The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Al Ustaz

I just got off the phone with Gamal Al Ghitany (a famous novelist, the editor of the literary magazine Akhbar Al Adab and a good friend of Mahfouz's for 40 years now). He says Al Ustaz is "better."

I met Mahfouz last Spring. I was invited to one of the "nadwas" he has with groups of friends and admirers in different hotels around town (he always used to meet his friends, regular as clockwork, in qahwas. After the 1994 stabbing attack that was no longer considered safe). Mahfouz came wrapped in a huge coat that he never took off. He's nearly blind and nearly deaf, and if you want to say something to him you have to yell into his left ear. It's clearly an effort for him to speak at any length. His hands (the 1994 attack severed nerves) sit curled like talons in his lap. He dozes off now and then if the conversation doesn't involve him. And yet he's still clearly in command of his faculties. He makes jokes and he loves it if other people do--he still has an incredibly sweet, deep laugh that seems to light up the room. Halfway throug the evening, he sipped one coffee and smoked one cigarette. A lot of the time I think he doesn't answer question not because he can't hear them but because he can't be bothered. He told me Shakespear and Proust were two of his favourite Western writers.

I'm a Mahfouz groupie. I think his novels are spectacular. Right now I'm reading a lovely book about him, actually by Gamal Al Ghitany, called "Al Magalis Al Mahfouzia"--it's notes on conversations with Mahfouz over 40 years. When I met him I noticed the overwhelming affection and loyalty that he inspires in his old friends (one of the men who was there, actually, was the same friend who drove Mahfouz to the hospital on the day he was stabbed, holding on hand on the wheel and one on Mahfouz bleeding neck). In his book, Al Ghitany talks about Mahfouz as the ultimate "ragil tayyeb" ("good man"), an embodiment of wisdom, humility and humour. I felt that when I met him--not to sound too romantic, but he seems to radiate the essential, traditional Egyptian qualities: honesty, patience, good cheer, and an unwillingness to take oneself and life too seriously.

Today is my last day in Cairo for a while. I'm going to NYU to do a Masters in Middle East Studies (expect posts on the world of Middle East academia soon). I hope very much to get a chance to see Mahfouz again when I get back.