en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 40, Number 2March/April 1989

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

A Nobel for the Arab Nation

Written by Larry Luxner
Photographed by Thomas Hartwell
Additional photographs by Sygma and Tobbe Gustavsson

After I had searched nearly an hour in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili Bazar for the legendary Zuqaq al-Midaq the eponym of Naguib. Mahfouz's most popular novel, Midaq Alley - a young Egyptian noticed the Mahfouz paperbacks I was carrying and, in near-perfect English, asked me if I really expected to find the famous street..

"Lately, many people are looking for Zuqaq al-Midaq," he said, "but the real Midaq exists only in their minds."

After some polite conversation, however, Muhammad pointed out the tiny winding street that had - since the novel's publication - come to be known as Zuqaq al-Midaq. Once inside the narrow passage where Mahfouz used to walk daily, I spotted many shopkeepers who could easily have passed for Abbas the barber, Uncle Kamil the candy-seller, Kirsha the café-owner and other inhabitants of Mahfouz's fictional alley.

The alley is in the heart of the ancient Jamaliyya quarter of Cairo, where Mahfouz was born and spent his childhood and where much of his best work is set. His attachment to the quarter is still strong, decades after leaving it for the suburbs, but at 77 he laments that he is not able to visit it as often as he used to. The great boulevardier has cut down on the long walks for which he was famous; now he goes mainly to the Ali Baba Café on Thursday nights, often in a car, to see his old friends. Last December, the writer's frail health prevented him from traveling to Stockholm to receive personally the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature: His two daughters accepted the award in his name.

Even so, the recognition of his accomplishment means the world to Mahfouz.

"The Nobel Prize has given me, for the first time in my life, the feeling that my literature could be appreciated on an international level," Mahfouz told Aramco World. "The Arab world also won the Nobel with me. I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition."

Hussein al-Habrouk, the writer's longtime interpreter and colleague, recalled that on the day of the announcement of Mahfouz's selection by the Swedish Academy last October, Mahfouz found ten reporters at his home who had heard the news before he had.

Since then, Mahfouz has been interviewed well more than 125 times. When I spoke to him in his sixth-floor office in the modern headquarters of Cairo's leading daily, Al-Ahram, at least a dozen other people were standing in line to see him - including an Egyptian reporter for a Spanish-language weekly in Madrid, television crews from Sweden and East Germany, and a middle-aged couple from Milwaukee.

That Mahfouz talks to the press at all is surprising, considering his near-deafness, his ill health and his hectic schedule. But Mahfouz - a practicing journalist who still writes a weekly column for Al-Ahram entitled "Point of View" - has never had trouble managing his time.

"Frankly, I am one of those people who have prepared my life well," he said. "I wake up early in the morning and walk for an hour. If I have something to write, I prefer to write in the morning until midday, and in the afternoon, I eat. At night, I prefer to sit and watch television. Thursdays and Fridays I consider my holiday, when I meet my friends and my literary colleagues."

According to Habrouk, journalists may no longer tag along with Mahfouz on his daily walks, and television reporters are now banned from the Ali Baba Café because their lights and camera equipment disturb the other patrons. Al-Ahram has even purchased a car and hired a driver for Mahfouz, to help him avoid the crowds that invariably pop up wherever he goes. Mahfouz, whose office is decorated with a self-portrait, various paintings and a window from which he can look across most of downtown Cairo, had simpler beginnings.

He was born in 1911, the son of a middle-class Jamaliyyah merchant, and graduated from Cairo University in 1934 with a degree in philosophy. Following that, he worked in the university administration and then for the government's Ministry of Waqfs, or religious foundations.

"I started writing while I was a little boy," said the author, who wears thick bifocals and speaks passionately. "Maybe it's because I was reading a lot of books I admired, and thought that I would like to write something like that someday. Also, my love for good writing pushed me."

By 1939, Mahfouz had already written his first three novels, one of which - The Struggle of Thebes - drew a parallel between the Hyksos invasion of ancient Egypt and the pre-war British occupation of modern Egypt. He later began work on The Cairo Trilogy, a monumental, 1500-page work that has been published in French and Hebrew but only partly translated into English.

Then, in 1959, Mahfouz serialized one of his most unusual novels, The Children of Gebelawi, in the pages of Al-Ahram. This book, which portrays average Egyptians living the lives of Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, was so controversial that it was banned in all of the Arab world except Lebanon.

Despite the notoriety that Children of Gebelawi attracted, Mahfouz considers the trilogy to be his most important work by far. "If the point of view of the writer is important to his books, then I think The Cairo Trilogy and El-Harifish are much more important works than Children of Gebelawi," he said.

The Nobel Prize is by no means the first recognition of Mahfouz's stature as a writer. In 1970 he received Egypt's National Prize for Letters, and in 1972 won the Collar of the Republic, his nation's highest decoration. In addition, many of his novels have been made into films, and the characters of his stories have become household names throughout Egypt. But the Nobel Prize is the first time Mahfouz has ever received international acclaim.

Arnold Tovell, director of the American University in Cairo Press, says Mahfouz has been overwhelmed by all the resulting attention.

"From Egypt's point of view, it's a major event in cultural life, and Mahfouz sees it as a celebration of Arab literature in general," said Tovell, who says he visits the author at least once a day. "The reason for the worldwide response to Nobel Prize winners in literature varies enormously. Mahfouz is indeed a novelist in the classic sense. What he writes about is so accessible, so human, that it both literally and figuratively translates around the world in a way some other novelists' works do not.

"Through his collected works, you also get a portrait of 20th-century Egypt. Miratnar, for example, is a reflection of what Egypt was like for the middle class, but with very specific characters, very real people dealing with extraordinary events in their lives."

The broad appeal of Mahfouz' works has meant that the AUC Press has had to reprint six of his titles because of unprecedented demand for the books. In addition, he said, Mahfouz books are now being translated into Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, French and Icelandic.

"The amount of attention paid to Mahfouz in the Arab press has been stunning," he said. "The whole business got started in these offices. One of the first things we had to do was make sure Mahfouz knew he had won. Since then, we have done nothing but represent him around the world to foreign publishers. We have licensed 20 foreign-language editions of varying titles, and there are probably another 20 which we're in the process of negotiating. In addition, Doubleday in New York has committed itself to publish 14 books by Mahfouz."

Throughout his career, Mahfouz has chronicled the vicissitudes of modern Egypt, and he has often been affected by them himself. Children of Gebelawi is still unpublished in full in Arabic, and until he won the Nobel Prize his works were banned in many Arab countries because of his outspoken support for President Anwar Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel. In 1985, Mahfouz wrote The Day the Leader was Murdered, a description of the Sadat years.

"We are passing through a very sensitive time," Mahfouz said, "and on the whole, this country is facing very big problems. We are like a woman with a difficult pregnancy. We have to rebuild the social classes in Egypt, and we must change the way things were during [President Gamal] Abdel Nasser's time. As the tension eases, we must look in the direction of agriculture, industry and education as our final goals, and toward democracy under Mr Mubarak."

Larry Luxner Iives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he covers manufacturing and shipping news for the New York Journal of Commerce.

A Visit
Written by Naguib Mahfouz
Additional photographs by Kamel Ghandar
Translated by Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab

Translator's Note:

This short story exemplifies what the Swedish Academy was referring to in its citation awarding Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. "Through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous," the citation read, "[Mahfouz] has formed an Arabian narrative art that appeals to all mankind."

Translated here especially for Aramco World, "A Visit" appeared in 1969 in a collection of short stories by Mahfouz entitled The Black Cat Tavern. The story epitomizes Mahfouz's narrative art, literary style and subject matter, and illustrates his humane concerns. Typically, though it is set in Egypt and woven of Arab and Muslim threads, it depicts a situation of catholic interest. Its vivid, kaleidoscopic tapestry portrays psychologically nuanced characters dealing with fundamental human issues before a backdrop that shows the encroachment of modernity on tradition.

The story is interesting and reads well on its own, but through it runs a tantalizing vein of symbolism in which the various characters, some with evocative names, could be taken to reflect aspects of a universal, timeless drama here localized in 20th-century Egyptian society: human suffering, religion, reform, modernism and romanticism. For example, the name of the main character, 'Uyun, means "eyes" in Arabic; it also denotes something precious and could refer to Egyptian society itself. 'Uyun's servant's name is 'Adliyah, a familiar female name whose Arabic root means "justice." The plumber could stand for
someone like the turbulent but influential Jamal al-Din al-Af ghani, the 19th century's most outstanding political and social reformer, who was viewed with suspicion by the ailing Muslim society he criticized. The two other characters in the story - Buthaynah, the niece, and Taha, the Qur'an-reciter - may also have symbolic significance, but that, after all, is for the reader to decide. Received on any level, "A Visit" will knock persistently on the door of the reader's mind. - I.I.N.

There she was: lying completely helpless in bed, unable to move any part of her body except her eyes and eyelids and her hand, which she could raise to her chest from time to time. Disease had drained her vitality. Her flesh had withered away, leaving her skin wan, bluish, almost lacerated by bones protruding at the joints. She stared blankly at nothing or kept her eyes closed. At the best of times, her vision was confined within the walls of her room.

'Uyun called in a feeble voice, thin as a child's:


But 'Adliyah did not hear her. She would pretend that she did not hear her. 'Adliyah's excuse would be that her voice was faint or that the kitchen was too far away or that the stove was hissing. 'Uyun could not call any louder nor could she give up making her modest requests. She cried out again:


'Uyun would as usual feel too intimidated to blame her. She was at 'Adliyah's mercy, completely at her mercy. She would go to any length to appease 'Adliyah. She provided her with excellent wages, clothing and food. It was 'Adliyah who ran the household. She had become its real mistress. What could 'Uyun do about it? If 'Adliyah decided someday to leave her service, 'Uyun would sink into ruinous solitude and death. She tried not to impose on her any more than was really necessary. But what could she do? The demands of life would go on unceasingly till her last breath.

She gathered her flagging strength and called out for the third time:


Anger swelled in 'Uyun's bony breast, but she did not surrender to its tumult. 'Adliyah was, in any case, overburdened with work. She swept, cooked and shopped. She took the place of 'Uyun's own two hands and feet and all her senses. She meant everything to 'Uyun: She fed her and helped her drink, she washed her, she propped her up and put her to bed, and she eased her discomfort by turning her from one side to the other.

She raised her complaining, moaning voice a little:


She heard the sound of heavy footsteps, then 'Adliyah appeared at the door of the room, her stolid face permanently imprinted with grievance. She asked in a rather harsh voice:

"You called me, mistress?"

"I've called myself hoarse, 'Adliyah."

She approached the bed and 'Uyun asked:

"A cigarette,'Adliyah."

'Adliyah plucked a cigarette from the pack on the bedside table, lit it and placed it between the lips of her mistress, saying:

"You know that smoking is bad for your health."

Then she left the room.

If someday 'Adliyah lost patience with her, 'Uyun would be condemned to death. She could not rely on anyone else. Her nephews and nieces did not care for her, their Auntie 'Uyun. She lay abandoned and forgotten, clinging to the last remnants of life in fear and despair and audibly wishing for death. The death of her only son in a bloody demonstration had ravaged her heart even before disease had damaged it. It was ironic that politics had devoured her sole offspring. She herself understood nothing about politics and was not stirred by it in the least. The boy's father, too, had died just one year after their son's martyrdom. And now the memories of her grief had fused with the groans of her illness and the specter of forlornness.

Buthaynah, her late sister's daughter, had visited her during the 'id festival. She was the principal of an elementary school and the only one who remembered 'Uyun on festive occasions. She brought her a bouquet of flowers and a box of sweets. Buthaynah sat on a chair near her bed. 'Uyun's eyes teared as she said:

"Thank you, Buthaynah. How are you? How is everybody? How I yearn to see you all, but no one asks about me!"

Buthaynah apologized with a smile and said:

"The world is full of preoccupations, Auntie."

"I don't have anyone except you people. Even the dead have someone to remember them.''

"You often cross my mind, Auntie, but the world is full of preoccupations."

"They have utterly forgotten me, Buthaynah."

Buthaynah took refuge in silence. 'Uyun said:

"I'm their aunt, the only one still surviving. If 'Adliyah deserted me, I'd starve in my bed."

She heard a deep, tormented sigh and continued:

We - your mother, your aunt and I - were happy sisters. We had happy days."

"God have mercy on both of them!"

'' I was the youngest. Nothing was ever too good for me!''

"May God restore your health, Auntie!"

"That prayer won't be answered, Buthaynah. I'm alone, forsaken. I've empowered one of the neighbors to collect my pension for me."

She dried a tear with her gaunt, bluish hand and said:

I'm afraid, Buthaynah. I've a thousand worries about the day'Adliyah leaves me."

"It would be impossible for her to find a house like yours, Auntie."

"Serving me is demanding and unpleasant, so I'm ridden with anxiety."

"The fact is, she controls your house and your purse, so how could she desert you?"

"Still, I'm anxious, always anxious. I'm never without suspicions. I'm as much afraid of her as I am of her quitting."

Buthaynah fell silent, either because she did not have anything to say, or because she had grown tired of repeating the well-worn phrases. 'Uyun said:

"I'm sorry, Buthaynah. My stock of good talk has run out, and it isn't right that I should go on bothering the only human being who has remained faithful to me."

She changed her tone. She stopped complaining and asked impartially, or perhaps in commiseration:

"Tell me now, how is it between you and your husband?"

Buthaynah sighed and replied laconically:


"How can this happen when you're unparalleled among young women?"

Then 'Uyun added with a wan smile on her dry, painful lips:

"You're beautiful, Buthaynah! It's been said that you're more like me, your aunt, when I was your age than like anyone else in the family."

Buthaynah nodded her head in agreement and she, too, smiled.

"When I walked in the street or looked out of a window, all eyes devoured me lasciviously!"

Buthaynah laughed and looked at 'Uyun compassionately.

"You say that your relations with your husband are middling. When will he realize the bounty that God has blessed him with?"

"That is the way of the world, Auntie."

"Acursed world, Buthaynah."

"It can't be trusted, Auntie."

'Adliyah appeared with the lunch tray. She propped 'Uyun up against a pillow, then began to feed her.

Wanting to curry favor with her, 'Uyun said:

"Your cooking is delicious, 'Adliyah."

'Adliyah gave her neither a smile nor thanks, as if she had not heard: Praise from the weak dissipates without effect.

"What's wrong, 'Adliyah?"

She answered somewhat harshly:

"I'm thinking of my daughter."

"May God make her happy,'Adliyah!"

"She's miserable with her man."

"Whatever he does, he wouldn't neglect the mother of his seven children."

"You don't know him, mistress."

"You should always try to make her see reason, and ask her to be patient."

"What's to be done if he divorces her?"

Indeed, what's to be done? What was to be done if 'Adliyah brought along her daughter and her brood to the house? 'Uyun could not object even if she wanted to. She was completely at 'Adliyah's mercy. The house would become too small for them and would turn into a bazaar. How could she put up with their noise and naughtiness? How could she afford to feed and clothe them?

This is a new threat to you, 'Uyun. Wasn't it Shaykh Taha who congratulated you, 'Uyun, on your wedding night with "May honor precede you, and good fortune serve you!"? Why was your mother proud of you to the point of infatuation? Fortune started you off with a truly happy marriage. You had wed a judge of noble origins. He had seen you one day in a box at the Cosmograph Cinema. You were a pampered wife and a happy mother. Your husband used to strut to the opera with your arm in his, crowing over your beauty. Once a fight nearly broke out because a pasha had flirted with you. Yet your entire chronicle has finally come to this wretched bed, where you are at the mercy of this callous, miserable woman who withholds even a smile.

The doorbell rang. 'Uyun's eyes fluttered in anticipation. Was it a new visitor?

"Who is it,'Adliyah?"

"The plumber, mistress."

The plumber again, always the plumber. He has come to fix the kitchen faucet or the bathroom, or perhaps the pipe or the drain. To avoid the terrible consequences, she dares not question 'Adliyah at all, let alone interrogate her. The plumber would come a second, third and fourth time, whenever it pleased him to come, or whenever the sow invited him!

'Adliyah closed the door of her room so that 'Uyun would not catch sight of him! 'Uyun had long been troubled by suspicion, but what could she do? Things happened this way in her small dwelling, outside her closed door - the door that would be closed without her permission or even against her will, all in the name of protecting her. She was powerless and helpless. If the man coveted more than what he held in his arms, if he thought that she was an obstacle in his path, if any satanic whim crossed his mind, who could protect her from harm? She listened attentively, utterly upset, her blood boiling. There was no doubt that her late son had had the same feeling of impotence when he was faced with the situation that had cut him down in his prime. But she was half dead and bedridden.

'Adliyah opened the door, saying:

"He's left."

Hadn't he taken longer than was reasonable? Without mentioning this, 'Uyun asked her:

"What did he do?"

"The sink pipe."

She kept her temper under control, and said:

"But the sink pipe..."

'Adliyah interrupted her sharply:

"It's very old and has to be fixed constantly."

It would always need repairs. Even if it was replaced by a new pipe, there would always be something requiring the plumber's presence, week after week. So let him come whenever he pleased - or whenever 'Adliyah pleased. In any case, she had to accept this situation because 'Adliyah served as her eyes, feet and all her senses. 'Adliyah's mission in this house was not a comfortable, easy or happy one. Besides all this, misery would go on taking its toll, and 'Uyun would remain in the grip of insomnia.

Then one day, a stranger knocked at the door, and 'Adliyah said to her mistress:

"Mistress, a blind man who claims that you've known him in olden..."

Before she could add another word, the stranger's voice was heard shouting outside:

"Shaykh Taha al-Sharif, Madame 'Uyun."

That voice. That name. She summoned her moribund memory for help. Her heart fluttered. Then memories flooded from her heart's quivering heart like a breath of perfumed breeze. Exultation suffused her.

"Come over here, Shaykh Taha. 'Adliyah, lead him by the hand."

He was led to 'Uyun, feeling his way with the end of his cane. His turban had slid back, revealing a noble forehead. His eyes were sunk deep in their sockets. His back was bent with age. His faded, frayed cloak wrapped an emaciated body. After he was seated, 'Uyun said to him:

"Here's my outstretched hand, Shaykh Taha, but don't clasp it strongly; it's frail."

He shook hands with her gently and tenderly, saying:

"A speedy recovery, Madame'Uyun!"

"Thank God for your safe return, Shaykh Taha! When did I see you last?"

He swayed his head right and left and said:

"What a long time it's been!"

"Those were beautiful days, Shaykh Taha."

"May God make all your days beautiful!"

"But how? I'm bedridden, all alone, Shaykh Taha."

He pointed upward and murmured:

"He's Merciful."

"How did you find where I live?"

"I came across Uncle Adam, the doorman at the old house."

She gazed with dull eyes at the furrows of his old face while he sat on the chair like a monument to poverty. How strong and stout he had been when he was the professional Qur'an-reciter at the old house! He would visit them every morning to drink coffee, read something from the Qur'an and give his spiritual opinion on religious issues raised by her mother. It was he who had said to her on her wedding night, "May honor precede you, and good fortune serve you!" From the deep recesses of the past flowed an affectionate, intimate feeling mixed with nostalgia and tears.

He slipped off his worn-out shoes, then sat cross-legged on the chair and started reciting from the Qur'an:

By the bright forenoon

And by the night when it is still and dark!

Thy Lord has neither forsaken thee nor hates thee....

After he had sipped his coffee down and they were alone in the room, she said:

"I am alone, Shaykh Taha."

He replied, as though in protest:

"But God is there, Madame 'Uyun."

"I'm always anxious and afraid."

"God is there, Madame 'Uyun."

"I wish you could visit me as often as possible."

"That is my fondest wish."

"How are your affairs, Shaykh Taha?"

"It's God's will that recorded recitations on the radio drive us out of business, but God will not forget His servant. What matters is that you should not give in to sorrow or despair."

"It's anxiety. I've no one except 'Adliyah. If she abandons me..."

"God will not abandon you."

"But I'm alone in every sense of the word."

He waved his hand sorrowfully and exclaimed:

"What a pity!"

"Am I wrong, Shaykh Taha?"

"Certainly not! But you don't have faith."

"But I do have faith. I lost my son and husband in two successive years, but I do still have faith."

"You don't have faith, Madame'Uyun."

She was displeased and fell silent. He continued:

"Don't be angry. Not fear, nor anxiety, nor despair can find their way to the heart of one who has real faith."

"I have faith, but I'm bedridden and at the mercy of 'Adliyah."

"Those with faith are at their Lord's mercy only and not anyone else's."

"How easy it is to preach, but how difficult to practice!"

He moved his head right and left and proclaimed in a voice insinuating triumph:

"Indeed, how easy it is to preach, but how difficult to practice!"

"I can no longer understand anything."

"Allow me to visit you every day.''

"Do that, in God's name!"

"But without faith, you won't find an old, blind man like me of any use."

She hesitated a little, then spoke apprehensively:

"I'm afraid she may become annoyed with you - 'Adliyah, I mean."

"Still, I'll keep coming."

"But if... But if... Let's suppose..."

"Believe me, I'll visit you every day. If she doesn't like it, she can beat her head against the wall!"

'Uyun muttered in alarm:

"Lower your voice, Shaykh Taha! We must not make her angry."

"Madame 'Uyun, forget that you're at her mercy. You're at God's mercy only."

"True, true. All of us are at God's mercy only. But consider what will happen if she gets angry with me."

"Nothing will ever happen to you unless God has prescribed it."

"That is the truth, Shaykh Taha, but for God's sake imagine my loneliness if she deserts me."

"She won't desert you, Madame'Uyun, because she depends on you far more than you depend on her!"

"I'm infirm, whereas she's strong and can work in any house."

"She can work anywhere, but merely as a maid, while here she's the mistress of the house!"

"What you say sounds good and makes sense, but the bitter reality is that I'm totally infirm."

He struck the floor with his thick staff and said:

"Half of your infirmity stems from your total dependence on her!"

"But my illness is a reality, confirmed by doctors."

"I believe neither in disease nor in physicians. Still, I'll go along with you for the time being. Madame 'Uyun, should she forsake you as you imagine, I'll bring you my eldest daughter, who is divorced."

A momentary light flashed in her clouded eyes, and she asked eagerly:


"I'll do without her for your sake.''

She was ashamed, and replied:

"But you can't live all by yourself!"

He laughed for the first time and said:

"An old, blind man living by himself! Before her divorce, I often lived by myself!"

"I don't want to impose on you."

"You're imposing on yourself only. May God help you!"

There was a long silence, a silence replete with tranquility and peace.

Her then cleared his throat and began to recite from the Qur'an:

Blessed be He in whose hand is all dominion

- He is powerful over all things -

Who has created death and life that He might test

Which of you is best in works,...

It was time for him to go. He shook her hand tenderly, said goodbye to her and left.

'Uyun felt a delight she had not experienced for a long time. She called 'Adliyah and said to her:

"'Adliyah, whenever Shaykh Taha comes, receive him gently and graciously."

'Adliyah frowned and said resentfully:

"But, Madame, he's a filthy man!"

"He was the Qur'an-reciter at our old house; I've inherited his friendship from my father and mother."

"Madame, I saw a louse on his forehead."

Furious, 'Uyun replied:

"I couldn't care less about that. He's a blessed man."

The woman said in a threatening tone:

"But I've enough troubles."

'Uyun said importunately:

"Bear with me, for God's sake! This is my wish and I expect you to respect it."

"I said that I saw..."

'Uyun interrupted her resolutely:

"He's a blessed man. You must fulfill my wish."

'Adliyah's face turned sullen. She was about to speak, but 'Uyun's persistence cut her off:

"You ought to do my bidding without argument!"

'Adliyah's face resumed its normal appearance of surprise or bewilderment. She cast a disturbed, curious glance at 'Uyun. They glared at each other, but 'Uyun was not frightened by 'Adliyah's penetrating gaze; she found herself determined to match her stare or challenge her in return. 'Uyun ignored her own infirmity and fears and kept up her defiance; she shivered in her innermost being with the fever of victory. It seemed to her that she was becoming giant-like.

'Adliyah stared intently for a long time, then lowered her gaze. She left the room, muttering incomprehensibly. But 'Uyun did not leave it there. She was determined to be fully satisfied and more confident; she called her again. 'Adliyah returned, saying with displeasure and annoyance:

"I've got something on the stove."

'Uyun asked her persistently, defiantly:

"Tell me what you'll do when Shaykh Taha comes."

The woman cast a sharp, inquisitive glance at her, then asked:

"Who's Shaykh Taha?"

'Uyun was seized by anger and exclaimed:

"You're joking with me, 'Adliyah!"

"Why are you angry? I'm asking you, who is Shaykh Taha?"

"Don't you know who Shaykh Taha is?"

"I've never heard his name before."

'Uyun replied firmly, resolved to wage a bitter struggle:

"Didn't you see the cleric-shaykh who was sitting beside me just minutes ago? Didn't you yourself offer him coffee?"

The woman stared at her face with suspicion and concern and said:

"No one has entered our house today - neither a cleric-shaykh nor a lay gentleman. What are you talking about?"

'Uyun shouted back in rage:

"What am I talking about? It's amazing! You've become so impudent that..."

"You frighten me. Who's Shaykh Taha?"

"Are you insane or are you trying to drive me insane?"

Her anxiety rising, 'Adliyah replied:

"I swear by God, by the life of my daughter, I've never seen Shaykh Taha or heard of him."

'Uyun raised her voice as she had not done in years, and shouted:

"You even swear! You're plotting against my sanity. You would have me believe that I see things that do not exist, that I'm mad. Is that your aim? Is this your latest plan, to block the path to my only friend?"

'Adliyah's eyes were wide open with fright. Her arrogance tumbled down, razed. She shrieked in a quavering voice:

"You must be out of your mind, Madame!"

"Shut up! I'm not afraid of you. I'm not at your mercy. He'll visit me every day. This is my wish and you'll fulfill it without discussion. Beware, don't stand in his way! I'll cut off your livelihood!"

'Adliyah's face paled and her eyes bulged. She spoke humbly:

"Don't exhaust yourself. Let your mind be at peace. I'll fulfill your wish most willingly."

But 'Uyun screamed at her:

"Liar! Criminal! Thief! Adultress! For years, I've put up with you needlessly. I don't need your drab face. Without me, you aren't worth a damn. I don't need you. Go to hell! To sixty hells! God's bountiful blessings have spoiled you. You weren't satisfied with owning everything in my house, so you worked day and night to humiliate me, to frighten and torment me. You're fired! Don't show your face after today. Go to hell! To one thousand million hells!"

'Adliyah took a few steps backwards. Terror gripped her till it convulsed the roots of her mind. She turned her back, looking around, and rushed out like a wild wind, screaming at the top of her voice.

Ismail I. Nawwab, General Manager of Aramco Public Affairs in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, has taught at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and the University of Malaya in Malaysia.

The Watcher on the Curb
Written by Edward Fox
Photographed by Larry Luxner
Additional photographs by Ricardo Guerra and P. Bourseiller

Naquib Mahfouz finally has his own office at Al-Ahram.

After many years of sharing one at the famous Cairo newspaper, Mahfouz has been moved into the large and comfortable office formerly occupied by the late Tawfik al-Hakim, the great playwright, which had stood empty for a year. No one was seen worthy of occupying it until Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. This shows what one must do to get one's own office at Al-Ahram.

Inheriting Tawfik al-Hakim's office meant joining him as one of the immortals of modern Arabic literature. That the office followed the Nobel Prize, however, suggests a local hesitation to place Mahfouz on a footing equal to that of al-Hakim. Although Mahfouz is a superb novelist, he is not a great stylist and he does not write poetry; both are the usual criteria for literary stature in Arabic.

There is, however, poetic justice in Mahfouz's being given an office to crown his success. For many of his characters - Egyptian civil servants climbing the endless rungs of the bureaucracy - an office is the ultimate goal.

Naguib Mahfouz, a 77-year-old retired civil servant himself, is the supreme chronicler of such aspirations. His canon of 30 novels and ten volumes of short stories, written over a period of 50 years, encompasses the whole of 20th-century Egyptian history through a multitude of characters. His work embraces the teeming mass of Egyptian society and shows that every one of its members, however poor or humble, has a story worth telling - in many cases a sad, even tragic, story. The inevitable rise of the ambitious to the top of the hierarchy of Egyptian society, and the permanent place of the underclass at the bottom of it, are among the few certainties in his work. His heroes are those who try to escape from this certainty, even if they die trying - like Ibrahim, the aging office boy in the short story "God's World," who runs off with the salaries of the idlers in the overstaffed office where he works to buy for himself a few desperate days of pleasure. Though politics are as much a part of the lives of his characters as love, death or money, Mahfouz has little faith in the power of politics to effect change. Among modern Egyptian intellectuals, this is a rare and bold position to take.

The leftist literary historian Louis Awad, another Al-Ahram writer, for this reason sees Mahfouz as the least "committed" of the writers of his generation, using the term in Sartre's sense to mean philosophically and actively committed to radical social change. Many of this generation of writers, all now advanced in years, saw the possibility of rescuing the Egyptian masses from their historic poverty by political means. For them, the radical reforms introduced by Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of the Egyptian republic after the overthrow of the monarchy, held out hope.

Mahfouz, instead, examined the effects on individual Egyptians of measures like Nasser's land-reform program. In most cases, he found, their lives had been thrown into chaos, their property seized, and their sense of moral purpose shattered. Politics, in Mahfouz's books, is simply another of the evils that afflict humankind, a force whose harm one may be lucky enough to avoid. Like war, it is a fog in which some triumph, others are victimized, but in which no one sees clearly. Mahfouz is a political agnostic: He writes about people, not about manifestos.

To Louis Awad, Mahfouz is "a writer sitting in a café, who views the parade of life marching before him, watching from the curb" - not, he implies, from the barricades, as a more committed writer would.

Why, Mahfouz might reply, should one believe that a single mortal can change anything in a nation with a 5000-year-old bureaucracy? Nasser, by comparison, seems only another of the passing historical disruptions that periodically disturb the calm and desperate certainty of Egyptian life.

This certainty is articulated by Othman Bayyumi, the main character in the novel Respected Sir. Early in his life he is dazzled by the grand office occupied by the director-general of the government department for which he begins working as a junior clerk. He sacrifices his life to the ambition of occupying the same office himself one day. To him, the rank it represents "was a sacred occupation, like religion." Amid the trials of modern Egyptian history, only the role of the government official seems certain and permanent.

The Egyptian official was the oldest in the history of civilization.... Even the Pharoahs themselves, he thought, were but officials appointed by the gods of heaven to rule the Nile Valley by means of religious rituals and of administrative, economic and organizational regulations. Ours was a valley of good-natured peasants who bowed their heads in humility to the good earth but whose heads were raised with pride if they joined the government apparatus. Then would they look upwards to the ascending ladder of grades which reached right to the doorstep of the gods in heaven.

Many of Mahfouz's novels were serialized in Al-Ahram, a paper which has played an important part in introducing new currents into Egyptian cultural and intellectual life (See Aramco World, September-October 1972). The novel itself, a western literary form without direct antecedent in Arabic letters, was one such current. Mahfouz's latest novel, Al-Qushtuma, named after a Cairo café and described by its author as "a biography of Egypt through four characters," was being serialized in Al-Ahram at the time his Nobel Prize was announced.

Mahfouz's career began with a volume of short stories, followed by three novels about pharaonic Egypt written in the 1930's. Mahfouz chose the pharaonic theme because he was, like many Egyptians, profoundly inspired by the discovery, a few years earlier, of the treasures of Tutankhamen and other relics of the ancient civilization. He was so inspired that he planned a series of 40 novels set in ancient Egypt.

Mahfouz wrote his three pharaonic novels during the repressive regime of Prime Minister Isma'il Sidqi. He used the historical setting as a way of describing contemporary Egyptian politics, a subject he could not have attempted safely without the protection of the veil of allegory. This is a cunning technique he also used later, in books like Miramar and The Thief and the Dogs, to criticize Nasser's rule without naming him explicitly.

Mahfouz abandoned the series of 40 pharaonic novels to enter the second phase of his writing, in which he described in a starkly realistic way the lives of people living in the mazy alleys of Jamaliyya, the quarter of Cairo around the mosque and university of al-Azhar where he was born and spent his childhood.

Seven novels belong to this period, three of which - Bayn al-Qasrayn (Between Two Castles), Qasr al-Shawq (The Palace of Desire), and Al-Sukariyyah (The Sugar-Bowl) - comprise the trilogy which is his masterpiece. A complete translation in English will appear later this year, while Midaq Alley and The Beginning and the End have been in English for some time.

Bayn al-Qasrayn, the Egyptian author Taha Husayn wrote, "portrays a specific Egyptian environment at a specific period of this century, during and following the First World War... in which the men are ultraconservative, the women virtuous, innocent and veiled, and no one has yet lived with progress. They still cling to the traditions of the pure Egyptian way of life of the previous century."

Midaq Alley can be thought of as an early work in the genre of fiction known as "magic realism," which depicts incidents in the lives of ordinary people that seem almost too bizarre to be true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by the Colombian writer and 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, is the model of this genre, full of episodes one would think had been invented by a fabulist, if one did not know the culture the author is describing. In Midaq Alley, the story of Zaita, the man who maims the able-bodied so they may make a living as beggars, and who conspires with a self-taught quack dentist to extract the gold fillings from entombed corpses, would seem farfetched were it not so plausible just in that quarter, where poverty is extreme but life proceeds, against all probability, with a marvelous and unexpected verve and gaiety.

The Beginning and the End recounts the trials of a family in Jamaliyya that is thrown into poverty by the death of the father. It is a powerful narrative of the forces at work in these circumstances: Loyalty to each other binds the family members together, but shame, the strongest force in their lives, ultimately leads the ambitious son to force his sister to commit suicide for having a romantic affair. Shame at his humble origins forces him to lie to improve his standing before the father of the girl he wants to marry. Shame is a two-edged sword in this fictional world, protecting the precious dignity of a family that has nothing else, but also cutting deeply into the souls of its members. The humor of Midaq Alley is nowhere in evidence here - the mood is painfully somber - but the lives of these characters seem redeemed in the telling.

This phase of Mahfouz's writing was brought to a close by the Free Officers' coup of 1952 that inaugurated the era of Nasser. He stopped writing for a seven-year period during which Egypt underwent violent internal changes, including the Suez invasion of 1956. The novel that broke this long silence was Children of Gebelawi, (Awlad Haritna in its Egyptian colloquial title), a long and profound spiritual allegory written in the stark form of myth. It was serialized in Al-Ahram in 1959, but never published as a book in Egypt, in deference to orthodox religious sensibilities; Mahfouz has since said that he would consent to its publication in Egypt only with al-Azhar's approval. He has written that the novel shows that civilization cannot be built on science alone, but that faith and moral values are also necessary to underpin it. At a time of upheaval, Mahfouz in this book returned to his own philosophical first principles.

The novels that followed have never had the substance of the earlier works. Since the 1960's Mahfouz has written nearly a book a year, but they have been of mixed quality. Of those available in English, the best are Miramar, Autumn Quail, Mirrors, and Respected Sir. These books are representations of personal and political turmoil, their narratives depending on disorienting effects like unexpected shifts of person - often to suggest thoughts running through a character's mind while he is experiencing something else - that create a sense of mental dislocation.

The Thief and the Dogs represents the most extensive use of these techniques. It is written as a loosely ordered stream of impressions and feelings experienced by a young man who had been active in the Arab Socialist Union - the organization established to mobilize grass-roots support for Nasser's policies - and who returns from an unjustly imposed prison sentence to take revenge on the man he feels was responsible for his arrest. He dies at the end in a shootout, flinging his soul into oblivion. The implication, powerfully but cunningly and elliptically made, is that the revolution wasted this young man and poisoned his soul through the injustice it meted out to him.

Miramar, published in 1967, six years after The Thief and the Dogs, treats the Nasser era more artfully. It is the best of Mahfouz's later books, a finely wrought allegory in which Egypt is represented as a peasant girl who flees the hardship and injustice of life in the countryside to work in a boarding house in Alexandria. The guests, all of them exiles from unhappy lives themselves, vie for the last word on what is best for her, like impotent political factions competing for the right to determine the future of Egypt. If there is any stable center to the lives of the residents of the Pension Miramar, it is the weekly broadcast concerts by the great Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum, which they all gather to hear. Only this great singer, non-political and quintessentially Egyptian, can bring them together. (Mahfouz's regard for the singer is such that he named his first daughter Umm Kalthoum and his second daughter Fatima, which was Umm Kalthoum's real name. Both are names of daughters of the Prophet Muhammad.)

It is ironic, given his profound disillusionment with the Nasser era, that during this time Mahfouz was, in Louis Awad's words, "made an institution by the Nasser regime. He was almost crowned by the state." In 1970, three years after the publication of Miramar, he was awarded the National Prize for Letters, and two years later the country's highest honor, the Collar of the Republic. It is significant that in none of his novels up to that point had Nasser's name been mentioned.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, delivered in Stockholm by his friend Muhammad Salmawi, a deputy minister at the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, Mahfouz paid tribute to acts of justice and wisdom in the annals of pharaonic and Islamic history, and held these up as the great examples that these civilizations offer the world, rather than their achievements in architecture or on the battlefield. "One day the Great Pyramid will disappear too," he wrote, "but truth and justice will remain for as long as mankind has a thoughtful mind and a living conscience."

Edward Fox, an Aramco writer based in Dhahran, holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University.

On December 8,1988, Naguib Mahfouz's Nobel Lecture was delivered for him, in Arabic, by Muhammad Salmawi of Egypt's Ministry of Culture. Here are some excerpts.

"My talk...comes in a language unknown to many of you but [that language] is the real winner of the prize. It is, therefore, appropriate that its melodies should float for the first time into your oasis of culture and civilization. I have great hopes that this will not be the last time, either, and that literary writers of my nation will have the pleasure of sitting with full merit among your international writers, who have spread the fragrance of joy and wisdom in this grief-ridden world of ours.

I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history formed a happy marriage. The first of these, 7000 years old, is the pharaonic civilization; the second, 1400 years old, is the Islamic one.... As for Islamic civilization, I will not talk about its call for the establishment of a union of all humankind under the guardianship of the Creator, based on freedom, equality and forgiveness.... I will, instead, introduce that civilization in a moving, dramatic situation summarizing one of its most conspicuous traits. In one victorious battle against Byzantium it gave back its prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. This is a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge, even though the demander was a believer in God and what was demanded was the fruit of a pagan civilization.

In this decisive moment in the history of civilization...the human mind now assumes the task of eliminating all causes of destruction and annihilation. And just as scientists exert themselves to cleanse the environment of industrial pollution, intellectuals ought to exert themselves to cleanse humanity of moral pollution. It is both our right and our duty to demand of the great leaders in the civilized countries, as well as of their economists, to effect a real leap that would place them in the focus of the age.... Today the greatness of a civilized leader ought to be measured by the universality of his vision and his sense of responsibility toward all humankind. The developed world and the third world are but one family; each human being bears responsibility toward it to the degree that he has obtained knowledge, wisdom and civilization. I would not be exceeding the limits of my duty if I told [the leaders] in the name of the Third World: Be not spectators to our miseries.... We have had enough of words. Now is the time for action."

This article appeared on pages 14-25 of the March/April 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1989 images.