Youssef Rakha: The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt

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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.

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Mahfouz’s Cairo

It is early afternoon on the first day of Eid al Fitr, an unusually tranquil time in Cairo. While I drive past the British Council in Agouza, a middle-class residential neighbourhood outside the city proper; it feels pleasantly appropriate that the Corniche on the opposite side of the road, normally a crawling behemoth of traffic, should be lying so quietly in the Nile’s embrace.

Novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo is much greener and slower-paced than today’s Cairo: it was a place where people enjoyed walking and tram and bus rides. Until later in life, Mahfouz, who never drove, was well-known for walking around the city in the early morning; along the Corniche and by Orman Parks near Cairo University.

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