About a month ago I interviewed Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra. At one point he got quite indignant about the West's lack of knowledge about Arabic writers and said that far too many in our countries still think of Arabs as being only terrorists or caravan riders. While he may have exaggerated somewhat, in essence he was correct because our attitude towards the Arab world has always been condescending.
Of course we have no reason to feel superior, as the Egyptian culture has existed for thousands of years longer then the majority of Western ones. The banks of the Nile River have long been considered one of the cradles of Civilization along with the Fertile Crescent area of the Euphrates River. Ironically most North Americans probably don't even know who are and aren't Arabians.
For instance the people or Iran are not Arabs, yet they are routinely shunted in with the rest of the "Arab world"; a Muslim is not necessarily an Arab and vice versa. The people of Iran are Persians not Arab, while the Muslims of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the rest of South East Asia are certainly not Arab. But it is of course far too convenient to think of "the enemy" as a single group with no distinguishing features that will humanize him.
How can you call down Fire and Brimstone and the wrath of God upon people whose civilization predates Christ by who knows how many thousands of years? Well you can't really so you diminish them down into a faceless enemy whose beliefs and civilization have no merit or significance. They become A-rabs, or rag heads, to the masses; easy to hate and to mobilize against.
It was with all this in mind that I set out to find works translated into English by an Arab writer. Just by coincidence I happened to come across a reissuing of three novels by Naquib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1988 who just recently died. Three Novels Of Ancient Egypt is a new release through the Everyman Library of Random House Canada containing three short pieces the author had written in the 1930's.
I don't know whether or not Khufu's Wisdom, Rhadopis Of Nubia, or Thebes At War have ever been translated into English before, but this is the first time the three novels have been published together in an omnibus form. They are logical choices to be produced together of course because all three are set in different periods of the glorious days of Egypt's Pharaohs.
In each novel the author show us the talent emerging that will one day produce a body of work worthy of a Nobel Prize. Of course in each instance we are seeing his work through the eyes and ears of his translators, so a certain amount of trust is involved that they have done an accurate job in representing him. But since that is case with any foreign language author there's not much you can do about it.
The style of writing may sound strange to our ears, as it is of an ornate quality that is not normally heard in the English novel anymore, but was quite common in Classical literature around the time when these were written. Differences that may disconcert the reader a little are the use of descriptive phrases in a manner that is unfamiliar, and until your ear adjusts may sound overly melodramatic or flamboyant. "The listeners were delighted, their blood gladdened in a swoon of gaiety and glory, and contentment glowed on Pharaoh's strong, manly features."
To our ears that might sound a little over the top as a means of saying that everybody liked the news, but what it does do is it elevates the subject matter above the commonplace. One of the conventions of Classical literature is that it was believed the language used had to be elevated appropriate to the subject matter of the nobility it depicted. Lesser men and women were considered to speak a more rudimentary form of the language and would be depicted accordingly.
As also befitting classical literature the subject matter dealt with in these tales concerns the fates of the powerful and how through either strength or weakness of character they gain success or failure. When the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed the conventions of the playwrights during his time he noted that in all tragedies the hero was brought down by a fatal flaw in his character and would lose his or her elevated place in society by her own actions and the flouting of the way things should be.
In each of the three novels presented in this omnibus Mahfouz has utilized this convention to act as the fulcrum on which the story balances. Will the Pharaoh succumb to impatience and attempt to scour the land in search of the child who it is said will inherit his throne instead of his son in Khufu's Wisdom At first he does and the result is the death of an innocent. His eldest son, the one with the most to lose in the case of the Pharaoh's children not inheriting kills the wrong child, as of course the right one has escaped.
Through twist after twist of fate the child foretold is elevated higher and higher in the Pharaoh's army, wins the heart of his favourite daughter, and eventually rescues him from an assassination attempt carried out by the Crown Prince. He had grown impatient waiting for his father to die and wanted him killed, but is himself killed by the one the God's had chosen to succeed Pharaoh. By surrendering to impatience the Crown Prince brought about his own downfall and ensured that what had been pre ordained would occur.
What makes all three of these tales wonderful is Mr. Mahfouz's abilities to spin a story. First off are his descriptions of the settings; from the battlefield to the interior of a palace to a boat on the Nile, he sounds like he was right there making notes as the events took place. How else could he describe the way a chariot charge looks when two hundred of them wheel to the attack? Or what is inside a holy temple, and what exact corner the God lives and how he is shrouded? I never sailed upon a boat up the Nile River in 2000 B.C. but I now have a pretty good idea of what it would be like.
But he also knows everyone's most intimate thoughts and desires so well that they had to have confided in him at some point in time for it to be possible for him to write about them with such detailed accuracy. Okay sometimes all the beating hearts and aching desires sound a little too much like a Romance novel, but those moments are balanced out by the retribution meted out in the end.
I've always thought that Classical literature was the foundation for today's Soap Operas, with their intrigues and intricate plotting, and Three Novels Of Ancient Egypt bears that out. But if today's Soap Operas had writers the quality of Naguib Mahfouz creating their scripts they would be of a quality we wouldn't even recognise they'd be so good.
Khufu's Wisdom, Rhadopis Of Nubia, and Thebes At War are three examples of a masterful writer at work. While they are written in a style we may not be accustomed too, with their adherence to Classical conventions and language that is somewhat more flowery then we are used to, it does nothing to diminish their quality.
Canadian readers can pick up a copy on –line through Random House Canada or through any other Canadian retailer like Amazon.ca
(Originally posted March 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.