Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Interviewing Naguib Mahfouz was never going to be easy. He refuses to discuss his private life. He also hates having his picture taken as flash photography irritates his eye and, his hearing has deteriorated with old age. His replies have become abrupt and he speaks in short ambiguous sentences.
I pleaded with his wife to spend a day in the life of the great Egyptian novelist and record his routine in camera. She decline, citing his ill health. I wanted to record his routine habits and behavior. Intensely private, I was told Mahfouz never holds any meetings at his home, preferring instead to speak in his weekly forums.
Nevertheless, his wife alluded to his daily routine. The Nobel Prize laureate wakes up every morning at 8 am and has a light breakfast made of bread and cottage cheese. Afterwards, Hajj Sabri al Sayyid arrives at 10am to read him the morning papers: al Ahram, al Akhbar and al Wafd. Mahfouz told me he preferred al Wafd to other party publications because he was once a member of the organization and the weekly magazine Nisf al Dunya because it publishes his dreams. As for al Akhbar and al Ahram, the novelist follows front-page news and opinion pieces. He also reads analyses, cultural news, readers’ column, caricature and the obituaries, “out of duty”. When he discovers a friend has died, he feels it is necessary to pay his respects to the deceased in writing.
After receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, Mahfouz began relying on Hajj Sabri for assistance.
Q: Is he punctual?
A: Yes. But last Tuesday, he was late. He didn’t arrive until 12pm because of traffic congestion caused by the motorcade of an official.
Q: What is your opinion of Muslim Brotherhood member Abdul Munim Abdul Al Futuh’s visit to the Farah boat last Tuesday?
A: I welcomed his visit. I support the religious parties emerging to the surface “so we can see them”. Abdul Futuh spoke clearly and said the Brotherhood opposed a theocratic government. I asked him about art and the Coptic community in Egypt. He said that Copts and Muslims are equal and rejected violence. Either way, the next five year will be a real test for the Brotherhood which will reveal everything.
Q: Did Al Futuh visit you alone?
A: No, he was accompanied by several individuals.
Q: In your opinion, was he speaking out of personal conviction?
A: Perhaps. His statements could have also reflected a current inside the Brotherhood.
Q: In hospital, after being attacked in 1994, you said you pardoned the assailant?
A: I had just left the operation room and police officers asked me, after arresting the attackers, what I would like to say to them. I replied: I forgive them. I am not a judge.
Q: Dr. Milad Hanna [an Egyptian Copt] has withdrawn his earlier comments where he indicated he would emigrate if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. He said the remark was spontaneous and he would not leave his country but wanted to be buried in Egypt. How do you explain this?
A: I understood his position from a personal perspective. I didn’t see it as Haana rejecting the Muslim Brotherhood govern Egypt if they seize power democratically or rejecting the implementation of Islamic Shariaa (jurisprudence).
Q: Why did you tell Dar al Shorouq [publishing house] to seek al Azhar’s consent if they wanted to publish your novel “The Children of Gebelawi” and make it available across Egypt?
A: During the reign of Abdul Nasser, I agreed with the censorship authorities to publish the novel outside Egypt. He said I could publish here but I would need the consent of al Azhar first. I respect this agreement and will continue to abide by it for the rest of my life.
Q: When you were dictating “Dreams of convalescence” to Hajj Sabri, did you later modify the text?
A: No, I would only ask him to read out the final text to me.
Q: Are you aware of the artist Abdul Badih al Arabi resigning from the censorship department in protest at the refusal to publish a novel by Yousef al Sibai, while you were working there?
A: No. The censorship department employed several people. I was head of the department for less than a year in 1959. It is a very big section.
Q: Is it easier to approve of private or commercial film screenings?
A: The procedures for private showings were less complex because they would be screened for a day or two to a limited audience.
Q: What happened after you left the censorship department?
A: I became in charge of the authority to promote Egyptian cinema. Afterwards, Dr, Abdul Qader Hatem became Minister of Culture and Information and the cinema was nationalized. I then became literary adviser to the Cinema Authority.
Q: What were your duties?
A: I was responsible for establishing a cinema library that included all Arab and Egyptian publications that discussed the art of the cinema. My office was in the television building.
Q: Are you satisfied with films adapted from your novels?
A: Those who adapted the films tried their best.
Q: Taha Hussein enjoyed the film The Nightingale’s Prayer (Du’a al-Karawan), based on one of his novels.
A: Taha Hussein was a fine writer.
Q: Do you support the censorship of artistic creations?
A: Censorship is necessary because art is shown to a wide audience. It requires guidance and restriction. This does not harm art but protects producers as well as artists.
Q: How does censorship protect the producer?
A: If censorship was nonexistent, producers would do as they please. But when a censorship department guides them and advises them, it is protecting them from attacks and potential losses.
Q: People have claimed that you are not longer able to write, leaving an imprint instead.
A: [Angrily] Liars! With the help of an assistant, Mahfouz then takes out a Kent cigarette and lights it. It is one of two daily cigarettes; he smokes the first as soon as he arrives to the meeting point and the second at 8pm .
Q: What is your opinion about congestion in Cairo nowadays?
A: We are in dire need for a new capital, an administrative capital. Cairo would remain the historical city.
Q: How would you summarize your journey with literature and life?
A: Will power and faith.
Q: Can you explain further?
A: One should have faith in what they write and persist no matter what the obstacles are.
Q: Do you still practice walking?
A: No, old age is restricting.
Q: Do you long for the zither instrument you play so well?
A: Sometimes… but my fingers no longer obey me.
Q: What is your opinion of music?
A: Music is nutrition for the soul. Without it, there is no literature or music.