Free, bold, tolerant: Revisiting Mahfouz
The meaning of civilisation
Author- Naguib Mahfouz
Publisher- Speaking Tiger, Rs 599
Naguib Mahfouz had mastered the art of not just good writing but also pragmatism in an individual’s approach to public life — something we all could use, writes ANUBHAV PRADHAN
The public life, a life of letters, is a life of incessant strife and strain. It is a treacherous tightrope, wherein principled opinion has to be constantly balanced against the naked scrutiny of thousands of minds and tongues. To be public, publicly a citizen, is to both be and not be the individual one is.
Such is the impression of Naguib Mahfouz which one carries from The Meaning of Civilisation, a fresh English translation from Arabic of his column which appeared in the Egyptian daily Al Ahram in the so-called Sadat years from 1974 to 1981. There is no overarching theme, and, from primary school education to foreign policy, Mahfouz sweeps over much of not just topical but also universal interest in the 83 essays in this volume. Rarely does one find traces of the novelist, as Rasheed El-Enany notes in his brief-and somewhat casual-Introduction: Pithy and political, these articles are the work of a man as much a public instrument as his own brilliant self.
What, then, is the relevance of such a book in our own context, in twenty-first century India? In as much as the topicality of many of these essays is concerned, the book will appear anachronistic to most but the specialist and the researcher. Mahfouz refers constantly to events happening around him and the contemporary reader will often be at a loss to comprehend the richness of his comment without substantial secondary aid. This topicality, however, is recurrently complemented by a strain of poetic universality, where the columnist metamorphoses into the poet, and the poet transforms into the universal prophet. Mahfouz’s voice then is not just his own, or even of Egypt’s: It is humanity’s voice striving to exceed and excel beyond the limitations of space, history, context.
Consider, for instance, the conclusion of “The Long-Awaited Revolution”, a column dated 4 September 1980 where Mahfouz issues a call for “a revolution by intellectuals against politicians...a revolution which will give liberation and freedom a new meaning and a new redemption.” Coming at a time when the Anwar Sadat presidency had assumed dictatorial hues and uprisings across Egypt were soon to culminate in Sadat’s assassination, Mahfouz here is courageous and bold in advising his countrymen to abjure violence for dialogue and engagement. Similarly, in “Creative Intelligence”, he speaks of creativity as “a magical state...[which] broadcasts its voice indifferent to the suffocating atmosphere around it and laws which attempt to fetter it.” This is lyrical pragmatism at its best, articulating defiantly the right to dream and be despite constraints and threats from many quarters.
The pragmatism emerging from these constraints — even if platitudinous at times — is what will make Mahfouz of lasting interest to a contemporary Indian audience. Yes, his solutions often seem hackneyed and insipid, but before fully dismissing them it would do well to also remember the form in which he is writing here, and the constraints placed upon what he could say given the form. That he manages repeatedly to rise above these constraints is a lesson in not just good writing but also incisive public comment. From denigrating his society as a country of “two nations, not one: a nation living in opulence...and a developing country toiling as part of the third world” to advising his countrymen to “learn how to read, see and hear” before aspiring to chase accolades at the world stage, from diagnosing the problem of governance as a problem not of inadequate laws as of the lack of “resoluteness” to declaring that “the role of the university in our intellectual life is to provide creative leadership”, much of what Mahfouz says will be read by Indians as speaking to the dilemmas and turmoil of their national life today.
In many ways, therefore, Mahfouz the columnist is uomo universale: A man accomplished in all things not just for his own time, but for ages to come after him as well. The topics he writes on range from the human to the divine and back again, and in their combined scope he encompasses the past, present, and future of not jut Egypt but all colonised cultures from the eyes of a committed citizen. His principled, prescriptive stand against blind superstition, conservatism, and violence is stern and powerful, a position which almost cost him his life in his later years. Coming at this turbulent stage in our own nation’s evolving history, this book will act as an emblem of not just the dangers but also the legacies of a public life: A life free, bold, and tolerant.
The reviewer is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed here are his own
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