Dennis Haritou: The Three Guys like to interview the writers we discuss whenever possible. In this case, however, I had been participating in the NEA big international read by reading Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs which I enjoyed very much. So it was very fortunate that I have been able to secure an interview with the mummy of Naguib Mahfouz through extraordinary means. Mahfouz has, of course, passed beyond our horizon. And whether you believe in an afterlife or not, it is certainly the case that he is in a better place. After examining the notes that I took at this interview, I was struck by how consistent Mahfouz’s views were with those that he expressed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. We all know of people, especially writers and intellectuals, whose opinions are expedient and as changeable as the weather. Yet here is a artist who has suffered translation to the other world and still maintains consistent views. I was filled with admiration. The interview is below. It is followed by a brief concluding comment. The interview took place in a tomb whose location must remain secret. The time was dusk which is when reception is best between our world and any other. I had promised to come alone so, unfortunately, there were no witnesses and I might add, no one to bolster my confidence, because I was throughly spooked out. But anything for the Three Guys blog.
Dennis: Mr. Mahfouz, thank you very much for taking our questions. Thanks to the kindness of one of my favorite stores in New York, 192 Books, I was once squeezed into a reading given by one of my literary heroes, Orhan Pamuk. I will never forget that before reading an excerpt from his then new book, Snow, in English, he read some passages in Turkish. He knew that most of his audience would not be able to follow him, but he said that he wanted to give the English-speaking crowd some feeling for his novel in the Turkish language. Your great and greatly varied works, for which you won the Nobel, are written in your native language. Do do have any thoughts about the importance of that?
Mummy: I would like you to accept my talk with tolerance. For it comes in a language unknown to many of you. But it is the real winner of the prize. It is, therefore, meant that its melodies should float for the first time into your oasis of culture and civilization. I have great hopes that this will not be the last time either, and that literary writers of my nation will have the pleasure to sit with full merit amongst your international writers who have spread the fragrance of joy and wisdom in this grief-ridden world of ours.
Dennis: Mr Mahfouz, I have been reading your work for many years, starting with that very great family saga that I found impossible to resist, The Cairo Trilogy. But I recognize that many who are participating in the NEA Great Read may be unfamiliar with your name. For their benefit, could you tell us something about yourself and your background?
Mummy: Permit me, then, to present myself in as objective a manner as is humanly possible. I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic one. I am perhaps in no need to introduce to any of you either of the two, you being the elite, the learned ones.
Dennis: Mr. Mahfouz, can you tell us something about your attitude toward that ancient civilization that lies at the foundation of your country? That ancient world is never far away in your fiction, even when it treats of contemporary themes, and I’m not sure that all of your readers realize this.
Mummy: As for Pharaonic civilization I will not talk of the conquests and the building of empires. This has become a worn out pride the mention of which modern conscience, thank God, feels uneasy about. Nor will I talk about how it was guided for the first time to the existence of God and its ushering in the dawn of human conscience. This is a long history and there is not one of you who is not acquainted with the prophet-king Akhenaton. I will not even speak of this civilization’s achievements in art and literature, and its renowned miracles: the Pyramids and the Sphinx and Karnak. For he who has not had the chance to see these monuments has read about them and pondered over their forms.
Let me, then, introduce Pharaonic civilization with what seems like a story since my personal circumstances have ordained that I become a storyteller. Hear, then, this recorded historical incident: Old papyri relate that Pharaoh had learned of the existence of a sinful relation between some women of the harem and men of his court. It was expected that he should finish them off in accordance with the spirit of his time. But he, instead, called to his presence the choice men of law and asked them to investigate what he has come to learn. He told them that he wanted the Truth so that he could pass his sentence with Justice.
This conduct, in my opinion, is greater than founding an empire or building the Pyramids. It is more telling of the superiority of that civilization than any riches or splendour. Gone now is that civilization – a mere story of the past. One day the great Pyramid will disappear too. But Truth and Justice will remain for as long as Mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience.
Dennis: Mr. Mahfouz, I have to admit that sometimes I fear that the pressures I feel to come up with material for the Three Guys blog will drive me insane. And maybe I have already been pushed over the edge. For I don’t see how I can be talking to your mummified form. Pardon me for my bluntness but being a mummy can’t be in accord with your religious position, can it? So perhaps I am not talking to Mahfouz, the great writer, at all but to some Deceiver. Or perhaps, through some crazed conceit, I am talking to no one at all but am addressing only the dark air of an empty tomb. But reassure me by talking about Islamic civilization whose art I love so much.
Mummy: As for Islamic civilization I will not talk about its call for the establishment of a union between all Mankind under the guardianship of the Creator, based on freedom, equality and forgiveness. Nor will I talk about the greatness of its prophet. For among your thinkers there are those who regard him the greatest man in history. I will not talk of its conquests which have planted thousands of minarets calling for worship, devoutness and good throughout great expanses of land from the environs of India and China to the boundaries of France. Nor will I talk of the fraternity between religions and races that has been achieved in its embrace in a spirit of tolerance unknown to Mankind neither before nor since.
I will, instead, introduce that civilization in a moving dramatic situation summarizing one of its most conspicuous traits: In one victorious battle against Byzantium it has given back its prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine and mathematics. This is a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge, even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of a pagan civilization.
Dennis: How on earth do you balance these two great traditions?
Mummy: It was my fate, ladies and gentlemen, to be born in the lap of these two civilizations, and to absorb their milk, to feed on their literature and art. Then I drank the nectar of your rich and fascinating culture.
Dennis: Mr. Mahfouz, you come from a very troubled corner of the world. How does that relate to your work?
Mummy: You may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories? You are perfectly right. I come from a world labouring under the burden of debts whose paying back exposes it to starvation or very close to it. Some of its people perish in Asia from floods, others do so in Africa from famine. In South Africa millions have been undone with rejection and with deprivation of all human rights in the age of human rights, as though they were not counted among humans. In the West Bank and Gaza there are people who are lost in spite of the fact that they are living on their own land; land of their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. They have risen to demand the first right secured by primitive Man; namely, that they should have their proper place recognized by others as their own. They were paid back for their brave and noble move – men, women, youths and children alike – by the breaking of bones, killing with bullets, destroying of houses and torture in prisons and camps. Surrounding them are 150 million Arabs following what is happening in anger and grief. This threatens the area with a disaster if it is not saved by the wisdom of those desirous of a just and comprehensive peace.
Yes, how did the man coming from the Third World find the peace of mind to write stories? Fortunately, art is generous and sympathetic. In the same way that it dwells with the happy ones it does not desert the wretched. It offers both alike the convenient means for expressing what swells up in their bosom.
In this decisive moment in the history of civilization it is inconceivable and unacceptable that the moans of Mankind should die out in the void. There is no doubt that Mankind has at last come of age, and our era carries the expectations of entente between the Super Powers. The human mind now assumes the task of eliminating all causes of destruction and annihilation. And just as scientists exert themselves to cleanse the environment of industrial pollution, intellectuals ought to exert themselves to cleanse humanity of moral pollution. It is both our right and duty to demand of the big leaders in the countries of civilization as well as their economists to affect a real leap that would place them into the focus of the age.
Dennis: I don’t see how it’s possible to make progress when every nation seems to be out for itself. What do you think?
Mummy: In the olden times every leader worked for the good of his own nation alone. The others were considered adversaries, or subjects of exploitation. There was no regard to any value but that of superiority and personal glory. For the sake of this, many morals, ideals and values were wasted; many unethical means were justified; many uncounted souls were made to perish. Lies, deceit, treachery, cruelty reigned as the signs of sagacity and the proof of greatness. Today, this view needs to be changed from its very source. Today, the greatness of a civilized leader ought to be measured by the universality of his vision and his sense of responsibility towards all humankind. The developed world and the Third World are but one family. Each human being bears responsibility towards it by the degree of what he has obtained of knowledge, wisdom, and civilization. I would not be exceeding the limits of my duty if I told thom in the name of the Third World: Be not spectators to our miseries. You have to play therein a noble role befitting your status. From your position of superiority you are responsible for any misdirection of animal, or plant, to say nothing of Man, in any of the four corners of the world. We have had enough of words. Now is the time for action. It is time to end the age of brigands and usurers. We are in the age of leaders responsible for the whole globe. Save the enslaved in the African south! Save the famished in Africa! Save the Palestinians from the bullets and the torture! Nay, save the Israelis from profaning their great spiritual heritage! Save the ones in debt from the rigid laws of economy! Draw their attention to the fact that their responsibility to Mankind should precede their commitment to the laws of a science that Time has perhaps overtaken.
I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, I feel I may have somewhat troubled your calm. But what do you expect from one coming from the Third World? Is not every vessel coloured by what it contains? Besides, where can the moans of Mankind find a place to resound if not in your oasis of civilization planted by its great founder for the service of science, literature and sublime human values? And as he did one day by consecrating his riches to the service of good, in the hope of obtaining forgiveness, we, children of the Third World, demand of the able ones, the civilized ones, to follow his example, to imbibe his conduct, to meditate upon his vision.
Dennis: Dear sir, I implied in my opening remarks that you must be in a better place since any place or even a void might seem preferable to the suffering that is experienced in our so-called reality. Are you hopeful or do you despair?
Mummy: In spite of all what goes on around us I am committed to optimism until the end. I do not say with Kant that Good will be victorious in the other world. Good is achieving victory every day. It may even be that Evil is weaker than we imagine. In front of us is an indelible proof: were it not for the fact that victory is always on the side of Good, hordes of wandering humans would not have been able in the face of beasts and insects, natural disasters, fear and egotism, to grow and multiply. They would not have been able to form nations, to excel in creativeness and invention, to conquer outer space, and to declare Human Rights. The truth of the matter is that Evil is a loud and boisterous debaucherer, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases. Our great poet Abul-‘Alaa’ Al-Ma’ari was right when he said:
A grief at the hour of death
Is more than a hundred-fold
Joy at the hour of birth.
I finally reiterate my thanks and ask your forgiveness.
Dennis: One last question, a customary one in interviews like this. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now? A new novel perhaps?
But to this question I received no reply, at least no reply that I could understand. For I thought I detected a faint whispering, or maybe it was a kind of hushed rustling in the vicinity of the mummy. So I approached and placed my ear very close to where I believed the mummy’s head to be. Have you ever had one of those dreams where a character, perhaps someone very important to you, says something vital only you can’t make out what it was? That’s just the way I felt.
Nothing, apparently. The interview was over. Since shaking hands seemed impractical in this case, I respectfully leaned over and placed a kiss on the mummy’s cheek. Have you ever kissed a cadaver before? I certainly have. But that’s not so very extraordinary for someone my age. As the years go on, first you start out kissing dead bodies and then you end up becoming one yourself.
In my case it was my mother. This is quite a salutary experience since somehow the death doesn’t register properly on your pysche otherwise. You think that the loved one is still around somewhere. Perhaps they just went to the store and will come back shortly. But when your sensitive, live lips make contact with a beloved face that has become just a mummified object, believe me, it sinks in what the word gone means.
It was, by now, quite dark, and I have to say I was wondering how I was going to find my way back to the nearest Long Island Railroad station from this remote location. So I left swiftly, not even turning around for a last look at the mummy of Naguib Mahfouz.