Goodbye to Mahfouz

Edward Said

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.

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[*] Farouk Abdel Wahab’s translation of Zayni Barakat was published by Viking on 3 November (240 pp., £11.95, 0 670 81245 5).

[†] The translation, by Maia Tabet, is published by University of Minnesota Press.