When, just a few days ago, I called my father to commiserate with him over the passing of Naguib Mahfouz, he said to me in a voice shot through with a tracery of hidden sadness: "For me, Naguib Mahfouz was the most sacred thing in the entire universe." A voice inside me couldn't help remarking that my father appeared more upset by Mahfouz's death than he was when his mother passed away.
Once more it was forcefully and unavoidably brought home to me that Naguib Mahfouz was the great gulf that set me apart from the other members of my family. I was born into a large family of voracious readers, and as a consequence my early childhood was a time of misery and unremitting boredom. I had no playmates as my mother forbad me from playing with the "filthy little scallywags" in the alley outside our house and my brothers and sisters never had their noses out of a book.
One day--I must have been about four years old at the time--I remember watching my sister (let’s call her J) crossing the living room when she suddenly exploded in a fit of giggles. Wanting to share the joke, I asked her what she was laughing at. She stopped laughing, turned to me and with a supercilious air replied that she'd just remembered something she had read. Then she stalked out of the room.
So from an early age I was made painfully aware that I lacked the ability to read, the only way to share in my siblings stories, jokes and dreams. Until this key--this magical thing that granted me full membership of my family--was vouchsafed me I suffered from a profound sense of inadequacy and isolation.
Since I had no prior experience that would have helped me make a more informed choice I started with the first book on the lowest shelf in the house. At this point in my life I associated reading and literature with my siblings and my desire to fully enter their world. There were five bookshelves in all, each bookshelf--to my mind--represented about two years-worth of reading. So, I calculated, between five and ten years of bookwormery separated me from my brothers and sisters. After the first shelf (world literature from such far off lands as Russia, Italy, France and England) came shelf number two: nearly every book Naguib Mahfouz had written. Well, I reasoned (reasonably enough), he's only one author. If I skip Naguib I can reduce the gap between us by at least three years. It'll be like I was born in 1971, not 1974.
It was a tough call to make, and one wholly driven by my love and longing for the company of my brothers and sisters. Literary appreciation had nothing to do with it. After all, I could always return to the Mahfouz collection when I'd finished reading the fifth shelf. Without telling anybody of my momentous decision I stretched my hands out to the third shelf, plucked up the first book, and started to read.
One winter my father declared he would be traveling to Cairo. Gathering the family together he began to draw up a list of the gifts we wanted him to bring back with him. Clutching a pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other he asked each child what he or she would like, then carefully wrote down their requests. Oh dear. "Such-and-such by Naguib Mahfouz please, Daddy." "This-and-that by Naguib Mahfouz, Father." Two of my sisters even had a stand up row because they both wanted 'The tavern of the Black Cat' and in our family first readership rights traditionally went to the person who had requested the book. My father headed of the crisis by promising them a copy each. I, meanwhile, took refuge in silence. When my turn came I asked for Tawfiq Al-Hakim's latest book, something I'd read about in some magazine or other, and studiously avoided mentioning the Nobel Laureate.
A few days later my father returned carrying an extra bag, stuffed--he explained--with books, prompting my brothers and sisters to crawl all over him like starving cats. When I attempted to join this all-out assault my father informed me that my book wasn't in the bag at all, but in his overcoat pocket. I removed my book from its hiding place and clasping it to me curled up in my father's embrace from where I observed my siblings swarming around the grape-green book bag. Uttering shrill cries all the while they proceeded to divide the Mahfouzian literary treasure between them. With the unveiling of each new book their wonder and delight grew, while over in the corner in my father's arms a deep resentment of this author and hostility towards his works was born.
When, a few weeks later, the new haul had been picked clean and every line read, the books were consigned to the family's shelf system, filling the remainder of the second shelf and extending Mahfouz's dominion over half the third shelf as well. One day, standing in the library searching for a book to read I felt my hand, as if impelled by some deeply buried but resurgent curiosity all of its own, reach out towards 'The Tavern of the Black Cat'. I pulled it out from the shelf and studied the cover but did not open it. Of course by that time I was well aware that I would never be admitted into the literary palace occupied by my nearest and dearest. The opportunity had been lost the day I resolved to skip Naguib Mahfouz and it was now far too late to rectify such a hideous error of judgment. To actually read such a book would be an admission of how lonely and isolated I felt, but my childish pride would never permit such a confession. Suddenly, my sister ("S") entered the library and saw me standing there, holding 'The Tavern of the Black Cat'. Utterly failing to disguise the hope and longing in her voice she casually asked me if I'd read it. I have no idea why or how my tongue chose to respond, "Yes". Her eyes lit up with joy and a kind of fanatic enthusiasm, and she started gabbling about the various characters in the story and her favorite incidents. I nodded my head vigorously, looked wise, and felt increasingly ashamed as my lie spun out of control.
I never read anything by Naguib Mahfouz until the summer of 2003. I was in Paris at the time and had exhausted the stocks of Arabic literature in my possession. I was staying in a flat belonging to a friend who was abroad, and in my desperation I began to rifle through his library. Most of his books were in French or English; only two or three of them were in Arabic. One was 'Palace of Desire'. Fearful and trembling I grasped the book, the weight of all the long years I had spurned his works and my family's veneration encompassed between my two palms. You are now 29, I told myself, and you've had enough time. Perhaps the moment has come.
I started to read and didn't stop until I had come to the end. When I finally put the book down a feeling of emptiness swept over me. I wander around now muttering, "My God! Naguib Mahfouz is an amazing writer!" Everyone looks at me as though I was mad. "Of course he's amazing," they say, "What are you talking about?"