For many decades our school curricula paid scant attention to modern literature, such as novels, short stories, and drama. This was a carry-over from a time when rejectionist voices had been raised against these genres, fearing the negative impact they could have upon younger generations. When finally I had access to modern works of literature, I was captivated by their depth of insight and their lucid beauty. I remember the sheer delight I felt upon venturing into the world of Naguib Mahfouz,1 losing myself in Pharaonic history, then moving on to modern Egyptian history, pondering their sociopolitical issues and fully empathizing with their concerns and anxieties. I immediately related to his fictional characters to an extent that I felt I knew them personally. These were the offspring of the milieu and environment of Mahfouz and that is why his portrayal of them was so complete and so faithful. Yet reading Mahfouz is one thing, and getting to know the great novelist personally is on another plane entirely.

Personal Encounters

From 1974 to 1981, I used to frequent the meetings Mahfouz held every Friday evening from 5 to 8 at Café Riche and, later, at the Casino Qasr el-Nil. These personal contacts with the novelist further enhanced my appreciation of his work. I have learned a great deal from him - and I was not alone in this. He was a great altruist who showed us how to listen to others, how to understand their psyche, and how to communicate and establish relationships with them. I learned how to interpret their behavior and, deeper yet, how to understand the workings of society with its problems, struggles and uncertainties.
In many Arab countries, there existed a lack of a serious pursuit of the new. Mahfouz, however, used to discuss culture, literature, politics and social issues. This forced me to read or buy the latest magazines and publications in order to be able to keep up and to take part in the discussions. The gatherings were not unpleasantly strict, but were peppered with lighthearted banter. And perhaps few are aware that Mahfouz possessed a great sense of humor and wit. I used to see in him the spirit of Egypt - its capacity to banish all its troubles and to seek lightheartedness, freedom, and happiness.
When I embarked on my doctorate dissertation about the novelist Tawfiq al-Hakim, it occurred to me that it would be a help as well as an honor to meet with the writer. When I shared my thoughts with Mahfouz, he acted immediately. We went to al-Hakim's place in Dar al-Ahram, and he introduced me to the writer with a show of fatherly affection.
Later, when we were offered coffee, I said to Mahfouz jokingly, "I am surprised you accuse al-Hakim of stinginess. Here we are drinking his coffee." He laughed heartily and said, "Yes, but you do not know who is footing the bill!"

The Epitome of Order

It is a well-known fact that Mahfouz was a personification of order and rigor. People used to set their watches by his goings and comings, his wakefulness, and his sleep. This sense of order was at the core of Mahfouz's ability to preserve his innovativeness and his sustained artistic output. He never compromised on his set schedule for reading or writing.
Mahfouz did not like to travel and left Egypt only twice: Once was to what was then Yugoslavia, at the request of Gamal Abdel Nasser, in order to inaugurate the birth of the non-aligned nations. The second time was to Yemen when it was liberated from its autocratic regime. It is likely that one main reason why he disliked traveling was that it disrupted the rigorous regime by which he lived and through which he left us with such a rich legacy.

The Nobel Prize

When Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, speculations abounded about the reasons for his selection. Some saw it as a political move. Others said that he had been rewarded for his opinions and beliefs, which went against the accepted rules and conventions of the Orient. A third opinion reduced his merit to the Trilogy2, for which they claimed he got the prize. To all these I say: There may be a measure of truth in all your allegations, but you must also take a comprehensive perspective to view this great writer's output in its integrity.
Mahfouz is much bigger than just one element or another. Some French writers have said that, had Mahfouz been one of them, they would have erected statues for him in every one of their towns. He was awarded the Nobel Prize simply because he was a great novelist with a deep and extensive experience. He has encapsulated within his writings the trajectory of novel writing, which has extended over a good part of two centuries.
He began by writing three historical novels: Games of Fate [also sometimes translated as Mockery of the Fates- Ed.], Rhadopis of Nubia, and The Struggle of Thebes. These can be considered historical romances, but Mahfouz was also a realist in the sense that he brought history to bear on the modern scene. The Struggle of Thebes, for example, is not only about the "struggle for Thebes," but also about the struggle of Egypt against the British occupation. Rhadopis is not the Pharaonic courtesan to whose beauty everybody used to bow, but the embodiment of the "courtesans" that preoccupied many of the contemporary rulers. To Mahfouz, those rulers became so absorbed with the descendents of Rhadopis that they ended up losing their countries.

Works in Realism

In his second phase, Mahfouz abandoned historical fiction and turned to writing realist novels. His reality revolved around a certain society, so he chose the simple Egyptian setting in which he lived that was peopled by characters he knew, and with whom he shared its customs and traditions. The events in these novels unfolded in specific places as the titles indicate - Midaq Alley, Khan al Khalili, Palace of Desire, Palace Walk and Sugar Street - so that the setting became the predominant element in these novels.
In spite of the fact that many of the plots were based on actual events with which he was familiar, Mahfouz chose to give them tragic endings. The novel The Beginning and the End is the story of a family Mahfouz knew, and he was aware that their troubles had ended in great happiness. Yet he chose to push the family into this black pit of drownings and suicides in the belief that with such endings the reader would be faced with a responsibility and the question "And then?" In these realistic endings, he went against socialist optimism in order to invest his characters with a specific Egyptian spirit.
Later, he experimented with a new style and wrote Mirage, a psychological novel in which Mahfouz took up the theme of Freudian complexes. Both the Oedipus and Electra complexes came to life in a plot that mirrors modern Egyptian society - in short, a slice of life.
Mahfouz ended this phase with Sugar Street before the 1952 revolution. Sadly, many intellectuals failed to see in this novel a portent of revolutions and the social upheavals to come.

A Simple Portrayal

From 1952 to 1959, Mahfouz stopped writing novels and turned to screenplays instead. Possibly he felt that he had reached a point in his realistic technique from which he could advance no further; also, he feared he would repeat himself. He looked for a new style until he settled on problems of a philosophical and psychological nature that would characterize his later work. In these novels, he mostly delved into the inner workings of his characters' minds. He made use of his extensive readings in literary criticism so that all modes of realism were reflected in this writings, such as naturalism and existentialism, to name but a few.
This short piece does not claim to provide a deep critical survey of Mahfouz and his work. The object is to present a simple portrayal of an individual, a novelist, a thinker, a critic, and a philosopher who will be missed on the Arab literary scene as in the rest of the world. <