In celebration of the life and work of the Nobel Prize winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, and to mark the centenary of his birth, The Mosaic Rooms in London showed a short season of films adapted from three of his most popular works.
The first of the three screenings was the controversially daring Chitchat on the Nile (1971), which remains banned in several Arab countries. It tells the story of ordinary bureaucrat, Anis, who, unable to tolerate the corruption of the Egyptian government, decides to hide away from the ignorance of society in a secret den of drug addicts, artists and down-and-outs.
‘This film is a wonderful example of Mahfouz’s work,’ says Omar al-Qattan, Secretary of the Board of Trustees for the Al-Qattan Foundation, and programmer of this season of films, ‘He was at the height of his powers when he wrote this novel, and it is among the best of the adaptations.’
As with most of Mahfouz’s novels. Chitchat on the Nile was set at a crucial moment of change within Egyptian history; during a time of cynicism and despair at the beginning of the 1970’s, when the ideals of socialism were being thwarted by growing corruption in the government. It was his depiction of decadence in the government that really rattled the censors.
‘Mahfouz was a great chronicler,’ continues Al-Qattan, ‘He creates a vivid, dynamic picture of reality through acute observation. He loved Egypt and its rich tapestry of characters, from prostitutes to priests and his writing reflected that; his sympathy was pervasive. And what is wonderful is that he refrained from passing judgement, that was his genius to be honest; he was truly a universal author.’
Indeed, on winning the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, it was said that, ‘Mahfouz, who, through works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous – has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.’
And that influence can still be seen today, particularly through the work of modern authors such as Alaa Al Aswany. Although Aswany is writing in a very different time, there are many similarities in his work, ‘The use of one space used as a metaphorical framework in which to comment on Egyptian society and the intertwining of many different characters from different classes, is straight out of Mahfouz,’ says Al-Qattan. The Egyptian film industry too was irrevocably changed thanks to Mahfouz. He brought naturalism to the screen; his keen observation was made manifest through the studio sets and more naturalistic acting techniques.
The other two films screened last week were Al Madak Alley (1963), a love-wrought melodrama set during World War 2, when Egypt was still under British occupation and Chased by the Dogs (1962), inspired by the life of the famous Egyptian thief Mahmoud Amin Soliman, with Mahfouz focusing on the themes of betrayal and revenge.
Although his work reveals a society that is unimaginable now, as time and situations have moved on, perhaps it is fitting that this season of films celebrating the rich tapestry of Egyptian life is being shown at a time when there are once again momentous changes occurring in Egyptian history and the region is once more at the centre of the world’s attention.
Because of the universality of Mahfouz’s work, the films appeal to all generations and nationalities and as a result, the films (all shown with English subtitles), were very well received and turned out to be one of the most popular screening seasons The Mosaic Rooms has held so far.
The Mosaic Rooms plan to have a second season of films in Autumn, most probably re-showing these three alongside adaptations of The Cairo Trilogy; three books which cover a period prior to Independence and will make an interesting contrast to the later works.
* For updates on scheduling details for Season Two visit www.mosaicrooms.org/screenings