Naguib Mahfouz the Pyramid

Alawiyya Sobh

When I visited Cairo for the first time and entered the alleys of the of Al Husayn district and Khan Al Khalili, I was overwhelmed with familiarity for the place. It wasn’t a  feeling that I had been there once before, but rather as if I knew the details of its daily life. For many years, Naguib Mahfouz’s writings have been my guide to Egypt’s intimate places and formed, for me, burning memories of the streets of Cairo.

Naguib Mahfouz instilled these memories in me as he did in every Arab reader; his writings took us to Egypt before we ever went there. Reading him allows us to experience the Arab world without leaving our own home town. He provides us with the narrative taste of the individual in every part of the world. At the time, we knew our world through Western novels. We knew the West. We also knew that we did not know about the Arab world, its geography and its peoples. Naguib Mahfouz encouraged us to return to the Arab world through his novels. He returned us to our origins, from which we had fled, only to find ourselves trapped anew.

In the beginning of my teenage years, I was like everyone else: I wanted to burn through every stage in life, continuously wishing to reach faraway destinations. I used to think I knew what surrounded me and wished to run away from that which I knew, to run away to faraway places, attracted by their secrets and ambiguities. I matured, and went to Mahfouz, who helped me to establish an intimate familiarity between my place and my self. I felt that Mahfouz tied me to my mother and my origin, to the womb, more than any other author. I knew that I could not know anything about myself (How do we live? How do we die? And how do we love, hate, change – transform?) unless I read about the “here.” Mahfouz changed this, providing me with the ability to understand the disparities between things I once viewed as unified (essentially, to compare the East and the West). Before, I would only look at the world through the eyes of the West; now I could see both sides and their differences. Like the smell of fresh bread, Mahfouz’ novels attracted me to the sensory experience of “the first bite.”

Mahfouz created an undeniably vast well of narrative memory to which we are largely in debt. Denying this is like disowning one’s own parents. He was, for all of us, the generous father who embodied the pleasure and knowledge of the novel without betraying its reality or its literary legitimacy. In his novels, he restructured our world to reveal its ugliness -- hidden layers of reality. He excavated our society with an artistry deserving of the Nobel Prize. Mahfouz observed the course of social development in his society across a long period of time and was able to take care in building worlds of knowledge and science within his works. Despite writing a historical novel on the tumult around him, he was able to narrate the various stages of crisis his society went through, without conceiting to include himself in such a history. He pointed to marginalized characters, as if he were rewriting history and allowing us to live through it. His critical vision of society, from its corruption to patriarchal authority, advocated the liberation of women from oppression, making his discourse no less important than those of the pioneers for reform. However, Mahfouz’ narrative structure inspired many Arab novelists in subsequent decades to write their own narrow, personal stories. 

One could say that the inhabitants of Mahfouz’ great buildings (here, in Arabic, the words “structure” and “building” are interrelated) remain alive, active and content in the corners of his readers’ minds, breathing and thriving with life and struggles. These characters are archetypes that, in sum, represent the irreducible elements of Egyptian society and, in part, Arab societies in general. Mahfouz’ novels engaged all social classes. However, he placed a special importance on the petite bourgeoisie, introducing us to its origins, struggles, defeats, and victories, which make these novels a good history of this segment of society.

He created a great narrative style which etched itself into the history of the Arab novel, an art whose structure, form and existence were previously in constant debate. He was a pioneer who worked towards building a foundation and structure for the medium.

We love Naguib Mahfouz and acknowledge his mastery over the novel, even when we exceed him. It’s the tradition of the children to succeed their parents. Likewise, it’s the tradition of the creative to add, to improve, not just to imitate. Thus, this is how Naguib Mahfouz taught us when he lost his sight, when young people would meet with him weekly and read to him. Similarly, when we read Mahfouz’ new work, it has been read and re-written with the prescient eye of a loving father. From this reading we gain knowledge of the world and, from Mahfouz, a gift of perception more powerful than the naked eye. For everything is destined to end, save that which is produced by creativity. Naguib Mahfouz, a true Egyptian pyramid.

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala

The Arabic version of this article appeared in the Beirut-based An Nahar newspaper, August 31, 2006. The author has granted the exclusive right to Al Jadid to translate and publish this article.

This essay appears in Al Jadid,Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid