Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz

I am not a literary expert by any means. I was one of those kids whose end of year school reports often included comments such as "Potkin is good at Maths and sciences, he loves sports and is very competitive, but he must concentrate on other subjects and consider them important too."
I treat subjects like literature and history as bedtime reading and so what I am about to write on Naguib Mahfouz, who died today, should be treated within the context of my literary limitations and shortcomings.

Unfortunately, I have only had time to read a few of Mahfouz's books. In fact the Cairo trilogy volumes are the only ones. I read them while commuting to work on the London Underground. What I remember most was the ending of Palace Walk.

Fahmy is 19 years old and son of the book's main character, Ahmad. He gets involved in the movement for Egypt's independence against the wishes of his father, who is a typical Middle Eastern male hypocrite. Fahmy's father asks him to swear an oath not to get involved in the politics and endanger his life. Fahmy refuses and survives many precarious situations in the book. By the time you read the last chapter however, the independence movement has come to fruition. Mahfouz describes brilliantly the joyfulness of the achievement.
"His heart was intoxicated with joy and victory, the whole nation was drunk on the wine of delight and triumph."

Fahmy first tries to make up with his father and tries to explain his disobedience towards him:
"Answering the call of the nation should not be considered rebellion against your will, sir. I really didn't do much by way of patriotic deeds..distributing handbills..what am I compared with those who willingly gave their lives? I understood from your words, sir, that you were afraid for my life, not that you really rejected the idea of patriotic duties.. I am confident I did not disobey your wishes."
Finally father and son make up and Fahmy leaves the house even happier. From there he goes to al-Azhar university and meets up with his comrades to arrange for the peaceful demonstration that the authorities had allowed. Fahmy's assignment was to supervise the groups of students from the secondary schools. He feels relaxed, after all those moments of peril were over and this was a peaceful demonstration sanctioned by the authorities. In fact he is so relaxed that he starts to wish he had suffered more, that he had been imprisoned, beaten, or wounded slightly.
Mahfouz eloquently writes about Fahmy's arguments with his conscience.
When Fahmy reaches the square, he fights hard to conceal his pride and conceit:
"He noticed eyes that were looking at him with interest and lips that were whispering about him. He heard his name, accompanied by his title, being repeated by many tongues 'Fahmy Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, representative of the supreme committee' That touched the strings of his heart. He pressed his lips together to keep them from smiling, out of concern for his dignity".

My face must have shown the delight I was having as I was reading these last pages, enjoying immensely the masterful way that Mahfouz was describing the atmosphere of the place and Fahmy's feelings. I was content with having finished another book and looking forward tp the book's good ending, when suddenly my face went all screwed up and I whispered under my lips, "what? no! It can't be!". Other commuters looked around at me curiously, and I was slightly embarrassed at my uncontrolled mini outburst. The demonstration which was sanctioned by the authorities and was expected to be peaceful goes wrong and Fahmy is shot dead, right in the last pages!

I felt like someone close to me had died and like I said, I am no literary expert, but that is what an excellent writer can do, no?

Today, when I heard the news of Mahfouz's death, it brought me those memories of the joyful times when I was looking forward to get on the tube every morning, just to read his book. I also learned a few more things about Mahfouz that I didn't know.

In 1989, after Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa for apostasy against Salman Rushdie, a blind Egyptian theologian, Omar Abdul-Rahman, told a journalist that if Mahfouz had been punished for writing this novel, Rushdie would not have dared publish his. In 1994 Islamic extremists attempted to assassinate the 82-year-old novelist, stabbing him in the neck outside his Cairo home.

Unlike the ending of Palace Walk, Islamic fundamentalists attempting to kill a brilliant mind, comes as no surprise to me!


Anonymous said...

It looks as if in every Islamic country the people have the same problems with the Islamic-Fascists and must fight for democracy and human rights against the Dark Ages and backwardness. Nevertheless we will prevail over the Islamic-Fascists.

Winston said...

The voice of dissent will never vanish

Rådgivende ingeniørfirma said...

Yeah, it should be voice out if there is something wrong with somebody and we must be refuse on the wrong side that they want to be happen. Thank you for the nice article.