“Events at home, at work, in the street—these are the bases for a story,” Naguib Mahfouz once said. Mahfouz (1911 – 2006), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, produced novels that were true representations of the Egyptian community; every one of his characters could be your next-door neighbour, your father’s or grandfather’s friend, or the man or woman you see regularly at work. The timescale of events in his novels ranged from ancient Egypt to contemporary times; in rural, traditional, and modern-day communities; in legendary or real settings. His characters included the young activist with the liberal views, the opportunist, the traditionalist, the rebellious or submissive woman, the grumpy old couple who fight day and night but nevertheless cannot live without each other, and the alley’s unruly daughter. In all cases, Mahfouz’s novels are replete with events and characters that are vividly part and parcel of life in Egypt at various times.
Among the many readers on whom Mahfouz’s works had a lasting effect is the writer, researcher, and literary critic Mustafa Bayoumi. Mahfouz’s characters so fascinated Bayoumi that he embarked on an ambitious project that is now nearing completion, that is compiling an encyclopaedia of the characters in Mahfouz’s novels.
Bayoumi is the author of the critically acclaimed How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction.
Watani talked to Mustafa about what promises to be an epic work, his encyclopaedia of Mahfouz’s huge number of characters.
• Can you tell us about your singular study of Mahfouz’s characters?
The encyclopaedia has gone to the printers. There will be 1,600 pages listing Mahfouz’s 1,734 characters in alphabetical order. I define a ‘character’ as one that has a name and plays a vital role in the literary structure.
• We know that your fascination with Mahfouz started with your study on how the first nationalist and widely popular political party in Egypt, the Wafd party, features in his works. The Wafd was founded in the 1920s in the heyday of the nationalist movement against British occupation and is still active on the political arena today.
After Mr Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988, the Ministry of Culture announced a competition on literary criticism of his works. I chose to study how Mahfouz viewed the nationalist Wafd.
Some critics label Mahfouz as communist or socialist, but a profound study of his works—and I deal with them as a single, extended text—revealed that Mr Mahfouz was thoroughly Wafdist. He endorsed the party’s famous four principles: power for the people; a civil, democratic State; national unity; and unlimited freedom. These are all liberal, not socialist, ideals.
• How did you judge the author’s political views through his works?
Literary works obviously disclose the writer’s thinking. Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the protagonist of Mahfouz’s Bayn al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), is widely deemed to be the closest character to Mahfouz himself, and he was Wafdist to the core. Abdel-Gawad was a liberal who doubted everything: religion, family, even the meaning of existence, but he never doubted the Wafd. He says: “The Wafd is the creed of the nation.” He also says: “The Wafd answered my last hope for Egypt.”
The Wafd succeeded in fusing all Egyptians into one Egyptian identity, overriding all previous sectarian divisions no matter how gaping they were.
A character in Qushtumor says: “There are four religions in Egypt: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Wafdist which bonds the first three into one.”
• What further studies have you done on the works of the Nobel Laureate?
I conducted a study on the character of the civil servant in Mahfouz’s literature. Mahfouz’s own father was a middle-class civil servant and afforded his family a comfortable life. In the novel Hadret al-Muhtaram (Respected Sir), Mahfouz gives a satirical portrayal of Othman Bayoumi, a single man with no wife or children, who does not rebel, does not connect, does not want anything out of life other than to rise within the civil service. He has good brains, recognised early on by his teachers who set him on a path away from blue collar labour and into the civil service. He believes his sole duty, under God and country, is to work hard and rise, and not question the system or even consider the political or economic situations, but just to work and perform well. He never uses his knowledge to understand himself. Whenever he comes close to self-revelation or an inward gaze he grabs onto slogans of duty, God and country. On his tongue are the words: “Man is sanctified by suffering…. Work and worship are inseparable…”
In Mr Mahfouz’s literature I found a profound and masterful description of Egypt in the 20th century.
• Is that why you chose to use the title Wasf Masr, playing on the title of the priceless tome Description de L’Egypte (Description of Egypt) issued by the scholars and researchers that accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his military campaign of Egypt in 1798, for your series describing Egypt through Mahfouz’s literature?
That’s right. Mr Mahfouz meticulously portrayed 20th century Egypt with unprecedented detail and depth. Six books have already been published in the series: Kings, Presidents, and Leaders from Mustafa Kamel to Mubarak; Polygamy; Christianity and Christians; Prostitutes and Brothels; and The 23 July 1952 Revolution.
• Why did Mahfouz never use the word ‘Copt’ to denote Egyptian Christians, and merely used ‘Christian’?
For Mr Mahfouz there was no ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’, only ‘Egyptian’. The word ‘Copt’ is, after all, literal for Egyptian whether Christian or Muslim.
• Many have criticised Mahfouz for frequently featuring prostitutes in his literature, claiming this is derogatory for women. Do you agree?
The critics who say this have probably never read the novels; they have only seen the films based on the novels.
The female characters in Mr Mahfouz’s novels are very significant and are depicted in various ways. True, some resort to prostitution to cover family expenses and make ends meet, as in The Thief and the Dogs, A Beginning and an End and Miramar. But they are always cast in a humanitarian light. In other novels, women are portrayed as kind and submissive. Typical among them is the famous Amina in the first part of the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk which takes place in Cairo in 1918. Amina is the dutiful wife who waits for her husband to come home late at night, mostly after an evening spent philandering. She stands with the gas lamp on top of the stairs to light the way up to his room. She washes his feet in silence, talking only when asked to and choosing her words prudently to avoid his possible rage. She helps him undress, folds his clothes on a chair, and retires to her bedroom.
Yet Amina is the heart and soul of the household, the first to wake up at dawn and perform her prayers. She wakes the maid and the children, makes their breakfast and sends them off to school or work. She manages the household with strict precision so that not one chore goes undone. But when Amina once does something without her husband’s knowledge she can’t rest until she has confessed to him, and she has to endure banishment to her father’s home for weeks until, under pressure from the children whose life is absolutely miserable without her, she is allowed to return home.
It is the same Amina who, in the third part of the Trilogy Sugar Street, which takes place in 1935, overrules her husband’s decision not to send their granddaughter to school. “All girls get an education nowadays,” she says.
In many novels, women stand for hope, freedom, intelligence and strength as in Sugar Street and Miramar. Each of Mahfouz’s characters is significant and profound. They are a true representation of the Egyptian community.
• Despite your evident fascination with Mahfouz, do you think he has produced any poor literary works?
Indeed there are a few works by Mahfouz that do not meet the standards for good literature. His Karnak, published in 1974, is in my opinion rather poor journalistic reportage. One Hour Remains and The Heart of the Night offer good ideas but no literary merit.
On the contrary there are impressive writings, such as the epic al-Harafeesh where neither a location nor time of events is identified yet it clearly portrays, in a series of episodes and over a dozen generations, life in the urban alleyways in Egypt before the establishment of a State police force when local fittiwas, literally strongmen, would fulfil the role of protecting the alley and enforcing order. The setting is perfect for the forces of good and evil, benefaction and greed, and protection of the weak and tyranny to play themselves out.
There is also the provocative The Journey of Ibn Fattouma in which the protagonist sets out on a journey in search for the perfect society based on wisdom. Betrayed by his sweetheart, the young Ibn Fattouma of The Land of Islam goes to Mashriq, a pagan community, but is thrown out when he attempts to bring up his son as a Muslim. He goes to Haira whose bloody king is worshiped as God, Halba where all religions are welcome and Muslim homosexuals peacefully demonstrate for gay rights, and Aman where communism secures full employment but no personal freedoms. Yet he never reaches his ultimate goal, Gebel, the land of perfection.
I also enjoy reading his Arabian Nights and Days. This novel serves as a sequel and companion piece for The One Thousand and One Nights and includes many of the characters that appeared in the original work, such as Shahryar, Scheherazade and Aladdin.
19 November 2014