The laureates' colloquy
Mohamed Salmawy is proud to have arranged for a meeting of two literary giants
The white South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer met with the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz for the first time on 29 January this week. "On this same day 51 years ago," Gordimer told Mahfouz, "I was married and my husband took me on a trip to Egypt, the first country I ever visited. Today this meeting, which I've been seeking for many years, is a precious gift with which to remember this occasion."
Gordimer had arrived in Egypt following an invitation issued by the minister of culture, artist Farouk Hosni, as one of two guests of honour of the Cairo International Book Fair in its present, 37th round; the other is the French writer Robert Sole.
Within two hours of landing in Egypt, Gordimer was on her way to Mahfouz's home, which overlooks the Nile in Agouza, in my company. The two literature Nobel laureates (Mahfouz received the award in 1988, Gordimer in 1991) had a beautifully humane conversation -- a source of personal pride, since I had arranged for the meeting in the course of my phone conversation with Gordimer, when I called to inform her of Hosni's invitation.
She had accepted the invitation gratefully, immediately adding, "But I've been wanting to meet Naguib Mahfouz for a long time, do you think you could arrange a meeting for me?" Gordimer had visited Egypt for the second time a few years before, but she had been unable, during that visit, to meet with Mahfouz, whom she described in one piece of writing as "one of the greatest creative talents in the realm of the novel in the world".
"I keep all those books of Mahfouz's that have been published in English," she told me during that initial phone exchange. "Whenever I've read a book of his I've liked it so much I started reading another."
When I informed Mahfouz of this his response was equally positive, "That means I can present her with my last English book", The Dreams, which appeared last month on the occasion of his 93rd birthday; the first Arabic edition appears this week with Dar Al- Shurouq at the book fair. When he presented his guest with the book while we were seated in the reception lounge of his house, Gordimer spent some time leafing through the book, staring at its blue cover and reading the contents page and the blurb on the back.
Then she remarked, "I've never seen this book before."
"It contains the tiny short stories I'm now writing, inspired by my dreams," Mahfouz replied.
The aging South African looked at Mahfouz, "Can you still write at this age?"
"I am writing those dreams, nothing longer. Do you no longer write?"
"It has become very difficult, writing. I have just finished a novel, and every time I finish a novel I have a feeling this will be my last one."
This exchange of news solicited a long discussion of whether a writer should ever retire.
"I once had the feeling that I would no longer be able to write ever again," Mahfouz told Gordimer. "It happened on my completing The Trilogy in the early 1950s -- I felt I'd emptied out my novelistic reserves and no longer had anything to say. I tried repeatedly to write -- to no avail. And so I turned to cinema, writing scripts. When I joined the Syndicate of Artistic Professions, you know, I registered myself as a script-writer, not a novelist. Six years later I suddenly found myself writing a new novel, Children of Jabalawi, which appeared in 1959. After this novel a spate of literary activity occurred, and writing started flowing out of me and went on flowing for years. To be frank with you," Mahfouz confided, "I was depressed when I thought I could no longer write."
"How old were you then?"
"In my early 40s."
"Had I been in your place," she said, "I would have been depressed too," Gordimer said, adding, "But depression is a professional hazard of our literary work, isn't it. At 81 I feel I've produced much."
"I'm 93 and I'm still writing," Mahfouz said. "It's a question of desire and motivation, which the writer might feel at one time and not another, regardless of age. In my own case, the desire to write persisted even after my physical capabilities started to fail me, making writing a genuinely trying activity. I can no longer hold a pen very well after what happened to my right hand; and my eyesight is no longer strong enough for me to see what my hand is inscribing on the page -- something I've tried to get over with the help of dictation."
"I can't dictate."
"Nor can I. I resisted it for a long time because the pen to me was like an extra finger, I was attached to it for over 60 years and never thought I could write without it, but then, when it became next to impossible to read what I was writing -- my hand would be shaking terribly -- I finally gave in. It was extremely difficult because I can only dictate during certain hours, when my assistant, who reads me the papers, is here. This forced me to learn every new story by heart so I could dictate to him when he came."
The two great writers were silent after frankly exchanging their present experience of writing and the effort it demands.
Finally the South African Nobel laureate asked her North African counterpart, "When did you start writing, Mr Mahfouz?"
He laughed shyly, saying, "I was a little primary student."
Gordimer was silent and, feeling that she wanted him to elaborate, Mahfouz said, "At the time I was reading a lot of detective novels, and every time I finished one I rewrote it in my own style. After that I started writing stories inspired by my own life, until I was capable of using my imagination to make up stories. I remember one of my most respected mentors, Salama Moussa, telling me, 'You are talented but these stories of yours are no good.' With time and persistence I started writing what would eventually be of some good."
Mahfouz looked with curiosity at his South African guest and asked, "And when did you start writing?"
"At the age of nine," she said. "Before that I longed to be a ballet dancer. I started learning to dance at the age of six, but at the age of nine I had heart problems and the doctor forbade me categorically from dancing. And I think the doctor was wrong. I've had a very active life and now I'm over 80, but at the time I didn't know this, so I followed the doctor's instructions as they were communicated by my mother. And since I read a lot at this time, I moved more and more towards writing -- until it became my life."
Gordimer then asked Mahfouz, "And you? Have you never had the ambition to become anything other than a writer?"
"At the start of my life," he said, "they were preparing me to be an engineer, for no reason other than being good at maths. But writing ultimately triumphed over engineering, the way, for you, it triumphed over ballet."
The two writers laughed as they reminisced, like two youngsters who have just left the examination room, each asking the other how well they did.
At this point Gordimer took two books out of her bag and presented Mahfouz with them, saying, "The first book is a collection of short stories of mine published lately under the title of Loot." She inscribed a dedication on the first page of the book: "To Naguib Mahfouz in homage to his greatness and comradely love and thankfulness for the illumination and pleasure of reading his books. Nadine Gordimer, Cairo 2005."
As for the other book, Telling Tales, Gordimer introduced it saying, "It contains only one story of mine, along with the work of 20 other authors. Some of them are Nobel laureates, like us," she added, listing Gènter Grass from Germany, Gabriel Garc"a Marquez from Columbia, Kenzaburo Oe from Japan, Jose Saramago from Portugal. "But the others," she went on, "are no less great, for example Arthur Miller, John Updike, Paul Theroux, Margret Atwood, Hanif Kureishi, Woody Allen, and many others.
"The story of this book," Gordimer went on, "is that last year I thought that as writers we should do something for victims of AIDS, so I wrote to 20 of the greatest world writers asking them to present me with an unpaid short story, telling them that I would look for a publisher who would likewise donate the cost of publishing a book, and all its proceeds, to AIDS victims. I thought if 10 or 15 writers agreed that would be enough for publishing the book, but I was surprised that all 20 writers agreed and immediately sent me their stories. So this book, which contains 21 stories by some of the world's greatest writers, came into being. Some 50,000 copies have been sold so far, and it appeared in 15 languages. And I'm delighted to present you with it too."
Mahfouz thanked Gordimer and took hold of the book, then he said, "If you asked me to donate one of my stories for a good purpose I would send one too."
"But we found out," Gordimer replied, "that when you received Nobel, you donated the money to charity. Isn't that so?"
"I divided the value of the prize among myself, my wife and my two daughters according to Islamic law, and my portion I donated to charity in full. Last year some of it went to kidney failure victims who live with the aid of dialysis -- which is very expensive in Egypt."
Gordimer took a third book out of her bag and Mahfouz said, laughing, "No, I won't accept any more books from you. I only gave you one."
"I am not giving you this book. Rather I want you to give it to me. I brought it out of your complete English works so you would sign it for me with your own pen. I didn't know you would give me The Dreams, and I wanted to bring along one of your works to reread on the plane. This way, we will have given each other two books each."
Mahfouz signed his book Ibn Fatouma's Travels with a trembling hand, handing it to Gordimer, who quickly placed it, along with The Dreams, in her bag -- as if to hide it from prying hands.
By then she did not want to burden her host, who was suffering from a cold for which he apologised profusely, so she said, "Now we have exchanged presents, I will leave you to go back to the hotel so I can read those Dreams which I have never read before."
Mahfouz looked at me and said, "And you? Will you not read me those stories with which Nadine Gordimer presented me?"
I promised him I would, accompanying his great guest to the door.