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.
For Mohab Nasr
All these years my friend
As though we’re here by mistake
Waiting until the roads clear
To drive unlicensed trucks
And face the border guards
With forced laughter and cash.
We dream of places that were they found
We’d be no good for, my friend,
Forced to mix with the statues
To swap their talk with them
To be jammed in among them
With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,
Our heads bowed down at home
We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries
That we might try reproducing in secret,
Mourning our endangered line.
All these years plucking up the courage
To declare we are not statues
And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,
Dead with flattened heads,
With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,
With holes in our bones.
How is it, my friend, after all these years
All we can utter is croaking?