Memories of Naguib Mahfouz and the Movies

Playwright, journalist, novelist, and head of the Egyptian Writers Union Mohamed Salmawy flew to the Emirates last night to give a talk at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair about the new book Naguib Mahfouz: Man of Cinema.

Salmawy didn’t contribute to the book, but his long acquaintance with Egypt’s only Nobel literature laureate provides him with lots of material for any questions about Mahfouz.

Indeed, Salmawy immediately corrected one of my mis-perceptions about Mahfouz’s career. I had thought of the period between when Mahfouz published his giant, sprawling  The Cairo Trilogy and when he began on أولاد حارتنا  (Children of Gabalawi) as one void of creative work. But this isn’t true.

Indeed, after Mahfouz finished his giant work, which Salmawy said “was so complicated and so vast in its canvas, that Mahfouz had to keep a notebook beside him in order to remember the characters and the description of each character,” he couldn’t write for a number of years. But this was not a fallow period.

“That is when he turned to script-writing and was under the impression at the time that he would not be able to write any more novels,” Salmawy said. “So he gave a lot of time and effort to script writing.”

These films, Salmawy said, were different from what had come before. “They were more dramatic. There was more interest in characterization. And the plot was more indicative and symbolic… Well, it was a turning point that took the Egyptian cinema a step ahead.”

No doubt the world would be a different place if Mahfouz had remained a screenwriter. But “of course he later left film writing, when in 1959 he published Children of Gabalawi…. In writing أولاد حارتنا, he turned back to the novel. [But] he put all his literary talents into his film scripts and that time, because he wasn’t writing any literature.”