6 Questions on ‘After the Nobel’: Nonfiction by Naguib Mahfouz

This month, Gingko published the collection After the Nobel Prize 1989-1994: The Non-fiction Writing of Naguib Mahfouz, translated by R. Neil Hewison:

The book is now available in the UK, and will be published in the US in September. This is the fourth volume in a series that also includes Mahfouz’s earliest nonfiction writing, as well as his essays during the Sadat era and the early Mubarak years.

Although the Mahfouz of the essay is not the Mahfouz of the novel, his personal interests and obsessions are clearly visible from page to page. He writes earnestly on topics such as “Work is a Sacred Trust” and “Work is Life,” as well as “This Democracy” and “Towards a Society Not based on Violence.” His essays — designed for the newspaper — are short. The one on “Fame,” for instance, is a scant 321 words. But each offers a brief insight into the author’s thoughts at the time, and, while he says the essay on fame was sparked by the renown of athletes, surely he must have also noted his own global presence.

He writes: “There is no way to accuse the masses in this case of ignorance or ingratitude, for affection here is a sign of allegiance to whomever you love, or whomever you have the capacity to love.” And those who are only famous in a very small way should take heart, as “justice finds its own path to realisation – limited renown may last for generations through the strength of its originality and its continuous effect on knowledge and life, while another type of fame may be gone within a lifetime.”

These essays were translated by R. Neil Hewison, who was Associate Director of the American University in Cairo and thus worked with many of Mahfouz’s novels. He answered a few questions about the book for ArabLit.

What made you want to take on this translation project? From having spent so much time reading & editing translations of Mahfouz’s novels? 

R. Neil Hewison: I agreed with Barbara Schwepke, the Gingko publisher, that it was important to bring Mahfouz’s non-fiction writing to an English-reading audience, who were familiar with his fiction but perhaps had no inkling of this other dimension of his creative production. And having admired and enjoyed much of his literary work and its translation into English, I was certainly intrigued to gain an insight into his journalistic output, which was clearly as important to him throughout his career as his novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. He was an all-round writer with a strong social conscience, and after seeing how he reflected on society and its ills through the indirect allegorical lens of fiction I thought it would be interesting to see how he addressed the issues that concerned him through the more direct medium of a regular newspaper column.

Who do you imagine are the audience(s) for this book? Who would you like it to reach?

RNH: I would hope that there’s at least a section of his worldwide literary admirers who would be as curious as I was to view the other side of the Mahfouz coin. But I think there’s also great value in this work for social historians of Egypt and the Middle East, to look at how the political, social, and economic regional and global issues of this particular period were reflected and viewed by a leading commentator with a major public platform in the most widely read Egyptian newspaper. Already, two different friends who teach at North American universities have told me they want to have their students read this book for their political science / social history courses.

There is such a tremendous breadth of topics covered here… from how the media covers crime, to obituaries for Yahya Haqqi and Yusuf Idris, to what can be done about the sexual assault of women, to a paean to the joys of football. What did you find, as you were translating, the most surprising take or topic? 

RNH: He was an avid reader of newspapers, and it’s clear from this collection that his interests and concerns were broad, as he commented on whatever caught his interest in the news. I was surprised and pleased to see him return several times to a topic that was not as much on people’s minds thirty years ago as it is today: pollution of the global environment and climate change. He was well aware of the issues and frequently showed that his concern was not only for the state of Egypt and the Middle East but for the state of the world as a whole, and the future of humanity. Another topic he touched on a couple of times that impressed me was his unequivocal support for racial equality worldwide. He abhorred the apartheid that was still being practiced in South Africa at the time he was writing, and he celebrated the election of African Americans as mayors and governors of American cities and states: “This is a victory for African Americans, a victory for the United States, a victory for humanity and a victory for civilisation.”

Justice seems to be a clear interest that recurs throughout these short essays (as in his writing). What other themes or interests did you find Mahfouz coming back to, again and again? 

RNH: If you ran a word frequency count on this collection, “human rights” would appear high on the list—it was something so fundamental and essential to Mahfouz that he kept returning to it to hammer the message home. His strong belief in full democracy, transparency, and the elimination of corruption come through again and again in these essays. And he repeatedly calls for the legalization of all political parties—he believed that the best way to tackle extremist ideas was to allow them legitimate exposure and then watch them wither in the light of day; he knew that pushing them underground only led to terrorism.

If there is a narrative arc to these columns, what would it be? Do you see any notable shift/s in his thinking over time?

RNH: Nothing that I could easily identify. But it is certainly poignant that a theme he touched on often—terrorism, what’s behind it, and what to do about it—comes up noticeably frequently in the last weeks before he himself was stabbed in the neck by an extremist in October 1994. In fact, by some horrible coincidence (or awful premonition?) the last two essays in the book, which he had written and submitted before the attack, but which were published after it, addressed the topic directly. “Terrorism is a dangerous disease, and its treatment must be comprehensive, through security, through ideas, through reform and through politics.”

You mention that, as you translated, you needed not to understand Arabic vocabulary but Mahfouzian vocabulary, and how he was deploying certain words. Do you think this gave you a different view on his fictional oeuvre? And also, what were the other translational challenges? (The couplets by al-Daylami?)

RNH: Perhaps not a different view, but at least an intimation of how much more difficult the challenge of translating his fiction must be. The subtleties must be all the greater when dealing with vocabulary representing the feelings and impressions of fiction than the facts and ideas of non-fiction. As for the Daylami couplets that Mahfouz quotes at the end of a piece from August 1992, yes, that was a challenge on a whole new level—the sudden leap from Mahfouz’s twentieth-century prose to eleventh-century poetry certainly woke me up!

Get the book:

From the publisher (within the UK)

Amazon | U of Chicago Press