Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate

Ziad Elmarsafy acquaints himself with the many and varied faces of a prolific literary genius

March 13, 2008

Rasheed El-Enany's latest book covers some of the same ground as his earlier Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning (1993). Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate is, however, aimed at a wider audience and contains much that is new, especially on the very late Mahfouz: the man who was stabbed in the neck in 1994 by a religious fanatic and went on writing for a further 12 years, producing works so different from The Cairo Trilogy that one might be forgiven for thinking that they were written by someone else.

The immense variety of Mahfouz's oeuvre, invoked on the back cover of El-Enany's book through Edward Said's phrase comparing the Egyptian writer to Hugo, Dickens, Galsworthy, Mann, Zola and Romains, defines the critic's dilemma and delight: there is a lot to work with in Mahfouz, but finding the guiding threads of the vast tapestry that is his work can be daunting.

After presenting the multiple forces that shaped the young Mahfouz, El-Enany proceeds to show the reader the many faces of the man who brought the Arabic novel into adulthood. We see Mahfouz the philosopher-novelist, turning Bergson's oppositions between varieties of time and morality into the scaffolding of fiction; Mahfouz the historical novelist, combining moral argument with Ancient Egyptian historical detail in Khufu's Wisdom (1939) and Rhodopis of Nubia (1943), before adding political allegory to the mix in Thebes at War (1944); Mahfouz the realist, pitting science, socialism and progress against superstition and popular custom in Khan al-Khalili (1945) and Cairo Modern (1946); Mahfouz the naturalist, giving us a slice of Cairene life during the Second World War in Midaq Alley (1947) and a multi-generational saga of the interwar period in Trilogy (1956-57), where the end foretells the future course of Egyptian politics between socialism and Muslim fundamentalism; Mahfouz the theorist of religion, rewriting the history of the Abrahamic monotheisms as another multi-generational struggle for justice set in Cairo in his Children of our Alley (this novel from 1959 prompted the assassination attempt of 1994); Mahfouz the political critic and disenchanted revolutionary, giving voice to those betrayed by the Egyptian revolution of 1952 in The Thief and the Dogs (1961) and Karnak Cafe (1974) while reserving very harsh treatment for Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser in Before the Throne (1983); Mahfouz the prophet, publishing a portrait of society on the verge of collapse in Adrift on the Nile mere months before the catastrophic defeat of 1967; Mahfouz the literary theorist, reflecting on the raw material of narrative in Arabian Days and Nights (1982) and The Journey of Ibn Fattuma (1983).

Nor is this all: we also have Mahfouz the author of a handful of one-act plays, Mahfouz the manipulator of short forms and compressed aphoristic narratives in the short-story collections spanning half a century, from Whispers of Madness (1948) to Echo of Oblivion (1999), and Mahfouz the geographer of the space between autobiography, fiction and dreamscape in Mirrors (1972) and The Dreams (2006). Such is the wealth and variety of Mahfouz's corpus that Edward Said's description almost sounds limited.

El-Enany handles the Mahfouz archive with skill and style, adding much rare and valuable historical, biographical and visual material. One particularly useful aspect of Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate is its use of sidebars that either explain the importance of certain literary and historical details to the reader or contain some of Mahfouz's late, short narratives. These sidebars are so well done that I wanted to see more of them: something on Mustafa 'Abd al-Raziq, Mahfouz's mentor who shows up in the dream narratives, and his brother 'Ali 'Abd al-Raziq, would have been a very good idea.

Other handy tools include a chronology relating Mahfouz's long life to global political and cultural events, as well as a detailed listing of Mahfouz's works and their English translations, an annotated bibliography and index.

In under 200 very readable pages, El-Enany gives the reader a solid introduction to a man whose works span several thousand. I hope that it will not be long before we see him do the same for other Arabic writers.

Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate

By Rasheed El-Enany
Haus Publishing
ISBN 9781905791194
Published 1 February 2008

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