I was in my library standing in front of one of the shelves feeling uncertain and in a double-mind — to re-read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or pick up Claire Messud’s new novel The Emperor's Children — when I heard the BBC Radio newscaster saying that the Arabic writer Naguib Mahfouz had died.
The First Reaction
The immediate thought was a surprise that he was still alive. I then sat down on a chair, dropped my head on the writing desk, closed my eyes, and thought of Kamal, Khadija, Ayesha, Umm Hanafi, Widow Shawkat, Bayn al-Qasrayn street, and Khalil Agha School.
The sky outside remained blue and sunny. Birds continued with their frolicking. There was no stopping of the shrill screams of the children playing outside in the stairs. There was no cease in the continuous hum of the bulldozers, cranes, and other heavy equipment emanating from the site of a new mall being built behind my apartment complex. However, the reality was gradually settling in: Mahfouz was no longer a part of this breathing world.
The Unforgettable Gift from Cairo
I started searching for Mahfouz. The copies of the novels in which I made my first reading of the Cairo trilogy — Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street — were arranged between Middle East cookbooks in a wooden shelf in my dining room. They were handy, decent-looking paperbacks and quite special to me. After all, it was through them that I had discovered Mahfouz. Another three volumes, extremely handsome editions with evocative covers transporting right into the heart of early 20th-century Egypt, were standing upright against the Jane Austens on my writing desk. And then there was my most prized Mahfouz: the Cairo trilogy collected together between a single hardbound.
A friend of mine, who is no longer a friend, had gone to visit the pyramids early this year and had gotten me this beautiful edition. It was printed in Cairo. It was a most thoughtful present: a story about Cairo with a printed-in-Cairo stamp. It had an authentic, straight-from-the-Egypt flavor.
Former Friend and a Dead Writer
I was missing that estranged friend who had gifted me the precious Cairo trilogy. I was also missing Amina, the kind, gentle mother of the Palace Walk — the first novel in the trilogy.
Even though there was much rancor between me and this friend, I found myself sending this telephone message: "Hi. Mahfouz died. Am re-reading the copy you got me from Cairo. Just wanted to let you know." The reply arrived after quarter of an hour: "Yes, I saw that in the news and thought of you."
The Cairo Trilogy
Mahfouz wrote 33 novels, 13 anthologies of short stories, several plays, and 30 screenplays. Not a dedicated Mahfouz reader, I have read only three novels, the celebrated Cairo trilogy, and have no intention of reading his other works. It is said that the trilogy was the peak of his perfection and so I do not desire to disappoint myself by reading his other books. However, these three novels describing the affairs of a middle-class family of a Cairo merchant, al-Sayyid Ahmad, will be always a part of my being.
Before and After Mahfouz
Mahfouz must have already been buried by now. Maggots must be making a feast out of his fingers and liver and heart and brains, but his Cairo epic will stay alive. The al-Sayyids will forever be a company to my days of solitude and a source of comfort to my hours of loneliness. Amina, the dutiful and suffering wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad, like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, like Sethe of Beloved, like Ammu of The God of Small Things, will always make me feel protective towards her.
But there was a time when the word Mahfouz meant nothing to me. I did not care that he was the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Arabia did not fascinate me except while reading about it in cleverly written political memoirs by foreign correspondents Thomas Friedman and Judith Miller, or in enchanting old-world travelogues by Freya Stark and William Thesiger.
In those jahilya days of my life, the Arab world was a fearful, intolerant place, populated with abaya-draped women and thobe-clad men, forever simmering in resentment and anger about Israel and America, and constantly violent about Islam and Palestine. All the Arabs were militants and raised their children to become Jehadis and suicide bombers. They worshipped no god but God and read no books but the Book. Their men had harems and their women were slaves.
And then, around five years ago, Mahfouz happened.
Struggles with Mahfouz
I did not initially pick Mahfouz due to any well-meaning curiosity for understanding his part of the world or because the blurb on the cover described him as a Nobel laureate. It was his name that had mildly intrigued me about his existence – Mahfouz is a beautiful word, feels comfortable to the tongue, and loosely translates to "in secured custody" in Arabic. However, to be charmed by an author's name is no incentive to buy a book.
Most likely I must have gotten no interesting novel that day and since I had to buy one, I took out Palace Walk – the first volume in the Cairo trilogy. It was a compromise selection resulting from a lack of choice.
As I had suspected, Palace Walk had a tedious start. The first chapter dealt with housewife Amina waiting for her husband, al-Sayyid Ahmad, to return home after he is done making his regular tour of the night life of Cairo. The beginning was slow and went on to describe every minute detail. It made me impatient enough to switch over to other books.
I eventually managed to find the rhythm after several false starts and after reading many other books and finally emerged as a better person as I reached the last sentence of Sugar Street, the final novel in the Cairo trilogy.
What Mahfouz Taught Me
These three novels — Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street — helped me understand that no matter what religion we follow, no matter which civilization we belong to, no matter what language we converse in, no matter what our political philosophies be, and no matter how different our histories might be, the truth remains that our basic emotions, and how we react to them, is essentially similar. Whether we live in Nairobi or in New Orleans, all of us fall in love, are hurt by loved ones, betray our partners, mock our neighbors, and want to see our children married and happy.
The trials and travails of that Cairo family — a dictatorial father, a doting mother, a philandering son, a younger son who dies, a plain-looking daughter who finds happiness in life, a beautiful daughter who does not — could have been from any part of the world. The al-Sayyids could have been the Dashwoods of Sense and Sensibility or the Mehras of A Suitable Boy, while Cairo could have been Canterbury and Egypt be England.
The characters in the Cairo trilogy are some of the most vividly described and intimate people I have met in books. Their anxieties about weddings, honor, and their nation drew me into their world.
Yet, in spite of the universal background of the epic — the love of the mother, the failures of the father, the idealism of the sons, the misfortunes of the daughters — it could not be denied that the narrative was taking place in a foreign culture, in far-away Egypt, an Egypt as it was in the early years of the 20th century. There were also enough exotica about Shiraz carpets, unlit back-alleys, holy Shiite shrines, hummus and fava beans to make me feel foreign and alienated, but it was not to be so.
Instead, I felt like an Egyptian. Cairo trilogy told me that we all are same people. Our concerns, desires, disappointments, and happiness are woven around the same themes.
Reconciling to a Death
It is amusing that I never regretted Mahfouz's absence when my ignorance took him to be a long-dead writer. He gave the impression of a classics author, like Jane Austen, whose novels you re-read all the time and whose death you could not mourn since they had died so long ago. But now as I realize that Mahfouz was alive all this time, was actually talking and snoring and eating and laughing and writing when I was reading the Cairo trilogy for the first time (and the second time, too), and that he is no longer in this world, an emptiness has settled inside me.
I confess Nagub Mahfouz’s death has hurt me. It is personal.