When Haim Gordon told Naguib Mahfouz he intended to write a book on the existential themes in his work, the Nobel laureate laughed, saying he had never been labelled an existentialist. The reason is obvious: Mahfouz's characters, overwhelmed by misery, typically acknowledge defeat, commit suicide, or otherwise engage in some act of bad faith.
The life of Mahfouz's characters is truly absurd, "superfluous," as Gordon points out on numerous occasions. But an absurd life alone does not make for an existential character. And the reaction of Mahfouz's protagonists to their misery falls short of confrontation, of a defiant attempt to improve their condition. Nor is Gordon unaware of this: existential themes, he informs us, are a "bonus," not the gist of Mahfouz's work. Thus, commenting on The Children of Gebalawi and Midaq Alley, two of the writer's most important works, Gordon avers: "The distorted existence of the large majority of the residents of Gebalawi Alley is accompanied by an attitude of religious fatalism that thwarts any attempt to bring about a change for the better." Such an attitude is hardly reconcilable with existentialism, "bonus" or bogus.
But this work is so unsympathetic to Egypt and its laureate that it should more properly be titled Haim Gordon's Egypt. The book abounds with statements like: "Mahfouz shows how the continual flight from political realities discourages the wish and the ability to think. He thus shows why thinking is rare in Egypt, a situation that often perturbed me." Despite strict repression, Egyptian jails are teeming with political prisoners who not only think but also think independently of how the government would like them to, and dare to publicize their dissident views. How then can Gordon, aware of this fact, claim that "thinking is rare in Egypt"? The explanation is provided a little further down: "This tendency [End Page 805] does not mean that Egyptians do not think in order to solve problems, but problem solving is not thinking in the traditional Socratic sense of the word, as I have repeatedly argued. The basic difference is that the problem solver seldom thinks about the principles that guide his or her deeds, whereas thinking about principles or about essences is the main topic of interest for the thinker in the Socratic tradition." In such a fashion, the pieces of the Gordonic puzzle would come together: if you do not think "in the traditional Socratic sense of the word," you are as good as brain-dead. For Gordon simply fails to comprehend the possible existence of non-Western cultures. Thus he suggests that Arabs, by preferring their values to Western ones, are rejecting all intellectual sophistication, because the latter is exclusively Western: "Most Muslims who express such an opinion [a rejection of Westernization] do not care if such an ignoring of the Western spiritual tradition sets them back a few centuries in terms of philosophical thought, humanism, equality between the sexes, and the search for spiritual goals. They don't give a damn if they are spilling out the baby along with the bathwater."
A lack of dialogic interaction characterizes Gordon's own approach to Mahfouz's work: "[S]ince in our discussions Mahfouz at times preferred not to commit himself, my views will quite often stand out on their own; they reveal what I have personally learned about Egyptian life and about human existence from reading Mahfouz's stories, from discussing these stories with him, and from what I encountered in Egypt that accords with these stories." Gordon's interest in Mahfouz's work is clearly a result of political sympathies. Gordon is involved in Israeli-Arab peace efforts, and Mahfouz is one of very few Arab writers to have openly supported Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel. Not surprisingly, many of Mahfouz's novels were translated into Hebrew, providing welcome reading material for the Israeli student of Arabic culture. But Gordon provides little analysis of the storyteller's thirty novels and ten volumes of short stories, although he is happy to lambaste other critics...