The Mahfouz Dialogs

The Mahfouz Dialogs
Gamal Al-ghitani

Sometime ago I made it my mission to read everything in English written by Gamal Al-ghitani who some commentators have suggested is Naguib Mahfouz’s literary heir. Why I seized on this I don’t quite know, but it has led me to this interesting book, which gives a few insights into Al-ghitani as it examines the life of Mahfouz.

Structurally, it is the compendium of conversations and sayings Mahfouz had given over the last 30 years of his life, roughly from the early 70s when Al-ghitani met him to when he died in 2006. The short first and third sections read like compendiums of fragmentary texts, as if we were reading the remaining 50 pages of dozens of lost works from centuries past. Often phrased “then master said…”, they provide some insights into his views, often more liberal than those of his friends. The second section, though, is a collection of interviews between Mahfouz and Al-ghitani that Al-ghitani shaped into an autobiography, one that relived Mahfouz of the task of writing. The richness of the interviews produced an interesting work, not only an examination of the life and works of Mahfouz, but a examination of how Al-ghitani fits within the Egyptian literary world.

The interviews cover three general subjects: his life, his writing, and the Cairo Trilogy. Reading about his life, I was struck just how dedicated to writing. He never made much money from writing until he won the Nobel, but he continued on. It was something he had to do, made even more impressive since he stopped writing every summer because of an eye allergy. He typically plotted out his ideas before writing and only wrote when he had a story worked out. He was, though, influenced by European writers and read as many novels as he could. For years he was a poor civil servant and did his daily work in obscurity. His literary world, though, was quite rich and the book is filled with descriptions of the weekly meetings he had with his friends, many who were famous Egyptian thinkers and writers. Honestly, I was a little envious of the café culture that existed. When he grew older he became the sage of conversations and would often make the final pronouncement on a topic. The book makes quite clear how much Mahfouz was respected by all those he met with, even if he didn’t share the same political views.

For someone like myself who is not familiar with Cairo and Egyptian writing, The dialogs provide invaluable insight into the Cairo Trilogy and his other works. His descriptions of the alleys and streets in his novels are taken directly from the real places. Over time the alleys have changed (something Mahfouz was quite saddened by), but they still look the way he described in the books. For Mahfouz the parts of Cairo were more than just settings, but his home, the manifestation of everything he was.

As you get older, you both feel and comprehend that the place where your life started will also be your final refuge. As though recapitulating the cycle of life, your encounter a new world that seems, at first blush, not to be your world. It is not enough to understand any given word for it to become your won private world. Feeling truly at home in that world demands something deeper then that. We are heading toward a new world, but that world is assuredly not one in which I shall feel completely at home. I am at the end of a stage, of a life, let me say. What is the total life experience that I have undergone? You will find it incarnated in the old, by which I do not mean a return to the latter’s values, or a rejection of the new. I mean it in the sense of its being your own private refuge, because you have been at home in it and have understood it.

Finally, Al-ghitani reveals details about himself quite freely but often en contrast to Mahfouz. Al-ghitani, one gathers, is more conservative, or at least less western that Mahfouz. When talking about the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Mahfouz looked negatively at them, but Al-ghitani, one suspects, is in the camp of those say the US deserved it. I’m not 100% sure of this, but it is obvious from reading the book, and Al-ghitani’s comments, that they disagreed about the Egypt and its relations to the west. To his credit, Al-ghitani’s love for Mahfouz prevents him from trying rewrite those ideas.

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