Naguib Mahfouz / Speaking for the People

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Naguib Mahfouz

Speaking for the People


Tony McKibbin

February 14, 2018


What might it mean to “produce the novel of one’s generation”, (Paris Review) as Charlotte El Shabrawy proposes Naguib Mahfouz did with The Cairo Trilogy, a three thousand page book about Cairo life between the wars?  By extension, we might wish to ask what it means to be a writer of one’s nation? It is to this latter question we want especially to attend as we will look at both the work and the social context to understand the significance of Mafhouz, a writer of immense importance not only in the context of Egyptian literature but modern Arab literature too – so much so that to say he produced the book of his generation can almost seem more like understatement rather than hyperbole. A question worth asking within this one is of a writer’s immense importance in relation to the people, with the public they are not only writing for but somehow speaking for also. The best a writer from the UK, the US, France or Italy can expect is that they have written the book of their generation, as Fitzgerald may well have done with The Great Gatsby, as Moravia may have done with The Time of Indifference, as Michel Houellebecq may have managed with Atomised or even Martin Amis with Money. We do not judge the quality of the books; we aim to say no more than that there will be little opportunity for the writer to hold such a significant place as the writer of their nation because of so many competing figures. Along with Fitzgerald, there was Hemingway and Faulkner, as well as Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis. Moravia’s contemporaries would include Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani and Cesare Pavese; Amis’s Ian McEwan, Alisdair Gray, James Kelman, Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter and Kazuo Ishiguro. Enough listing of names, however. Our point is merely to say that an Egyptian writer has the advantage of making a name for him or herself in an uncrowded field as a writer from the US etc. cannot. This would, of course, be based on the assumption that the writer wants to make a name for themselves and, perhaps alas, many do. As Rushdie says, “my friend Martin Amis has a wonderful phrase: ‘What you hope to do is leave behind a shelf of books.’ You want to be able to walk into a bookstore and say, ‘From here to here, it’s me.’” Rushdie also reckons The “world is drowning in books; even if you read a great masterpiece every day, you’d never be able to read all the ones that exist already. So if you want to add a book to that mountain, it had better be necessary.” Rushdie is here offering more than a couple of egoistic remarks (Harvard Business Review), but he is also implicitly indicating as a British writer (albeit with an Indian background) he is writing in this crowded market. He would appear to be speaking for himself and trying to reach others. Mahfouz, however, is perhaps an example of the reverse: someone who is writing for others but trying to find himself. Rushdie writes to produce literature out of what is already abundantly there; Mahfouz in creating literature gives both a voice to the people and generates a literature out of that voice.

To help us locate Mahfouz’s place within literature we should offer a few further contextualising comments before attending more specifically to Mahfouz’s work. Like Rushdie, Mahfouz was threatened and then later stabbed for what were perceived as insults to Islam, based on a book he had written many years earlier. Mahfouz suspected that Rushdie’s book “contains insults against Islam…In comparison to my book, I haven’t any insolence against any religion. But I present some views for the history of humanity as I imagined it. Perhaps I took freedom in treatment, which disturbed men of religion.” (‘The Nobel Interview that Never Ran’) What would seem clear is that Rushdie’s book was a provocation as Mahfouz’s was not, evident for example in the passage where one of the Islamic terrorists “quickly lifted the loose black djellabah that was her only garment and stood before them stark naked, so that they could all see the arsenal of her body, the grenades like extra breasts nestling in her cleavage, the gelignite around her thighs…” (The Satanic Verses) Writers including Roald Dahl and John Berger mused over the intentions and consequences of Rushdie’s work, with Berger saying “I suspect that Salman Rushdie, if he is not caught in a chain of events of which he has completely lost control, might, by now, be ready to consider asking his world publishers to stop producing more or new editions of ‘The Satanic Verses.’ Not because of the threat of his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book.” (Guardian) Roald Dahl was sterner. In a letter to The Times, Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist…he must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the best-seller list — but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it.” “In a civilized world, Dahl said, “we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.”

Whether Dahl is right or not, we might agree that Rushdie is the Western writer provocatively taking on Islam, while Mahfouz was the Islamic novelist writing within his culture and then in his old age (at over eighty) was stabbed by extremists who were looking to register their anger. Ostensibly the attack on Mahfouz was for The Children of Gebelawi which “had been banned by Al Azhar, Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, for offending Islam by depicting characters who represent the Prophet Mohammed.” (New York Times) But this seemed less a provocation on Mahfouz’s part than an ongoing exploration of Islamic culture within an Egyptian context. This is not to say Rushdie shouldn’t have written and published The Satanic Verses; only to say that certain works have what we might call a contentious calling: that whether it be Lady Chatterley’s LoverLolitaSatanic Verses, or Houellebecq’s Submission, controversy is likely. Mahfouz’s above remarks suggest he did not assume he had written a problematic work and, accepting his comment in good faith, it might help us explain, and allow us to explore, our initial argument about a writer who speaks for his people and for the country.

A writer such as Houellebecq may speak to the people more than any other contemporary French novelist, but he does not speak for the people. This is partly because, as we have noted, working in a literature with many competing voices and perspectives it would be difficult for any one writer to represent such a position, but it is also that Houellebecq is a provocateur, someone who has no interest in uniting a people but instead playing to their prejudices for the purposes of a certain type of truth. When asked why his books can be so funny whilst dealing with such sensitive material, Houellebecq replies, “you laugh because the insult claims merely to state the obvious. This may be unusual in literature but it isn’t in private life.” (Paris Review). Houellebecq goes on to give as examples that “Islam is moronic”, and talks of a girl telling her friend who is fighting for abortion rights, “I don’t mean to be mean, but nobody would want to get her pregnant anyway.” Islamophobic and misogynist, no doubt, and such remarks are hardly likely to unite a country, but Houellebecq isn’t wrong in knowing that such statements will chime with those who feel freedom of expression has been curtailed. He can speak to the people by pandering to prejudices that he nevertheless sees some validity in possessing, and many on the Left would have to acknowledge that it has not been politically useful to have such a large percentage of disenfranchised whites in Europe in the early stages of the 21st century. Submissionlooks at what might happen when people on the Left capitulate to Islam: it will lead to an Islamic government with women covered up and education ending at twelve. The narrator doesn’t actually see this is as such a bad thing: he could do with a bit of faith in his life and opportunistically realizes he can have a better academic career under an Islamic government than a secular one. But this is nevertheless a provocation: Houellebecq baiting both the Left and Islam and producing a commercially very successful novel: ”an instant best-seller” according to the New York Times

Houellebecq might be very popular but he is not speaking for the people as we believe Mahfouz does, and partly why we are inclined to believe Mahfouz’s claims that he had no interest in offending Islam. Islam, after all, is Egypt’s official religion, and, according to “a report on ‘The future of the Global Muslim Population’estimated that approximately 95% of Egyptians were Muslims in 2010.” (PewResearch) Mahfouz’s Translator and Biographer Raymond Stock reckons “he was not so much the product of his time — there was no one like him when he grew up (or now) — as the maker of it, for it was he who created the modern prose style in Arabic fiction and brought the Arabic novel to maturity.” Stock says that “though his reputation is that of an Egyptian Dickens or Balzac, he was also a Proust, a Galsworthy, a Joyce, a Kafka, a Faulkner, and a Zola, as well as a Muwaylihi, a Manfaluti, and an al-Hakim, among others, and yet none of the above as well, for he combined them all, adding his own personal elements to the mix.” (Middle East Institute) This is high praise, but what interests us is the sense of responsibility Mahfouz would have felt as a writer as Houellebecq most clearly does not, the sense that he is making and shaping the very people he is writing about and wants to show the dignity at work within them. To offend was never Mahfouz’s modus operandi and to give us a sense of his approach let us now turn to the work.

In Palace Walk (part of The Cairo Trilogy) the family feels relieved of its obligation to stay in. This has nothing to do with the weather: “it was not occasioned by spring granting this family liberty they had been deprived of by winter. This respite came as a natural consequence of a business trip, lasting a day or more, that al-Sayyid Ahmad made to Port Said every few years.” Mahfouz makes absolutely clear the authority of the father, and the tale plays out the consequences of the wife taking very modest advantage of her freedom. She pays a visit to a mosque but gets hit by a car as she faints from the heat. When the father returns he is distraught by her condition, which overrides his anger concerning her visit to the mosque. As she recovers, the anger becomes more intense and Mahfouz subtly expresses the father’s concerns, no matter how monstrous we may find his egotism. “He convinced himself that if he forgave her and yielded to the appeal of affection, which he longed to do, then his prestige, honor, personal standards, and set of values would all be compromised. He would lose control of his family, and the bonds holding it together would dissolve.” It is that phrase, “which he longed to do” which gives nuance to the values of a man we might be inclined to despise. This is someone who cheats, is occasionally violent and tyrannizes the household, yet in this passage Mahfouz conveys less the father’s monstrousness than the conditions in which everyone finds themselves. Yet this is not an apologia for the father’s behaviour either: Mahfouz shows it for what it is but also shows that the son, sharing his father’s good looks and culturally acceptable attitude to taking advantage of women, is following in footsteps that can only be countered by the march of history. The book ends on the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, which led to an Egyptian feminist movement in the early 1920s.

A more polemically inclined or more provocatively insistent writer would have shown the father’s monstrosity but not his humanity, human in the sense that there is often a self hidden within the structures that the self is expected to abide by. It might be brave to resist one’s times, but often the individual gesture is precisely that: an individual response to a social situation that allows the exception to be the rule. The father could have accessed his humanity and forgiven his wife, but he would have in the process damaged his identity in the eyes of others. “In short, if he forgave her he would no longer be Ahmad Abd al-Jawad but some other person he could never agree to become.” To complicate matters still further, Mahfouz notes that Ahmad “was unfortunate that he reviewed the situation when he was calm and all alone. If he could have been able to give vent to his anger when she confessed, his rage would have been satisfied.” Instead, now he must symbolically punish her, playing fair to the society he is from but being unfair both to his wife and to his own feelings. We might come away dismayed by Ahmad’s actions, but the judgement should be more for the society that creates such situations over the individual who is at the mercy of them. Clearly our sympathies are much more with the wife than with the husband, but that needn’t negate any sympathy in turn for him; otherwise why would Mahfouz give space to the father’s ambivalent thoughts over the events?

Such an approach does not disrespect Islam, it just wonders how religious faith and practices, societally sanctioned, can work more successfully for those practicing it. Mahfouz is very far away from saying Islam is moronic. Indeed, what often seems to interest Mahfouz is modern society and ancient wisdom, and that significant values are neither beholden to one nor the other: that the old-fashioned or the new-fangled are just as likely to hide as reveal. In a retelling of the Sindbad story from Arabian Nights and Arabian Days, Sindbad related how he found himself on an island alongside others from a shipwreck ruled over by a giant king. Their needs are more than met and they can take beautiful slave-girls as their wives. “Life thus became easy and enjoyable.” However, “it then happened that one of the wives died and the king had her prepared for burial and said to our comrade who was the woman’s widower…[that] the husband be buried alive with his dead wife; this also goes for the wife if the husband happens to die before her.” This is thus no patriarchal culture; it is equal opportunities when it comes to misery and despair. But as Sindbad notes, “I learned too…that to continue worn out traditions is foolishly dangerous.” Here we notice wisdom that insists on burying two people when only one has died in an inversion of the utilitarian ethic: instead of the greatest good for the greatest number what we have is the maximum amount of misery given a principle that benefits no one. Equally one senses that whatever value Mahfouz may see in Islam, it is not an absolute one. Like Sindbad, Mahfouz wants a belief system that needn’t be punitive but pragmatic and ameliorative.

In Islamic Fundamentalism and the Intellectuals: The Case of Naguib Mahfouz, Fauzi M. Najjar looks at Mahfouz’s religious faith in the context of his socialist beliefs. Saying he is not a Marxist but in sympathy with such thinking, Mahfouz discusses the importance of scientific investigation but also within the context of higher truths. Najjar wonders what these higher truths might be, and sees that they wouldn’t be high enough to satisfy conservative Islamists. Mahfouz “anticipates the ultimate triumph of socialism, because it lures the hearts of the embittered poor, who make up the majority of mankind. Whatever noble vision he entertains, the Islamists regard him as an atheist Marxist, and an enemy of Islam.” Najjar’s article predicates itself on the Egyptian novelist’s attempted assassination and looks through Mahfouz’s work for reasons why someone would wish to stab an eighty-three-year-old man in the neck. Our own purpose is to muse over the nature of Mahfouz’s work in the context of what we are loosely calling wisdom, to make clear that Mahfouz isn’t an ‘enemy of Islam’ (as Houellebecq and Rushdie might more clearly be perceived as being), but who sees Islam, like Marxism, as part of a worldview. Islam is within that view and this is no doubt partly why Mahfouz found the threats made before the stabbing slightly inexplicable. Yet though Mahfouz’s questioning of Islam might have been mild, his authority within the context of Egyptian and Arabic literature was enormous. Mahfouz won the Nobel prize for literature in 1988 and remains the only Arab writer to have done so. In an interview with a Kuwaiti journalist Najjar quotes, Mahfouz says that the “emir of terrorist organisations”, Shayhk Umar abd al Rahman, believed that had Mahfouz been murdered, “Salman Rushdie would not have emerged.” The idea of a fatwa taken out on a writer might now be synonymous with Rushdie, but it was not a Booker prize winner who was finally attacked, but a Nobel prize-winning Islamic writer who had spent many years working inside the context of Islam, working through numerous books a place that could incorporate questions of faith with a belief in socialism and science. Religion “cannot suppress reason or restrict its scope, or interfere in its activity”, Najjar quotes the novelist saying.

Mahfouz was a writer working from the context of his culture rather than provocatively working against it, as he was born at the start of one revolution (1919) and had completed ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ just before the revolution of 1952. The first revolution led in 1922 to the forming of the Kingdom of Egypt; the second to the overthrow of both the king and some of the British authority over the country, and to the establishment of a republic with Gamal Abdel Nasser, thus creating an Arab Socialist state. Mahfouz’s longevity meant that he was still alive during the rise of Radical Islam in the wake of the Iranian revolution at the end of the seventies, and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Russians at the same time. We will not pretend here to know any more about Egyptian and Islamic history than the basics; our purpose is to provide a context for our claim that Mahfouz would not ‘merely’ have been a writer following his own preoccupations, but someone who would be expected to speak for the people as many a Western writer would not. Edward Said in an obituary in the London Revie of Books reckoned “Mahfouz’s career is of course distinguished in the Arab world not only because of the extraordinary length of his writing life, but because his work is so thoroughly Egyptian (and Cairene), based as it is on a territorial and imaginative vision of a society unique in the Middle East. The thing about Mahfouz is that he has always been able to depend on the vital integrity and even cultural compactness of Egypt.” Said added, “For all its tremendous age, the variety of its components and the influences on it – the merest listing of these is inhibitingly impressive: Pharaonic, Arab, Muslim, Hellenistic, European, Christian, Judaic etc – the country has a stability and identity which have not disappeared in this century. “ Said also says that “we should not forget, however, that the novel as it is known in the West is a relatively new form in the rich Arabic literary tradition. And along with that we should keep in mind that the Arabic novel is an engaged form, involved through its readers and authors in the great social and historical upheavals of our century, sharing in its triumphs as well as its failures.” “Thus, to return to Mahfouz, his work from the late Thirties on compresses the history of the European novel into a relatively short span of time. He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romains.”

Yet Mahfouz himself wondered whether Egyptian literature could claim the same status as the great European works. When asked about how highly he rated his own fiction, John Fowles notes in his introduction to Mahfouz’s Miramar that Mahfouz believed that “probably like the rest of modern Arabic Literature, fourth or fifth rate.” Shakespeare, Joyce and Tolstoy would be amongst the first tier; Dickens, Lawrence and Wells amongst the second and third. Now if Mahfouz had been commenting on his own work exclusively we could assume he was making nothing other than a modest remark, but he is including here other writings too. According to Fowles, Mahfouz makes the claim for its mediocrity on the basis that “literature is formed by its social context and by the attitudes of its readers, and that since Egypt is still undergoing the industrial and social revolution which Europe passed through a hundred and fifty years ago, Arabic literature must use the technique and subject matter of the nineteenth century.” Whether we agree with Mahfouz’s claim that his work is fourth or fifth rate, we can see how his remarks coincide with our own about writing for the people rather than to the people. If Mahfouz sees that his offence against Islam was quite different from Rushdie’s, it rests partly perhaps on the idea that Rushdie is the post-modern writer assuming a literary audience and horrified that he finds himself confronted by a primitive one that demands his demise, and Mahfouz whose whole writing life was negotiating with Islam and Egyptian societal change. Rushdie may or may not be a first, second or third rate novelist, or even lower down the scale, but he is a writer writing within a culture that is not Indian especially, but international. He would be as likely to invoke Marquez and Joyce as Narayan and Tagore, as he talks in a Telegraph article about his fondness for Narayan’s Malgudi, equivalent to Marquez’s Macondo, while concentrating chiefly on his admiration for Marquez.

Does this mean we can talk of two literatures: one, the world literature Milan Kundera invokes; the other a minor literature Mahfouz himself proposes in his modest claims about Arab fiction? When Mahfouz says that “what bothers me personally is the attitude of certain intellectuals or writers who I would qualify as spoiled, who demand to be protected and preserved from any hostile reaction” (The Washington Post), he would seem to be acknowledging a responsibility writers have to their environment and their culture. Literature is not some higher plane upon which great works are created, but a social mechanism that speaks for those who are voiced by the characters one creates.

Kundera, on the other hand, would be inclined to think of world literature. “There are two contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context), or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context).” It is the latter that Kundera thinks is of the greatest importance as literature crosses borders and boundaries. “…If we consider the history of the novel, it was to Rabelais that Laurence Stern was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert’s tradition living on in Joyce…” (The Curtain) and so on. But Kundera also talks about the provinicialism of large nations, noting that in a poll, various key figures in French cultural life were asked what French books were the most important and put De Gaulle’s War Memoirs far higher than Flaubert’sMadame BovaryLes Miserables was first. For Kundera, such choices take place while attending to the small context; within the large one, Flaubert would be far ahead of De Gaulle. Madame Bovary is a great piece of international literature; De Gaulle’s memoirs no more than a book pertinent to France. It is of immense relevance socially, but hardly at all to the history of literary form.

When Mahfouz regards his work as fourth or fifth rate, Kundera might accuse him of thinking in small literature terms; that Mahfouz could also draw on world literature that allows influences to come from anywhere. Yet in reply, Mahfouz might accuse the Kunderan position of lacking enough of a social context – that when Rushdie publishedSatanic Verses he was no doubt seeing his work in the context of world literature. This was often a position from where certain writers would defend him, but where others still, including Dahl, Berger and Mahfouz himself, would insist that literature cannot exist in a vacuum of untold freedoms. We needn’t agree with Mahfouz that writers are not as free as they might wish, just as we may or may not agree that Mahfouz’s work is mediocre and that this is inevitable given the context out of which it is produced. Our claim resides in noticing differences, to see that while what Kundera calls the large context is pertinent to writers who see themselves working out of world literature and thus to the people, what he calls the small context is more useful when thinking about how a novelist writes for the people. A writer might insist he or she has no more responsibility than putting down words on a page; others would argue that those words come from a language and culture that they cannot easily escape. The smaller the nation is in literary terms (Egypt is after all several sizes bigger than Great Britain geographically) the greater the burden the writer may feel in representing the people.

In conclusion, we can look at a number of Mahfouz’s works and see how they interrogate Egyptian mores and more broadly Arabic culture. In The Harafish, Mahfouz covers a single family over several centuries in ten separate stories. In one, Mahfouz attends to a character who cannot countenance ageing and believes that he can defy the process through prowess. If he is sometimes reluctant to indulge this isn’t the moral high ground making demands upon him, but his ambition and luxurious languor. As clan chief, “his desires were constantly held in check by his preoccupation with fighting, putting up buildings, amassing wealth, and embracing boredom.” The one thing his power cannot defeat is time, and the one thing boredom absorbs is the temporal. Does Galal often do nothing because he doesn’t finally know what to do with that time? He is ambitious certainly, as his father says that he is surprised and happy that his son has become chief. “I was strong like you, but to be chief you need the stomach and the ambition” says the father. Yet that ambition is tempered by suffocating self-reflection. “What was the point of being sad or happy? What did strength mean, or death? Why did the possible exist?” From a certain point of view these would be important questions, but for a man of ambition without a clear sense of the values he wants to espouse, they can be signs of weakness. Yet it seems the son has little sense of values, evident when his father asks about poverty and indignity in the community and the father says “people are wondering when justice will be done”, and the son replies, “what does it matter?” Mahfouz does not present Galal as an empty egotist trying to garner all the pleasures in life. No, “he was uninterested in the state of the Harafish [the Urban rabble]…not from egotism or weakness in the face of life’s temptations, but because he despised their concerns and found their problems trivial. The strange thing was that he was naturally inclined to asceticism and scorned the demands of the flesh.” Yet “some blind, faceless power was behind his desire for status, money, and possessions, at the heart [though] was anxiety and fear.” Galal in time increasingly insists he feels immortal but his death will be ignoble as he never finds the ethos one needs to conquer mortality. Mahfouz suggests one defeats death by finding a value greater than one’s own life, instead of constantly adding material accoutrements to one’s immediate existence. Galal may not gain much pleasure from putting up buildings, sleeping with lots of women, and overeating and drinking, but they will distract him from the anxieties of his life. But perhaps that is the problem: the anxiety resides in an existence being one’s own. Unless one can find a value beyond the immediacy of our self, anxiety will offer itself up as boredom, since there is no way to defeat life through matter, only through the spirit. Whether this spirit is socialist or Islamic, the point is to find a value higher than one’s own ego. The problem with the spirit of Islam would be that it can sometimes counter social progress, but this doesn’t mean that capitalism would be the answer either. Galal in this sense is the capitalist personified: someone who tries to find value in material things but can’t find it because greed cannot conjoin with spirit. After all, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven as Mahfouz takes the biblical phrase and applies it beyond the religious.

Mahfouz is not an Islamic writer, but he is very far from an anti-Islamic writer: he is a novelist working within the context of an Islamic culture and trying to find values that needn’t be static within it. Anyone asking from a novelist a fixed set of values would be denying the ethical possibilities within an art form that often shuttles between the societally demanding and the personally liberating. If we don’t entirely agree with Mary Gordon in the Atlantic when she says, “I believe that if your primary motivation in life is to be moral, you don’t become an artist. You do good works.” “Perhaps” she says, “like Chekhov, you divide your time among healing the sick, bearing witness to appalling prison conditions, and writing masterpieces. But if Chekhov had turned from a bleeding patient—had let up the pressure on the tourniquet—to put the finishing touches on The Cherry Orchard, this would not have been a moral act.” Gordon then adds, “We choose beauty over goodness. That is who we are. This is not admirable.” But what if Chekhov’s act is ethical rather than moral; that to heal the patient is unequivocally good but to work on The Cherry Orchard is an equivocal good. The former is the action within the given value; the latter is the creative act finding an ethos. Static morality has its place and can help us to act without thinking too much about it, but the point of the creative act is to think about it. This type of thinking is very different from Kant’s categorical imperative or Plato’s claims concerning the immutability of the forms that insist in moral goodness, but much closer to the philosophical than dealing with the bleeding patient. Indeed we can easily think of a fictional work that addresses the tension between a doctor attending to his patients and trying to find the time to write a novel, which would offer an ethical dilemma that the fiction would be working within.

It would be this idea of working within that we might find in Mahfouz’s relationship with socialism and Islam, with a society trying to modernise itself, and a culture determined to hold onto wisdom from distant centuries. When Martin Amis wrote on Rushdie’s situation in 1990, Amis said “his case is of course unique. It is an embarrassment of uniquenesses. The terms of the fatwa (which was, at once, a death sentence and a life sentence); the size of the bounty (three times the reputed fee for perpetrating the Lockerbie crash); the nature of the exile, which removes the novelist both from his subject (society) and from his object (sober literary consideration): in his own phrase, Rushdie is firmly ‘handcuffed to history.’His uniqueness is the measure of his isolation.”  (Vanity Fair) Amis is not wrong, though a passing mention of Mahfouz’s predicament might have been useful. Yet after Mahfouz’s death was called for the Egyptian writer continued his daily routine and refused bodyguards: he was still immersed in Cairo life. Rushdie on the other hand, in hiding, would be seen, according to Amis, “at midnight, proposing to recite the Complete Works of Bob Dylan; or watching the World Cup on television last summer (with his remorseless parodies of the sportscasters); or falling over while demonstrating an ambitiously low-slung version of the twist; or eating pizza and earnestly listening to bootleg Jimi Hendrix.” This is the difference between a writer immersed in an Islamic world and a Western writer trying very understandably to achieve some normality in his life. But anecdotally it tells us something about the nature of their threat to radical Islam. Mahfouz was seen as a Muslim writer who was misguided; Rushdie a figure who had insulted God. Rushdie’s position was not especially unique, and certainly wouldn’t be now in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but Amis’s article on his good friend accidentally reveals the difference between writing for a people and on a people.

To conclude, let us say a few words about a fine Mahfouz short story called ‘The Conjurer Made off with the Dish’ and touch upon the novel that lead to the attack on his life. Here the first person narrator is a young boy sent by his mum to pick up some beans. Off he goes, but once he arrives at the bean sellers, the man asks him what sort of beans does he want. “Beans alone? With oil? With cooking butter?” He returns home and his mother sends him out again to ask for beans with oil. He goes back to the market and the seller says what sort of oil as the boy returns home once more. When he goes back to the seller and says beans with linseed oil he finds he has mislaid the money in his pocket and so on as the story becomes a tale of an impossible quest, reduced to the most basic of items. It brings to mind anything from fairy stories to Greek myths, from Arabian nights to Grimm fables as the boy’s quest leads him to witness various grown-up events in the city, and to new feelings in his body. At one moment he comes across a peep show with kids taking turns staring into a box that offers enchanting stories of great adventures, with a man providing “tantalizing commentary” to the pictures. The narrator pays a piaster and enjoys the experience too. With the images of the peep show in his mind, he sees a young girl and asks her to sit with him. In her company, he “experienced feelings that were new, strange and obscure.” It is a marvellous story that mixes the every day with a yearning for the fantastic, a blend of fantasy in the images he sees and the reality of his immediate, poverty-stricken life. At one moment after he kisses the girl she gets up to leave. He wonders why and she says she must find the mid-wife: “my mother’s crying in pain at home.” Later he witnesses two adults and believes the experience is somehow similar to the one he had with the girl. “Their lips and the looks they exchanged spoke of this, but they showed astonishing expertise in the unimaginable things they did.” Shortly afterwards the man slaps the woman as the situation turns murderously violent, and not long after that the boy still hasn’t returned home as he says “I told my self that I should be resolute and make a quick decision.” The story mixes beautifully the sacred and the profane; the desire for a better life and the relative misery of the boy’s own.

The reason Mahfouz was threatened, and then years later stabbed, lay in writing a book about Mohammed and Jesus Christ, seeing them in The Children of Gebelawi as working class people. Equally, the short story manages to convey the reality behind the fantasy: that the narrator is fascinated by the peep show but it is far from the reality of his life. What we see in the story is the profane but not at all the blasphemous and this might be central to the difference between Rushdie (as well as Houellbecq’s) and Mahfouz’s position. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t as a writer be blasphemous – that is not our point here. The issue is one of distinctions. To blaspheme is to lack piety; to profane is in one sense to be merely secular: to draw upon the non-sacred. This is the position offered by sociologist Emile Durkheim, where Durkheim “ claimed that all religions divide objects or phenomena into the sacred and the profane. The sacred objects are those which are extraordinary and are treated as if set apart from the routine course of events in daily life. The profane are those objects or phenomena seen as ordinary and constituting the reality of everyday living.” (Sociology Index) By making Christ and Mohammed profane rather than sacred, Mahfouz would have been trying to marry his socialist principles with Islamic faith. Writers like Houllebecq and Rushdie would appear instead to be blasphemous, reacting against Islam rather than working inside it. Some would insist that writers should have no concern over such issues: their freedom ought to be paramount. “One silver lining in this depressing cloud”, Stephen R. Welch says, “is that the Charlie Hebdo incident has fomented public debate over the merits of the right to blaspheme in a free society, and whether that right truly jeopardizes social harmony or is intrinsic to the values of a liberal society.” (Index) Later in the article he quotes Mahfouz and sees his position as appeasing. “Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz—himself also once accused of blasphemy—who, though first decrying the Ayatollah’s act as ‘terrorism,’ later backtracked and stated that Rushdie “did not have the right to insult anything considered holy.” But by our reckoning, this would be Mahfouz differentiating between the profane and the blasphemous: that Rushdie was happy to rile Islam, while Mahfouz merely wanted to profane it.

Is one acceptable; the other not? We offer no claim either way, just as we are not interested in this instance in saying anything about Rushdie or Houellebecq’s books as aesthetic objects. We simply state there seems to be a difference between writers like Mahfouz writing within Islam and for the people, and writers like Rushdie and Houellebecq writing within the context of Western liberty that allows to provoke other faiths within the context of a liberal perspective. If many felt ambivalent about defending Rushdie against the Fatwa, while at the same time insisting that the announcement of it was a shocking attack on someone simply writing a book, it may reside partly in believing that he had written a blasphemous novel rather than a profane one: a book that wished to provoke, and certainly did. Mahfouz did not appear to have such a desire, and reading through his work we sense a writer who feels a burden of responsibility. Welch may say “It is neither polemic nor satire; nor is it an allegory or insult, veiled or otherwise…The Satanic Verses is no more or less than what its author intended—a novel.” This is the sovereign right of the novelist, the figure of world literature as Kundera would couch it. But the writer is also a figure of a time and a place, a milieu and a people. Mahfouz appeared to be a writer well aware of such a position and the responsibilities involved. It is the burden not just of the Islamic writer, but any novelist who knows that as a major figure in a minor literature (in a modern tradition that has few forbears), writing for the people rather than to the people may seem an inevitable consequence of that minor country’s literary status. He or she feels the nature of responsibility quite differently from a writer who might believe that all they want to do is write a good book and make their mark. We might be reminded in conclusion of a comment James Baldwin makes in an interview with Margaret Mead. (A Rap on Race) Baldwin was at a party in New York and a famous American intellectual couldn’t understand why Baldwin wasn’t happier. “What are you crying about Jimmy, You’ve made it.” “Made what?” Baldwin replied as if acknowledging that it is wasn’t enough to do well oneself; there are others too that shouldn’t be ignored.


Toni McKibbin



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