By Tahar Ben Jelloun, the winner of France’s Goncourt Prize for “The Sacred Night,’’ is the author, most recently, of “The Last Friend.’’ This article was translated by The Times from the French (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 03/09/06):
INSTALLED at his regular table at his regular cafe in Cairo, a daily rendezvous that only illness could cancel, Naguib Mahfouz observed the anonymous crowd swarming the city streets with an eye that was tolerant, humane, sometimes ironic or arch, but never malicious. He was the voice and the memory of these lives, complex, small, grandiose, magnificent or modest — from the students who came to consult him to the waiters who served him his habitual coffee.
Balzac said that because the novel is the private history of nations, a real novelist must be able to plumb the depths of society. Mr. Mahfouz fit this description perfectly. You can’t understand Egypt without Mr. Mahfouz — without his characters, with whom every reader, Arab or not, can identify. In the days since his death, many have noted how Mr. Mahfouz helped Western readers understand the Arab world. But perhaps even more important, he helped the Arab world understand itself.
Before Mr. Mahfouz, the novel as literature — literature as map to understanding — was not part of Arab culture. In fact, until the beginning of the 20th century, Arabs didn’t write novels, in large measure because Arab society didn’t recognize the individual. Only in 1914, with “Zainab,” by Hussein Haykal, published as a serial, did what is considered the first real Arabic novel appear.
And it really wasn’t until the 1950’s, and the publication of Mr. Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” that the Arab novel arrived as a major genre of literature. In the trilogy — “Palace Walk,’’ “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — Mr. Mahfouz described the lives of three generations of a family that stood in for a country making an epic transition of its own, from tradition to a halting form of modernity.
From a Western perspective, it is difficult, I imagine, to understand the cultural power these novels exerted. Even before Mr. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988, the trilogy had the effect of liberating a generation of Arab writers. Young writers like Haydar Haydar and Fadhil al-Azzawi didn’t write like Mr. Mahfouz, but his books and his stature gave them the confidence to persevere in examining everyday life.
In his own generation, there is Yahya Haqqi, whose 1954 work “Good Morning!,” about an isolated Egyptian village’s passage into modern life, is a milestone in the history of the Arabic novel. There are also Taha Hussein and Tawfik al-Hakim, two important observers of their society who critiqued Western culture.
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.
It’s also been said that Mr. Mahfouz was a realistic novelist. This is not the case. Realism doesn’t exist, because life, especially life in Cairo, is itself a fiction, unfathomable, inexhaustible, where drama jostles with comedy, where tears run from joy or chagrin. Mr. Mahfouz didn’t have to invent situations or characters; it was sufficient for him to observe the people around him.
In “Sugar Street,” the death of a main character is signaled in a few words: “The master has left the house.” The same words apply today, to Naguib Mahfouz, master of the Arabic novel.