Monday, September 04, 2006

Tahar Ben Jalloun on Naguib Mahfouz

One great Arab novelist eulogizes another:

Like the characters in his novels, Mr. Mahfouz found himself at times trapped between tradition and modernity. His 1959 book “Children of the Alley,” which was not anti-Islamic but took liberties with the histories of the founders of the three monotheistic religions, was condemned by clerics, and after they complained to President Gamel Abdel Nasser, Mr. Mahfouz promised to not allow its future publication. (To Mr. Mahfouz’s dismay, a pirated edition of the book showed up on the sidewalks of Cairo.)

His relationship with Islamic militants continued to be an uneasy one. In 1994, they tried to stab him to death. Still, he had no hatred for them. He knew that their actions were dictated by ignorance, and as he said from his hospital bed, they had nothing to do with Islam. He hated conflict and supported the 1979 peace accords with Israel, a stance that led to boycotts or bans of his books in some Arab nations.

Mr. Mahfouz tried all styles of writing, including experimental novels. This amused him. His language, classical and conservative at first, became more inventive, incorporating what he heard in his neighborhood, which he never left. He didn’t travel. It’s said that he left Cairo once or twice, no more. He was an immobile voyager, an explorer of the human soul seated in a cafe.

I like the line, "This Amused him." I'm also a bit instinctually supportive of Mahfouz for the simple reason that religious fundamentalists tried to kill him and failed.

I myself haven't read as much Mahfouz as I would like -- I've never had the chance to sit down with the famed Cairo Trilogy, for instance. But I have read some of Mahfouz's later, more experimental writing. I liked Akhenaten enough to teach it to first-year students a few years ago, and the densely allegorical critique of religious fundamentalism in that book actually went over quite well: the students got it. I also read The Day The Leader Was Killed and Arabian Nights and Days, and enjoyed both.

Any impressions on Mahfouz? Favorite books, or anecdotes? (I know this post is a few weeks late!)


apu said...

I first read Mahfouz only very recently; The book I started with was Adrift on the Nile. What amazed me was the complete absence of motion - the characters mostly never go anywhere, hardly ever do anything, and yet there is so much *happening* , in the sense of conflict and emotion. This came to me as I read Tahar Ben Jalloun's article - about a man who never went anywhere, but still saw a lot.

4:03 AM  
raina said...

i read the cairo trilogy a long time ago, and having lived in arab and indian societies, i enjoyed it immensely but never picked up anything else after of his to read.

1:57 PM  
nidhi said...

(This comment is a bit late too!)
I've read his novel "The Beggar". I found it wonderful. As has been said before, his protagonist is caught between two worlds. Here he seems to be caught between the easy bourgeoisie lifestyly he fell into post-1952-revolution and and some desire for renewing feelings he once had as a revolutionary. I don't know much about modern Egypt or it's recent history, but it seems the protagonist represented Egypt in the feeling of being stuck between two worlds.
Unfortunately this is his only work I have read so far, but it has encouraged me to read more - I just picked up God's World, a collection of his short stories.

5:16 PM  

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