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.
My freedom-of-speech hero was never particularly gung-ho. Unlike the majority of Arab intellectuals since colonial times, he did not champion revolutionary attitudes, whether nationalist or Islamist, from the comfort of an utilitarian armchair. His hermeneutics of the Quran is perhaps the first original interpretation of Islam since the 12th century. It incurred a fatwa on his life and a court ruling that he should be separated from his wife against his will and hers! I think he is the greatest Islamic scholar of the 20th century, but for exposing all that is un-Islamic about contemporary Islam, showing unreserved aversion to the excrement of the holy cows, as it were – and for doing so with impeccably Muslim credentials – he was not only dismissed but also branded a non-Muslim. Somehow he managed to avoid becoming another Milan Kundera or another Salman Rusdie.