Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt and Naguib Mahfouz

Watching the courage and passion of the Egyptian people currently rising in the streets of Egypt, I've been wishing Naguib Mahfouz were still around and young enough to write about these events. Mahfouz, who died four years ago at the age of 95, was the first great Egyptian novelist and the first person writing in Arabic to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In the past, I've read hisPalace Walk, a long and thickly textured account of life in the old quarter of Cairo after World War I in the final years of British rule. Just a month ago, I read a collection of three of his more recent books, Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dog, and Miramar.

In Mahfouz's novels, the political background is very much part of the story, almost another protagonist, challenging or inspiring or humiliating the other characters. He writes about idealism, modernization, social change, and disillusionment, always through the point of view of complex characters who never quite live up to their own ideals. His alleys and coffee houses are places where human foibles are on display and people's motivations are a mixture of patriotism, ambition, spiritual yearning and the desire for a comfortable life. I would love to see him depict a professor marching in the street for the first time, a young girl going against her parents' wishes to Tahrir Square with male friends, a policeman engaging in looting, a Mubarak loyalist trying to figure out where duty and self-interest lie.

Deeply immersed in the characters and settings of Egypt, Mahfouz did not always live there easily. Even after he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, his novel Children of Gebalawi remained banned as blasphemous until 2006. Moved by the 1919 revolution that he witnessed as a child, disappointed by Nasser's revolution and skeptical of the social engineering that followed, Mahfouz was dismayed by the way the powerful continued to crush the poor. He favored the Camp David accords, which made him unpopular; he opposed the fatwa against Salman Rushdie even while condemning The Satanic Verses; he knew too much about how self-righteousness covers up the thirst for power to trust the Muslim Brotherhood.

Once issuing fatwas became fashionable, the blind sheikh Omar Abdul-Rathman issued one against Naguib Mahfouz for Children of Gebalawi. Despite police protection, the novelist was stabbed in the neck and nearly killed in 1994 at the age of 82. He survived, making it back to his favorite coffeehouse, but he wrote less; so perhaps the fanatics had achieved their goal.

One of the four main characters in Miramar is an elderly journalist returning to a boarding house he knew as a passionate, politically committed youth. Disillusioned by politics adn struggle, the journalist, Amir, has come back to this place to spend his last days. Courtly, reflective, talking too much about the past, Amir seems to me to stand in for Mahfouz himself. The servant at the boarding house is Zohra, a beautiful peasant girl who has fled her village to avoid an arranged marriage to an elderly man. Zohra, full of hope and eager to better herself, represents Egypt. She learns to read and she dreams of opportunity and freedom, but Amir watches in dismay as men who represent different social and political movements circle around around her seeking to impress, change, and exploit her.

I'd like to have Amir's kindly sensibility and his long view focused on the events sweeping Egypt today. I'd love to see which weighed more in his thoughts - the worry that this will all turn out badly once again, or a return to the hopes and aspirations of his youth.

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