Excerpts from Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber – Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001. This celebratory volume was published at the occasion of Naguib Mahfouz’ 90th birthday, and is a collection of conversations between the author and his friend Mohamed Salmawy, Egyptian writer and journalist.
In the early evening of Friday, 14 October 1994, the Arab world’s leading man of letters Naguib Mahfouz was on his way to his weekly gathering with friends at one of the public cafés of Cairo. He stepped out of his house and had barely got into the car of one of his friends who had come to drive him to the meeting, when a young man thrust his hand through the car window.
Thinking that he was one of the innumerable fans who seek to shake hands with him, Mahfouz immediately stretched out his own hand, only to find that the young man’s hand held a knife, which in a second was thrust into the old man’s neck. Two very fortunate coincidences saved Mahfouz’s life. First, the friend driving him was a physician, who immediately put his hand tightly on the wound, stopping the hemorrhage. Second, the incident happened almost in front of the Police Hospital, adjacent to Mahfouz’s house, so that only a few minutes after the attempt on his life Mahfouz was in the operating room, surrounded by a fine team of surgeons.
At that time, the Egyptian police had cracked down very strongly on several fundamentalist groups who had carried out terrorist attacks in the name of Islam. In a desperate attempt to assert their waning power, these groups were seeking yet another resounding attack that would prove that they were still there and could still strike whenever they wanted. Mahfouz was an ideal choice as a target. A figure of world renown, his assassination would not pass unnoticed. It would assert not only to the Egyptian people but also to the whole world that fundamentalism had not been wiped out as the authorities had been claiming. And being weakened by successive crackdowns, these movements had to make sure that their target was not only a person with a world reputation, but that he was, first and foremost, easy to reach. Mahfouz had always refused all types of security guards, and he lived most of his life among the people in coffeeshops, where he would meet with friends, young literati, journalists, or simply anybody who wanted to talk with him. Furthermore, he has always been a great walker: he never had a car and liked to move on foot. Besides, almost all Cairo knew that every Friday evening, Mahfouz would leave his house at half past six for this weekly gathering that he had kept for years.
On the morning of 15 October, I was the first to see Mahfouz in his hospital room. Crowds of friends, men of letters, fans, and ordinary people, who had been horrified at the news of the attempt on the life of the man who in the national consciousness had become a symbol of Egypt itself, stood in shock in the hospital’s courtyard all night waiting to hear how he was doing. When Mahfouz was told that I was outside, he immediately asked to see me. He greeted me with his usual jovial smile and asked me to thank the people who had flocked to the hospital and to tell them that he was all right.
And all right indeed he was, but not in his right arm, with the hand that had produced in over half a century more than forty novels, more than 350 short stories, and five short plays. The knife that had hit the right side of his neck had cut the nerve that runs through his right arm. We all thought Mahfouz’s right arm was going to be paralyzed for life. But he was able, after he left the hospital, to carry out the doctors’ instructions and exercise his right arm for half an hour every day. This, with the physiotherapy that he underwent three times a week, eventually resulted in his regaining the ability to hold the pen between his fingers. But his writing was no longer the large, clear letters that his friends knew so well. It looked more like the scribbling of a child’s first attempts at writing. And, indeed, after having gained the world’s greatest award for writing, Mahfouz was learning once again how to write at the age of 83.
This would have been enough to push anybody to despair. But not Mahfouz: he did it gladly day in, day out for months, for years, until he was able to write again, but never for more than half an hour a day. This precious half-hour he now keeps for his literary writings. Over the last few years he has been able to produce more than seventy shorts stories – very short ones, which take less than half an hour to write. The result has been little gems that, like Japanese haiku poetry, embodied in their excessive brevity the wisdom of life itself. These short stories are being published in the magazine Nisf al-dunya as Dreams of Convalescence.
As for his weekly column in Egypt ‘s leading newspaper, al-Ahram, which he had written for almost twenty years, Mahfouz asked that it be turned into an interview, which I would conduct with him. It became more of a conversation, actually, where I would bring up a topic and wait to see what Mahfouz had to say about it. In publishing these conversations I would often omit my words altogether, leaving only the words of Mahfouz. I have suggested to Mahfouz that he publish his words as a column of his own, but he always refuses, saying that it is the conversation with me that brings about these thoughts and, as such, it should be presented to the reader as an interview. And so it has been. For close on seven years now, I have had the privilege and pleasure of conducting these conversations with Mahfouz every single week, and the resulting column has been appearing every Thursday in al-Ahram in Arabic and Al-Ahram Weekly in English. The present collection has been chosen from the English version.
At the suggestion of Mark Linz, the director of the American University in Cairo Press, I have collected in this book over one hundred of these conversations that I have had with Mahfouz since the end of 1994, as a tribute to the man on his ninetieth birthday. Their subjects are as diverse as the topics of the day over the years. But like his recent short stories, they carry the wisdom of the great man at this time of his life.
* * *
The Nobel prize made no difference to who I am as a person. There was, of course, the pride in being so honored, but a laureate remains a writer first and foremost. A Nobel never created a writer out of a void. All one has to fall back on is one’s own capacities and talents, whatever these may be. The prize simply constitutes recognition of one’s work and its value. Sometimes great writers are not recognized in this way. When I met the great American playwright Arthur Miller, he described the Nobel as an accident that could happen to a writer.
Of course, sometimes recipients are not exceptional. They shine for a moment, then sink back into the relative anonymity in which they had lived. Perhaps this is due in part to changes in literary taste, not to the writer’s lack of talent. Fads change quickly and what was popular yesterday is often denigrated today. Many great writers are not read in their lifetime, simply because another genre was popular during that particular period. When tastes change again, such writers may be rediscovered and read with amazement at their literary prowess. Such a ‘discovery’ however, may come too late for the writer to enjoy.
In this perspective, literary prizes can come to pluck little-known writers from obscurity, and allow them to bask in the glow of recognition.
24 November 2000
* * *
To me, a novel is a story through which characters are presented. Through the story and the characters, the outlines of a social, psychological, romantic, or political problem appear. There is always an idea behind a novel, at least behind the novel as I know it.
They say, however, that changes have come about: now, the important thing is the text in itself. How can this be? Unfortunately, I do not know, since I have been cut off from the pleasure of reading for a while now. So as far as I am concerned, a novel is still an idea, and a plot, and characters.
I can conceive, however, of a novel that does not tell a story, since several writers have dealt with a single situation, in which events do not follow a linear pattern of development. I can also imagine a novel without characters, peopled instead by names and meanings that have no psychological dimensions or specific personality traits. Yet I cannot even think of a novel not driven by an idea – unless we are talking about whodunits or mystery novels, where the plot is usually perfected to an extreme degree, and in which the characters are usually portrayed with incredible precision, but which do not go much further than that.
Literary works are quite different, and that is the difference between, say, Crime and Punishment and Murder on the Orient Express. That is why Agatha Christie’s books must end with the arrest and the resolution of the mystery, while Dostoyevsky, in fact, could take that event as his starting point.
11 March 1999
* * *
The ultimate goal of any writer is to satisfy both the elite and the average reader. Shakespeare’s ideas may be profound, his characters of a complexity that must be studied, yet his plays are never “wanting in humor and humanity. These traits make them accessible even to those who cannot understand the many references and allusions with which they are rife. Because of this uncanny ability to touch the cultured and the uneducated alike, Shakespeare’s plays have universal appeal.
Other literary works are too difficult for average readers. The difficulty may be ascribed to the innovative approach of the writer. This approach may be worthy in itself, but the public is not familiar with it, and therefore fails to appreciate it. This does not imply that all works that become bestsellers are of uniformly high quality. One must not discount the mass appeal of the cheap thrill, which explains the wide audience catered to by writers of cloak-and-dagger mysteries, slasher horror stories, and pornography
When I write, I simply feel that I am addressing myself. A writer must not feel that he is talking directly to the public – although, admittedly, the public is ever present in the back of his mind. If the readers are the writer’s sole concern, he will sacrifice much and gain little. As he takes up his pen, a writer must think only of the work at hand, of himself, and possibly of another reader, identical to himself. Once that much is accomplished, he can only wait and hope for the best.
2 December 1999
* * *
Forms of Ambiguity
Some people say that art and literature are becoming increasingly obscure and ambiguous. Many paintings, for instance, and many musical compositions, seem accessible only to the specialist.
This ambiguity may be due to many factors. One is the difficulty of the thought process itself, in cases where a writer seeks to convey a particularly complex idea to the reader. In these cases, the reader must make a special effort to understand the work, perhaps reading it more than once, or resorting to critical or analytical commentaries on the text. This is only natural for those who are not used to reading demanding literature.
The same can be said of music: if you are listening to Beethoven for the first time, you must read studies of his symphonies in order to absorb their many nuances. In other words, the impression of ambiguity or complexity here must be attributed to the audience itself, if it is unaccustomed to difficult art, which demands sustained concentration and a measure of background knowledge.
There are other cases, however, in which complexity is the fault of the writer, and not an inherent feature of the story or a deficiency in the reader. Here, the writer is incapable of conveying an idea with the necessary clarity. This is often a question of insufficient technique, which hinders fluency of expression.
Of course, there is the third factor, the worst of all, in which the writer intentionally envelopes his or her work in ambiguity, in the belief that readers will be impressed by anything incomprehensible.
25 November 1999
* * *
There are no features that are the exclusive prerogative of good literature, beyond the comprehensiveness of the ideas in which it deals, and the depth and vision of the work. Literary excellence is a standard that applies across national boundaries. The fact that a writer may not be known outside his home country does not affect the stature of that writer. Stature is, after all, determined by the work, not by the extent of its dissemination. Stature is not determined by the acquisition of awards.
The failure to win prizes cannot be held against any particular writer, nor can success be taken as a guarantee of quality. The picture is far more complex than this, and works of literature cannot be reduced to prize-giving citations.
As for localism, it is an inevitability, since the writer writes only of the reality he lives. Dostoyevsky, for instance, is a local writer. He takes the reader with him to the streets and quarters of old Moscow, with its characters and their problems. Yet no one can deny the universality of Dostoyevsky, a universality that is derived from the characteristics of the literature itself, not from the place where the events occur. Universality, then, has an aesthetic and not a topographical character.
28 December 1995
From Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate 1994-2001. From Conversations with Mohamed Salmawy.
Copyright © 2001 by The American University in Cairo Press.
Reprinted by arrangement with The American University in Cairo Press and Mohamed Salmawy.
Excerpts selected by Lars Rydquist, head librarian,
Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.
See them all presented here.