Sunday, November 26, 2006
By Sabry Hafez - Al Ahram - Cairo, Egypt
Thursday, September 7, 2006
This portrait of Naguib Mahfouz is by artist Gamil Shafik, a long-standing member of the novelist's Harafish group of friends, who writes: "Naguib Mahfouz taught me love of work / love of life / taught me tolerance / taught me modesty / taught me love of the Other / taught me equanimity / taught me contentment/ taught me pride and dignity / All this I learned as I contemplated his moments of silence, wondering what was going through his mind at the Harafish gatherings, about quarter of a century ago."
The death of Naguib Mahfouz constitutes, in addition to the national and cultural loss of the towering genius of modern Arabic literature, a personal loss for me. Because I have known Naguib Mahfouz since I arrived in Cairo, in my late teens, for my university education. Even before going to attend the first lectures at my faculty, I went to Mahfouz's weekly meeting at the Opera Café in 1959.
Mahfouz's years at Cairo University, where he studied philosophy starting 1930, coincided with the economic crisis and the repressive years of the unstable minority governments in Egypt at the time. The university was teeming with political activities and Mahfouz was a liberal Wafdist -- the Wafd was the patriotic party of the majority at the time, working to end the British occupation of the country. But he was aware of all other political denominations at the time, particularly the Leftists and Muslim Brothers, whose exponents appear in many of his novels.
On graduating in 1934 he worked for the university, contemplated postgraduate study and even registered for a PhD in philosophy, with Sufism in Islamic philosophy as the topic of his research. His first publications were a series of philosophical essays in cultural journals, but he soon abandoned this academic endeavour and embarked on a literary career. Yet philosophical concepts and spiritual and Sufi preoccupations continued to pervade his literary work.
The last work Mahfouz wrote before the Muslim fundamentalists' failed attempt on his life in 1994 left him paralyzed in his right arm is Asda' Al-Sira Al-Dhatiyya (1993; English translation Echoes of An Autobiography.
It is a fragmented narrative with strong sufi resonance that pushes the narrative to the limits of poetry and philosophical revelations. This is also the case with Mahfouz's last work Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha.
The world of Naguib Mahfouz is a vast and extremely rich one extending from pharaonic times down to the present day. He spans the various changes in the reality, dreams and aspirations of his nation and provides an elaborate record of its attempts to come to terms with the process of modernity. Although his world is mainly Cairo and predominantly the old quarter of Gammaliyya in which he spent his childhood, he made the urban scene an elaborate and highly significant metaphor of the national condition. His narrative world is peopled with characters from all walks of Egyptian life from beggars to aristocrats, with a special place reserved for the intellectuals with whom Mahfouz identifies. On the literary plane, his career spans the whole process of development of the Arabic novel from the historical to the modernistic and lyrical. He earned the Arabic novel respect and popularity and lived to see it flourish in the work of numerous writers throughout the Arab world.