More on Mahfouz

In sharp contrast to earlier reports that Naguib Mahfouz was seeking Al-Azhar’s permission in order to re-publish Children of Gebelawi (a.k.a. Children of the Alley) out of fear of censors, the Nobel winner says the decision has nothing to do with censorship. Reader Ursula L. wrote in from Cairo, pointing to an old “gentlemen’s agreement” between Mahfouz and Al-Azhar, while reader Barbara S., also from Egypt, sent along a link to an interview with Al-Ahram in which Mahfouz talks about the agreement:

Mahfouz: [In 1959, the head of press and book publications] invited me one day to his office and told me that some people from Al-Azhar, among others, wanted to discuss the novel with me. I said fine and he set a date for the meeting. On the appointed date, I went up to El-Kholi’s office and we sat together waiting but no one showed up. Then El-Kholi said to me to forget about them since they didn’t turn up. We proceeded to discuss the novel and reached an agreement to the effect that he, as head of publications, would ban the novel’s publication in Egypt so as not to alienate Al-Azhar. But he told me I may publish it abroad if I wish to. This is the deal that I have honoured ever since.

Salmawy: But book censorship is rare now and El-Kholi passed away.

Mahfouz: When I agreed not to have it published it wasn’t upon any censor’s orders, but out of the desire not to alienate Al-Azhar. Irrespective of censorship, I made an agreement and will honour it.

Salmawy: But the novel has been published in Beirut and sold all over the Arab world, including Egypt. It was even published in Egypt after Al-Ahram serialised it. Al-Ahali, mouthpiece of the Tagammu Party, published it in full in 1994. Al-Fagr recently published a chapter from it. The American University in Cairo Press published an English edition on your 90th birthday. And it has been published in other languages as well. And Al-Azhar never objected to the publication. Al-Azhar has no authority to ban it.

Mahfouz: No one requested my permission or even told me they were going to publish it. When Al-Ahali published it I was in intensive care after the attempt on my life. No one told me they were going to publish it. And when a chapter from it was published recently, I only learned about it from the newspapers.

Salmawy: Some writers object to Al-Azhar vetting publications.

Mahfouz: They’re right. Al-Azhar has no such authority. I chose not to publish the novel in order not to alienate Al-Azhar. Had I decided to publish it, it would have been published, just as Heikal did in Al-Ahram and just as others did after that. Al-Ahram was the only publisher that acted with my knowledge and permission.

Read the interview in full here.

Related: Open Letter to Naguib Mahfouz.