Moral fables of Mr Egypt

Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber
August 23, 2002

Freedom of speech has taken a battering in Egypt this summer. Over the past three months, more than 300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested, and on July 30, another 16 - mostly university professors - were sent to jail. The following day, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt's most respected civil rights activists, was sentenced to seven years in prison by the state security court for "defaming Egypt's image abroad" and for embezzling funds given to him by the European Union to chart the fairness of parliamentary elections, a charge that the EU itself vehemently denies is true. The Arab world is volatile, and Egypt, as almost every other country in the region, is smothering its dissidents, its intellectuals and its culture with autocratic censorship.

In this context, the publication of Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber tells us almost more about its author and subject than the book itself. For many years Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab world's most famous writer, wrote a weekly column for al-Ahram , Cairo's oldest and most prestigious newspaper. When, in 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a 21-year-old Islamist repairman, he lost the use of his writing arm. Since then, his column has consisted of personal interviews conducted by Mohamed Salmawy, editor-in-chief of al-Ahram Hebdo and former undersecretary of state for foreign cultural relations. These personal thoughts make up the present selection of writings, the last of many published collections of the al-Ahram column. Mahfouz is more than a notable escapee of state censorship; the establishment almost speaks in his voice.

Today, 90-year-old Mahfouz is the official face of high Egyptian culture - Cairo's Dickens - who, with his Nobel prize, vindicated Arab culture in the eyes of the world. Salmawy writes of him as "the man who in the national consciousness has become a symbol of Egypt itself". The paradox, of course, is that many in Cairo's intellectual circles believe he has nothing to do with mainstream Egyptian culture, that he toes the government line too carefully, that his novels are old-fashioned and that his Nobel prize was a reward for supporting Anwar Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978. But, pared of their barbs, these criticisms simply point to the fact that Mahfouz is outside the current of contemporary culture. As Egypt's establishment representative in that field, therefore, his position is tenuous, perhaps even compromised.

Reflections of a Nobel Laureate (the book's subtitle) is an echo of a generation of Arab writers that has now almost disappeared. They traced their heritage through the French and English novels, back to the old Arab traditional tales, and on to Islam's holy book. Taha Hussein, the founder of modern Egyptian literature, had famously memorised the Koran as a child despite his blindness. Mahfouz writes that his "first concept of the novel was formed by the Koran". Etched into the realism they adopted from late-19th century, European fiction was a strong sense of the spiritual. Nor are the two contradictory: in that detailed focus on the intricacies of daily life is a deep sense of its sacrality. Mahfouz talks of the poetry of life - "in looking at Egypt's back streets and alleyways... one cannot help seeing the spirit that has always lived there, the soul that informs the body and endows it with meaning" as the basis of any great literature. "Literature that does not rise to the level of (that) poetry... bears no relation to literature at all."

That romantic belief in an essence of life underpins all Mahfouz's work, and resounds in the Reflections . In his books, characters are never the arbitrary collection of qualities that they are in most modern novels. He uses them as principles: one represents the process of desire, another the workings of hypocrisy. In Reflections , he talks of his life as a narrative, with himself as the protagonist. Out of minor incidents in the corners of his memory he turns fables, always ending with the wisp of a moral, as if in the tumble of life there is always an order to decipher. In Mahfouz, that order is godly. "God alone gives value and gives value to existence. Without Him, life has no meaning, values have no meaning, and all effort is futile... I believe that three great virtues mark an individual's life: truth, good and beauty." His view of political good is correlative. "I firmly believe that ethics, at the individual and societal levels, are of the greatest importance, since morals are the basis of good faith and successful social intercourse." It is ethics and social justice that he hopes to have contributed to in the long course of his career as a writer, not radical politics. His duty has been to translate the beauty of existence into words his readers could understand, and to help them see it for themselves. Unlike almost every other Egyptian writer today, he writes in Fussha, the classical Arabic that formed the basis of all Arabic literature until the mid-20th century. It is the language of the Koran: ineffable and sacred, but a language that no one outside the most educated elite has spoken for more than a thousand years. That is the language into which, through his novels, he has translated the spirit of 20th-century Cairo.

None of this bears much relation to the culture of Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Different criteria define their intellectual hierarchies, criteria tinged with as much romanticism but of a different sort. Poverty and years in jail might be the signifiers of greatness now, not Nobel prizes. But certainly Mahfouz's belief in the underlying order, God-arranged, of the universe sits badly with today's literary culture. And his division of culture and politics would rile the most junior members of any academic faculty the world over. But that combination of Islam and social concern is what has made him popular with a more official and more powerful segment of Egyptian society, pulled between the demands of the likes of Ibrahim and of the Muslim Brothers.

Politically, Mahfouz is of another era. His views on Egyptian nationalism, in which he is a firm believer, are beautifully rendered and idealistic. Grounded in the Pharaonic past, he pulls his country's Self into the Muslim age by his sense that "the most important element of this heritage... (is) the deep religious belief that characterises the Egyptian people". His essentialism covers his politics too: "It is the homeland that bestows the feeling of identity. Our culture is of this land", be it Graeco-Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic or Arabo-Islamic. Nowhere in his vision is there room for accident, arbitrariness, or the childish and deeply affecting influence of mere human intervention. Mahfouz cannot see culture as political, since culture is the mere translation of a sacred spirit. In more concrete political terms, he is favourable to President Mubarak - currently grooming his son as heir, if we are to believe Ibrahim - as an alternative to Nasser, with whom he did tussle briefly.

Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber should be read as the often brilliant, always touching, sometimes naive reflections of one of the 20th century's literary greats at the end of his life. In today's intellectual climate, however, it cannot be. Of the few voices heard in Egypt today, Mahfouz's is the loudest, broadcast from the heights of the establishment media. His is the voice of political conservatism, of old Cairo, a bark with no bite. Political interests have turned him into an icon, and those same interests have given his ideas a currency they should no longer have.

They have made him political, when all his life he has shrunk from that role. In some sense, he is to be pitied, but his younger colleagues - debarred from their universities, denied a voice, sent to jail - might wonder where the justice lay in that.

Turi Munthe is a freelance writer. His book, The Saddam Hussein Reader , will be published in October.

Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001

Author - Naguib Mahfouz
Editor - Mohamed Salmawy
ISBN - 977 424673 X
Publisher - American University in Cairo Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 157

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