The great Egyptian (and world-class) novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was born a century ago this weekend. Mahfouz remains the towering figure of Egyptian and Arabic literature, still the only Arab winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1988). I thought it would be valuable to talk with someone who knew him well in his later years, Raymond Stock, who as well as being one of Mahfouz' most prolific translators, also is writing his biography. And a note: though the official celebrations will be on Sunday December 11, Dr. Stock notes that Mahfouz was actually born on the 10th:
FYI, his birthday has traditionally been observed on Dec. 11 — the day it was registered in 1911 — but he was actually born on Dec. 10, at 2:00 am, according to his birth record at Dar al-Mahfouzat. This was fifteen years to the hour after Alfred Nobel's fatal stroke in San Remo in 1896. Though I informed Naguib of this finding, he preferred to stick with Dec. 11: he was always a creature of very fixed habits.
I thought by posting this on Friday it would adequately cover either date.
The interview is unusually long for this blog, but Mahfouz is an unusually outsized subject.
MCD: Can you give us some brief account of your own experiences with Mahfouz during his lifetime, as one of his translators, and his biographer?
RS: I first met Naguib Mahfouz on March 4, 1990, on my first full day as Acquisitions Editor for the American University in Cairo Press, Mahfouz's primary English language publishers and literary agents. He came into our offices, then in the basement of the former AUC Main Library on the corner of Yusuf al-Gindi and Mohammed Mahmoud Streets, at quarter of nine in the morning. In those days he would walk each morning from his home in Agouza to the Ali Baba Cafe on Tahrir Square, drink his coffee and read the newspapers. Each Sunday, he would then make his way to the AUCP nearby to pick up his mail, always arriving at the same time. This particular Sunday, I was seated at my desk, which faced that of the then director, the late Arnold C. Tovell. He was then in what I consider to be the most beautiful phase of his appearance: simply dressed, with a lean natural elegance, his trademark dark glasses (which he wore due to a sensitivity to light) giving him a wise and mysterious look. We said hello; he shook my hand warmly, and went on his way inside. After a quarter hour or so he came out again: someone, I think, snapped a photograph of us together with my camera (not with me now, unfortunately), and he was gone.
The next week we spoke for a minute or two, each week a bit more, and on the third Sunday I gave him some of my poetry (which was in English). The next week he told me that he had read and liked it, and from his comments it was clear he had understood it very well. (For some years afterward, he would introduce me as "my friend Raymond Stock, the American poet.") Soon we were on very warm terms, and I had some opportunities to work with him, sometimes going to see him at his office at al-Ahram on Thursdays, and to his Friday nadwa (literary salon) at Kasino Kasr el-Nil. By the time I left the AUC Press at the end of June 1991 — laid off because of the loss of trade in the wake of the Gulf Crisis after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (my letter of termination began, "Saddam Hussein has left me no choice"), we truly were friends.
A few months before I left the AUC Press, I met Sasson Somekh — the great Israeli scholar of Arabic literature, who was the author of the first book in English on Mahfouz, and whom Mahfouz considered to be his most perceptive critic — as he came out of a meeting with Mahfouz at his office in al-Ahram. (With him, I believe, was Sami Mikhail: like Sasson, an Iraqi-born Jew who emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s: Sami, one of Israel's most famous novelists, was also the translator of Mahfouz's Trilogy into Hebrew, the first language into which all three of its volumes were translated.) After getting to know Sasson, he suggested that we collaborate on a biography of Mahfouz, a tremendous honor, given his stature. This was the first time the idea that I work on such a project had been suggested to me: I had fantasized about the idea, to be sure, though I thought it more realistic to perhaps become one of his translators one day.
In the "It's a bizarrely small world" department, it recently emerged that Steve Jobs had a Sunni Syrian father, I had no idea that this same father also sired the writer, Mona Simpson. One day back in the early 1990s, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo hired me to serve as a guide to a visiting American novelist, who had a Syrian father and American mother, named Mona Simpson. She was a delightful person and we had a great time on the day we spent together at the Giza pyramids and other sites in Umm al-Dunya. Later that year, when I left the AUC Press and Cairo in search of new employment in the US, she recommended me to a senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG) book publishers in New York, named John Glusman. John did not have any jobs available, but — as he had been to Egypt and loved the works of Naguib Mahfouz — he wondered if I would be willing to write his biography, instead? As it turned out, it did not appear practical to try to collaborate on such a complex project with another writer, so I undertook the assignment on my own. Ironically, John then did not want the work to be academic: at that point, I struck him as having the right background but with the approach of a professional writer and editor. Sasson, however, generously continued as one of my most important mentors, and has been a great source of knowledge, counsel and encouragement throughout.
(Yet I soon found that only academe allowed me both the continuous funding and the vital library access that I would need for the project. As a result, at the invitation of Roger Allen, an outstanding specialist on Arabic literature generally and on Mahfouz particularly, whom I met in 1988 in Baghdad, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program under his supervision at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1992, and took my Ph.D. in the summer of 2008. My dissertation, A Mummy Awakens: The Pharaonic Fiction of Naguib Mahfouz, focused on his works set in ancient Egypt, with a very biographical, "New Historicist" approach — much of this will also fit in one way or another into the biography itself.)
While I had been negotiating with FSG for the biography contract, I contacted Mahfouz through the AUC Press, to see if he would cooperate in the work. At that time he declined, saying that he had already told his life story to Raja‘ al-Naqqash, the literary critic, who had conducted a very extensive series of interviews with him in 1990-91 for a verbal self-portrait of the author. (This book was not actually published until 1998, and is a remarkably useful document, though no such work can hope to cover everything.) Nonetheless, FSG still decided to proceed despite this setback. The contract was signed in January 1992: in February I went to London, where he had gone for a month in September 1991 to have surgery on an abdominal aneurism, then headed for Cairo to continue my field research there. Soon after arriving I saw Mahfouz at al-Ahram: to my great relief and surprise, he readily agreed to cooperate in my book, sending a letter to John Glusman through the AUC Press to confirm it. (Incidentally, some years ago, John left FSG to work at Harmony Books, a division of Random House: my current editor at FSG is Paul Elie.)
For the next fourteen and a half years — until his death at age 94 on August 30, 2006 — I continued seeing Mahfouz in every possible place and way that I could. This included frequent one-on-one interviews in his office at al-Ahram, and faithful attendance of his Friday nadwas at Casino Qasr al-Nil near the Opera. One day in that first summer (1992), knowing that he went every other week to Alexandria in that season by the Superjet bus, I bought a ticket and discovered after paying for it that we shared the left front seat, behind the driver, which turned out to be his usual spot. When I tried to exchange it, I was told it was the last seat available. Though we were indeed friends, Mahfouz treasured his privacy and was not used to company on these trips. The next morning at departure, after a warm greeting in which he clearly seemed surprised, we barely spoke to each other most of the way. I was afraid that I'd blundered, and so kept quiet, though all was fine by the time we arrived in Ramle Station. In fact, Alexandria gave me an opportunity to see him for many more hours per week than was possible in Cairo, in his nightly gatherings in the Hotel San Stefano (mentioned in another context in a piece I published on September 25 about the downward trajectory of the Egyptian revolution). And here is another piece, published today, which gives a broader idea of my views of the current situation in Egypt, though without reference to Mahfouz — who I suspect largely would agree with my analysis.
One of my greatest breakthroughs in my first six months on the project was to gain the cooperation of his two daughters (and only children), Hoda and Faten (formally named Umm al-Kulthoum and Fatima respectively). In my case, for the first time, they agreed to cooperate with someone writing about their father, eventually allowing me to copy and/or photograph his private albums, passport, old IDs, an extract of his birth record (in which I first learned that he was born on December 10, not December 11, later confirmed by examining his original birth record at the aptly-named Dar al-Mahfouzat), complete manuscripts (with corrections and signs of printer's ink on them) of two of his novels (Miramar and al-Shahhadh, or The Beggar), and letters to him from his editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. This was the beginning of many other important documentary finds that I have been fortunate enough to make during my research.
|Stock Visiting Mahfouz after the Stabbing|
He did not emerge from the Police Authority Hospital next door to his home until his birthday in December. In the meantime, Dr. Yahya al-Rakhawi, a psychiatrist who also wrote on literature, befriended him and proposed a routine that would last until his final hospitalization in July 2006. Concerned that Mahfouz would fall into depression with his new-found infirmity and sense of vulnerability (before his stabbing, he had rejected personal guards despite death threats by Islamist militants against him), he proposed that six nights of the week, Mahfouz should join his friends in a rotating series of venues, that ultimately worked out as follows: Sunday at Shepheard's, Monday at the Novotel in Heliopolis, Tuesday on the Farah Boat in Giza, Wednesday at the Sofitel in Maadi, Thursday with his traditional gathering of intimates, called the Harafish (a group of artists and writers that first met on houseboats in the early 1940s), and Fridays at the home of Dr. al-Rakhawi in Muqattam. On Saturday evening he would receive visitors at home.
And so I saw him not only during many of the nightly gatherings (usually between one and three times week), but also occasionally in his home. The most difficult time was during the military trial at Haikstep of 16 defendants rounded up after his attempted assassination, which I covered for The Financial Times. On several occasions I came to brief him on the day's proceedings, and to get his reaction. This was very hard on both of us, actually, though much more so on him. We reached a breaking point temporarily when it became clear there was doubt that the principal defendant, Mohammed Nagi, a 23-year old electronic appliance repairman, who had confessed on television to actually stabbing him, was guilty. (He swore to me that he had confessed under torture, and that he was actually innocent.) This deeply upset Mahfouz, who one day threw me out angrily when he saw the implications of my findings. He had also been hearing a great deal of noise from some of his more anti-Western friends that I was a spy — why else would I be investigating his stabbing? Though he didn't truly believe it, I wound up writing him a letter reiterating that my sole interest was in his biography, and he soon welcomed me back. There was never another moment of tension between us. But my own, private duress really began when the final judgments were handed down at Haikstep, including twelve prison sentences (ranging from 1 to 25 years), two acquittals, and two executions — one of those being Mohamed Nagi, whom I had gotten to know rather well. On that day, the families and defense lawyers were not allowed to attend, to avoid their making a scene at the close. But because at one point State Security had removed me from the trial when all the prisoners, who I later learned had thought I was really a human rights investigator from the UN come to document their torture and abuse, had shouted out, "Raymond, we love you!" the families turned to me after the session to learn the verdicts on their loved ones. They kept coming up to me, asking me over and over again if what I had just told them was true. This included the families of both Mohammed al-Mahallawi, a 21-year old convicted of casing Mahfouz's home before the attack, and Nagi, both of whom were condemned to death. As the court was closing on that final day, the other defendants, including al-Mahallawi, shouted out their loyalty to the terrorist organization, al-Gama‘a al-Islamiya, and called for the death of Naguib Mahfouz, contradicting everything they had told me when I spoke to them in their cages during the trial. Nagi too was calling out, but I could not hear what he was saying. When he saw me approaching him, he turned to speak to me, but at that moment two men grabbed me and pulled me out of the building — I never saw him again. I kept trying to arrange a visit to him on Death Row, and even extracted a promise from State Security that I could see him before his hanging, scheduled for the next Saturday — but he was actually executed that Tuesday. When I went to see his family in Ain Shams three days after his death, they received me very warmly, spoke respectfully of Mahfouz, and told me that their son — who had been convicted mainly based on very weak eyewitness testimony and his own confession under probable duress — had been with them at the time of the stabbing. I still don't know what to believe.
These were the most dramatic, and traumatic, moments of my long sojourn with Mahfouz. Yet most of the time there was just his enormously quick wit, his unfailing hospitality to the hundreds of guests that I brought to see him over the years, and the incredible richness of our conversations with his friends (and, sometimes, family). Though sadly we never could return to our former interviews alone at al-Ahram — to which he stopped going after the assault — he remained ever tolerant and patient with my endless questions, even if he did logically wonder where it was all leading after so much time. But given that such projects normally take up to twenty-five years — a time-frame inconceivable in a culture where biography (as opposed to autobiography) has a much more limited tradition — his bemusement was certainly understandable. Finally, we had a standing joke: would he finish his book on me before I finished my book on him? Perhaps some day we'll find the manuscript to his, and know that he won.
MCD: How did Mahfouz feel about the various English translations of his work? Did he feel some were superior to others? I believe he worked with all his translators during his lifetime.
RS: If memory serves, Marcia Lynx Qualey, who has a very impressive daily blog on Arabic literature in English, has counted fifteen translators of Mahfouz, including myself. Though Mahfouz actively collaborated with Phillip Stewart in his translation of Awlad Haratina (Children of Gebelawi) in the 1960s (not published until 1981), and with Denys Johnson Davies, Roger Allen and perhaps a few others, he did not work with most of his translators directly. In fact, many of his books were commissioned for translation only after his death, when the AUC Press decided to complete the translation of them all by his centenary. In my case (I have translated seven of his books and placed a great many of his stories in magazines), I did not consult him on language questions but constantly did so on the people and locations found in his stories — elements that helped in his biography. I cannot recall Mahfouz ever complaining about any particular translations of his works, though he was aware that some of them were controversial. Once I arranged for Denys to see him at Shepheard's, and it was clear in their conversation that Mahfouz really respected him as a translator. Though he was unable to read most, if any, of my translations due to the loss of most of his eyesight in later years, he told me that his friends had reassured him that I should translate his Dreams series (of which I had already done the first volume after proposing it to the AUCP) because of my particular style. That was one of the high points of my time with him.
MCD: You've been asked this more than once, but for the English-language reader new to Mahfouz (and perhaps daunted by the size of the Trilogy, what would be some good works to start with?
RS: First one should ask, do you like short reads or long? For long reads, one should begin with (if not the Trilogy) Miramar, Midaq Alley (now out in a new translation by Humphrey Davies), or Khan al-Khalili. For shorter ones, Adrift on the Nile or The Thief and the Dogs are excellent, as are Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, Cairo Modern, Thebes at War, and The Coffeehouse (his last novel, which gives a brilliant, brief historical overview of Egyptian politics and society of the twentieth century, and is a moving story with some very poetic passages to boot). Also the short stories in The Time and the Place. These are all among his best works — very accessible and also entertaining. But everyone would have their own list. Incidentally, the last time I was asked this question, it was to choose his most representative works. The titles I've recommended here are those I think would be most appealing.
MCD: I presume you have personal favorites among his works. What might they be?
RS: My list is quirky and not all critics would agree. In my view, his most inventive, innovative work was his last — The Dreams (published in two volumes as The Dreams and Dreams of Departure — a combined, updated edition was published in paperback by Anchor Books/Random House in 2009). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, as I chose them as the subject of my doctoral dissertation (because I considered them both neglected and underrated), I am very fond of his pharaonic works — all of them, in fact, including Voices of the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales, Khufu's Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia, Thebes at War, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, and Before the Throne: Dialogues with Egypt's Great from Menes to Anwar al-Sadat (the latter actually covering five thousand years of history, from the First Dynasty to the 1980s). And I'm intrigued by the stories that I assembled for the collection entitled, The Seventh Heaven: Supernatural Stories — as Mahfouz himself was fascinated by the occult, the uncanny, and the other-worldly. And I especially love The Coffeehouse (as should be clear from my comment in the previous question — here is a wonderful review of it by Andre Naffis-Sahely, which connects it to theArab Spring, and here is a piece of my own which shows how Before the Throne in a sense presaged the uprising in Egypt. ) One reviewer actually accused me of choosing the books I have translated (which were Voices from the Other World, Khufu's Wisdom, The Seventh Heaven, The Dreams, Dreams of Departure, Before the Throne, and The Coffeehouse), based on their utility to the biography, rather than literary merit. But in fact I chose them for both reasons, and wound up loving them all as significant works of art that also revealed a great deal about the ingenious mind that created them. (I should further mention one of the short stories I have translated that has not yet appeared in a book in English: "Assassin," published in 1962 in the collection, Dunya Allah, which appeared in Harper's Magazine in January 2005.) And beyond these, of course, I'm very fond of all the works I cited in the previous question about recommendations for new Mahfouz readers, to which I would add The Beginning and the End. Incidentally, Mahfouz used to say that he regarded all of his books as his children and so hated to play favorites, but in fact he was most proud of The Harafish and Arabian Nights and Days, as well as the Trilogy. From our discussions, I also sensed he was particularly attached to Miramar and Midaq Alley, but that is not all, of course.
MCD: How about the cinematic versions of his works? Do you know if Mahfouz had favorites there? Do you?
RS: Mahfouz's immense cinematic contributions fall into two categories: his literary works adapted for the screen, and his own original scenarios and other material written specifically for cinema — which he (incorrectly, I believe) did not view as genuine creative works. He personally never adapted any of his published works for cinema — which he saw as an entirely different medium, with very different needs and demands. For this reason he largely refrained from judging them — also because he himself worked in cinema, both as chief censor for film and entertainment in the late 1950s, and as a bureaucrat in charge of the state's cinema production (and support for private films) in the 1960s: he did not want to offend anyone in that community. On the other hand, he was very, very warm in his praise for at least three directors with which he worked in the 1940s and '50s, and for whom he wrote scenarios and other material: Salah Abu Seif, who brought him into the business and taught him how to write for cinema; Tawfik Saleh, whom he got to know when Tawfik came to him with an idea for a film that became known as Darb al-Mahabil (Dunces' Lane), soon becoming his closest friend until his death, and Youssef Chahine. Though this list is not exhaustive, Mahfouz seemed very pleased with Rayya wa-Sakina (Rayya and Sakina), al-Wahsh (The Beast), and Bayna al-sama' wa-al-ard (Between Heaven and Earth), all three directed by Salah Abu Seif, and, I believe, Jamila, directed by Youssef Chahine. Interestingly, one of his best known film credits — as the scenarist for Chahine's classic historical film, al-Nasir Salah al-Din (The Conqueror Saladin) — was misplaced, both he and Chahine told me, because Chahine had largely discarded the original screenplay that Mahfouz had worked on in favor of another, but still kept his name in the final product. As for my own favorites, in the adaptations of his fiction, they would be Palace Walk, Miramar, Bidaya wa-nihaya (The Beginning and the End), The Thief and the Dogs, Tharthara fawqa al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile), and Qalb al-Layl (The Heart of the Night). Among those for which he wrote the scenario, etc., they would be, Darb al-Mahabil, Rayya wa-Sakina, Bayna al-Sama' wa-al-ard, and al-Wahsh.
MCD: Does Mahfouz have any heirs? I know some have compared Aswany's Yacoubian Building to some of his work. Any comments?
RS: The late John Updike published a wonderful poem on mortality, "Perfection Wasted," which basically reminds us that each of us is unique and can never be repeated: "imitators and descendants aren't the same." Though uniqueness cannot be further quantified or qualified, there simply could not be another Naguib Mahfouz, either as a persona or a literary figure. He was not so much the product of his time — there was no one like him when he grew up (or now) — as the maker of it, for it was he who created the modern prose style in Arabic fiction and brought the Arabic novel to maturity. Though his reputation is that of an Egyptian Dickens or Balzac, he was also a Proust, a Galsworthy, a Joyce, a Kafka, a Faulkner, and a Zola, as well as a Muwaylihi, a Manfaluti, and an al-Hakim, among others, and yet none of the above as well, for he combined them all, adding his own personal elements to the mix. No other writer in Arabic (and perhaps in any language) has matched his enormous — and enormously varied — output, that he owed not only to fertile mind but also his enormous, iron-bound discipline. Nor has anyone in that language (or again, perhaps in any other) ever written in so many different styles and genres. As a person, he was both domestic and foreign in style: I've always said that he treated people like an Egyptian and time like a German.
But if you mean, who might be the next great writer in Arabic, that is a different question. I doubt it will be Alaa al-Aswany, whose Yacoubian Building is a ripping read that broke many taboos, that came almost literally straight out of his own life. One minor example is the fake article that a tailor — a profile of himself — kept in his own shop window downtown to promote his business: I actually published such an article in Egypt Today magazine in 1997, that was kept in the tailor Samir al-Saqqa's shop window on Abdel-Khaliq Tharwat Street downtown, not far from the actual Yacoubian Building — but this is only one of many such details, apparently. Nonetheless, Al-Aswany certainly made his characters live, and his story really move. His second novel, Chicago, was much less successful. But the third time could be the charm, while he has been more effective, in my view, as a political commentator and critic, especially since the fall of Mubarak, though I don't always agree with his views. Two other writers I have in mind instead are both people I have been fortunate enough to translate. One, Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer living in Berlin, has written a handful of brilliant, very intricate, vivid and powerful novels set in his native country, along with a number of short stories, one of which, "Wars in Distant Lands," I have published in Harper's (in February 2008). I have also translated just under a quarter of his novel, The Journey to Tell al-Lahm (Tall al-lahm), which is now seeking a new publisher after its original home tragically went bankrupt. The other writer, Sherif Meleka, is an Egyptian Copt who has just published his fourth novel (that ends with the start of the January 25th Revolution), in addition to two story collections and three books of poetry (some in colloquial). I have translated two of his stories, and a portion of his novel, Suleiman's Ring (Khatim Sulayman) — the latter about a Jewish father and son in Alexandria, who possess a magical talisman that, when lent to the young Gamal Abdel-Nasser, enables him to launch the Free Officer's coup. [Update by MCD: for more on Meleka, see Raymond's comments in the first comment below.] So far these translations are unpublished, but we hope to change that soon. Incidentally, one thing that both Wali and Meleka have in common (quite coincidentally to my own involvement), is that they both have that rarest of things in Arabic literature — positive Jewish characters —in their fiction. But that is certainly not all that commends them.
Returning to the heart of your question, I also comment on the succession issue in this video obituary of Mahfouz broadcast by the BBC on the day of his death. Though there are a few minor errors in the narrative, I find it very moving.
In any case, thank you very much, Michael, for asking me these questions at this fateful time in the history not of only of Arabic literature, but of Mahfouz's homeland as well. Let me close by saying that thanks to my opposition to what I consider to have been the anti-Semitic and anti-peace cultural policies of the Mubarak regime (though at least he did keep the peace itself), one year ago today (December 9, 2010), I was detained overnight and deported back to the US, the following morning (December 10 — which would have been Mahfouz's actual 99th birthday, as noted above). (Here is the link to an article about this travesty) Hence I am unable to attend Sunday's Naguib Mahfouz Medal ceremony, in which they will celebrate his centenary, at the AUC on Sunday. But I will be there in spirit — for after first visiting Egypt thirty-four years ago this month, and living there for two decades, Egypt is more than my second home — I am spiritually Egyptian, and always will be. Egypt is the place where I met most of the loves of my life, and where a number of them, including dear Naguib Bey, have died. Though I hope to go back to her one day, Egypt will always live within me.