Naguib Mahfouz: an appreciation

On December 11 it was the centenary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth.  

Mahfouz was dragged into the news recently when Salafi parliamentary candidate (and reliable crackpot) Abdel-Moneim Shahat said the great novelist and Nobel Laureate “encouraged atheism and debauchery.”

Mahfouz nearly paid with his life for such views of his work. In 1994, a young religious fundamentalist approached him as he was getting into a car, pretended to want to shake his hand and instead slashed his throat.  He just barely missed the writer’s carotid artery. The man had never read Mahfouz’s novels but had been told his work Children of our Alley (also known as Childen of Gabalawy) was blasphemous. 

I read my first Mahfouz novel -- The Cairo Trilogy, of course -- when I first arrived in Cairo. It opened historical and literary vistas for me.

I met Mahfouz in 2005, about a year before he died, at a hotel on the Maadi Corniche where he held a weekly salon. It was a gathering of a few eccentric hangers-on and old, devoted friends. Mahfouz was nearly blind and his hearing was very poor. But he still liked to meet people and have a coffee and one single cigarette. He also like to laugh and make laugh -- I came away from that meeting with the distinct impression of a very cultivated sociability, that great Egyptian gift for savoring the moment.  

Mahfouz very graciously signed my copy of the Trilogy (with his claw-like hands, the result of nerve damage from the attack). I remember he asked me whether I agreed with his fundamentalist critics that Children of the Alley was “against religion.” Oh no, I assured him, I didn’t think that. He gave me a sharp, questioning smile that made me feel I’d failed some test. 

Mahfouz lived through two great political upheavals, the 1919 revolution against British rule and the 1952 Free Officer’s Coup. A government employee famous for his love of routine, he was not romantic or revolutionary by temperament -- he took the long view, juxtaposing small human losses against the great sweep of history, its ever-repeating cycles. 

The impact of Mahfouz’s work cannot be overstated. He was an extraordinary writer. And as Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury once said, Mahfouz almost single-handedly gave Arabic literature every form of the 20th century novel, bestowing a modern literary heritage on the novelists that followed him and freeing them to experiment. 

Besides Mahfouz’ many novels, I highly recommend Gamal El-Ghitany’s Magalis Mahfouzia, from Dar El-Shorouk, a lovely and loving collection of anecdotes from a good friend and fellow writer.