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.