The Naguib Mahfouz Reader: Portrait of a Novelist as a Historian

By Emeka Ugwu


  • Title: The Naguib Mahfouz Reader
  • Editor: Denys Johnson-Davies
  • Publisher: The American University in Cairo Press
  • Number of pages: 327
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Fiction and Autobiography

‘You can’t understand Egypt without Mahfouz – without his characters, with whom every reader, Arab or not, can identify’. – Tahar Ben Jelloun

‘The older distinction between fiction and history [must] give place to the recognition that we can only know the actual by contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable’. – Hayden White

Edited by Denys Johnson-Davies, whom the cultural critic and public intellectual Edward Said described as ‘the leading Arabic-English translator of our time’, The Naguib Mahfouz Reader starts an unwitting reader out on a heady journey straight into the heart of modern Egypt. It is a book that houses English translations of a small selection of short stories, excerpts of novels and autobiographical works by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. The collection showcases writings that span six decades, from 1944 to 2004.

The Naguib Mahfouz Reader, comprising twenty excerpts from novels and ten short stories as well as excerpts from three autobiographical works, somewhat reinforces the characterisation of Mahfouz as a realist in the mode of Balzac. But, Said reminds us of something important. In a sense, Said’s reminder is consonant with the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s suggestion that Mahfouz’s oeuvre is ‘a kind of history of the novel form, from historical fiction to romance, saga, and picaresque tale, followed by work in realist, modernist, naturalist, symbolist, and absurdist modes’.

Beginning with Thebes at War (1944) right through to Dreams of Departure (2004), The Naguib Mahfouz Reader is a collection that gives Khoury’s assertion the nod, because not only does the choice of stories illuminate modern Egypt’s chequered history, it also offers up different modes of novel writing. Nonetheless, in this essay our interest lies more with the former, seeing as many a story in The Naguib Mahfouz Reader invites us to contemplate the prickly issues of individual and sexual freedoms, given that those came to define Egypt’s January 2011 revolution and given the role they have always played in shaping the long course of Egyptian history.

Recently, in an interview, Leila Zaki Chakravarti, a Research Fellow at the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies, University of London, opined that the Tahrir Square chants of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ went far beyond economic issues. Chakravarti contends that ‘questions around the multiple, many-layered meanings being associated with the word thawra (revolution)’ extend to ‘articulations of the need for finding one’s voice, for individual freedom, or for sexual freedom’ based on ‘ethnographic snapshots’ of daily Cairene life.

These ethnographic snapshots, as Chakravarti refers to them, ‘of daily life in Cairo before and after Egypt’s January 2011 revolution’ grew out of her own personal encounters in Cairo’s neighbourhoods. Considering that the more notable of Mahfouz’s novels were truly inspired by life in the districts of Cairo, albeit during the 20th century, texts such as Midaq Alley, The Cairo Trilogy and The Harafish provide a rearview mirror that enables us see how Mahfouz articulated this need to find one’s voice, for individual or sexual freedom.

Of course, in pursuing this line of enquiry, the suggestion is being made implicitly that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was hijacked as it is now abundantly clear that not much has changed since then. In fact, if anything, the situation seems a lot worse now that the dictator the revolution dethroned walks the streets of Cairo a free man, and a more vicious dictator, El Sisi, is currently ruling Egypt.

El Sisi seems to be looking to outdo Abdel Nasser, under whose brutal dictatorship Mahfouz did not write for seven years. Mahfouz ceased to write between 1952 and 1959, disillusioned by the practices of Nasser’s government. And when he resumed, he made symbolic concessions, so we can infer that during the hiatus he was working out how to self-censor through the use allegory.

Midaq Alley, source of one of the longer excerpts in Johnson-Davies’ collection, was published originally in Arabic in 1947 and translated into English by Trevor Le Gassick. It tells the story of Hamida, a young Egyptian girl who in her early twenties risks her life for freedom. Unfortunately, the excerpt of Midaq Alley that makes the final cut for The Naguib Mahfouz Reader does not quite expatiate on precisely why or how her life came to be threatened. The following passages, however, conjure a picture that allows our imaginations roam:

She determined to show her disapproval of his preoccupation with her trade by ignoring him. She sadly recalled those days and nights when he spoke only of his love and admiration for her. Now he spoke only of work and profit. It was this work, together with the tyranny of her own emotions, which now prevented her emancipation. She no longer had that freedom for which she had risked her whole life.

Hamida only felt a sense of powerful independence when she was soliciting on the streets or in a tavern. The rest of the time she was tortured by a sense of imprisonment and humiliation. If only she were sure of his affection, if only he knew the humiliation of loving her, then she could feel victorious. Hostility toward him was her only escape from her predicament.

Faraj was aware of her animosity, but he hoped she would become accustomed to his coldness, so that she would offer minimum resistance to the separation he planned. He thought it best to move slowly before delivering the decisive blow.

Certainly, there can be no prize for anyone who discerns that Hamida is a prostitute, even though the passage above does not wholly explain the loss of ‘freedom for which she had risked her whole life’. We know, nevertheless, from the collection that she has chosen this profession despite being engaged. Mahfouz infers here that Hamida’s action is one that the Egyptian society considers dishonourable. This, probably, is what causes her feeling of animosity towards Faraj, a pimp, who led her to believe he loved her.

Perhaps, what is not readily revealed at first glance is the very complex workings of sexual economy that such a patriarchal society fosters, so it may not be immediately obvious how Hamida differs from the ‘authentic’ Egyptian woman. To even begin to get some sense of the type of freedom Hamida sought, one would have to contrast her with a character like Amina from The Cairo Trilogy, published between 1956 and 1957.

Owing to its sheer volume, The Cairo Trilogy, published under the titles Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, tells a story of two generations of the Abd al-Jawwad family starting from the revolution of 1919 up until about the end of the Second World War. In it, we learn about Amina, the submissive wife of a licentious patriarch, in a tale ‘that records with such detail and liveliness the habits, sentiments, and living environment of Cairene Egyptians at the beginning of the century’:

The mother hesitantly dashed the girls’ hopes and the young boy’s high spirits. She wanted to make sure the family persisted with its customary schedule and adhered, even when the father was absent, to the same rules it observed when he was present. She was more concerned to keep from vexing him than she was convinced that he was right to be severe and stern.

Before she knew what was happening, though, here was Yasin saying, ‘Don’t oppose God’s plan. [Nobody] else lives like us. In fact, I want to say something novel. [Why] don’t you have some fun too? What do you all think about this suggestion?’

Their eyes looked at him in astonishment, but no one said a word. Perhaps, like their mother who gave him a critical look, they did not take what he was saying seriously. All the same, he continued: ‘Why are you looking at me like this? I haven’t contravened any of the directives of the Prophet recorded in the revered collection of al-Bukhari. Praise God, no crime has been committed. All it would amount to is a brief excursion to have a look at a little of the district you’ve lived in for forty years but never seen’.

From the above, we are told that Yasin, Amina’s stepson, given her reticence, implores her to explore the district where she has lived for forty years. One at least begins to make sense of Chakravarti’s meaning of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Hopefully, we can also appreciate what, in concrete terms, it means to find one’s voice for individual and sexual freedom, by observing how, irrespective of their individual dispositions, Hamida and Amina are in different ways denied a certain basic freedom in a patriarchal Egyptian society.

To be sure, it is easy to see why in writing her piece of 23 April, 2012, published in Foreign Policy under the title ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’, the journalist Mona Eltahawy fingers Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Virginity Tests and Sexual Harassment as reasons why Egypt is in dire need of a sexual rebellion, if the revolution is to even begin. However, she takes for granted the presumption that Egyptian men hate Egyptian women, but in reading The Naguib Mahfouz Reader closely, especially if we pay attention to Hayden White, we realise that her presumption does not hold up strong.

Quoting figures from a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, Eltahawy informs us that, ‘more than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women’. She goes on further to mention that over ‘90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt [have] had their genitals cut’. From these numbers, it would stand to reason that there exists at least forty percent of men who never admitted to harassing women.

Eltahawy generalises much, to the extent that she heaps the problem on Islam, and so it somehow does not occur to her that of the sixty percent of men on which her claim is based, there can be found both Coptic Christians and Muslims. She also seems rather oblivious to the fact that factors other than hate, such as the socialisation of Egyptian males, may as well contribute to the levels of sexual harassment.

Eight years before the report Eltahawy cites, travelling ‘over land from Cairo to Cape Town’, Paul Theroux narrates his chance encounter with Ihab, an Egyptian man who, speaking about FGM, said of an Egyptian woman, ‘Better for her – make her more sexy’. His thinking was, ‘if she cut, she like sex all day’. It would seem closer to the truth that Ihab typifies a significant number of Egyptian men, Christian and Muslim, who have been socialised to assume that touching a woman who has been cut gets her excited.

Citing Alifa Rifaat’s short story, ‘Distant View of a Minaret’, and hinging her argument on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Eltahawy declares that Egyptian men ‘don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says’. Could it alternatively be the case that the woman from Rifaat’s story is ‘so unmoved by sex with her husband’ because, as a result of FGM, she feels nothing? Deploying a great deal of data to support her argument, it is pretty evident that Eltahawy reads Rifaat’s fiction as datum in ways that would no doubt daze Nancy Rose Hunt.

The Naguib Mahfouz Reader exemplifies, in the same manner Hunt suggests in her paper ‘Between Fiction and History’, ‘how historians might teach novels not as texts reflecting African social realities, not as texts substituting for social scientific description, but as constitutive objects whose forms compose trajectories of self-knowledge and remembrance’. Interpreting the statistics Eltahawy supplies in the light of Mahfouz’s representation of Amina and Hamida, we know Egyptian women have little freedom yet it is simplistic to conclude that it is all because Egyptian men hate them.

Reflecting upon the view of the Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun, quoted at the beginning of this review, Zaynat, another of Mahfouz’s female characters, springs to mind. She is the prostitute in The Harafish (1977) who is bold enough to confront a clan chief about her desire for him and becomes his lover. Alongside Hamida and Amina, Zaynat reminds us that, faced with the challenge of representing his female characters, Mahfouz exhibits what J M Coetzee deems, ‘the mythic status of history’ for the benefit of an outsider’s gaze – in other words, his fiction demythologises history by paradoxically creating ‘its own paradigms and myths’.


Photograph: ‘Free to Live’ by openDemocracy


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Emeka Ugwu is a Data Analyst who lives in Lagos.

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