Egyptian laureate’s legacy still resonates in Israel 10 years after death

Before the peace agreement, it was groundbreaking when Menahem Milson sent a letter to one of Egypt’s most prominent writers, Naguib Mahfouz.

Naguib Mahfouz smiles in his Cairo home, 19 October 1988, a few days after the announcement of his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature (photo credit: PETER OFTEDAL / SCANPIX SWEDEN / AFP)
Naguib Mahfouz smiles in his Cairo home, 19 October 1988, a few days after the announcement of his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature
The year was 1970. Despite the seemingly unending state of war between Israel and Egypt, Menahem Milson, then a young scholar of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University, decided to make an overture of friendship to one of Egypt’s most prominent writers, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006).
Through a third party, Milson sent an article he had written about Mahfouz’s works to the author himself, complete with an inscription quoting a medieval Arabic poem about friendship with a person “whom God has not allowed me to meet.’’ Mahfouz, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, had no hesitations about responding to the Israeli. In his reply, he wrote that he had been “profoundly moved’’ by Milson’s gesture, and he chose his own verse of medieval poetry as a token of friendship and respect for Milson.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of Mahfouz’s death at age 94, after a lifespan that saw Egypt go from British occupation to the revolution of 1952, led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, and on through the eras of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.
Mahfouz lived through five Egyptian-Israeli wars, which helped make him a leading advocate of peace.
In awarding the prize, the Nobel committee credited Mahfouz with “creation of an Arabian narrative art that applies to all of mankind.’’ Compared by some to Dickens and Balzac, his more than 45 novels and short-story collections are markedly diverse. They range from the Cairene trilogy chronicling a Cairo family through three generations; to Children of Gebelawi, an allegory on human history that outraged Islamic religious circles when it came out in serial form in 1959 and prompted extremists to stab and seriously wound Mahfouz 35 years later; to “By a Person Unknown,” a thriller of a short story about a police detective who becomes victim of the serial killer he is attempting to catch.
Mahfouz also mentored young Arab writers, encouraging them to join his weekly meetings in Cairo cafes with critics and other novelists, reading drafts of their work and making suggestions on how to improve them.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on his geranium- adorned porch in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, Milson, now 82, recalled finally meeting Mahfouz when the writer hosted him at his home in Cairo in 1979 after peace was established.
“It was a meeting full of excitement. We spoke about his work, what I wrote about his work, and we exchanged views on the news,’’ he said. Subsequent meetings were also poignant for Milson, who used them as an opportunity to “test my own thinking’’ about Mahfouz’s work.
“The meetings were always very emotional. We met as friends who didn’t meet regularly but are fond of each other,’’ he said.
Milson said Mahfouz in person was consistent with the image he had formed of him from reading his works. “He was very human, very warm, but at the same time very cautious in what he said and a very private person.’’ And Milson was not the only Israeli academic with whom Mahfouz enjoyed warm relations. Tel Aviv University emeritus professor Sasson Somekh fostered particularly close ties with the Egyptian writer, even introducing him, when they met in Cairo, to the works of S.Y. Agnon and other Israeli literature. Mahfouz told Egypt’s October magazine in 1982 that Somekh understood his work so well that “I felt he had lived for many years at my side.’’ Mahfouz’s caution is apparent in how his books treated the dictatorship of Egyptian president Nasser.
As Milson shows in his book Najib Mahfouz: The Novelist- Philosopher of Cairo, he deployed allegory and indirect criticisms to make his point that the Egyptian revolution had gone wrong.
“He almost got into trouble, but he was careful enough not to clash with authorities,’’ Milson said, recalling an incident when Nasser’s deputy, Abdel Hakim Amer, urged that Mahfouz be punished for negative allusions to the regime, but the novelist was spared by the intervention of the minister of culture, Tharwat Ukasha. Indeed, perhaps Mahfouz’s sharpest and most direct criticism of Nasser’s rule, Karnak Café, which revolves around torture by the secret police, came only after Nasser’s death.
One topic Mahfouz spoke out about in real time – and in a sense pioneered even before Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem – was peace with Israel, which, according to the Egyptian novelist Yusuf al-Qa’id, he began advocating in private meetings right after Egypt’s disastrous defeat in the 1967 war. In 1972, Mahfouz infuriated Libya’s young leader, Muammar Gaddafi, who was visiting Cairo, when, during a closed event at Al-Ahram newspaper, he called for negotiations with Israel.
Mahfouz later became one of the key figures backing the Camp David Accords despite the objections of most Egyptian intellectuals, who viewed them as a sellout of Egypt’s Arab commitments and the Palestinian cause.
He wrote, in a 1979 letter to Somekh, of his hopes that peace and Arab-Jewish cooperation would transform the entire region. Somekh quoted from this letter in his memoir Life after Baghdad. “Our two nations have known fruitful coexistence in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and in the modern period, while the periods of conflict and dispute have been few and far between,’’ Mahfouz wrote. “But to my great sorrow, we have over-chronicled the moments of conflict a hundredfold more than we have recorded long generations of friendship and partnership.’’ Milson never asked Mahfouz why he supported peace with Israel. “That’s a journalist’s question,’’ he explained. But he said the answer is apparent from Mahfouz’s writing, including a book called Before the Throne, in which the rulers of Egypt through the ages are placed on trial before Osiris and other Egyptian deities of antiquity. The gods credit Sadat for his peacemaking, while criticizing Nasser for costly foreign involvements at the expense of development at home.
“Mahfouz was an Egyptian patriot, not an Arab patriot.
He was never a pan-Arabist; his love and devotion are for Egypt. He resisted very much Nasser’s approach, which was pan-Arabist, and he openly criticizes him in Beyond the Throne for changing the name of Egypt to the United Arab Republic, a name that doesn’t mention Egypt,’’ Milson said.
Since Mahfouz shunned pan-Arabism, he saw no point in being in conflict with Israel, Milson said. “He didn’t think this was in the best interests of Egypt. Why should Egypt be at war with Israel? Over what? Israel didn’t want to claim Egyptian territory, didn’t want to annex territory.
Why should Egypt be an enemy of Israel? Egypt went to war in 1948 against the newly born Israel because of what was considered the Arab cause – to save an Arab country, Palestine, from Jewish rule. It was not Egyptian territory threatened by Israel. And he didn’t think this [war] was in the best interests of Egypt.’’ Still, Mahfouz did not ignore the Palestinians in subsequent years, nor was he necessarily sympathetic to the Israeli side. He became frustrated when Egyptian- Israeli peace did not widen into Israeli peace with the Palestinians, and he was critical of Israeli policies, including the quelling of the first intifada. “Unless Israeli-Palestinian peace is achieved, Israeli-Egyptian peace will be cold, because we can’t have good relations while Arabs are being killed every day,’’ he told the Post in an interview in 1990.
In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, Mahfouz raised eyebrows in Israel when he told Al-Ahram that Israel was engaged in state “terrorism” and that Israeli “savagery’’ was causing the Palestinians to carry out suicide bombings. However, Somekh, who kept meeting with Mahfouz until a few months before his death, said in a 2007 interview that despite this, the laureate never departed from his support for Egypt’s peace with Israel.
Looking back, Milson said a central part of Mahfouz’s legacy is that “he really wrote excellent modern Egyptian novels in the Arabic language that were read all over the Arab world. These novels are informed by values that are worth spreading. The values infused through these novels are very important, such as the equality of women, the human dignity of women, the criticism of social conventions, compassion for human beings and the importance of people taking their fate into their hands and doing things rather than brooding idly at home.
“He paved the way for important novelists that followed him,’’ Milson added.