About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.
Most of the time I think of writing as a position on the world – a vocation, a lifestyle, an ethics – in the way that scholarship or performance, say, is a position on the world. Writing is the position on the world that’s not a political position, or the closest thing possible to a position that’s not political – even when it deals, on the surface, with political or historical subjects. What I mean by this is that the knowledge literature produces, the pleasures it involves, the seemingly unethical practices it sometimes permits, all want to experience something more than history. (Remember Joyce’s famous statement: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”) They want to say something more about a person or a group of people than where and when they live, what their lives look like, or what predetermined factors make them look that way – the nightmare, which it really is impossible to awake from no matter what. Literature wants to say something DESPITE that nightmare, something about what lives mean or could’ve meant, how beautiful they can be looked at in a certain way, or why they might be worth living. I think when you try honestly to do that, you speak to more people who are different from you than it’s otherwise possible. That’s partly why literature is important: it emphasizes things that are deeper and more consistent and that last longer than most “history”. In this sense, even though it should always be accessible, it’s a very specialized mode of information sharing; I believe it’s comparable to (though no longer part of) those scholarly endeavors we’ve come to group together as the humanities, which are older than but never entirely incompatible with the natural sciences, and which can rarely do without a historical-political frame.