CAIRO: “Naguib Mahfouz recorded the history of Egypt in his novels – he was the conscience of this nation, said writer Mohamed Salmawy during the Naguib Mahfouz Memorial Lecture delivered Tuesday at the American University in Cairo.
The Nobel Laureate’s often turbulent relationship with Egyptian critics and religious figures formed the subject of Salmawy’s speech, entitled “Naguib Mahfouz: Judged and Misjudged.
To an audience that included Mahfouz’s widow and daughters and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, Salmawy described the plaudits which Mahfouz received from then literary critic Sayyed Qutb for his 1944 novel “Thebes at War. Mahfouz was later criticized in the 1950s and 1960s from left-wing intellectuals who dismissed him as a “bourgeois writer only interested in the middle class.
Yet, Salmawy pointed out, his 1966 novel “Adrift on the Nile was sharply critical of the ruling regime, to such an extent that a decree was issued for Mahfouz’s arrest.
Salmawy describes the day a police force were on their way to Mahfouz’s house when then vice president Abdel Hakim Amer phoned president Gamal Abdel Nasser to notify him of the planned arrest.
Nasser immediately ordered that the force be called back.
Criticism also surrounded Mahfouz’s selection to receive the Nobel Prize, with some critics alleging that he was chosen for endorsing Sadat’s Camp David Accords. Others suggested that he had won it for what they perceived as his slandering of Islam in “Children of the Alley.
Salmawy pointed out that “Children of the Alley was written almost 30 years before Mahfouz won the prize in 1988, adding that it was no secret that Mahfouz was pro-peace.
In rejecting the “no war, no peace stalemate following the 1973 October War and calling for negotiations with Israel (which resulted in his novels being banned), the author was merely adopting a position which Sadat himself would go on to endorse, and for which he himself would eventually win the Nobel Prize.
Inaugurated last year by South African writer Nadine Gordimer, the Memorial Lecture is given annually on Dec. 11 – Mahfouz’s birthday and the date on which the AUC Press awards the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, now in its 14th year.
Amina Zaydan was announced as this year’s winner, for her novel “Red Wine.
Set in Zaydan’s native city of Suez over the course of four decades “Red Wine explores the events which rocked the city through the medium of Suzi, the novel’s protagonist, and her family.
Jordanian literary critic Fakhri Saleh, a member of the award committee, describes the book as “the novel of disillusionment par excellence.
Beginning with a description of the Egyptian army’s 1967 and 1973 military campaigns in Sinai, the novel goes on to present “the loss of direction, the fall of combatants, the rise of fundamentalism, the disintegration of society into vying factions, and the emergence of an opportunistic and unethical class during the infitah (open door) period. It is a time of madness and rampant depression.
During her acceptance speech, Zaydan – a Ministry of Finance employee -emphasized the way her native city inspires and informs her writing. “Suez is the dominant narrative space in my literary imagination, she declared.
Echoing the sentiments expressed in Salmawy’s lecture, Zaydan stressed the importance of literature not being held hostage by religious extremism.
“To write is to construct, not to destroy, she said, “This is what fanatics do not understand; fanatics who forget that religion is but a system organizing people’s lives, one that should never be used as a pretext for terror between parties with conflicting interests leading to the fall of the innocent whose only fault was to have used their capacity for reason and their imagination.
Zaydan’s short story collection “It Happened Secretly was awarded first prize in 1994 in a competition held by literary magazine Akhbar El-Adab. The collection also won the Cairo International Book Fair Prize for Best Short Story Collection in 1995.
“Red Wine, her second novel, was published in March 2007. It will be published in English by the AUC Press next year.