Thursday, 7 February 2008

Naguib Mahfouz: A War Foretold

We Americans are an insular, stay-at-home sort of people. And, really, with so much on offer in our own manifestly destined land, why would we ever want to leave? Still, as (relatively) well traveled as I am, I always feel a little guilty when someone from the vast swath of the globe I've never visited asks if I've been to their country.

Or a country near their country. Or a country like their country. There are three Egyptian journalists visiting the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism this term and not only have I not been to Egypt, I've never been to an Arab country. But the presence of Ehab, Dina and Raina has prompted a bout of armchair travel. Which is why I just finished reading "The Journey of Ibn Fattouma" by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning author.

This slim volume probably isn't the right entree to Mahfouz's work. He's best known for the epic Cairo Trilogy. But I started with "Ibn Fattouma" because, at 148 pages, it would fit in my pocket--an important consideration when you're on a bicycle.

Briefly, the book is about a restless man upset by the corruption in his country. He decides to travel south to visit others to see what he can learn from them. It's a Swiftian sort of book. Each land appears to have something to offer, but beneath the surface the protagonist sees the cracks in the dystopia. The land that seems the best is called Halba and I confess I felt a jolt when I read that section. Ibn Fattouma has just been freed from 20 years in jail in Haira, the previous country he visited, so he is impressed by the vast freedoms in Halba. And yet he is troubled that Halba is about to invade Haira.

"What do you think of our declaration of war, sacrificing our sons to liberate a foreign land," a sage in Halba asks Ibn Fattoum.

"This is something we have not heard of before," Ibn Fattouma answers.

"We present people with a model for an honorable and happy homeland."

"Perhaps you welcome war."

"Yes, if you promise an increase in freedom," he said clearly. "I have not the slightest doubt that victory by us over Haira and Aman would be the best guarantees for the happiness of the two peoples."

Whoa. Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006 but I wonder if he cursed his prescience. Like all great writers he was capable of looking into the future as much as plumbing the past.

The author was apparently despised by Islamic fundamentalists, who were especially enraged by his support of Salman Rushdie. The same sage who tells Ibn Fattouma that invading a country helps bring it freedom adds, "Speaking of which, I am for the principle of holy war in Islam."

Ibn Fattouma has left his Muslim homeland because he's upset at the corruption of the religion, so this isn't the endorsement a reader might think. In fact, Mahfouz makes clear his thoughts on Islam in the speech he gives to the woman Ibn Fattouma marries in Halba: "The difference between our Islam and yours is that ours has not closed the doors of independent judgment, and Islam without independent judgment means Islam without reason."

I still hope to go to Egypt some day, but I'm reminded that a library book can be almost as transporting.


mark from alexandria said...

Having just read a story about a married woman jailed in Saudi Arabia for sitting with her male work colleagues in a Starbucks, your recommendation of Naguib Mahfouz comes at a good time. I was so disgusted by the description of this woman's treatment by the "religious police" that I was allowing some very negative general thinking in. As my involvement with Sister Cities International has taught me, the more we know about other cultures and the more we show of our own, is the best way to fight ignorance and intolerance.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

I was in Egypt briefly in 1960, and spent a few hours in Alexandria, sensing its ancient and varied history, and a group of us went to see the Pyramid of Giza. Both have loomed larger and larger in my imagination as the years have gone by.

Ken said...

hmmm - there must be something in there that I can steal for a learned sounding quote for my paper. Top tip, thanks.

John Kelly said...

Glad to be of service, Ken. Here's two more to file away for future reference:
"It is good that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it." -- Gen. Robert E. Lee

"War. [Huh! Yeah!] What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again!"
-- Edwin Starr

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

The religious police in Saudi Arabia are notoriously subhuman. They are the ones that let schoolgirls burn in a fire rather than let them out of the locked gates of their schoolyard without their headgear (forgot the right word, sorry) on. I confess, I don't understand the political stranglehold they have on the rulers and people of Saudi Arabia, but it must be considerable. The fathers of the girls were just outside the gate and did not even try to overpower the "police" and rescue the girls.

No matter how hard you try to understand another's culture, there are some things that seem to go against human nature.