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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated 8 February 1996

book review

multiplying mahfouz

Rasheed El-Enany,Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning (New York: Routledge, 1993).

Elliott Colla

In this study of Naguib Mahfouz's literary corpus, Rasheed El-Enany argues that Mahfouz is the Arab world's most important novelist not simply because of the influence of his novels of the 1950s and 1960s, but also because his later novels, relatively ignored by contemporary critics, have continued to develop the Arabic novel in equally exciting ways. In other words, he asserts that Mahfouz's relevance and standing are not due simply to the works he produced fifty, forty, or even twenty-five years ago, but rather to the fact that the Nobel author has continued to press forward, pulling Arabic literature in his wake.

To support this, El-Enany gives an overview of Naguib Mahfouz's oeuvre, from his earliest "historical romances" to his realist, naturalist, and modernist novels. El-Enany then goes on to make the convincing claim that Mahfouz's novels from the 1970s onward represent a return to forms drawn from classical Arabic literature. The strength of this book is that El-Enany has assembled a thoughtful overview of Mahfouz's novels, including within it many books that have usually not been the focus of critical studies. Moreover, he is careful to avoid repeating readings: when El-Enany deals with works that have received considerable critical attention, he defers to previous studies of those works, thus freeing himself to concentrate on Mahfouz's more recent production. The result is that El-Enany manages to sketch a smooth narrative of the career of the Egyptian novelist, one that starts with the early works (of the 1940s), hits its stride with The Trilogy (1956-7), and continues in its trajectory through the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s despite a number of breaks and radical transformations in style and interest. The title apparently refers to El-Enany's not-so-bold assertion that Mahfouz's career has all along been about creating -- through literary affect -- sense, order, and beauty out of a world that is profoundly absurd and chaotic. In the process of making this argument, El-Enany situates Mahfouz's novels with regard to one another while at the same time summarizing the biographical, political, cultural, and stylistic concerns of each. Moreover, his extensive body of citations and the comprehensive bibliography will guarantee the value of this study for scholars interested in Mahfouz.

However, as readable as this study is, it is limited by the fact that the argument seems well-rehearsed and predictable: one is tempted to add it to a long list of books which, encouraged by the international recognition Mahfouz has received, set out to instill an informed appreciation of Mahfouz's work. Typical of this literature on Mahfouz, El-Enany's argument rests on presumptions that unravel under scrutiny, two of which I will discuss here. First, El-Enany's is admittedly a single-author study. Second, El-Enany uses a developmental model to discuss the trajectory of Mahfouz's works: by this, I mean El-Enany's representation of Naguib Mahfouz's career as a continuous upward progression, proceeding through an evolutionary order (romance-realism-modernism). These notions about Mahfouz -- as an integrated author whose works have followed a neat narrative -- have repercussions when we begin to situate them within the larger context of how "Mahfouz" has functioned as a cultural signifier in Egypt and of how Arab literature has been represented outside the Arabic-speaking world through translation.

El-Enany's assumption that there is an integrated author named "Mahfouz," upon whom we can do single-author studies, is a common one in criticism about the Arabic novel. It is a notion that is inextricably, though antagonistically, coupled with a model of smooth literary development. I will begin with a quote from the preface to El-Enany's book:

Critics have tended to classify Mahfouz's work into three chronological phases (historical/romantic, realistic/naturalistic and modernist/experimental) and more recently they have added a fourth, usually labeled "the phase of indigenous or traditional form" (marhallat al-shakl al-asil aw al-turathi) -- the products of which I choose to refer to subsequently in this book as "the episodic novels" (xi).

Unavoidably, El-Enany acknowledges the problems associated with accounts that attempt to order Mahfouz's works in terms of chronology:

The very variety and unpredictability of the aesthetics of his work has in fact always defied neat classification. Thus critics and academics who happily talked for long about a romantic/historical phase of his work tucked away tidily at the beginning of his career must have been taken by surprise to find him writing historical novels again forty years later and this time without a trace of romanticism (xii).

To adjust for this problem, El-Enany chooses to "disregard the principle of absolute chronology in [the] examination of the author's work in favour of groupings of units within it which...have emphasized our sense of the elements of coherence and continuity in his thought" (xii, emphasis added). He then reiterates this move away from a strict developmental model (which raises the possibility of multiple understandings of Mahfouz) toward a more flexible one that manages "Mahfouz" as a single, coherent signifier, the self-identical author of a number of texts that happen to vary widely in terms of genre and historical context:

In the end, however, any such disparities of organization will be consumed in a sense of the ultimate oneness, across single works and whole phases, of the novelist's vision -- something I have tried to remember in the course of this study (xii-xiii, emphasis added).

My purpose in belaboring this point is to show how important it is in El-Enany's study to maintain Mahfouz as an integrated author even though the developmental model of his works speaks to the contrary.[1]

But just as the developmental model begins to render the single-author narrative unstable, the claim for Mahfouz as an evolving artist is not an easy one to maintain on its own terms. While discussing the literary "influences" upon Mahfouz, El-Enany says,

[Mahfouz] felt that since the novel was still a nascent form in Arabic without an established tradition in realism, he could not move straight away from romanticism to modernism: the Arabic novel and his own experience as a novelist in the making had to go through the natural stages of evolution. This contention of Mahfouz's can withstand inquiry. We can indeed see modernist influences in the heart of his realistic phase, such as the occasional use of the stream of consciousness technique and his early experiment with the psychological novel in Mirage. Another piece of evidence that supports this contention is the fact that the moment Mahfouz felt that he had mastered the techniques of realism and exhausted their potential, that is by writing The Trilogy, he was to cast realism behind him and plunge into the deep and turbulent waters of modernism (18-19).

Besides the fact that the developmental narrative cannot sustain itself (because the order of the stages gets shuffled), the above passage contains a number of separate assumptions equally difficult to support. The first idea, fraught with problems, is that modernism is the moment to which all literature aspires and towards which all development is naturally aimed.[2] Second is the suggestion that Mahfouz's work contains the kernel of its maturity (modernism) all along, which seems to indicate that we need to narrate his corpus in different ways. The implication that "the Arabic novel" equals "Mahfouz"[3] is perhaps the most problematic presumption because it fails to recognize the importance of other Egyptian writers, let alone other non-Egyptian writers, almost always excluded from Cairo-centric discussions of the rise of the Arabic novel. But the above passage also returns us to inquire about the supposed integrity of an author: to which Mahfouz was the Nobel awarded? For which Mahfouz -- the indigenist, the realist, the modernist, the historical romantic -- was the award intended? Moreover, if there is more than one Mahfouz -- and El-Enany's text implies this notion despite his explicit intentions -- then what interests are served by maintaining the idea of a single, self-identical author today? Finally, if it is not a question of interests, then what fantasies are reinvigorated by the illusion of a coherent Mahfouz, "progenitor of the Arabic novel"?

For years, Mahfouz -- as a cultural symbol -- has been part of the terrain over which different political interests, including secularists and Islamists, have fought. The management of Mahfouz as symbolic property has been a tricky problem all along, especially since the field is one contested by so many actors: the state, statist intellectuals, secular intellectuals, leftist intellectuals, groups of Islamist intellectuals and activists, etc. The ongoing debate over Mahfouz following the Nobel Prize is a case in point: the state and the more prominent groups of secular intellectuals have generally celebrated him as a national institution, but Islamist groups have viewed him quite differently since Mahfouz is the author of texts, such as Awlad Haratna (translated as Children of Gebelawi), supposedly contrary to the principles of Islam. The issues of property and propriety came to a head in December 1994 in the controversy over al-Ahali's (one of Egypt's opposition newspapers) publication of Awlad Haratna. Egypt's government-supported newspaper, al-Ahram, contested al-Ahali's right to publish Mahfouz's novel because it claimed to have published it in serialized form in 1957.[4]

Unfortunately, in El-Enany's study, one does not get a sense of how complicated Mahfouz's status as author or symbol actually is. This could be due to how Mahfouz has functioned as a remarkably stable signifier throughout much of the literary critical discourse on Arabic literature. One of the effects of this body of writings on Mahfouz is that it has skewed the Arabic canon in certain directions, so that the majority of the recently published literary criticism on the Arabic novel is about Mahfouz. In fact, in light of the great number of books on the work of Naguib Mahfouz that appeared after his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, it seems particularly strange that El-Enany would begin by saying, "[a] new book on Naguib Mahfouz is long overdue" (xi). This claim is undone by the bibliography he includes at the end of his book: the great majority of the critical works listed by El-Enany are dedicated wholly to Mahfouz's fiction -- and no less than nine of the works were published in the 1980s and 1990s.[5] With a publication rate of approximately one book of criticism per year on Naguib Mahfouz (not to mention articles), El-Enany's claim that there is a dearth of new material in the field seems less than correct.

The amount of criticism on Mahfouz has made it quite difficult to talk about any work of Arabic prose fiction (in the Arab world or outside) without relating it to the works of the Nobel author. One effect of the Nobel Prize and the subsequent gush of writing on Mahfouz was to reinvigorate his status in Egyptian literature. This is not to say that Mahfouz had become marginal in 1988. Rather, his commanding position within Egyptian letters had become eclipsed to some degree by younger writers in the 1960s. The Nobel Prize seems to have had the effect of shifting cultural debate away from the issues raised by the so-called "Generation of the 60s," writers who, in critiquing realist aesthetics, had moved beyond the major themes and assumptions in Mahfouz's work. Given the ambivalent relationship that post-infitah Egypt has had to its militantly anti-colonial past (a past whose sensibility is evidenced in the writings of Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal al-Ghitani,[6] Yahya al-Tahir `Abdallah, and others), it should not seem surprising that any opportunity to forget the 1960s would be taken up by the regime and its supporters. It seems interesting that this coincided with the recentering of Mahfouz in 1988.

Lastly, El-Enany's book needs to be contextualized with regard to the role that translation has played in representing the Arabic canon.[7] While the effort to translate Mahfouz's works has made Arabic literature more widely available than ever before (as of 1995, twenty-five of Mahfouz's novels, short stories, and plays have been translated into English), it has also reinforced the impression outside the Arabic- speaking world that Mahfouz remains the undisputed "master" of Arabic prose fiction. This has been enabled by a tendency on the part of publishers to pass over the work of other writers in the interest of saturating the limited market with the relatively sure-selling works of a Nobel Prize winner.[8] The practical result of this, especially for those of us who translate and teach Arabic literature in translation, is that the value that Mahfouz's works has for American publishers has made it difficult for us to promote and acquire -- let alone discuss -- the works of other Arab authors, many of whom would generate remarkable interest for audiences of avant-garde and world literatures.

By sheer volume, the two discourses (Mahfouz in translation and Mahfouz as the object of critical attention) have engendered Mahfouz as a particular symbol: the first for international consumption, the second for consumption internal to highbrow Arab and Egyptian culture. The problem I see -- exemplified by El-Enany's text -- is not that Mahfouz exists as a cultural symbol (this seems inevitable and not necessarily undesired), but that with the proliferation of texts that fix the meanings of "Mahfouz," it has become increasingly difficult for critics to produce new critical interpretations of his work.

One direction in which Mahfouz studies may be taken is to examine the (re)production of Mahfouz's work in Egyptian films. This may be undertaken in at least two ways: the first is to explore the cinematographic techniques within Mahfouz's literary works (as El-Enany notes but fails to develop, Mahfouz was employed for years in the film censorship board); second, and perhaps more importantly, since many of his novels were made into popular films, we need to begin to think about how it has been film, and not necessarily literature, which has made Mahfouz a household name. Mahfouz's importance might not be so much in his written texts (which have a limited circulation even in Egypt), but rather in their cinematographic reproductions. In many ways, the written texts are now inseparable from their cinematic adaptations -- and perhaps it is in the latter that Mahfouz's popularity, outside the relatively elite reading circles, really lies.

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1. My comments address only a limited portion of El-Enany's discussion of Mahfouz as a multiple signifier. For example, immediately following the above passages which attempt to explain Mahfouz as a coherent object of reference, El-Enany attempts to account for the multiple names of the author, choosing the French spelling (since it appears on the translated versions of his works) over the transliterated version (Mahfuz) preferred by Arabists. Hence, the translated name Mahf(o)uz can never quite mesh with a single referent.

2. See for example, Fredric Jameson's "The Ideology of the Text," The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986, vol. 1 (U of Minnesota P, 1988).

3. Even before he became the first (and only) Arab to win the Nobel Prize for literature, the work of Mahfouz has often come to stand for the history of the Arabic novel itself. For an especially condensed (and self-critical) version of this narrative, see Edward Said's excellent foreword to the translation of Elias Khouri's novel, Little Mountain (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1989).

4. My account of the debates surrounding Awlad Haratna have largely depended upon the research of Hosam Aboul-Ela, who has generously allowed me to expand on our conversations here.

5. One could even add to this list a number of other recent full-length publications on Naguib Mahfouz. For example, in English, see Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, eds. Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1993). In Arabic, see Najib Surur's Rihla fi Thulathiyyat Najib Mahfuz (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr al-Jadid, 1989) and Ibrahim Fathi's al-`Alam al-ruwa'i `ind Najib Mahfuz (Cairo: al-Hay'a al-Misriyya al-`Amma li-l-Kitab, 1988). An exceptional contribution to this list is Samia Mehrez's book, Egyptian Writers, Between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani (Cairo: American U in Cairo P, 1994). She situates Mahfouz's production in the context of other Arab writers, such as Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani, in order to highlight the relationship between fiction and social history.

6. Ghitani is an interesting exception. Given the central role he has played (as a writer, intellectual, and editor at Akhbar al-Adab) in maintaining Mahfouz's status within the Egyptian literary and cultural spheres, it would be impossible to argue that he has taken up a stance against Mahfouz on a personal level. Nevertheless, his work, in many ways, suggests a systematic critique and rejection of the social realism associated with much of Mahfouz's work.

7. Work remains to be done on the practical effects of translation on Egyptian literature. But with publication rates of Egyptian editions of Arabic novels running in the low thousands (2,000-5,000 -- Mahfouz around 10,000), a rough comparison to the numbers of translated editions (tens of thousands and up) suggests that the market (and perhaps readership) may be larger in places like New York than in Cairo. As one author has told me, translated editions are the only way through which an Egyptian author makes any direct profit.

8. Here I want to point out that European publishers seem far more willing to publish translations than their English and North American counterparts. As for Egyptian novelists underrepresented in English translations, I have in mind particularly "The Generation of the Sixties," a group of writers who diverge stylistically and thematically but who articulate their writing as a reaction to social realism and linear narrative -- both of which are associated with Mahfouz's classical works. One of these writers who have experienced resistance on the part of English and American publishers is Sonallah Ibrahim. He has had all his major works published in a number of European translations, but has only had his earliest work published in English translation (now out of print). This is despite the fact that such translations exist -- in whole or in part -- for all his novels. Of the other major Egyptian writers of this group, Yussuf al-Qa`id, `Abd al-Hakim Qasim, Gamal al-Ghitani, Idwar al-Kharrat, and Yahya al-Tahir `Abdallah have each had only one work translated into English and others like Ibrahim `Abd al-Maguid and Mahmud al-Wardani as of yet have none. As for women authors in translation, Nawal al-Sa`dawi occupies a place analogous to Mahfouz with male writers, with the effect that the full range of women's writing in Egypt is perhaps even more underrepresented. Many writers (Radwa `Ashour, Latifa al-Zayat, and `Itidal `Uthman most prominently) have yet to find their way into English translation.

The state of translation with regard to non-Egyptian novelists is even worse. While some prolific authors have had some texts translated (most notably, `Abd al-Rahman Munif, Hanan al-Shaykh, Ilyas Khouri, Ghassan Kanafani, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Sahar al-Khalifeh, Ahmad al-Faqih, and al-Tayyib al-Salih), others (Ghada al-Saman, Ibrahim al-Kawni, and Gha'ib Ta`mah Farman) remain untranslated.