The Writer Becomes Text: Naguib Mahfouz and State Nationalism in Egypt

Article excerpt

    There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a
    document of barbarism.
    --Walter Benjamin (256)

    We are the Pharaohs.
    --Recurring crowd chant during Egypt's 1-0 victory over Algeria in
    November 1989 which advanced Egypt to the World Cup Final for the
    first time in forty years.

When Naguib Mahfouz (b. 1911) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the fall of 1989, he was already too advanced in years to travel to Sweden for the award ceremony. His serious writing had been completed, and if not for the honor, he might have begun to fade from public view as diabetes and age took their toll on his eyesight and hearing, and as younger and still innovative novelists and writers came to the fore in discussions of Egyptian culture. Becoming the Arab world's first Nobel Laureate in the arts, however, prevented such a fade from the public eye, without restoring to him any health or vigor. In Mahfouz's long career, he had shown little interest in defining himself as a public figure, and at just that moment when local and international interest in him was about to peak, questions of health, age, and will made his public image a blank slate that within Egypt was fiercely contested. In fact, the stakes were high enough that the state itself became involved in the public construction of Mahfouz, eventually with disastrous consequences for the writer. By the fall of 1994, Mahfouz's frail body had literally become a field of battle between the Egyptian state on the one hand, and those intent on doing whatever they could to strike a blow against the state on the other.

The attempt to assassinate Naguib Mahfouz, and its aftermath, illustrate the inextricable connection between literature and politics in Egypt in particular and in the Global South generally. The less of a role Mahfouz played in asserting a public persona, the more he became a document for what the state wanted him to symbolize. In this sense, his life during the 1990s is an illustration of Benjamin's insistence on the political (often in its most inhuman manifestations) within the cultural. Politics lurks even where we believe we are in the realm of high art.

The state's exploitation of his status also infuses with meaning the second quotation, in which soccer fans are invoking their Pharaonic heritage. In this instance, the soccer match against the national team of "brother Arab" Algeria became an occasion for a collective expression of Egyptian nationalism. What looks on the surface like a celebration at a sporting event actually reinforces state nationalism, Egypt's definition of itself against another Arab country. Beginning in the Sadat era and continuing through the 1990s, this sort of differentiation against regional rivals was not only a means of turning away from the Pan-Arabism that had marked the first period of decolonization, and of acknowledging the failure of that decolonization process, but also of tacitly siding with the wave of "globalization" that was sweeping the region. This meant, if not an embrace of western political and economic influence, an acceptance of it through emphasis on Egypt's unique place in the region.

This contradictory government vision of the globalized nation state could not afford to leave untouched the area of national literature. Indeed, the public construction of Mahfouz came to embody the contradictions of the post-decolonization era. Mahfouz was the internationally recognized Nobel Laureate whose life and concerns were thoroughly Egyptian. Mean-while, the regime took a path toward "globalization." But the real meaning of this step toward supposed greater integration into the global economy was that the State's economic, political, military, and social priorities were dependent on vertical relations with US hegemony, and de-emphasized horizontal connections to regional partners. Far from destroying state nationalism, the dynamic of globalization used it to its own ends, as indeed it used the public figure of Mahfouz. …