In the fall/winter of 2001, I was broadening my knowledge of Egyptian society and supplementing my CASA stipend by copyediting for a glossy magazine called Pharaohs, funded by Shafik Gabr and edited by the liberal journalist Reda Helal (before the latter’s disappearance, Allah yar7amhu). One Sunday in December (it was still Ramadan), Reda asked if I would like to meet Naguib Mahfouz. They were friends, he said; I would be welcome. I couldn’t believe it was that easy, but sure enough, that night, Reda and my friend Robyn and I went to Helnan Shepheard’s hotel by the Corniche and found the meeting of Mahfouz’s weekly salon already in progress.
The details blur; there goes memory fictionalizing things again (I wasn’t blogging then yet, and any notes I might have taken have not survived). By contrast Mahfouz, “two days short of ninety” as my friend Robyn recalls, seemed to remember everything. I was just some random American student of literature making the pilgrimage to meet him, but when he shook my hand, he registered my face, and I got the sense (later confirmed) that he would recognize me if he saw me again. I think he made everyone feel like that.
There was a semicircle of chairs around Mahfouz, occupied by men (no women that night) from various strands of Cairo’s intelligentsia: I remember critics, writers, professors. There must have been coffee, but I don’t remember anyone eating or drinking anything, only lots of talk. Mahfouz spoke little; his main role, fairly sad to watch, was as a human microphone. Anyone with a bon mot he was proud of, a draft article to read or a new achievement to share, had to come up to Mahfouz and — because the latter was rather deaf — shout it in his ear. Meanwhile everyone else had to be quiet. (Ali Salem’s endless set piece about “Johnny Walker” Lindh, captured in Afghanistan a couple of weeks earlier and unfortunately homonymous with everyone’s favorite whiskey, was a particular low point, but there were others.) Mahfouz sat patiently through this, enduring the variety show, betraying no boredom, in fact little reaction at all. It was impossible to tell from his facial expression whether he regarded this weekly outing as a pleasure, a duty, or simply one of those time-honored rituals that gave life its structure and texture.
Another Sunday Reda and I brought a pair of American friends (a journalist and a documentary filmmaker) to meet Mahfouz. If others could use him as a microphone, couldn’t I use him as a tourist attraction? The conversation might have been livelier that time, less a series of monologues. He asked Reda how he was doing. He seemed interested in everything, in contemporary politics even.
In a dictated Ahram column that year he would write — on the occasion of then-President Mubarak’s eighth trip to China, in January 2002 — that Egypt should stop looking toward the west for role models and should instead turn its aspirational gaze eastward, toward China. But through that turbulent winter Mahfouz’s chief quality was the centeredness, the gracious self-possession that made him (in life and in literary tradition, if not in his own restlessly experimenting work) the fixed star around which other people revolved. For guidance on how to live, he didn’t need to look anywhere outside himself at all.