|A great man has passed away. For many
decades he has entertained us with his literary masterpieces. His
accomplishments have raised our heads high among the world giants while
he left his indelible impressions on our literary style both at home and
throughout the Arab world. His fame was so great that it crossed onto the
world stage and drew the attention to our hidden potential talents fermenting
in our Egyptian Arab culture.
Yet I have a confession to make: Like many
Egyptians I did not always see eye to eye with some of Mahfuwz'
political views. Despite this, I never let these difference of opinions
cloud my appreciation of his unique literary talent and his genius in dissecting
the most intimate traits of our society. Perhaps his realism in depicting
the weakness of our society sometimes has outraged many of his readers.
Understandably, we often complained about the demise of our culture and
how decadent it has become. So when we read Mahfuwz, it may
be we felt a sort of queasiness as we were unavoidably being forced
to stare down upon our human weaknesses and shortcomings.(1)
But, if we have discovered anything in
Mahfuwz' personal literary accomplishments, it is that he
opened the way for us to see the need to alter the course of our
decline. He gave us the confidence to attain new heights and reassured
us that we still can prevail, if only we put our minds and talents to work.
For that alone we should be eternally grateful to him.
However, I was sad when I read about the
news of Mahfuwz's funeral and the little crowd it attracted.
This fact left me in utter bewilderment (2).
I understand the present Egyptian regime's
aversion of crowds and their constant fear of any spontaneous popular gathering
and what might ensue. This would explain the short five minute
funeral ceremony held at a restricted military base outside of Cairo. This
has to win the record the shortest funeral procession ever conducted by
officials in Egypt's annals.
But what I am unable to comprehend is the
lack of enthusiasm displayed by the sparse crowd who attended the popular
version of the funeral which followed later at Saydina al-Husayn
mosque. The disconcerting news describing the funeral's poor attendance
by ordinary Egyptians leaves me speechless.
This behavior is a starling departure from
our popular traditions which, from time immemorial, have been lavish in
our farewells to our popular heroes and icons.
Can anyone provide any insight into the
unusual apathy exhibited at the funeral of Nagiyb Mahfuwz?
Mahfuwz' Midaqq Alley:
climbed on his back. He felt the wall, gripped the top and sprang up lightly
and easily. He dropped the spade and the candle into the courtyard, extended
his hand to Booshy and helped pull him to the top of the wall. Together
they jumped down and stood at the base gasping for breath. Zaita picked
up the spade and the package. Their eyes were now accustomed to the dark
and they could see fairly well by the faint light from the stars. They
could even see the courtyard quite clearly. There, not far from them, were
two tombs, side by side, and on the other side of the courtyard they could
see the door leading out to the road along which they had come. On each
side of the door was a room and Zaita, pointing towards the two sepulchers,
your right . . . " whispered Booshy, his voice so low that the sound scarcely
left his throat.
hesitating, Zaita went to the sepulcher, followed by Booshy whose whole
body was trembling. Zaita bent down and found the ground still cold and
damp. He dug his spade carefully and gently into the earth and set to work,
piling up the soil between his feet. This was not new to him and he worked
briskly until he had uncovered the flagstones that formed a roof over the
entrance to the vault of the sepulcher. He drew up the hem of his gown,
gave it a good twist and tied it up round his waist. Then he grasped the
edge of the first flagstone and pulled it up, straining with his muscles
until it stood on edge. With Booshy's help, he drew it out and laid it
on the ground. He then did the same with the second flagstone. The uncovered
hole was now sufficient for the two of them to slip through and he started
down the steps, muttering to the doctor:
and shivering with fright, Doctor Booshy obeyed. On such occasions Booshy
would sit on the middle step and light a candle which he placed on the
bottom step. He would then close his eyes tight and bury his fade between
his knees. He hated going into tombs and he had often pleaded with Zaita
to spare him the ordeal. However, his colleague always refused him and
insisted he participate in each separate stage. He seemed to enjoy torturing
Booshy in this way.
wick of the candle was burning now, lighting the interior. Zaita stared
stonily at the corpses laid out in their shrouds side by side throughout
the length and breadth of the vault, their order symbolizing the sequence
of history, the constant succession of time. The fearful silence of the
place spoke loudly of eternal extinction, but brought no echo from Zaita.
His gaze soon fixed on the new shroud near the entrance to the vault and
he sat down beside it, cross-legged. He then stretched out his two cold
hands, uncovered the head of the corpse and laid bare its lips. He drew
out the teeth and put them in his pocket. Then he recovered the head as
he had found it and moved away from the corpse towards the entrance.
Booshy still sat with his head between his knees, the candle burning on
the bottom step Zaita looked at him scornfully and mumbled in sarcasm:
"Wake up!" Booshy raised trembling head and blew out the candle.
He raced up the steps as though in retreat. Zaita followed him quickly
but upon emerging from the vault he heard a fearsome scream and the doctor
yelping like a kicked dog: "For God's sake have mercy!" Zaita stopped short
and then rushed down the steps, icy with fear and not knowing what to do.
He retreated backwards into the vault until his heel touched the corpse.
He moved forward a step and stood glued to the floor, riot knowing where
to escape. He thought of lying dawn between the corpses but before he could
make a move he was enveloped in a dazzling light that blinded him. A loud
voice shouted out in an Upper Egyptian accent:
you come, or I'll fire on you."
despair, he climbed the steps as ordered. He had completely forgotten the
set of gold teeth in his pocket.
news that Dr. Booshy and Zaita had been apprehended in the Taliby sepulcher
reached the alley the next evening. Soon the story and all its details
spread, and everyone heard it with a mixture of amazement and alarm. When
Mrs. Saniya Afify heard the news she was overcome with hysteria. Wailing
in distress she pulled the gold teeth from her mouth and flung them away,
slapping hysterically at both cheeks Then she fell; down in a faint
. Her new husband was in the bathtub and when he heard her screams, panic
struck him. Throwing a robe over his wet body he rushed wildly to her rescue"
Excerpt from Midaqq Alley, chapter 27.
By contrast, Kawkab al-sharq Umm kulthuwm's
funeral attracted nearly two million mourners. The greatest French novelist,
Victor Hugo's funeral in 1885 provided the occasion for a grandiose ceremony.
His body, after lying in state under the Arch of Triumph, was carried by
torchlight--according to his own request, on a pauper's hearse--to be buried
in the Pantheon.