Gamal Al-Ghaitani in The Mahfouz Sessions

Gamal Al-Ghaitani in The Mahfouz Sessions

On the eleventh of this month December Naguib Mahfouz completes his ninety-first year, going deeply into an honorable lifetime, during which he achieved the deepest, longest and most original course for the Arabic novel, and parallel to this achieved a course of human progress in work and conduct.

In this special Al-Arabi file written by a distinguished writer and a close friend of Naguib Mahfouz, which is made up of a broad overview and an assortment of living scenes, Al-Arabi gives its readers the most recent document on Naguib Mahfouz in text and pictures and extends congratulations to our great and venerable writer, wishing him a longer life of creative and human giving, and more of the fragrance of his friendly presence among us.

The year 1994 can be regarded as a distinctive milestone in Naguib Mahfouz s life and in our relationship with him, not in its content but in its form and the circumstances surrounding it. I do not regard 1988 as similar, I mean the year in which he won the Nobel Prize. When the prize was announced on Thursday, I went to his home. A large number of Egyptian, Arab and foreign journalists were in front of his home, which is on the ground floor of a building overlooking the Small Nile, the narrower branch beside the island. I met his wife, who was facing a situation to which she was not accustomed in her life, which passed placidly, away from the limelight. People very close to him used to visit the small home in which the family had lived since the 1950s, a small flat whose furniture had been chosen with excellent taste. I only once had the opportunity to enter it before Nobel Day, when I visited the Master during a passing illness years ago. We used to meet in cafés since I began to know him in 1959. On that day, a Thursday afternoon in October, everyone was wondering about the place where the Master had gone. I did not bother myself about the question. I came out of the house, heading for the Qasr Al-Nil outdoor café. There I saw him. I went towards him, congratulating him and greeting him. He was sitting with a group of friends from the old Harafish: Adil Kamil, his lifelong friend who had begun his career as a novelist during the same time and who had given Arabic literature a beautiful work, Millieme Al-Akbar and a play, Gulfudar Hanim. Then he stopped writing and turned to the world of business. Also the actor Ahmad Mazhar, God rest his soul, and the director Tawfiq Salih. The three were members of the old Harafish group.

Thursday was originally devoted to two meetings: the first in the Urabi Café in Abbasiya with friends from his childhood and youth. At the end of the 1970s the café was closed down and divided into shops. At the same time most members of the Abbasiya group had passed on, one after the other, and those who still remained alive did not go out of their houses because of illness or old age. At the beginning of the 1980s the Master stopped going to the Urabi Café after its disappearance. I had been allowed to go to the café since the mid-1960s. He used to spend exactly two hours there, from six to eight. When the time came for him to leave, he would go on foot to a famous kebab seller near Al-Gaysh Square. A kilogram would be wrapped waiting for him. From a pastry cook nearby he would take a kilogram of basbousa. He would take a taxi to the Pyramids where there was the home of the satirical writer Muhammad Afifi, God rest his soul, and the meeting-place for the Harafish for more than three decades. Interestingly, the Master stopped bringing sweets after he discovered that he had diabetes in the early 1960s.

On Friday the meeting shifted between more than one place. It became settled until the 1970s in Café Rish, and then moved to the Qasr Al-Nil outdoor café. Saturday was for the family. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were for writing. In the summer months there was a special appointment on Tuesday to meet in Al-Qishawi s Café: an appointment attended only by Yusuf Al-Qa id and the writer of these lines. During the summer he would stop writing. The declared reason was allergy in his eyes which began in spring. He would spend one month of the summer in Alexandria, where he also had a discussion group of which he was the center, and around which would gather harbor writers and summer visitors. They would come and go, but he would remain at the forefront, at the forefront of the café. He stopped going to Alexandria since the beginning of the 1990s, when his sight became weak and after he had a surgical operation in London.

The Dangerous Day

Until 1994, until that Friday, the Master used to act according to his strict Mahfouz system by which he abided and which did not change. If a location or meeting-place changed, this would happen because of a change in circumstances and the situation, until that dangerous day came which put an end to everything to which the Master was accustomed, to his conduct among people, his daily excursion in the early morning, his walk to a café in Tahrir Square, his beautiful walk which gave me an opportunity to accompany him every day in the 1960s, when I was working in an establishment whose office was in Dokki. I used to meet him on the Jala Bridge and walk with him as far as the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge. The Master used to live among people, to interact with them, to like them and they would like him. When press campaigns were launched against him, which prepared the atmosphere for that Friday, and books against him appeared written by obscurantist theologians against The Children of Our Quarter. He refused to have a bodyguard, and told me at the time that he had a deep faith and inner certainty that no harm would come to him. Once he shook his head, and said that people s lifespans are in God s hands.

However, I was very apprehensive, as a result of my previous experience during the 1960s, being hunted and expecting to be arrested, because I belong to a generation which opened its eyes to fear, and I engaged in clandestine action against the situation which many of us saw as wrong. The result of that was a sharp sense of security. Our meetings since the beginning of the 1990s became regularly on Tuesdays. And when I became Chief Editor of akhbar Al-Adab and came to have my own car from Akhbar Al-Yom publishing house, driven by a colleague who was a driver, I took on the task of accompanying him from his home.

At five minutes to six I would wait, and at six o clock precisely he would come out of the door of the building, I would go to him and accompany him to the car and open the door. He preferred to sit in the front seat next to the driver. Then we would set off for the place where we used to meet, which in the 1990s regularly was a boat anchored to the bank of the Nile called Farah Boat, which is still there.

Although I was unarmed, and even if I was armed I am not skilled at using weapons, when I arrived in front of the house I examine the place thoroughly with my gaze, to imagine any attack. His extreme regularity made it easy for anyone watching him to time the attack. I expected that, and was aware of it with the escalation of acts of violence in society from extremist groups which had strayed from their real objectives for reasons which it would take too long to explain.

After the publication of the photograph of the young man who plunged a knife into the Master s neck on that Friday afternoon, I remembered him. Once when I was waiting for the Master, the weather was hot, and a young man wearing jeans attracted my attention. He was sitting under the covered balcony where the Master lived on the ground floor, a balcony as wide as the apartment. Its glass was thick, and it was enclosed with ornamented bars. Atiyatallah, the Master s wife, had added plants which formed a pleasant little garden that covered the whole floor.

I looked at the young man, who returned my sharp gaze and then busied himself tearing up papers which he was carrying into small pieces. He did not show any reaction, but continued to crouch in the same place. I thought maybe he was sheltering himself from the heat, but his image leapt back into my mind weeks later when it was published. It was the same young man who had come forward to the Master that Friday afternoon, to shake hands with him, and with his other hand to attack with an old knife whose handle had come apart and was tied with strong string, a stab which put an end to two separate, completely different periods of time, the second of which is still continuing.

A Whole Era

I come back to my personal papers in which I recorded the events of those days in 1994, specifically Friday 5 October. On that day I was trying to rest after returning the previous day, Thursday, from a journey to Morocco. I was arranging my office from which I had been absent, and was listening to some recordings of Andalusian music which I had acquired from the elegant city of Fez. The telephone rang, and I heard the voice of my colleague and friend Mustafa Bakri, Do you know that they ve hit Naguib Mahfouz? Please check on this news.

I answered in the negative, and asked him to contact me in a short while. I was taken by surprised, and paralyzed for a moment, a moment which I was expecting and hoping would not happen, but which it seemed I was facing now. There were seconds before the blow reached the pain center in my brain. This condition took control of me while the good man appeared in front of me, his paternal presence, and my friendship for him. I contacted his home. His youngest daughter answered me. I said in a neutral voice, as if I did not mean anything specific, What s the news?

She answered me in pain and fear, I don t know what s happening now. Father s in the operating theater, and I m praying for him, Uncle.

Then she said, Mother and my sister are with him Here in the hospital, the police are beside us.

I spoke in short sentences, aiming to reassure her, and I prayed he would be saved. I began to act. I contacted my colleagues in the Editorial Center of Akhbar Al-Yom newspaper. I was the first to inform them of the news. I contacted my friend Yusuf Al-Qa id, who was at home. He said that one of his friends had contacted him to inquire. I contacted my friend Imad Al-Abboudi, the engineer and businessman. The Tuesday session was limited at that time. Imad was one of its main participants. He said he would pass by Yusuf and they would both come to me and then we would head for the hospital. I went down to the street. I was confronting the night and fear of what was happening. I activated my memory, which rained on me a downpour of successive moments. This is a condition that I experience when the situation threatens us with the loss of a friend, moments which I have known and moments of which I have heard flash by.

I waited every Tuesday in front of the house. What happened that day when Dr. Fathi was next to him could have happened with me. Listening to him, coming closer to his left ear in which the sense of hearing was still strong with the help of a hearing aid, raising my voice, moments of silence, his gaze wandering, him running in the road at six in the morning beside the Nile which he loved and on which he lived in a houseboat after his marriage for a year. Then he lived close to it. Mahfouz of the Nile and the Nile of Mahfouz. He bought newspapers, and settled himself in the Café Rish, Groppi s Café, the Ali Baba Café. In these cafés he read the newspapers, wrote telegrams of condolences or congratulations, wrote down some observations. The evenings in the Urabi Café, the smell of tobacco rising up from the hubble bubble which I learnt to smoke from him, and which I then gave up. His reverberating laughs with his childhood friends from the Abbasiya group, our running in the alleys of Gamaliya, my respect for his moments of silence in its ancient cafés when he recaptured his own time. I would not speak when he ws talking, people liked him, he would walk among them, returning this man s greeting, shaking hands with that one, he never turned anyone away. Amazing patience, great modesty, tolerance the like of which I have never known. The moment when he ate with us every Tuesday, abstemious food, a piece of white cheese, a slice of tomato, a piece of falafel, no more.

What I did not experience with him was his childhood in the judge s house, daqn al-basha trees, the quarrels of the thugs, love for Al-Hussein quarter, a game in Qarmaz Cellar Bar, the 1919 revolt, the 1930s, the golden age for Cairo, the Second World War, the air raid shelters, the end of the age of the thugs, lunch in Al-Agati Al-Dahhan restaurant, kebab, grilled minced meat, late nights in Toufa Bayan, Midaq Alley Café, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the period of work in Qubbat Al-Ghoury, the Revolution.

Naguib Mahfouz is a complete era from the history of Egypt summarized in a person. He lived Egyptian society and expressed it throughout seventy years of continuous writing. His is a unique case in the history of literature and authors. On that day, now so remote and far away, when I realized the horror of what was happening and began to absorb it, I almost howled and screamed, weeping, My Master, my friend!

A Monster from Fire

We arrived at the hospital about thirty metres away from the house, and that was a mercy of God s arrangement and care. About two hours had passed since the stabbing. We entered the waiting room near the operating theater. The late Tharwat Abaza was sobbing like a child, repeating, Naguib Naguib I don t understand how anyone can hurt him, how anyone can harm him.

We asked him to calm down, as we needed someone to calm us down. On the second floor the Master was lying stretched out on the operating table. A team of skilled surgeons led by the most important vascular surgeon in Egypt, Dr. Ahmad Samih Humam. Once again the intervention of divine care was a certainty.

The first time, because the person in charge of accompanying the Master that day was Dr. Fathi Hashim, who was a veterinary surgeon, but he was a doctor first and foremost. When the Master got into the car and settled down near him, the young man came forward towards him, shook hands with him. Then he stabbed the Master in the neck with a gazelle horn penknife in an attempt to kill him. He aimed at cutting the main artery which carries the blood to the brain. As the Master told us later, When he shook my hand, I felt a monster from fire pressing on my neck.

What saved Naguib Mahfouz was his old age. He was bent forward because of age. Because of that the penknife passed close to the main artery. At that moment, when the car began to vibrate, Dr. Fathi Hashim became aware of what was happening. What are you doing, you madman? he shouted.

He jumped out of the car. Here the young man threw away the penknife and began to run. Fathi pursued him, but preferred to go back to the wounded Master, whose blood was flowing like a fountain. He quickly sat in his place and pressed on the wound with one hand, and with the other drove the small car in reverse in the direction of the hospital. He covered the few intervening metres, and when he arrived at the main gate , he rushed to the entrance shouting, Open up, The Master Naguib Mahfouz. They tried to

The gate opened quickly. Up to that moment the Master was conscious. They took him out onto a mobile stretcher, before he lost consciousness. Take care, he said. I have diabetes.

In fact, action was taken at the highest level. After a quick report on the situation, the hospital management contacted Dr. Ahmad Samih Humam, and here fate intervened. Mobile phones were not known in Egypt at that time. The famous surgeon was contacted at a time when he was standing in front of the elevator on the floor where he lived, preparing to leave for a dinner invitation, and they caught him before he entered the elevator. He responded immediately, arrived as soon as he could travel the distance and entered the operating theater. The Minister of the Interior at that time Major General Hasan Al-Alfi, Minister of Health Dr. Ali Abdulfattah, Minister of Tourism Mamdouh Al-Baltagi and a number of senior officials in the State Security Investigation Bureau arrived. I still remember the news which reached us from the operating theater: The bleeding has stopped the blood was flowing like a fountain he received eight litres of blood transfusions fourteen bags.

In front of the hospital a crowd of intellectuals and ordinary people gathered, who had come there after the news reached them. Many of them offered to donate blood to save the Master. After four hours the news came to us: The operation was successful The Master is being transferred to the intensive care unit.

After midnight we walked in the corridors of the hospital, which was calm after those critical hours. We were four: Yusuf Al-Qa id, Imad Al-Abboudi, Mamdouh Al-Laythi and myself. We walked along the long corridors, not knowing specifically where we were going. Finallt we arrived at the intensive care unit, in which lay more than one patient. He was lying on his back. For the first time in my life I saw him without his spectacles. He looked upset. There was a trembling and a rattle in his voice, and he shook hands with his left hand. I recalled what Dr. Samih Humam had said about the nerve leading to the right hand being affected. He had said that he was relieved when he saw the Master move his limbs, but it was a matter of time.

Four Years

I return to my papers which I wrote the next weeek, and I found the following text:

Today is Wednesday morning. I am thinking about this left hand, about the slowness of its movement, that hand which had dug a river for Arab creativity, the hand which had written the Trilogy, the Harafish and The Children of Our Quarter. I am contemplating the dark color of the skin which I had not known in the hand which I had often kissed. I am thinking about him having to lie down, in the days after he is healed. I am confident that he will adapt himself to the new circumstances, just as he adapted himself to his circumstances after he became hard of hearing and his eyesight became weak, although I know that he would only change his habits with great difficulty. I am dreaming now of those moments which I am anticipating, when I accompany him as usual and we wander around the alleys of old Cairo, proceeding through the old era

The moments when he returned to writing came after four years of daily physiotherapy, when he turned to me to confide in me with the words, Today I was able to write without going below the line.

During those four years following the incident, he arranged his affairs. As a result of strong internal willpower he adapted himself to the new circumstances, as a result not only of the incident, but also of his advancing age and weakness. Old age had weakened his sight, and he could no longer read. We offered to help him, but he did not burden us. He arranged with a good man to come to him every morning to read to him for an hour the most important news in the morning newspapers, of both the government and the opposition. Friends would read him articles and important literary texts in our night sessions, which came to have their special arrangement. As for me, I used to read him the ancient poetry which he liked, and I used to open the session to make it enjoyable , that is, before he wrote or read. I would read to him in a loud voice what I liked from the poetry of the ancients, and would sometimes be surprised by him completing the verses from his memory. I recorded all the poems that I found he had memorized, and regarded them as his favored selection.

An Astonishing Memory

I would sometimes read him excerpts of prose, and he would draw my attention to features in them while he was listening intently. He might comment at the end of the text with an astute opinion. Although time had weakened his senses of hearing and sight, it did not weaken his intellect, which was still sharp and penetrating. His memory was astonishing.

Sometimes one of us would raise a subject and ask his opinion, and he would reply with a passing word or two. For example, I asked him about his opinion of the September events about a year after they had happened, and he said at the beginning, Does the matter need an opinion?

When I repeated the question to him, he said, You can see He fell silent. We turned to another subject, and then, after about half an hour he leant forward, pointing his finger. Here we all listened, aware that he would speak about something of interest to us, expressing his opinion. Look, he said. With regard to September, I think no more damaging incident has occurred to relations between East and West than this incident. Those who committed it did the most serious harm to Islam. Before it there was behavior by Taliban which also harmed Islam and its image. We need a great effort to return to the situation before September. He was silent for a while, and then he said. I don t think the situation will go back as it was. We are still at the beginning of a phase whose characteristics are not yet defined, and whose endings we don t know.

The King of Jokes

Sometimes discussions would be raiseed about literary subjects, or domestic or foreign policies. It was enough for him to listen and absorb in order to make a wise pronouncement. His ability to make up jokes was still at its height, and every week he would make us laugh heartily after a sudden surprise joke which we were not expecting. Joking is a fine Egyptian art which belongs to a beautiful age when problems in general were less severe, pleasant times were passed in the company of close friends and the world was straightforward. Naguib Mahfouz is one of the most skilled kings of puns and jokes, which are both arts that depend on speedy improvisation and an acute ability to ridicule.

After receiving the cheque for a million from Ibrahim Al-Muallim, he was silent for a while, then he asked, You know what I am thinking of now?

We looked silently. I m thinking of running away, he said.

We exploded, with laughter of course. It was the news of those who borrowed millions, some of them billions, which was published in the newpapers. They had run away with depositors money, other people s money. Mahfouz s joke about them was penetrating, inspired, painful.

Another time we were talking about a famous dancer, on the occasion of her statement that she intended to retire. After a moment s silence, he said, Leave her future to Al-Dhakha ir.

Al-Dhakha ir was a serial that she was supervising and was produced by the Culture Palaces Board, in which important texts from the Arab cultural heritage were presented. Mahfouz s joke was intelligent and penetrating, precise with a load of sarcasm. The way in which he recovers his expression at the moment when he tells a joke or makes one up makes me smile. Watching his features while sitting with him gives us a clear, precise map of human emotions. I have always respected his silence. Before the incident and old age, he used to sit up straight, looking upwards, with an expression on his face that fitted the Egyptian description summed up in one highly meaningful word, when we say of a person that he is good , he seems generous, briliant, going far while being close. Now with advanced age the body became emaciated and bent forward slightly, his silence is longer as he is absorbed within himself. During our sessions with him, I take pains for us not to go into discussions on the side, when he feels that those who were with him have turned away from him and he cannot listen to them. He withdraws into himself and passes to his own personal crisis. Then I ask a question, or relate a piece of news or an anecdote. Now the Master would listen, most times. Either he would listen to the person talking to him or to within himself. His greatest flow of conversation would be when he was relating his reminiscences of the city, of literary life, of bygone times.

The Blind Criminal

In the special issue of Al-Hilal magazine which was issued about him by Raja Al-Naqqash in 1970, the Master said that when he sat down to write, he did not care about anything. With regard to his opinions on principles, there was no difference between what he said openly and what he felt secretly. He did not have petty calculations. I have often disagreed with him, and time has proven to me that he was more far-sighted. Since he is not inclined to be inflammatory in his press statements, and is balanced in his attitudes regarding his relations with the authorities, both politically and governmentally, he may be reserved, but he does not announce anything contrary to his inner feelings, and if he sits down to be creative, he obeys only the voice and appeal of his conscience.

After the incident I suggested to him, as did other who like him, that he devote an hour or two each day to dictating to us what he wants to write, but he thanked us, apologizing gracefully. Writing for him is a very personal accomplishment, which he always keeps secret, so how could anyone, no matter how close to him, share with him the most private moments of his life? Physiotherapy took four years until the moment when he confided to me that he could write on a line without going below it. That is, Naguib Mahfouz had to learn how to write twice in his life, the first time during his childhood, and the second time in his ninth decade, and that was more arduous and difficult. Often I have watched his hand writing large, disordered letters when he signed a copy of his writings, that hand which had written his novels and short stories and added to Arabic and human literature. That hand which was injured by hatred, fanaticism and ignorance. After the attempt, I saw the young man whom I had noticed one day under the window. They asked him on television whether he regretted attempting to kill Naguib Mahfouz, and he answered that he did not regret it, and that if he had the opportunity, he would do so. When the broadcaster asked him if he had read anything by him, he replied that he had never read a word, but his leader had issued a declaration accusing Mahfouz of being an unbeliever.

The serial Dreams began to appear on the pages of Nusf Al-Dunya, extremely concentrated texts with something of both prose and poetry. He wrote them first without ink, in his mind, then he wrote them on paper with his eyes blindfolded so he could not read, but with a strong will and sternness he would give what was in his mind concrete form on paper, in Mahfouz writing.which he regarded as athe finest, the essence. A phase which began from Echoes of Autobiography and reached its heights in Dreams of the period of convalescence, they were texts of poetry which rose to the level of wisdom. They arouse in me echoes of similar human creativity, the poems of Hafiz, the stories of Saadi A-Shirazi and the texts of proverbs and wisdom. It is the ability to penetrate the essence of human experience and the essence of existence.

In a Boat on the Nile

Since he went out for the first time in December after recovering from the incident, it was winter, completely. We set out for the Plateau of the Pyramids, Yusuf Al-Qa id, Zaki Salem and Dr. Yahya Al-Rakhawi, who supervised the arrangements of the days of the week and the last phase of his treatment, and then became a full member of the Harafish circles. We had lunch that day in the Mena House Hotel. The Master was guarded by the police, a new situation to which he would become accustomed. Indeed the members of the guard force would become our friends, as if they were a new family for the Master and us. This was a situation to which he had not aspired, a situation which ended the days of walking in the streets of the city in which he lived and to some of whose areas he gave everlasting fame. Throughout his life he had been against outward appearances, had been the embodiment of simplicity, but necessity has its rules. The era of wandering in the lanes and alleys of old Cairo ended. I often used to see him in the 1960s and 1970s wandering in his first habitat, the alleys and streets of Gamaliya. I would be careful not to disturb him, so as not to interrupt his meditations and memories of the place. We resumed our tripartite meetings in a boat moored in the Nile, the Nile which he loved devotedly and made sure he was close to, so that even if he could not see it with his eyes he could see it with his mental vision.


During our meetings over the last few years, I began to be aware of the value of the opinions the Master was expressing. I made sure after returning to the house to write down what was said, either verbatim as I remembered it, or a summary. I give the readers of Al-Arabi the texts of what I call the Mahfouz Sessions. They extend from 1967 to September 2002. The sessions are still going on, and may God lengthen the life of the man who runs them.

The Real Thing is More Wonderful

I would listen to him talk about his memories of Cairo, and from them would be aware of its ancient landmarks, how they were, and I would know how they have become.

There used to be a cinema called the Josee, in the place where the Pension now stands, in Imad Al-Din Street.

I listened to Umm Kulthoum there. She used to hold her concerts in the auditorium of the cinema. She was able to make herself heard in an auditorium containing 3,000 people without a microphone.

After a few moments silence, he said, I used to listen to Umm Kulthoum live, and then listen to the same song on a record. I found a great difference. Of course, the real thing is much more wonderful.

One morning in the winter of 1988

Unpublished Novels

What is closer to your heart, I asked, the Harafish or talking in the morning and the evening?

The Harafish, I think, he answered. Sometimes a person is influenced by the opinion of others.

What about the unpublished novels? I asked him.

There were three: A novel whose hero was a football player, which I wrote in the 1940s, I tore it up. A novel about the countryside, which I didn t publish. I don t know where it is now, because I don t keep drafts. And another social novel, whose draft might be with the director Khayri Bishara.

One spring morning 1989

Cinema in the Old Days

Today is the birthday of the artist Tawfiq Salih, an old Harfoush. Mahfouz recalled his memories of the cinema.

The first cinema I knew was in the Modern Club Hotel, near Sidna Al-Hussein Mosque. It was an opening for us, through which we could look at an amazing world of the imagination. All the films were foreign. The translation was on an adjoining rectangular screen. If it did not conform with the picture, we would shout, correct it, correct it, and the man in charge of operating the cinema would make the translation conform to the picture. The music was live, played by a skilled piano player beside the screen. Sometimes we would go as a group and wake up the owner of the cinema to show us the film.

I knew the Olympia Cinema in Abdulaziz Street, he went on. There was also the Ideal Cinema and the Royal Cinema in the same street. The Olympia Cinema used to print a magazine, News of the Stars. Mary Pickford was my favorite star. I read that she was married to Douglas Fairbanks. In Al-Gaysh Street there was the Ramses Cinema, the Misr Cinema and the Hollywood Cinema, the Suhayr Cinema near Abbasiya, the Belvedere Cinema, the Plaza Cinema in Zahir, the Fatah Cinema in Gamaliya, and the Josee ??? Cinema for French films in Imad Al-Din Street.

How many of these establishments are there now? he asked.

Only the Olympia Cinema and the Hollywood Cinema, I answered.

On the occasion of Tawfiq Salih s birthday, we broke with habit. We did not have dinner in Farah Boat. This was a rare, indeed the only, occasion. We went to Christo s Restaurant at the end of Pyramids Street, which specialized in fish. Mahfouz had his family with him every Friday.

I didn t like fish except at an advanced age, he said. I went to Ras Al-Barr. One of my friends invited me to a fish meal. He asked me what fish I liked, and I said, balti, sheatfish, eels. They all laughed, and my friend said, These fish that you like we give to our fish to eat .

And what about rabbits? I asked.

I used to be afraid of eating them because one day I saw my mother skinning them after slaughtering them, he told me.

Tuesday 27 October 1992

It is Information

I read the anti-novel, he said. I would emerge from some of them just as I went in. The matter is different with regard to Margaret Dora. I found that she has stories, narrative accounts and humanity.

Yusuf Al-Qa id spoke about the order of books in France according to public opinion polls, and Dora came first and Bendjelloun twenty-eighth.

He said that information can help a writer s circulation figures up to a certain time if he does not have real value. Information does not add any real value. Take the novel Ulysses, for example, how every writer or reader nods his head in appreciation, but its readers in fact remain limited in number.

It seems that talk about the story In the Raid led us on to talk about raids in the Second World War.

We used to go to the shelter, he said. Every group of families had a particular shelter. In time it turned into something like a café. We would talk, laugh and discuss everything. During a period when the guns were quiet we would go out for some fresh air. We know the sounds of the anti-aircraft guns, but after the Italians entered the war, for the first time we heard the sound of explosions we were not used to. We said, No, this matter is now serious. Every night we had a raid. Once we were in Qashtamar Café. We were playing Monopoly, the game in which there are towns and stations, and the winner monopolizes all this. One of our friends taught it to us, and we became attached to it. We finished the game and left. Only half an hour later a bomb fell which made a hole in the roof and landed in the place where we were sitting. When the radio went silent that was a sign that danger was approaching.

We used to take the game with us and complete it in the shelter.

Qashtamar Café belonged to the son of the musician Dawud Husni. His brother went to Israel and became a broadcaster. I heard that the owner of the café became a Muslim, but I am not certain.

Autumn 1992

The Beautiful Voice

I saw Muhammad Abdulwahab twice, he said. The first time was in the 1930s. I was coming back from the huge fun fair which was set up where Sphinx Square is now in Muhandiseen. It was a very spacious fair, varied, and I remember that I have seen even bigger. As I was coming back on the tram, Muhammad Abdulwahab got on from Zamalek. Good evening, Professor, I said to him.

He replied briefly, Hello .

He sat in the corner, wearing his tarboosh. I was happy to see him, because I loved his beautiful voice, but we did not exchange a single word. In the 1960s I was invited to the house of Dr. Mustafa Mahmoud. I met him over lunch, and we also exchanged only limited words.

One Tuesday in 1995

He Went to Naguib

When we returned to the session, he stopped suddenly to ask me,

Why has Al-Qa id not come tonight?

He must be busy, I replied.

He laughed, and said,

Otherwise he would have gone to Naguib Mahfouz!

I burst out laughing, of course.

One Evening Summer 1993


I was an employee in the Religious Endowments when an article was published which contained a review of the novel Scandal in Cairo in Akher Saa magazine. The writer related the events of the novel, but did not state that it was a novel except in the last line. I was surprised to be summoned to meet the Undersecretary. He was Sheikh Ahmad Hussein, the brother of Dr. Taha Hussein. He asked me about the events to which the writer had referred in Akher Saa. I told him that it was a novel, fictional events which did not relate to specific persons.

Are you a student of Sheikh Taha Hussein? he asked me.

I replied that I had studied philosophy in the Faculty of Letters, and that I regarded myself as one of his students. Then Sheikh Ahmad seemed friendly with me.

Why do you write about the pashas scandals and expose yourself to problems? he asked. Write about love, it s better and safer.

I looked at him and did not answer. Then the investigation was suspended.

August 1991

Taymour and Al-Balamiti

When my novel Rabobis was published in 1943 by the University Graduates Publishing Committee, I gave it to many of those who had replied to me thanking me. They were only four: Mahmout Taymour, Ahmad Bakathir, Zaki Tlaymat and Adil Kamil, may God grant him a long life. Mahmoud Taymour invited me to lunch in Ali Hasan s Restaurant near Opera Square. Xaki Tlaymat was with us. He was a friend of Taymour, and had an open appetite which enabled him to eat up Ali Hasan s Restaurant and its contents.

Taymour was an aristocrat. His father was Ahmad Taymour Pasha, the well-known scholar and great researcher, but he was inclined to live with ordinary people. he was known to love a new singer at that time called Malak, who had a slightly nasal voice. She used to come on stage carrying a goat, and we used to wonder which one of them was singing, she or the goat?

We laughed from our hearts, and he laughed with us. Then he continued, Taymour s short stories were pioneering, and paved the way. He liked writing about the streets and vagabonds, but his vision was the view of a passing tourist. One morning I went early to Qishawi s Café. The café in the morning hours was beautiful, quiet. I found Mahmoud Taymour sitting with a laundryman, a man called Al-Balamiti. Al-Balamiti was massive, harsh-voiced, barefoot. They were eating beans and spring onions for breakfast together, and talking as if they had been friends all their lives. Mahmoud Taymour s voracity in devouring the onions attracted my attention. I went up to him and asked him, Aren t there any interviews with the King today?

September 1992


We asked the Master, Do you know Al-Aqqad?

Personally, no, he answered. In the mid-1940s I wrote an article in which I replied to him, and it was published in Al-Risala magazine. It was about the art of writing novels, which Al-Aqqad belittled in favor of poetry. But we never met. I saw him once. I used to go frequently to the Anglo Weekly Bookshop to buy new books which came from London. As I was coming in, its manager Subhi whispered in my ear, Al-Aqqad is here. Do you want to talk to him?

But I thanked Subhi and continued contemplating the books. I noticed him sitting at a desk going through magazines in front of him. I was not eager to talk to him or attend his seminar. I don t know why. I was minding my own business. He knew of me, since I used to publish short stories in the literary pages of Al-Jihad newspaper which he supervised. Its owner was Muhammad Tawfiq Diab. I heard that he had said about me, This Naguib Mahfouz is good , and one friend suggested that he go with me to his seminar, but I did not accept. But after I left my job as cinema censor, he happened to contact me at home. He was very angry because he had heard that a director and a script writer had presented a story for a satirical film about him. I told him that I was no longer responsible for censorship, and that I had left this position, but he continued to be angry, wondering how this film could be allowed. When I found that he could not be convinced that I had left censorship, I told him that I would talk to the censor who had succeeded me. In fact I did talk to him, and learnt that the film had not been made.

September 1992

Al-Rafi i

Have you read anything by Mustafa Sadiq Al-Rafi i? I asked him.

He shook his head. No.

Then he asked me, Have you read him?

Yes, I answered.

How did you find him? he asked.

I said that he was a unique case in Arabic publishing, that his language was pure and correct, with a particular modern touch, and dignity.

I remember that Taha Hussein admired him, particularly his book The Miraculous Nature of the Quran.

Then he said, If his prose is as you say, it s a pity I haven t read him.

I asked him again about the reason, and he answered that the newspapers that he was accustomed to reading always attacked Al-Rafi i.

He was silent for a while, then he said, Al-Rafi i used to live in Tanta. He was respectable, a clerk of the court, and sharp-tongued.

I talked to him about his book satirizing Al-Aqqad, On the Skewers. The late Sheikh Amin Al-Khuli had read some of its chapters to us in a trustees meeting in 1963, after a sharp battle which arose between him and Al-Aqqad on the pages of Al-Akhbar newspaper. Out of spite, it seems, Sheikh Al-Khuli read us chapters which he regarded as some of the sharpest satire known.

Not really? the Master asked.

Yes, I replied.

Taha Hussein

Did you know Taha Hussein? We asked him.

He replied that he had read his writings before entering the university. He met him personally twice, the first time when he joined the Faculty of Letters during the test which is given to applicants, I was surprised that the examiner was Taha Hussein personally.

He asked me why I had chosen the Philosophy Department, the Master said.

I began to reply that I wanted knowledge of the secret of the universe and the secrets of existence. He listened to me well, then he said laughingly, You are indeed fit for philosophy, because you are talking incomprehensibly.


The second time was in the 1960s, when a television episode was recorded with him, which I think was the only episode.

He was silent for a while, and then said, Taha Hussein was not only a thinker and a writer, he was also a man with a role.

December 1992

The First Pound

In a discussion about the paltry material returns from literature, the Master said, I have never sent a story for publication expecting any material return from it, until one of the employees of Ahmad Hasan Al-Zayyat contacted me. He was the supervisor of accounts, and he said that I had caused a disruption of the budget. Why? Because I had not come to receive my remuneration. What remuneration? The pound for the story that had been published in Al-Riwaya magazine, he replied.

That was the first pound which entered my pocket from literature. I jumped for joy. That night I invited all the Abbasiya group to kebab and kufta, and we enjoyed ourselves.

December 1992

Where Are the Drafts?

We asked the Master about his manuscripts of Echoes of Autobiography.

I sent them to Al-Ahram, he answered.

We expressed annoyance. The Echoes had been published in a confused way in Al-Ahram, the arrangement had been messed up and several excerpts had been dropped and not published. The idea emerged of republishing in Akhbar Al-Adab. There s a photocopy of the manuscript, he said.

But the original? We asked.

He said he had sent it to Al-Ahram, and did not know what had become of it. He was not used to keeping his manuscripts.

Another evening we talked about the handwritten original of the Trilogy. The Trilogy was really only one novel called Between The Two Palaces. It was in about 1,300 foolscap pages in Naguib Mahfouz s handwriting. There was only one copy. Photocopy machines were unknown at that time, and Mahfouz usually used to send the printing press his works in the original handwritten form. He went to Al-Sahar with it, and was surprised by the publisher saying to him, What s this disaster? How can I publish it?

Mahfouz went out to the street sadly, talking to himself and leaving the manuscript with the publisher. After about a year Yusuf Al-Sibai contacted him, and told him a literary magazine called Al-Risala Al-Jadida would be published, and would offer Mahfouz the possibility of a serialized novel. Then Mahfouz went quickly to Al-Sahar, and fortunately the man had preserved the only original. Mahfouz recovered it and Between the Two Palaces began to be published as a serial. Then Al-Sahar offered him to publish the novel in three separate parts. Thus the Trilogy emerged for the public. However, we all shudder when we remember, when we merely remember, that this great work could have been lost for some reason. God alone knows where the original manuscript of Echoes of Autobiography ended up, just like all the originals that he did not keep.


After suffering the painful incident, he did not write. The hand which wrote the most superb short stories and novels for Arabic literature was affected as a result of a stab with a penknife in the neck by a misguided and stupid young man who had never read a word by him. He regularly underwent physiotherapy, to enable him to sign his name in thick, irregular letters.

Nusf Al-Dunya magazine regularly publishes some of his short stories. Whenever the magazine announces a new story, we ask him happily,

Was it written recently?

No, he answers sadly, a long, sad no. Then he continues, It s from the stock. From time to time I send a story to continue my presence.

Does presence preoccupy you, Uncle Naguib? I wonder.

He looks, and then says, Well

I know that he does not want us to continue. I preserved his reactions, but I wondered to myself, Is he really preoccupied with his presence among the readers, after he himself has become a continuous presence?


Suddenly he asked us, after a silence, Do you know the poet Mustafa Hamam?

He used to write articles in a Wafd party newspaper in the morning, and others in the evening in an anti-Wafd newspaper. He used to reply to himself under a false name. The strange thing is that both sides were aware of it.

We laughed. The most beautiful memories would float to the surface suddenly, and he would relate them succinctly. He had an amazing ability to talk, usually ending with a smile.

December 1992


Don t you review your literature and your creative experience regularly every once in a while? Yusuf Al-Qa id asked.

No, the Master replied. I don t make such reviews. I imagine that a thinker ought to do that, but I have never done that. A novelist and a poet review themselves constantly, but to stop and review for the sake of reviewing, I think not.

Do you attach special importance to language? I asked. In the sense that you try to develop it from one work to another. Your language has passed through important phases. Whoever reads The Folly of Destiny and The Struggle of Thebes will not imagine that whoever wrote these two novels will create The Harafish and finally Echoes of Autobiography.

I don t deliberately develop language, the Master said. Language for me is like a living creature, it grows with experience and expertise. The provisions of experience are reading, and sometimes the work requires the use of language with a particular rhythm.

Tuesday, July 2002

In the Interest of Humanity

We talked about a new book published in Cairo: it deals with scientific research in Israel, and compares it with scientific research among the Arabs. The most dangerous thing in it is that 640 patents for inventions were registered in Israel last year, compared with only 24 in all the Arab countries.

He showed astonishment. He shook his head twice. When he was silent for a long time, I realized that he was turning the matter over, and after a long or short time he would speak, to express his opinion, or he might forget the whole matter.

I resumed what I had been talking about, and said that Muhammad Hasanain Haikal had information which appeared strange for anyone who did not know it, but it came as a result of precise follow-up.

He seemed to be listening with great concentration.

I said that some weeks ago I visited him, and we talked about Israel. He said that what aroused his concern in Israel was not the army, which had the status of a melting-pot in which the different elements coming from all over the world blended together. What attracted his attention now is the scientific progress in the universities. The Hebrew University has advanced research centers, with strong relations with advanced research centers in all parts of the world. I said that Haikal s words seemed strange to me at that time. The army was the pillar of the Hebrew state, but after I had read this book I realized the truth of what he had been talking about, and how precise his vision was.

After moments of silence, he asked me,

How many patents in Israel?


And what do we have?

In the whole Arab world, 24.

After moments of silence, he said,

It will be to the benefit of humanity in the end. That is, we will benefit from it.

I listened to his words which expressed a comprehensive human view that went beyond the present time. I did not raise a question which was preoccupying me, And what about us?

Tuesday 27 August 2002

The Appearance of Berlenti

The earthquake last Saturday imposed its presence on the exchanges of conversation. I remember the 1992 earthquake, and the depression it caused to our session, except for the jokes we told each other. At that time in such circumstances, each one of us told about where he was, how he felt and how he behaved. Mere talk which meant that the dangerous event had passed safely. As long as we talked about it, we had escaped. We spoke about repeated earthquakes in recent years.

Even nature is not pleased with our situation, I said laughing.

The epicenter of the latest earthquake was new to us. It was approximately beneath Cairo, in Abu Zaabal and Qalyub. For this reason people heard the roaring of cosmic explosions accompanying the earthquake, which only lasted 25 seconds.

The communiqué said that the strength of the quake was 4.5 on the Richter scale, Zaki Salem said, but I think it was more.

We agreed that it was more. Even the communiqués of Helwan Observatory had become open to doubt. However, the Master surprised us with his humor after listening for a long time.

When the earthquake occurred, I was sitting in the drawing room. I felt it strongly. I looked at the ceiling, expecting it to fall down, and the actress Berlenti Abdulhamid to appear, coming down from above.

Berlenti was living in the same building, on the top floor, and the Master was living on the lower floor.

Tuesday 27 August 2002

Beans, of Course

We spoke about surgical operations and things related to them.

After I had the operation in London, the English doctor asked me,

Would you like any particular kind of food?

What I want is not available here, I answered.

What s that? he asked.

Beans, of course, I said.

Beans are available near the hospital, the doctor said, smiling, in a restaurant called Ali Baba. And in fact the Master sent out, the beans came, and it was a very enjoyable meal. I said that the management of the hospital in Cleveland (USA) noticed that most of the Egyptians want to eat beans after undergoing successful heart operations. Thus they added Egyptian beans as a breakfast dish in their main restaurant in the hospital, original beans, with different types of oil: hot oil, olive oil and cottonseed oil.

I said that after passing through danger, a person clings to memory, particularly the food to which he is accustomed or which he likes.

I found beans. But what I did not find in the United States was molasses and tahina.

Molasses with tahina is one of the foods whose value is appreciated by the poor in Egypt. It is rich in calories, and is regarded as the most delicious meal in the prisons, particularly with local bread when it is hot.

Tuesday, September 2002

The Opera Seminar

To come back to the Master s relationship with Al-Aqqad: I wanted to seek more clarification on it, why did he not go to Al-Aqqad s weekly seminar?

He said that he did not know of a specific reason, but I regarded him as close to me, I had learnt advanced concepts of democracy and liberalism from him, through his articles which he used to write in Al-Jarida and which I used to read in my early youth. For a long time I thought that he was only a political writer. I was astonished when I read his works in literature.

But you saw him in the Anglo Bookshop and did not even think of shaking his hand? I asked him.

This is true, he said, perhaps because I heard that his character was individualistic.

But it was different with regard to Taha Hussein, I said.

I met him several times, he said. That was in the university when I attended lessons in the Faculty of Letters. Then I visited him in his house, sometimes by myself, and sometimes with the late Tharwat Abaza.

I asked him if he had met Sheikh Amin Al-Khuli.

He studied under me in the university, he said, but I never met him personally.

The seminars which he held since 1945 were a pivot of literary and cultural life, I said. The Opera Seminar began in 1945 and have continued in various phases and different places up to now. Always Naguib Mahfouz was the center, with many people around him, some of them talking, some of them silent, some of them constant and some of them changing, merely passing. But Naguib Mahfouz was the pivot. How did the relationship with the seminars begin, particularly the Opera Seminar?

Before the Opera Seminar, he said, literary life did not include literary seminars in cafés, there were literary salons, of course, the most famous of which was May Ziadeh s salon, but I was not a contemporary of it. I only read about it. I remember that I went to a salon which was run by a lady from a rich family, but I never went there again he tried to remember its name, but his memory could not recall the name I didn t feel at ease in the atmosphere of salons.

So, how did the Opera Seminar begin? I asked.

It happened that five writers won literary prizes, he said.

What prizes? I asked.

Either from the Arabic Language academy or the Ministry of National Education, he replied.

The first prize I obtained was the Qut Al-Qulub Al-Dimardashiya Prize, then the Arabic Language Academy Prize, I said.

With regard to the Academy s prize, he went on, I won it with four others: Abdulhamid Jawda Al-Sahar, Ali Ahmad Bakathir, Yusuf Jawhar and a poet who used to write like Tagore and was a consultant.

Perhaps it was Hussein Afif, I said.

Perhaps, he answered.

Abdulhamid Al-Sahar suggested the establishment of the University Publishing Committee which would begin by publishing the prizewinning works. We all agreed except Yusuf Jawhar, who refused the idea of publishing without remuneration. We began to meet in the Urabi Café, but the owners of the café told me, your friends the writers are annoying, they talk a lot in loud voices. Find them another place. So we went to the Opera open-air café. There our weekly meetings began, every Friday since 1945, and continued in the same place until they ended, as you know. (He meant that the security forces stopped the seminar in 1961).

The seminar brought great benefit to cultural life through its regularity, I said. Different generations attended it. With regard to our generation, the distances between us were shortened. It was possible that my meeting with Muhammad Al-Sati, Ibrahim Aslan, or Al-Qa id and others would have been delayed for lengths of time, I don t know how long, had it not been for Naguib Mahfouz s seminar, to which different generations went and still do. The late Tawfiq Al-Hakim had a seminar in Shepherd s Hotel, and another in Alexandria, but Al-Hakim s regulars were from the pashas and prominent society figures. Very few young writers dared to go. As for me, I headed for Petro s Café overlooking the Mediterranean Sea during a summer in the 1960s. I was going to meet Naguib Mahfouz, who was sitting silently most of the time, whereas Tawfiq Al-Hakim was talking prolifically. He was a great story-teller, and would speak as if he were acting, his hands expressing what he was saying. I asked Naguib Mahfouz how he came to know Al-Hakim.

After the appearance of the novel Midaq Alley, he asked to meet me, and when I regularly attended his weekly seminar in Cairo, and daily in Alexandria during the summer months, the former pashas became annoyed at my presence. They included Shamsuddin Abdulghaffar, Burhan Nur, and of course Ibrahim Pasha Farag and Ibrahim Talaat. They said they were afraid of me because I wrote in Al-Ahram, which is headed by Muhammad Hasanain Haikal who was close to Gamal Abdul Nasser the leader of the Revolution. But Al-Hakim told them, I vouch for him . I remember that one of them asked Shamsuddin Abdulghaffar, after he had been silent for a long time in the session, What are you thinking about? he replied, terrified, I m not thinking not thinking of anything .

The Master laughed clearly and resoundingly. After moments of silence, he continued, Al-Hakim would talk for long periods, but most of what he said was personal. That is, we would begin the conversation about a literary question, but he would digress from it to a person. He would talk to us about his father, about his memories in Muhammad Ali Street. Once I asked him about that, and he said that his theoretical opinions were in his books, and whoever wanted to know them, let him read.

The Master had a special liking for Tawfiq Al-Hakim. Al-Hakim s office on the sixth floor was open. I never saw it locked. In recent years he used to sit by himself, sad because he had lost his only son Ismail. On Thursday Naguib Mahfouz would move from his neighboring office to sit in front of Al-Hakim s office. Sometimes the late Tharwat Abaza, Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, Ihsan Abdulqaddous or Yusuf Idris would appear. After Al-Hakim s death, the management of Al-Ahram allocated the room to Naguib Mahfouz, but he never sat in Al-Hakim s place. He always sits in the place to which he was attached in front of the office. Tawfiq Al-Hakim s chair remained empty, as if he was expected to arrive.

In the Master s house there is a small cupboard for medals and commemorative gifts precious to him because of the status of those who gave them to him. I saw a black pen, of which his wife said he was proud, and so had placed among the medals which he had won. This pen was a present from Tawfiq Al-Hakim. The Master always described The Return of the Spirit as a literary victory for the Arab novel.

The Nile

The Master loves the River Nile. He prefers to walk alongside it and sit beside it. The ancient river has a unique quality, as if it were a person who is aware, absorbs and answers. Perhaps not many people know that he lived on the Nile, when living on houseboats was well known at that time in Cairo. When he married he rented a houseboat near the Jala Bridge and lived there for more than a year. It happened that the child of a family living in a neighboring boat drowned, so the Master s wife, who had given birth to her first child Umm Kulthoum, insisted on moving to a place other than a boat. So the apartment was rented, in which the family still lives to this day in Nile Street in Ajouza district. I asked him about the relationship with the Nile.

It began in the company of my mother, he said. She used to go with me to visit antiquities. She would go with me to walk beside the Nile or on the bridges: Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, Abul Alaa Bridge. I grew up loving to walk or sit by the Nile. I would take my small cushion with me and go to a circular garden in front of the house in which Anwar Al-Sadat lived when he became President. (The garden has been turned into a helicopter landing pad.) I used to sit on the bank of the Nile by myself for several hours until midnight, contemplating and thinking. Then I would return to Abbasiya after midnight. In this garden I met the old Harafish for the first time. We called it the ill-fated circle.

Why? I asked.

Because we were pessimistic about the future of literature and reading, he answered. We used to discuss and laugh. One night a policeman came to ask us to lower our voices, because Yusuf Rashad, King Farouk s doctor, was living near to the circular garden.

The place which inspires me to meditate, in which the scenes of several novels were completed, Mahfouz said to me. Closeness to the Nile. It s enough for me to feel I am near it, even if I m not looking at it.

Like we are now? I asked.

Exactly, he answered.


Gamal Al-Ghaitani


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