His final essayThe vastness of a dream [Archives:2006/1010/Culture]

December 25 2006

By: Naguib Mahfouz
Translated by: Eyad Al-Samman
For Yemen Times

This is the last essay published in the foreign press by the late Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, appearing in “Le Figaro Magazine” on Aug. 12 while he was still in the hospital. In its preface, the magazine noted that Mahfouz wrote the essay in collaboration with his close friend of many years, fellow Egyptian writer Muhammad Salmawi.

The writing process isn't completely innocent, as it sometimes allows individuals who meet me without having read my writings carefully to talk about personal issues instead of focusing on discussing current events.

I had the chance to meet a French journalist who focused on one of my short stories entitled, “The Man,” wherein I described a journalist who wrote an essay about a man from the older generation. Wasn't that a weird coincidence?

In the story, the journalist describes one of his neighbors who anonymously watches him as he walks. This individual, who assumed significant positions during his career as a successful engineer and a top governmental official, experiences a fatal loneliness after losing his wife and then his children, who immigrate to the United States.

At this point, the journalist asked himself, “Throughout my long life, I now have nothing other than memories?” I wonder whom he thinks about in his loneliness and how he entertains himself. How can one harmonize himself with his senility instead of it being an obstacle for him?

Upon reading these lines, he immediately recognized himself, astonished that he'd been chosen as a subject. He was motivated toward thought and contemplation, although he was somewhat distressed because the recent historian was wrong.

Being elderly wasn't an obstacle to dreaming and his situation wasn't an incentive for the sympathy of others. His life always was motivated by courage and persistence, features taught by his father, who was a great teacher. His love of power reached the extent of worship.

Strong observation and strength drawn from the wisdom of his father made him a man stiff like iron. When he contemplated the weakness others supposed in his personality, he said, “What imaginations such writers have!”

When he met the essayist on the second day during his regular promenade, he shook hands with him, showing him gratitude and inviting him to his house to explain the reality of his attitude. Astonished, the journalist asked, “Can this be right?”

“The Man” portrays the two men's dialogue, which focused on the desires of life and the surmountability over all difficulties. After so many years of publishing this story, a French journalist asked me, “How can we make our senility a blessing without making it an indignation?”

My reply at this time is different than the reply of my victorious hero. It's not important to believe in what you're writing in order to make senility a blessing. We must know its restrictions and live within the core of these restrictions without trying to overstep them. Everyone must be aware of his or her frontiers.

I live my dreams in my small Nile Street apartment in Cairo. The weakness that befell my body didn't affect my soul or my imagination. To the contrary, it allows another type of liberty to arise at everything that's changed since that day in October 1994 when two radical individuals belonging to an Islamic group tried to assassinate me.

I was leaving my house when one of them stabbed me twice from behind. I felt like a monster had thrust its nails into my neck. After seven hours in the operating room, I escaped death and remained in the hospital for several weeks.

Injury to one nerve caused paralysis in my right hand, my writing hand. It took 18 months of rehabilitation to be able to write legibly, but I once again learned how to write my name – what a symbol!

The two men who attacked me were implementing a fatwa, which allowed killing me due to republishing one of my novels, first published in 1959 under the title, “Children of Gebelawi.”

Upon its first publishing, religious scientists accused it of spreading atheistic thoughts. From the events in the novel, it was possible to detect the characters of the prophets Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (pbuh), which is considered an unforgivable sin in the minds of radical Muslims.

The tragedy was that during the culprits' trial, it became clear that they'd never even read the novel. What miserable terrorists to censor the thoughts of others when Islam is a religion of liberty.

After their execution, for a long time, I felt a mixture of anger and sadness at thinking about the life they might have lived because they were just youths. I also thought about my disability since the incident because the paralysis I suffered caused my entire physical state to deteriorate to the point where I experienced deafness and partial blindness. How can such senility be a blessing? Because I forgave them in this present life.

As one who's written more than 50 novels, short story collections and plays, I'm now able to write only very short tales based on my dreams – but those dreams are without frontiers.

Originating in my dreams or a form of contemplation, they're actual thoughts I then transform into literary paragraphs. I don't write them as I receive them. Rather, they turn around inside my mind and transform. It's a weird chemistry since there's the abstract idea and then the literary production.

The process succeeds much, but sometimes it doesn't. This internal process lasts one to two weeks, but if it leads to nothing, I don't insist.

The dream residing inside my head right now is that I saw Gamal Abdul Nasser giving me upper Egyptian bread, a very tough, well-done type of bread from the sun's heat (solar bread). He gave it to me and asked me to eat it.

I've done nothing with this vision. I'll write about it if I find the strength, but for now, it's still in the creation phase, so I'm letting it reside inside me.

Indeed, dreams are the frontiers of my world!

Source: Weghat Nazar Magazine, Issue No. 93, October 2006, Page 82.