By Maurice Chammah
Although now widely considered Egypt’s literary ambassador to the world, Naguib Mahfouz was relatively unknown outside of Egypt until 1988, the year he won the Nobel Prize.
Speaking in Cairo this week, Sture Allén, a professor of computational linguistics and member of the Swedish Academy that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, recalled the year Mahfouz won the award. After the Academy selected Mahfouz, Allén flew to Cairo to meet him, where the author gave him a copy of “Adrift on the Nile”, and told him, “If I were a pessimist, I wouldn’t write.” Allén said he was deeply moved by Mahfouz’s sense of optimism.
Taking us back to 1988, Allén narrated the emotional moment when he looked into the camera, and spoke to Mahfouz, who remained in Cairo while the award was announced in Stockholm. Using the customary second person, he told Mahfouz, “Your rich and complex work invites us to reconsider the fundamental things in life.” Referencing the necessity of translation for most of the world to read Mahfouz’s novels, he concluded, “The poetic quality of your prose can be felt across the language barrier.”
Allén was moved nearly to tears as he recounted Mahfouz’s response, which credited the Arabic language as “the real winner of the prize.”
Mahfouz would have won the Nobel Prize as early as 1960 had translations of his work been available around the world, Egyptian novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani said. Winning the prize, he continued, “allowed Arabic literature to reach the very depths of cultures and paved the ground for following generations.”
“The world started paying attention to all Arabic literature” after Mahfouz won the prize.
Al-Ghitani also described his experience traveling in East Germany in 1987, where writers told him that Adrift on the Nile, Mahfouz’s 1966 novel chronicling disaffected Egyptian youth under Nasser, was “an expression of their plight under socialist rule.” Al-Ghitani said he asked them the link between “you and a group of Egyptians smoking hash in a houseboat.” The East German writers responded, “You only had to look at the isolation and despair.”
On Tuesday night, professors, students, and members of the Mahfouz family gathered at the Oriental Hall of the old AUC campus to celebrate the work of Mahfouz with two lectures, by Allén and Al-Ghitani.
A large photo of Mahfouz, sporting a scruffy white beard and his trademark glasses looked over the events, as jazz music wafted over the grand wooden latticework and neo-Orientalist decor. After comments by Swedish ambassador Malin Kärre describing Mahfouz as the “Egyptian national author,” Mark Linz, Director of AUC Press, announced joyfully that the Press’ English translations of Mahfouz’s novels were their “most important cultural achievement.”
Since 1980, Allén, has been a member of the Swedish Academy. After a celebratory biography of Alfred Nobel, Allén’s lecture focused on the details of the process, much of which is shrouded in secrecy. He took great pleasure in the linguistic nuances of his work, explaining the linguistic history of the Nobel name, as well as several of the adjectives Nobel used in his criteria for who should be selected each year to win the prestigious award.
He also pointed out, several times, the fact that the Swedish Academy is autonomous from the Swedish government. “Don’t call the government and tell them who should win, because they won’t tell us” he advised, with his uniquely dry humor, waiting for silence to fill the room before declaring: “Good. You understand.”
After the lectures, Linz unveiled a new exhibit at AUC’s downtown campus called Naguib Mahfouz: His Life & Work, which includes personal belongings, photographs, newspaper articles, and other items related to the author’s work.
Throughout the evening, the speakers, which also included Samia Mehrez, the director of AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, debated the tension between the literary universalism promoted by the Nobel Prize and the specifically Egyptian references of Mahfouz’s work. “In order to be universal,” Al-Ghitani offered, the writer must “be very local.”
Swedish Academy member Sture Allen (left) and Gamal al-Ghitani discuss Mahfouz’s literary influence. (Daily News Egypt Photo/ Maurice Chammah)