Naguib Mahfouz’s achievement as the greatest living Arab novelist and first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize has in small but significant measure now retrospectively vindicated his unmatched regional reputation, and belatedly given him recognition in the West. For of all the major literatures and languages, Arabic is by far the least known and the most grudgingly regarded by Europeans and Americans, a huge irony given that all Arabs regard the immense literary and cultural worth of their language as one of their principal contributions to the world. Arabic is of course the language of the Koran, and is therefore central to Islam, in which it has a hieratic, historical and everyday use that is almost without parallel in other world cultures. Because of that role, and because it has always been associated with resistance to the imperialist incursions that have characterised Arab history since the late 18th century, Arabic has also acquired a uniquely contested position in modern culture, defended and extolled by its native speakers and writers, belittled, attacked or ignored by foreigners for whom it has represented a last defended bastion of Arabism and Islam.

During the 130 years of French colonialism in Algeria, for example, Arabic was effectively proscribed as a quotidian language: to a lesser degree, the same was roughly true in Tunisia and Morocco, in which an uneasy bilingualism arose because the French language was politically imposed on the native Arabs. Elsewhere in the Arab mashriq Arabic became the focus of hopes for reform and renaissance. As Benedict Anderson has shown, the spread of literacy has spurred the rise of modern nationalism, in the midst of which narrative prose fiction played a crucial role in creating a national consciousness. By providing readers not only with a sense of their common past – for example, in the historical romances of the early 20th-century novelist and historian Jurji Zaydan – but also with a sense of an abiding communal continuity, Arabic novelists stood squarely wherever issues of destiny, society and direction were being debated or investigated.

We should not forget, however, that the novel as it is known in the West is a relatively new form in the rich Arabic literary tradition. And along with that we should keep in mind that the Arabic novel is an engaged form, involved through its readers and authors in the great social and historical upheavals of our century, sharing in its triumphs as well as its failures. Thus, to return to Mahfouz, his work from the late Thirties on compresses the history of the European novel into a relatively short span of time. He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romains.

Surrounded therefore by politics, and to a very great degree caught up in the contests of the native as well as the international environment, the Arabic novel is truly an embattled form. Mahfouz’s allegorical trilogy, Awlad Haritna (1959), takes on Islam, and was banned in Egypt when it was about to be published. His earlier Cairo Trilogy (1956-7) traversed the phases of Egyptian nationalism, culminating in the 1952 Revolution, and did so critically and yet intimately as a participant in the remaking of Egyptian society. Miramar (1967), his Rashomon-style novel about Alexandria, puts a sour face on Nasser’s socialism, its abuses, anomalies and human cost. During the late Sixties, his short stories and novels addressed the aftermath of the 1967 war, sympathetically in the case of an emergent Palestinian resistance, critically in the case of the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen. Mahfouz was the most celebrated writer and cultural figure to greet the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, and although his books were banned in Arab countries for a time after that, his reputation as a great writer was too well established to be diminished for long. Even in Egypt the position he took was apparently unpopular, yet he has not only survived the temporary opprobrium but has emerged (if anything) more august and admired.

Mahfouz’s career is of course distinguished in the Arab world not only because of the extraordinary length of his writing life, but because his work is so thoroughly Egyptian (and Cairene), based as it is on a territorial and imaginative vision of a society unique in the Middle East. The thing about Mahfouz is that he has always been able to depend on the vital integrity and even cultural compactness of Egypt. For all its tremendous age, the variety of its components and the influences on it – the merest listing of these is inhibitingly impressive: Pharaonic, Arab, Muslim, Hellenistic, European, Christian, Judaic etc – the country has a stability and identity which have not disappeared in this century. Or, to put it differently, the Arabic novel has flourished especially well in 20th-century Egypt because throughout all the turbulence of the country’s wars, revolutions and social upheavals, civil society was never eclipsed, its identity was never in doubt, was never completely absorbed into the state. Novelists like Mahfouz had it always there for them, and accordingly developed an abiding institutional connection with the society through their fiction.

Moreover the main historical and geographical features of the Cairo mapped by Mahfouz have been handed down to the generation of writers who came to maturity in the post-1952 period. Gamal al-Ghitani is like Mahfouz, in that several of his works – for example, his recently translated Zayni Barakat* – are set in districts like Gamaliyia, which is where Mahfouz’s realistic novel, Midaq Alley, is also set. Ghitani considers himself one of Mahfouz’s heirs, and the overlap in setting and treatment confirms the generational relationship between the older and the younger man, made more explicit through the city of Cairo and Egyptian identity. For later generations of Egyptian writers Mahfouz offers the assurance of a point of departure.

Yet Mahfouz as, so to speak, patron and progenitor of subsequent Egyptian fiction is not by any means a provincial writer, nor simply a local influence. Here another discrepancy is worth noting. Because of its size and power, Egypt has always been a locus of Arab ideas and movements; in addition, Cairo has functioned as a distribution centre for print publishing, films, radio and television. Arabs in Morocco, on the one hand, Iraq, on the other, who may have very little in common, are likely to have had a lifetime of watching Egyptian films (or television serials) to connect them. Similarly, modern Arabic literature has spread out from Cairo since the beginning of the century; for years Mahfouz was a resident writer at al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily paper. Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.

What I have sketched so schematically is something of the background assumed when a contemporary, non-Egyptian writer of substantial gifts wishes to write fiction in Arabic. To speak of an ‘anxiety of influence’, so far as the precedence of Mahfouz, Egypt and Europe (which is where, in effect, the Arabic novel before Mahfouz came from) is concerned, is to speak of something socially and politically actual. Anxiety is at work not only in determining what was possible for a Mahfouz in a fundamentally settled and integrated society such as Egypt, but also in determining what, in a fractured, decentred and openly insurrectionary place, is maddeningly, frustratingly not possible. In some Arab countries you cannot leave your house and suppose that when and if you return it will be as you left it. You can no longer take for granted that such places as hospitals, schools and government buildings will function as they do elsewhere, or if they do for a while, that they will continue to do so next week. Nor can you be certain that birth, marriage and death – recorded, certified and registered in all societies – will in fact be noted or in any way commemorated. Rather, most aspects of life are negotiable, not just with money and social intercourse, but also with guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The extreme cases in which such eventualities are daily occurrences are Palestine and Lebanon, the first of which simply stopped existing in 1948, and was reborn on 15 November 1988, the second a country that began its public self-destruction in April 1975, and has not stopped. In both polities there are and have been people whose national identity is threatened with extinction (the former) or with daily dissolution (the latter). In such societies the novel is both a risky and a highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political, and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies (Egypt’s, for instance) is only replicable by Palestinian and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. And above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic.

Take first two Palestinian novelists, Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi. Kanafani’s seems at first sight the more conventional mode, Habibi’s the wildly experimental. Yet in Rijal fil Shams (Men in the Sun, 1963), Kanafani’s story of Palestinian loss and death is undermined as a narrative by the novel’s peculiarly disintegrating prose, in which within a group of two or three sentences time and place are in such an unrelenting state of flux that the reader is never absolutely certain where and when the story is taking place. In his most complex long narrative Ma Tabaqqa Lakum (What is left for you, 1966), this technique is taken to such an extreme that even in one short paragraph multiple narrators speak without, so far as the reader is concerned, adequate markers, distinctions, delimitations. And yet so pronounced is the unhappy lot of the Palestinian characters depicted by Kanafani that a kind of aesthetic clarification is achieved when story, character and fate come jarringly together. In the earlier work, three refugees are asphyxiated in a tanker-truck on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border; in the later novel, Mariam stabs her abusive and bigamous husband while her brother Hamid faces an Israeli in a mortal encounter.

Habibi’s Pessoptimist (1974) is a carnivalesque explosion of parody and theatrical farce, continuously surprising, shocking, unpredictable. It makes no concessions at all to any of the standard fictional conventions. Its main character (whose name jams together Pessimism and Optimism) is an amalgam of elements from Aesop, al-Hariri, Kafka, Dumas and Walt Disney, its action a combination of low political farce, Science Fiction, adventure and Biblical prophecy, all of it anchored in the restless dialectic of Habibi’s semi-colloquial, semi-classical prose. Whereas Kanafani’s occasional, but affecting melodramatic touches put him within reach of Mahfouz’s novels in their disciplined and situated action, Habibi’s world is Rabelais and even Joyce to the Egyptian’s Balzac and Galsworthy. It is as if the Palestinian situation, now in its fifth decade without definitive resolution, produces a wildly erratic and freewheeling version of the picaresque novel, which, in its flaunting of its carelessness and spite, is in Arabic prose fiction about as far as one can get from Mahfouz’s stateliness.

Lebanon, the other eccentric and resistant society, has been rendered most typically, not in novels or even stories, but in far more ephemeral forms – journalism, popular songs, cabaret, parody, essays. The Civil War, which officially began in April 1975, has been so powerful in its disintegrating effects that readers of Lebanese writing need an occasional reminder that this, after all, is (or was) an Arabic country, whose language and heritage have a great deal in common with those of writers like Mahfouz. Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.

Thus at the other limit from Mahfouz is the politically committed and, in his own highly mobile modes, brilliant figure of Elias Khoury, whose earliest important work of fiction, The Little Mountain (1977), now appears in English for the first time. Khoury is a mass of paradoxes, especially when compared with other Arab novelists of his generation. Like Ghitani, he is, and has been for at least twelve years, a practising journalist. Unlike Ghitani – whose gifts for invention and verbal bravura he shares – Khoury has been a political militant from his early days, having grown up as a Sixties schoolboy in the turbulent world of Lebanese and Palestinian street politics. Some of the city and mountain fighting of the early days (autumn 1975 and winter 1976) of the Lebanese Civil War described in The Little Mountain is based on these experiences. Also unlike Ghitani, Khoury is a publishing-house editor, having worked for a leading Beirut publisher for a decade, during which he established an impressive list of Arabic translations of major Post-Modern Third World classics (Fuentes, Marquez, Asturias).

In addition, Khoury is a highly perceptive critic, associated with the avant-garde poet Adonis, and his Beirut quarterly Mawaqif. Between them, the members of the Mawaqif group were responsible during the Seventies for some of the most searching investigations of modernity and Modernism. It is out of this work, along with his engaged journalism – almost alone among Christian Lebanese writers, he espoused, from the heart of West Beirut and at great personal risk, the cause of resistance to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon – that Khoury has forged (in the Joycean sense) a national and novel, unconventional, Post-Modern literary career.

This is in stark contrast to Mahfouz, whose Flaubertian dedication to letters has followed a more or less Modernist trajectory. Khoury’s ideas about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanon, in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable. For him perhaps the most symptomatic and also the finest strand of modern Arabic writing derives, not from the stable and highly replicable forms either native to the Arabic tradition (the qasidah) or imported from the West (the novel), but from those works he calls formless – Tawfik al-Hakim’s Diaries of a Country Lawyer, Taha Hussein’s Stream of Days, Gibran’s and Nuaimah’s writings. These works, Khoury says, are profoundly attractive and have in fact created the ‘new’ Arabic writing which cannot be found in the more traditional fictions produced by conventional novelists. What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called ‘Post-Modern’: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.

The Little Mountain replicates in its own special brand of formlessness some of Khoury’s life: his early years in Ashrafiya (Christian East Beirut, known as the Little Mountain), his exile from it for having taken a stand with the nationalist (Muslim and Palestinian) coalition, subsequent military campaigns during the latter part of 1975 – in downtown Beirut and the eastern mountains of Lebanon – and finally an exilic encounter with a friend in Paris. The work’s five chapters thus exfoliate outward from the family house in Ashrafiya, to which neither Khoury nor the narrator can return, given the irreversible dynamics of the Lebanese Civil Wars, and when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite. For indeed Khoury’s prescience in this work of 1977 was to have seen a worsening of the situation, in which Lebanon’s modern(ist) history was terminated, and from which a string of almost unimaginable disasters (the massacres, the Syrian and Israeli interventions, the current political impasse with partition already in place) has followed.

Style in The Little Mountain is, first of all, repetition, as if the narrator needed this in order to prove to himself that improbable things actually did take place. Repetition is also, as the narrator says, the search for order – to go over matters sufficiently to find, if possible, the underlying pattern, the rules and protocols according to which a civil war, the most dreadful of all social calamities, was being fought. Repetition permits lyricism, those metaphorical flights by which the sheer horror of what takes place –

Ever since the Mongols ... we’ve been dying like flies. Dying without thinking. Dying of disease, of bilharzia, of the plague ... Without any consciousness, without dignity, without anything –

is swiftly seen and recorded, and then falls back into anonymity.

Style for Khoury is also comedy and irreverence. For how else is one to apprehend those religious verities for which one fights – the truth of Christianity, for instance – if churches are also soldiers’ camps, and if priests, like the French Father Marcel in Chapter Two of The Little Mountain, are garrulous and inebriated racists? Khoury’s picaresque ramblings through the Lebanese landscapes offered by civil combat reveal areas of uncertainty and perturbation unthought of before, whether in the tranquillity of childhood or in the certainties provided by primordial sect, class or family. What emerges finally is not the well-shaped, studied forms sculpted by an artist of the mot juste (like Mahfouz), but a series of zones swept by half-articulated anxieties, memories, and unfinished action. Occasionally a preternatural clarity is afforded us, usually in the form of nihilistic aphorisms (‘the men of learning discovered that they too could loot’) or of beach scenes, but the disorientation is almost constant.

In Khoury’s writing we get an extraordinary sensation of informality. The story of an unravelling society is put before us as the narrator is forced to leave home, fights through the streets of Beirut and up mountains, experiences the death of comrades and of love, and ends up accosted by a disturbed veteran in the corridors and on the platform of the Paris Metro. The startling originality of The Little Mountain is its avoidance of the melodramatic and the conventional; Khoury plots episodes without illusion or foreseeable pattern, much as a suddenly released extraterrestrial prisoner might wander from place to place, backwards and forwards, taking things in through a surprisingly well-articulated earth-language which is always approximate and somehow embarrassing to him. Finally of course Khoury’s work embodies the actuality of Lebanon’s predicament, so unlike Egypt’s majestic stability as delivered in Mahfouz’s fiction. I suspect, however, that Khoury’s is actually a more typical version of reality, at least as far as the present course of the Middle East is concerned. Novels have always been tied to national states, but in the Arab world the modern state has been derived from the experience of colonialism, imposed from above and handed down, rather than earned through the travails of independence. It is no indictment of Mahfouz’s enormous achievement to say that of the opportunities offered the Arab writer during the 20th century his has been conventional in the honourable sense: he took the novel from Europe and fashioned it according to Egypt’s Muslim and Arab identity, quarrelling and arguing with the Egyptian state, but always its citizen. Khoury’s achievement is at the other end of the scale. Orphaned by history, he is the minority Christian whose fate has become nomadic because it cannot accommodate itself to the exclusionism which the Christians share with other minorities in the region. The underlying aesthetic form of his experience is assimilation – since he remains an Arab, very much part of the culture – inflected by rejection, drift, errance, uncertainty. Khoury’s writing represents the difficult days of search and experiment now expressed in the Arab East by the Palestinian intifadah, as new energies push through the repositories of habit and national life and burst into terrible civil disturbance. Khoury, along with Mahmoud Darwish, is an artist who gives voice to rooted exiles and the plight of the trapped refugees, to dissolving boundaries and changing identities, to radical demands and new languages. From this perspective Khoury’s work bids Mahfouz an inevitable and yet profoundly respectful farewell.

It is an irony and contradiction worth noting by way of an epilogue that Darwish, Khoury and I met together for the first time in six years at Algiers the other week, to attend the meetings of the Palestine National Council. Darwish wrote the Declaration of Statehood, which I helped re-draft and translate into English. Along with the Declaration, the PNC approved resolutions in favour of two states in historical Palestine, one Arab, one Jewish, whose co-existence would assure self-determination for both peoples. Khoury commented relentlessly, but fondly, as a Lebanese, on what we did, suggesting that perhaps Lebanon might some day be like Palestine. All three of us were present as both participants and observers. We were tremendously moved, of course: yet Darwish and I were worried that our texts were being mutilated by politicians and even more worried that our state was, after all, only an idea. Perhaps the habits of exile and eccentricity could not be changed as far as we ourselves were concerned: but for a short, non-stop-talking spell, Palestine and Lebanon were alive in the texts.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 11 No. 3 · 2 February 1989

Philip Stewart is a decent enough translator, but he is an incredibly bad reader (Letters, 19 January). I didn’t say that Awlad Haritna ended in 1952; I did say that it was banned before it was published, meaning ‘in book form’. Mahfouz’s work as a whole is ‘stately’ despite Stewart’s petulant little outburst.

Edward Said
Columbia University, New York

Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989

With his rejoinder (Letters, 2 February) Edward Said has dug himself still deeper into the mire, for he clearly still thinks that Awlad Haritna is a trilogy and now imagines that its action can be dated. Still, even without knowing that book, he should have read my letter carefully enough to see that I was pointing out that the Trilogy (Bayn al-Qasrayn et cetera) culminates not in 1952 but in 1944.

Philip Stewart
Oxford Forestry Institute

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences