfouz acknowledged Al Hakim’s important and great achievements, especially his presentation of tradition through a modern method, as well as his introduction of world ideas and arts. Al Hakim, Mahfouz told An Nahar, is closer to the aristocratic class, particularly in his literature of theater, which is intellectually indebted to French literature. But at the same time, Mahfouz minimized the differences between him and Al Hakim, whom Mahfouz likes very much.

When asked why women seem to have disappeared from his works after making some presence in the past, Mahfouz had an answer that might surprise many students of gender in the Arab world: “This may be due to the development of society, the emergence of literate, cultured and working women,” he told An Nahar. This development, in Mahfouz’ opinion, “had caused a decrease in the number of women as ‘victims.’” Nowadays, “the woman-victim is not the most visible in the picture. I have embodied this in the novel ‘Baki Min al-Zaman Sat’ (One Hour Left of Time), in which I presented examples of very strong women.”

Mahfouz is no stranger to criticism, since some of it was deadly and nearly cost him his life. As expected, he welcomes criticism through intellectual discourse and rejects criticism that leads to violence. Though hurt by what Mahfouz calls “negative criticism,” he would not allow it to affect his work, according to An Nahar. Mahfouz considers criticism inevitable as long as he continues to write and publish.

As if testing his real attitude toward criticism, Abu Ghazala asked him about those who claim there are other Arab novelists more deserving of the Nobel prize for literature than he. His answer was simple: “No comment.”

His attitude toward fundamentalist critics and enemies reveals tolerance and appreciation of diversity in Egyptian and Arab society. Sayyed Qutub, an intellectual inspiration and father of several Muslim fundamentalist groups, was also a poet and critic, who at one time was an admirer of Mahfouz. Qutub positively reviewed Mahfouz’ “Khan al-Khalili” (Al-Khalili Hotel) in 1945, which Qutub described as “an Egyptian dish on the dining table of world literature,” at the same time that his disciples and followers tried to kill Mahfouz. When asked by An Nahar about how he feels toward Qutub, Mahfouz said it had taken 10 to 15 years of writing before anyone on that level reviewed his works. “Sayyed Qutub was the first professional critic to write about me,” he noted. Qutub’s criticism, Mahfouz said, had great impact and consoled him after a long silence by the literary community. “Qutub was a poet, story-teller and superb writer, but he moved from literature and modern civilization to writing fundamentalist books that had influenced the Islamic groups from whose ranks emerged the person who attempted to kill me. It is a paradox between the beginnings of Qutub, who was defending my novels, and the effects of his writings–which led to an attempt to end my life.”

Asked by Al Wasat if he had anything to say to those who incited violence against him and those who actually committed the violent acts, Mahfouz responded philosophically: “Yes, I call upon those to start a new life through work and culture and abandon the terrorist bloody behavior. Man dominates through his ideas and culture, not through his weapon.”

Despite much evidence to the contrary, optimism remains a distinguished feature of Mahfouz’ observations. On the  future of children’s literature, Mahfouz noted in Al Wasat the presence of several authors who make this genre their specialty, and said he expects the number to increase because the interest in the wellbeing of children in the next century will double the need for this literature, whether through reading or through audio-visual means.

Mahfouz was asked why Arab writers seem not to have caught up with the rest of world in producing science fiction literature. Mahfouz told Al Wasat he feels that this will change in the next century, citing scientific progress, especially in space exploration, as a great force which would attract Arab writers to this area.

What type of a project Mahfouz is working on and what will his next book be about? His answer may surprise some: “I would like to write a novel about the New World, specifically the social and economic changes that affect society as a result of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade),” Mahfouz told Al Wasat. “This agreement, I believe, will affect individuals and groups, and will produce changes that will serve as source of inspiration and fertile soil for creative experiments in the novel and story and others.”

This article appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 4, no. 23, Summer 1998).
Copyright (c) 1998 by Al Jadid