‘How I Met Mahfouz’ and Found the Doorway to (Real) Arab Lit

Naila Kelani, a Libyan-American aspiring writer now studying in the UAE, blogs at Finjan Gahwa.  She shares about her relationship with the work of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz—and the doors it opened—as his 100th approaches.

I met Mahfouz at a time when Arabic literature was as inaccessible to me as a real history of the Arab world, or a novel about an Arab Woman that actually was about an Arab Women. The Middle Eastern section of my local Barnes & Noble was tragically under-stocked, leaving me with a meager selection of factually questionable histories and shady looking “memoirs” written on Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

For most of my life, I longed to get into Arabic literature (or, at least, the translated type) but I just didn’t know where to start. My first year in the UAE didn’t change things; what little rested on the library shelves had me nostalgic for the hours spent kneeling by the then-provincial one at Barnes & Noble. Though trips to the small bookstores nestled in abandoned mall corners gave me enough in the Iranian and Afghani department, for stores located in an Arab country they were awfully dry, boasting the same Orientalist fictions that litter the “bestselling” sections worldwide.

I resigned myself to the idea that if, in the more grounded Abu Dhabi, there was no visible outlet, then surely Dubai would be a lost cause. But I was wrong. I had seen the bookstore a thousand times, strolled through a thousand times, but saw nothing. As if the shelves– the shelves that would soon become the proverbial trees from which I’d hang my (proverbial) hammock and take refuge from the hustle and bustle– had secreted themselves guised in insignificance.

About one year after moving to the country, I lingered tentatively by the “Local Interest” area, expecting the usual sentimental coffee-table books filled with black and white photos of dunes, camels, falcons, and the dignified Sheikhs who manned them. But there was something different this time. The vibrant-looking shelf to the left, usually ignored due to the previously mentioned cookie-cutter books with cookie-cutter covers, by pseudonymous authors of faux-arabnesss, had a newcomer who, among this Arab shelf of Western names, stood out. Naguib Mahfouz. Huh. I thought. He must be Egyptian.

And Egyptian he was. But who exactly is this Mahfouz fellow, and why did he have so many books? More importantly, how did they all have such enticing titles?

I think at this point in the story, I’m supposed to reminisce about the hours I spent perusing the pages, finding “the” Naguib Mahfouz book whose name would be engraved forever in my heart, resurfacing yearly for an anniversary read.
But what happened was a lot less romantic and a lot more 21st century. I scribbled his name down quickly and forgot about it until I could get home to do a Google search. A bad habit imparted to me by the internet age. I looked him up and liked what I read, and didn’t get around to buying one for another few months. Which book did I start with? Thankfully, I can say that my introduction to Arab literature was not the 1,001 Arabian Nights and Scheherazade not my narrator, rather, it was The 1,001 Arabian Nights and Days (A unique Mahfouz book that I would later find out was the exception of his entire works), and I liked it enough. But it wasn’t so much the book itself that was significant, but the doors it opened up.

The Key to the Treasure is the Treasure Itself. It was as if, by discovering Mahfouz, I had found all books. After finding his books, I couldn’t walk a meter without finding another Arabic title. Suddenly, I could read books about Leaving Tangier, get entangled in roots and Origins; there are days to read about Men in the Sun, and there are nights to savor the Moon Over Samarqand.

It was the Arab voice that had never existed for me before, it was love and it was suffering and it was raw and it was abstract, but it was real and that was something no one who claimed to write for or in the Middle East had given me before, and now there were volumes of it.

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2 comments

  1. My Father studied his Bsc in Egypt in the sixties,the golden age of Arab literature,he was a book worm and he bought every thing he could get his hands on,sadly most of them were borrowed and never returned while he was in Egypt,Any way i have had the pleasure of being acquainted with Mr Nagib Mahfouz since i could read,when i was very young the main attraction is that his second name was the same as that of my Father’s,Mahfoud but later on ironically i was on holiday in Egypt i saw a TV series on Egyptian TV called Beina Al Gasreen and I was so hooked to the show and i din’t know that it was a Nagib Mahfouz book until my Father volunteered the information enticing me further by adding “its a 3 part saga(TULATHIA)”so off we went to a Cairo district famous for selling books,Figala(if ever in Egypt,its a book worm haven but not famous for its cleanliness)any way i got my Tulathia and i have never stopped reading what i could get my hands on, i must say i found him to be a very brave soul to write what he wrote in such a conservative setting in the sixties ,some of his writings would cause a riot now in 2011.Another equally brave writer who i find very entertaining is Ihssan Abdul Kodous , i think his writings are from the same era as Mahfouz.Anyways happy reading.

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