Seventeen years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1988), Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz left the civil service and started a job with a newspaper. Around the same time that Mahfouz joined Al-Ahram, Anwar Sadat came to power as the third president of Egypt. For the next 10 years—until Sadat’s assassination in 1981—Egypt saw momentous changes in its politics (both in the domestic and international spheres) as well as in other areas of life: social, religious, and cultural.
Through this period, Mahfouz wrote a series of essays which were published weekly in Al-Ahram as a current affairs column titled ‘wijhat nazar’ (‘a point of view’). Usually short pieces—in the later years (around 1980-81) as short as a couple of 100 words each—these essays focused on some recurring topics: the challenges facing Egypt as it transitioned from one phase to another; Egypt’s political status, especially with respect to the rest of the Arab world; and the many factors that came into the limelight in a country that had suffered much at the hands of colonialism.
Translated into English and arranged in chronological order, these essays comprise The Meaning of Civilisation: Essays on Religion and Politics.
Mahfouz’s essays tend to focus on some very specific subjects. Besides his views on politics and the political scenario, he writes again and again about illiteracy (Egypt then had an abysmal literacy rate of a mere 30 per cent); poverty and the uneven distribution of wealth; the clash between religion and tradition on one hand and science and rationalism on the other.
He devotes several essays to the problems of the younger generation, the rising unemployment, as well as the problem of severe overstaffing in the Egyptian civil service. The censorship of literature, cinema and other arts; the pronunciation of Arabic by newsreaders; the disturbing rise in child disappearances: these too are grist to his mill.
What comes forth most strikingly from these essays is a picture of Egypt in the 1970s: its socio-economic and political situation, some of which bears an uncanny resemblance to an India of the same period.
Similar problems, similar dissonances, similar pros and cons that needed to be balanced. And, as invariably happens, of course, the writer too is revealed through his words: we see, in his essays, the humanitarian that Mahfouz was, the rationalist and progressive man of letters who wanted so much for his country.
Sadly, Mahfouz’s non-fiction is not a patch on the immensely readable, deeply engrossing fiction that he wrote. While a few of these essays are thought-provoking and insightful (Freedom of Thought and Towards a Free Society stand out in this respect), most tend to become repetitive after a while, the same thoughts on the same topics expressed again and again.
Mahfouz has a tendency to offer solutions to problems facing society and state, and these solutions are often embarrassingly simplistic or at best vague.
In Important Matters, where he covers everything from the Aswan High Dam to literati and the youth, his advice for dealing with public ‘literary lethargy’ is too simplistic to be practical: ‘The only solution for this problem is to put in place a robust policy aimed at uncovering new talent, to publicise this talent within the right artistic arena, and to insist on it being promoted provided it has proven artistic merit so that this new talent can find its appropriate artistic level.’
Read this book for a glimpse of 1970s Egypt (and, to some extent, the Arab world of that period). Read it, too, for a glimpse of Mahfouz himself. Do not read it expecting Mahfouz’s brilliance as a storyteller.