In the last months, a number of previously unknown works by Egyptian Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz have been coming to light:
Mahfouz was generally not one to leave behind old paper, as we are reminded by Mohammed Shoair, author of the recent Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel. Indeed, in conversations with friends, Mahfouz called himself the “King of Shredding,” in reference to what he did with his old manuscripts.
He didn’t describe this as a self-abnegating process. Rather he tore up his manuscripts, he told friends and supporters, otherwise where would he and his family sleep? So when Shoair first went looking for manuscript versions of Mahfouz’s controversial Children of the Alley, he know it would take some doing, and he has described that search in some detail.
As we now know, the search led Shoair to a box in the keeping of Mahfouz’s living daughter, which she remembered her mother keeping, as “perhaps we will need it some day.” There, he found a collection of short, interlinked works that was published last December as Whisper of Stars; it’s forthcoming this September in Roger Allen’s translation as The Quarter: Stories by Naguib Mahfouz.
But the papers in the box weren’t just from one work. Once Shoair had sorted and arranged them, he found a full copy of the novel The Beggar and a copy of the manuscript for Miramar. Other works Shoair found in the box, he said, were incomplete, and “the biggest surprise was Mahfouz’s diary of his journey to Yugoslavia.”
But this search for Mahfouz’s manuscripts and papers wasn’t confined to the author’s home. Rather, Shoair sought help of Mahfouz’s childhood friends, relatives, collectors, until he was led to the papers taken from Mahfouz’s Abbasiya home many years ago, which the author had called a “family robbery.” This trove moved around for a while before it went up for sale at Sotheby’s in 2011, but the sale was stopped after a public outcry. After that, the manuscripts went to a collector.
Shoair asked after those papers, among which he expected to find Mahfouz’s thesis for the philosophy Master’s he did not complete. Mahfouz’s daughter helped him with this and more, until he found himself staring at some 400 pages.
Here, he found a draft of the Trilogy, philosophical texts, stories, and — for the first time — a childhood autobiography.
According to Shoair, in 1962, Fouad Duareh conducted a long interview with Mahfouz, during which he asked the author about his writerly beginnings. Mahfouz answered: “When I read Taha Hussein’s The Days, I wrote a booklet, or a book as I called it then, in which I narrated the story of my life in the manner of Taha Hussein.”
Duareh, naturally, asked Mahfouz if he still had the booklet, and Mahfouz said he did, although he’d need to dig around to find it. Mahfouz spoke several more times about this booklet, which was apparently stolen from his home.
In this now-recovered memoir of Mahfouz’s childhood, Shoair writes, we have the account of a young man who has recently left the world of childhood. It brings us the freshness and strangeness of the child’s view. Moreover, as Shoair notes, we can search the stories of the Nobel laureate’s childhood for the seeds of Kamal Abdel-Jawad of The Trilogy, as well as other characters.
Yesterday, Al Roeya also published a first installment from Mahfouz’s lost memoir in Arabic, a part of which had previously appeared in Spanish translation in El Mundo. It shows a young man looking back on his childhood years in fondness. In it, Mahfouz writes (roughly): “He believed himself the king of the whole world. Wasn’t this room all for him, and didn’t his mother create stories that were his very own, and didn’t he also have food and drink? What more could he need?
“Yes, he was king, and this room was the capital of his kingdom, and the roof was the rest of this great country. On it were two wooden sheds, the first for chickens and the second for ‘storage,’ and these were up there when he left his room and walked around on the roof in his bare feet.”
It goes on about the love between Mahfouz and his mother, and the demons he feared, his sisters and the sewing machine, and how young Mahfouz understood religion. You can read the first installment at Al Roeya.
Al Roeya will go on to publish five chapters of the memoir, according to Shoair. The family has not yet settled on a publisher.