A civilized life

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Sep 08, 2006 12:00 AM

"Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes or the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that . . . .

"Although Midaq Alley lives in almost complete isolation from all surrounding activity, it clamors with a distinctive and personal life of its own. . . . (I)ts roots connect with life as a whole and yet, at the same time, it retains a number of secrets of a world now past."

Naguib Mahfouz, "Midaq Alley"

There are times and places in life that seem cut off from the rest, and those may be the ones you remember when all the rest is forgotten. I don't remember all the details of that most unpleasant day, though there was a time when I could not forget them even though I had tried. It was one of those interminable, needlessly complex legal disputes that are almost inevitable after a death in the family. It was all the worse because it took me by surprise, and soon my bewilderment turned to anger, and my anger to just sadness.

We were expected for dinner that evening at an old friend of my older sister's. On the way there, I remember turning to her and observing, sighing, complaining: "People are just no damned good." Depression would be too mild a word for my mood; I was down.

Then we walked into our hostess's house, and there were the girls - now all middle-aged matrons - that my sister had grown up with on Shreveport's polyglot Texas Avenue in the 1940s, when its Jewish and Lebanese merchants lived above their shops. My sister had kept in touch with the Lebanese (they were called Syrians back then), but I hadn't seen some of them in years, in decades. There was Tillie, and Rashi, and Madeleine and Bea, and then Margaret entered the room with a wide, wide smile on her face, greeted me with a childhood nickname, and spread her arms wide for a hug.

The light of that smile illuminated the whole room, the whole world. I realized I'd forgotten how good people really were. Even now, so many years later, long after I've forgotten just what all the legal-eagle business was about, I remember the unquestioning, welcoming smile that erased and still erases everything else. All that counted in that moment was the shared memories of the old neighborhood. How could one street have been so full of life? Maybe because it was just one street, a universe of its own only vaguely connected to the wider world of war and peace beyond. I realized then why my sister kept coming back to Shreveport to see the girls she'd grown up with. It was like touching solid ground.

Naguib Mahfouz wrote about his Cairo not as an abstraction, but as one long street peopled with shopkeepers, government employees, pensioners, quiet decent people and the other kind, the small-time thieves and phonies, the smiling men beckoning to customers in front of the stores and the stoic women in the back. The way Naguib Mahfouz described it, his Madiq Alley wasn't that different from Texas Avenue.

It took him 12 years to write his signature Cairo Trilogy, each volume named after one of Cairo's streets: "Palace Walk, Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street." It was precisely because they were so local that his books had a universal appeal; he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

The Nobel was only the official recognition of what long had been unofficially recognized: Naguib Mahfouz was to Cairo what Lawrence Durrell had been to Alexandria, or Faulkner to Yoknapatawpha County.

Naguib Mahfouz may have taken a number of heroic stands in his long life, but he never struck heroic poses. He defended Salman Rushdie's right to publish "The Satanic Verses" without pretending it was a great book, or that it didn't insult the Prophet, peace be upon him. He was critical of the great Nasser's not-so-great revolution, and supported Anwar Sadat's peace with Israel, which earned him the enmity of Egypt's haters. At the same time, he contributed much of his Nobel Prize money to Palestinian charities. He raised funds for Egypt's film industry while serving as its chief censor. He was as punctual a civil servant in the morning as he was a disciplined writer in the evening.

In short, he was a good citizen and man of principle. So of course he was sentenced to death by the same bunch that inspired both attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. What must have offended them most was his tolerance for others, his ordinary decency.

In 1994, he was the victim of an assassination attempt by an Islamist fanatic. The knife that plunged into his throat just missed the carotid artery, but did damage some nerves. His right hand, the one he wrote with, was never the same. After that, you could tell the apartment building in which he lived by the armed guards the police had to post outside.

In this country, a poet is someone whose face no one recognizes; in the Arab world, you can tell a writer who speaks truth because he'll need to be surrounded by armed guards.

That a Naguib Mahfouz could accomplish what he did, and be struck down for it, indicates that the violence in the Middle East doesn't represent a clash of civilizations at all but a clash between civilization and barbarism. He was no subversive Westerner but as Egyptian as his own city, his own street and favorite cafe.

Naguib Mahfouz enjoyed the small pleasures of life, like good coffee and good conversation, and could not bear to leave his country; he would send his two daughters, Oum Kolthoum and Fatima, to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize.

By the time he died last week at 94, it was his ordinary qualities - his good will, his humor, his sense of place and attachment to his own - that reflected the best in a part of the world that teems with much worse.

The Egyptian laureate will be remembered for more than defending decency in the Arab world, and attempting to make its private virtues, among them hospitality and forbearance, public policy. There are many dissidents who do the same. Naguib Mahfouz stood out for defining by his example what decency is in a once great civilization now torn between its opposed selves.

Naguib Mahfouz not only wrote about ordinary people, he was ordinary enough himself to stand out in a society given to pretense. He was never taken in by the Great Men who pretended to guide Egypt's destiny when they were merely bit players in it.

Nor did he adopt any of the succession of panaceas offered the Arab world - whether Marxism, pan-Arab nationalism, or Islamism. He entertained no illusions about the future of democracy in his bedeviled part of the world, but he continued to believe in it despite everything, including his own instinctive fatalism.

Cavafy must have had someone like Naguib Mahfouz in mind when he wrote his poem "Thermopylae":

Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.