I Dream of the Day When…

I Dream of the Day When…

Naguib Mahfouz in the Life of an Israeli Friend

Even as a teenager, I had been familiar with the name Naguib Mahfouz. I first heard of the Egyptian novelist in 1949 in Baghdad; he had recently completed two important novels, Khan al-Khalili (1946) and Midaq Alley (1947), named after the colorful, ancient back streets of Fatamid Cairo. A circle of very young Iraqi writers with whom I kept company back then was divided over the question of Mahfouz’s place in Arabic literature. Some saw him as a serious novelist and an impressive “sociologist”; others dismissed him because they thought he was not modernist enough. His writing leaned toward nineteenth-century European naturalism; but in the middle of the twentieth century, so claimed his detractors, many decades after Joyce and Proust, there was nothing remarkable in writing realistic-psychological novels. I sided with the detractors, even though I had not read his works; perhaps I had glanced through them, but I had not actually finished a single one. My one great love then was modern poetry. I was about sixteen years old; those were my final days in Baghdad.

After I arrived in Israel in 1951, I lost contact with Arabic literary life, and for the next few years I gleaned only tidbits of information about famous writers and major innovations. In 1955, I read Mahfouz’s Beginning and End, which first appeared in Cairo in 1951 and was reprinted in Israel four years later. I cannot say that this novel excited my imagination. In those days I was a true believer in literary commitment and even more strongly in revolutionary activity of the orthodox-Marxist sort. I felt that revolutionary passion was lacking in this novel. Mahfouz described Egyptian society’s lower and middle classes, identifying with the oppressed, but without pointing to the source of oppression-capitalist and colonialist exploitation. I was disappointed not to find a “positive hero” symbolizing the “world of tomorrow.” From my left-wing perspective, Mahfouz was not much of a cultural hero; he had definitely not attained a place of honor in the pantheon of our literary idols, reserved for luminaries such as Gorky, Brecht, Anderson-Nexoe (the Dane), Aragon, Neruda, Hikmet, and so on.

During my first years in Israel, I could not follow what was taking place in Arabic literature, including the great advance in Mahfouz’s stature after the publication of The Cairo Trilogy and his winning the Egyptian National Prize. I had no knowledge of the publication of his allegorical novel Children of Our Alley, which was serialized in the Cairo daily al-Ahram in late 1959. Nor was I aware of the virulent attacks leveled against this work, even before the serialization was completed, in Islamic circles (especially by certain sheiks at al-Azhar theological college). Their claim was that the novel insults the Prophet Muhammad, as well as other prophets, by presenting them as crude, lice...


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