Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Writers reviewed: Naguib Mahfouz

The novel arrived in the Middle East in the baggage of the bankers, businessmen and imperial administrators who colonised the Arab world in the late 19th century. A generation of nationalists grew up under the shadow of European capital. They were educated by the colonial powers, but determined to fight imperialism with whatever modern Europe could teach them. Language was one of the tools they used to forge a national identity. They used the cultural heritage of Arabic literature to reinvent Arabic for a modern audience and set to work using it to write poetry and polemics, novels and newspapers.

By the time Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911, this process had been under way for a generation. His native country of Egypt was still under British occupation, but the first nationalist parties were well established and the first Egyptian capitalists were making fortunes in the cotton trade. He began to write against a background of immense social and economic change which has transformed Egypt over the last 80 years.

This helps explain how Mahfouz's writing develops: he has covered in a single lifetime stylistic changes which were mapped out by whole generations of writers in Europe. Mahfouz's first real successes were his realist novels of the 1940s and 1950s, in particular Midaq Alley and The Trilogy (Palace Walk, The Palace of Desire, Sugar Street).

Midaq Alley vividly describes the claustrophobic life in an alley in old Cairo during the last years of the Second World War. His own family background provided Mahfouz with his most effective insights into the frustrations and disappointments of people whose lives were constricted by poverty and squalor. Many of his characters are portrayed as morally as well as physically degraded by their environment; for instance in Midaq Alley one of the characters makes his living from crippling healthy people so that they can work as beggars. But Mahfouz always makes clear that it is the relentless pressure of poverty that really destroys people.

During the 1950s Mahfouz wrote very little, although much of his earlier writing was published. This period of inactivity was linked to his response to the Free Officers' revolution in 1952, when a group of young officers led by Nasser seized power and deposed the King. He, like many on the left, expected great changes under Nasser, and intellectuals were attracted by his Arab nationalism and defiant stance against imperialism. However, by the early 1960s disillusion began to set in as the new rulers of Egypt began to entrench themselves in power just as firmly as the corrupt old politicians of the 1940s.

My favourite novels by Mahfouz date from this period as he tries to explore some of the disappointments in the failure of the revolution to bring real change. His characters live in a world rich in emotional and political colour. Anyone can identify with their dilemmas, their passions and their frustrations. The Thief and the Dogs deals with the experience of Said Mahran, a burglar and smalltime political activist who goes to jail before the revolution in 1952 and emerges four years later to find the world he used to know has completely changed. Both in personal and political terms Said feels betrayed: his wife has married his old sidekick Ilish, and his former political mentor Ra'uf has given up his student radicalism for a comfortable job with a newspaper.

Miramar, published in the late 1960s, takes up some of the same themes. The four main characters meet each other by chance in a pension in Alexandria. Through their relationship with the maid at the pension, Mahfouz explores the way Egyptian society reacted to the revolution of 1952. The old journalist Amer Wagdi represents a generation of middle class political activists which is on its way out. Sarhan el Beheiry, who has landed a job in a state run company, represents a new layer of the lower middle class on the way up. As Sarhan says to an old friend from his days as a student activist, 'Do you remember? Sure! Who can forget those days? Then we were in opposition to the state. Now we are the state!'

The pension Miramar is a symbol for the city of Alexandria with its faded elegance and fraying charms from the colonial past. The maid, Zahra, is Mahfouz's symbol for the future of Egypt. At first she seems too innocent, but later she shows her resourcefulness, courage and independence.

Her family arrive from the country village where they live, to take her home and marry her off to an old man. But she stands up to them and refuses to go. She is determined to have an independent life and starts to learn to read and write in order to escape from a life of domestic drudgery. In fact Mahfouz's writing from this period is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of women. One of his most well drawn characters is Nur, the prostitute from The Thief and the Dogs. Although society sees her as a symbol of immorality, Nur represents faithfulness and humanity in a world where there is little constancy in either love or politics.

The 1970s and 1980s brought another change in style, and Mahfouz began to draw on the traditions of medieval Arab fables in his writing. In Arabian Nights and Days, as Shaharazad finishes her final tale for the Sultan, the stories of the last 1001 nights begin to take over the real lives of the inhabitants of the city below the palace, with comic and tragic results. The stories in Fountain and Tomb are set once again in the Cairo of the 1920s, but this time Mahfouz relates the daily incidents of the quarter through fragmentary childhood memories, which are tinted with understanding that adult hindsight gives to events in the distant past.

Naguib Mahfouz has never been a revolutionary; he would probably describe himself as a socialist in the widest sense of the term. Despite his implicit criticisms of Nasser in some of his novels he was prepared to accept honours from the regime. The strength of his work lies in the way he can take the everyday struggles of ordinary Egyptians and relate them to a universal audience. It's up to us to forge the collective resistance from this shared suffering.


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