The Deep Well Of Egypt's Literary Oasis

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz was a writer from the age when people with a pen could be heroes. Icons of the national spirit. Hemingway. Tolstoy. Grass. Milosz. Garcia Marquez. Perhaps, after 94 years in the dusty chaos of Cairo, he is equally at home with his literary posterity.

"Life and death, dreaming and wakefulness: stations for the perplexed soul," he began "The Journey of Ibn Fattouma," one of his later novellas. The soul, he said, "traverses them stage by stage, taking signs and hints from things, groping about in the sea of darkness."

He died yesterday, a merchant's son pushing off into the sea of darkness, the land of myth and fable. Sometimes people think "myth" means something made up. Mahfouz was a writer who understood that myth is a way of stating what has always been true. The world exists on more than one plane. How sad for us, in a world of 24-hour cable and digital wireless and triple lattes, that we think we have banished the realm of ghosts.

In this country, Mahfouz is probably more widely known than read. His fame and politics made that inevitable. There was the assassination attempt a dozen years ago by the same group of goons who tried to blow up the World Trade Center. There was his backing of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. There was his insistence on religious tolerance. The 1988 Nobel as career capstone.

But Mahfouz's lasting mark on the world stage will surely be a measure of how deeply he believed in the power of fiction -- in the ability of myth and story to be a guidepost to our lives. He was a serious man, and he devoted his life to making up stories: more than 30 novels, hundreds of short stories, a handful of plays and movie scripts. Almost all of them document his particular corner of the universe -- Cairo, one of the world's most ancient cities. Ninety years old, going out six nights a week, the cafe life, the writer as social intellectual.

Like Faulkner, he never really left home. And so in the complex warrens of his neighborhood dwelled his most prominent creation, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the prosperous merchant and family patriarch at the heart of his greatest work, "The Cairo Trilogy." The three novels depict the family moving into the modern 20th century, through British occupation to political independence, replete with sexual conquests, greed, drunkenness, mendacity, drug abuse, homosexuality, the ravages of disease and the thorns of unrequited love. They were a little twisted, too: His sons have affairs with women who slept with their father.

Al-Sayyid -- think of him as Tennessee Williams's "Big Daddy" with a Muslim twist and a philandering streak -- dominates his wife and sons at home, but is a hedonist at heart.

Here's a scene from "Palace Walk," the first novel of the trilogy. Al-Sayyid has come to an intimate house party at which, as everyone in attendance knows, he and a singer named Zubayda will have sex:

"No woman was more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard. It was lust, yes, but it was not bestial or blind. It had been refined by a craft that was at least partially an art, setting his lust in a framework of delight, humor and good cheer. Nothing was so like his lust as his body, since both were huge and powerful."

Phew! Not quite what you were expecting from mid-century Egyptian fiction.

That flawed humanity and passion are part of what made Mahfouz so famous at home and such an interesting entry point for foreigners into the Egyptian mind-set. You get the idea that tourists will come to see his home in years to come, like Japanese pilgrims to Rowan Oak, Faulkner's place, as if the footsteps of Benjy Compson still can be seen there.

Of course, his political stances didn't endear him to everyone. Several years ago, when I was crossing the border from Jordan into Israel on assignment for a newspaper, an Israeli security official going through my belongings pulled a copy of "Palace Walk" from my backpack.

"You bring a book by this Arab into Israel ?" he spat.

He was having a bad day, I suppose, but so was I.

I smiled ever so sweetly. I said:

"You know Mahfouz? I think he's quite good, though he gets a little carried away, you know? A little gassy? You remember when he said he liked Proust, and you wondered if he knew most people outside France think Proust was a world-class bore?"

The guard smiled just as sweetly back. Then he dropped the book on the floor and let me cool my heels for another three hours.

Since I had a good story to read, I didn't particularly mind. That al-Sayyid was a piece of work, I'm telling you.

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