A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
ARCHAEOLOGY: How did you come to know Mahfouz?
I first met Naguib Mahfouz on March 4, 1990, my first full day as acquisitions editor at the American University in Cairo Press, when he made his weekly visit to our office to collect his mail. We became fairly well acquainted during my time there, which was cut short by the massive economic damage inflicted by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that year: I left AUC Press at the end of June 1991. (My termination letter began with the sentence, "Saddam Hussein has left me no choice.")
Some months later, while looking for work in book publishing in New York, I contacted John A. Glusman, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. He said that there were no job openings, but asked, "Would you consider writing a biography of Naguib Mahfouz, since you know him personally?" We soon negotiated a contract for the book. Fortunately, John remains my editor for the Mahfouz biography--the first such work known to have been contracted by a major American publisher about a modern Middle Eastern, Muslim writer--at FSG.
ARCHAEOLOGY: How did you come upon these early works and undertake translating them?
In 2000, I was asked to give a lecture on my work with Mahfouz at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo. Casting about for something I had not spoken about before, I chose his much-neglected and often underrated pharaonica--five novel-length works and five short stories--as my topic. When I delivered it in June, entitled "A Mummy Awakens: The Ancient Egyptian Stories of Naguib Mahfouz," the topic attracted a record-sized audience and the cameras of the local foreign-language satellite channel, Nile-TV. Based on the enthusiastic response to the material, and what it revealed about Mahfouz's own artistic character and sense of personal identity, I decided to write a book-length work based on his pharaonica, which I have since done, and which is now being adapted as my Ph.D. thesis in Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
While preparing the lecture, in May 2000, I also decided to propose to AUC Press that they license translations for publication of all of Mahfouz's pharaonic novels and stories. At that time, they had only published one of them in English (in 1998): Tagreid Abu-Hassabo's beautiful translation of Mahfouz's 1985 novel, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth (in Arabic, al-'A'ish fi-al-haqiqah), after I had proposed the project and the translator to them. After my new proposal, they approached Naguib Mahfouz, who granted permission for the first time for them to commission translations for his first three novels, all with pharaonic themes. These are 'Abath al-aqdar (literally, The Mockery of the Fates, 1939), Radubis (Rhadopis, 1943), and Kifah Tibah (Thebes at War, 1944). I was chosen to translate the first one, 'Abath al-aqdar, which we will issue under the title that Mahfouz originally gave it, Khufu's Wisdom (Hikmat Khufu)--this story was drawn from Hordedef's Tale in the Papyrus Westcar. The second novel, Rhadopis, which blends the story of the famous Thracian courtesan described by Herodotus and Strabo with that of the tragically short reign of Merenre' II and his queen Nitocris, is being translated by Anthony Calderbank. The third, Thebes at War, about the liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos during the 17th Dynasty, is being translated by Humphrey Davies. All of these will appear next September, 64 years to the month since the publication of 'Abath al-aqdar, Mahfouz's premier novel. And, of course, the short stories, which I translated, were published as the collection called Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales, on December 11, 2002, and were launched during the ceremony to announce the winner of the annual Naguib Mahfouz Award in Literature, which falls on Mahfouz's officially observed birthday. (His actual birthday is December 10, though his birth was recorded the following day--hence the discrepancy.)
ARCHAEOLOGY: What is characteristic of Mahfouz' writing?
Among readers of his native language, Naguib Mahfouz has long been famous for his adaptation of Modern Standard Arabic to a style that sounds close to colloquial Egyptian dialect (especially in dialogue). He is also widely admired for his ability to capture virtually every aspect of ordinary life, especially in the poorer districts of Cairo. Yet he does neither of these things in his pharaonic stories, most of which were written in the earliest phase of his career. Modern fiction was still a new form in Arabic, so many of his stories of this time have a slightly archaic, even Quranic, flavor. Yet this somehow enhances the pleasure of his pharaonic works, giving them a lyric quality that is almost hypnotic, full of resonant phrases that are at times reminiscent of the King James Bible. And while he has a tendency to moralize in these tales, he strives to do so by creating truly human characters and facing them with extraordinary, yet still oddly credible, blows of Fate. When he resorts to the wildly improbable, he produces either wickedly witty satires (as in "The Mummy Awakens"), or else highly imaginative, supernatural prose poems (such as "A Voice from the Other World"). And, though he sometimes sacrifices strict period accuracy for literary effect, he clearly has done his Egyptological homework. I find the combination of all these factors to be compelling indeed.
ARCHAEOLOGY: How did you approach the translation of these five tales?
I try to do what all good translators do: to create in the target language something as close to the original as is humanly possible, while making it read like anything but a translation. I do not normally approve of excessively liberal translations (though I have a weakness for Ezra Pound's works in this vein), nor excessively literal ones, either. I can only hope that general readers and specialists alike feel that I have truly met my goal.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Mahfouz has won the Noble Prize, so he gets translated--even if only eventually. Are there other Egyptian authors who have written on or adapted ancient themes whose works are available in English but are neglected, or have not yet been translated?
Though he would have deserved his Nobel more than any other Arab writer then living in any case (and most non-Arab ones as well), Naguib Mahfouz was helped by being one of the few authors in his tongue to have several works in foreign language editions. He has also evidently benefitted in international sales more than any other winner of this most prestigious literary award: his works are now available in 28 languages, in over 400 editions. (He is also the only Nobel laureate to have nearly been murdered because of the notoriety the prize has brought him. An Islamist militant stabbed him twice in the neck outside his home on October 14, 1994, for his failure to repent for an allegedly "blasphemous" novel published 35 years before. In 1995, two young men were hanged, and 11 others sent to prison, for this crime, and for allegedly plotting against the State. As a result of damage to a nerve in his neck caused by the assailant's blade, he was unable to grasp a pen well enough to write new work: he refuses dictation or other substitutes. However, after five years of intensive physiotherapy, he resumed his creative output, by his own hand, in 1999.)
As a result of Mahfouz's Nobel in 1988, there has been a comparative flood of translations of Arabic literature (mostly fiction) into other languages. But here again, he has done much better than the others, few of whom have been able to establish much name recognition. Exceptions include the Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, Syrian-based writer Abdel-Rahman Munif, and a handful of others, such as Egyptian septuagenarian Edwar al-Kharrat, whose novel Rama and the Dragon (Rama wa-al-tinin) won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2000. There is a lot of very good, but apparently very little great, fiction floating untranslated around the Arab world, though we are always hopeful of new talent arising. One such person is Somaya Ramadan, a young Egyptian whose first novel, Leaves of Narcissus (Awraq narjis), won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2001; this book appeared (along with al-Kharrat's Rama and the Dragon) in English at last December's ceremony for the same award.
As far as Arab writers adapting ancient Egyptian themes in fiction, most of this was done in the 1930s and 1940s, later yielding to an emphasis on Islamic-themed works. (The field is much more flexible now, but still little pharaonic-inspired fiction appears in Arabic.) Among the pioneers was 'Adil Kamel, whose novel about Akhenaten, King of Rays (Malik min shu'ah) was written in the late 1930s, though it appeared in the early 1940s. There were also Muhammad 'Awad with his 1943 novel Sinuhi, and Abd al-Hamid Judah al-Sahhar with his novel Ahmus, on the pharaoh who led the final drive against the Hyksos, ditto in 1943. Several plays have also appeared, such as Alfred Farag's take on Akhenaten, Pharaoh's Fall (Suqut fir'awn, 1955), and relatively more recently, Ahmad Suwaylim's Akhenaten: A Play in Verse (Akhnatun: masrahiyah shi'riyah, 1981).