Egypt: Freedom of Thinking Back in the Days

I decided to dig into something different this time around. Naguib Mahfouz was a famous Egyptian author who won the Nobel prize in 1998. Mirrors is however not one of his famous books. To be honest, during his long writing career he produced many pieces, and not all of them can be as famous and popular as The Cairo trilogy. Most of his books were set in Cairo, and his works have given people around the world a valuable glimpse of Egypt.

The book is filled with short stories about Egyptians, men and women who have affected the author’s life in one way or another. The work has been seen as semi-biography of Mahfouz, and after reading all the stories I am quite sure he knew the people he wrote about. He might have taken some artistic liberties, but isn’t that always the case? The book is beautifully written, Mahfouz really has a way with the words. A big thanks to the translator as well! The characters are illustrated by Seif Wanli, an illustrator worth been mentioned, just look at the book cover.

The author has met several interesting characters in his life. Usually I am not the biggest fan of short short stories, but this collection of stories about Egyptians who made some kind of an impact on the author was fascinating and gave an intriguing overview of Egyptian life in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It takes the reader through turbulent times and political change in Egypt.

Politics, love, war, and hypocrisy are solid themes throughout the book. “We’re fugitives, pursued by our own backwardness, our real enemy – not Israel. Israel is our enemy only because it threatens to freeze backwardness”. Highly insightful. I doubt anyone is surprised that Mahfouz’s books were banned in most Arab countries, well banned until he won the Nobel prize.

All his writings are political in one way or another, and Mahfouz was a strong believer in freedom of speech. He was obviously a controversial figure, and received a fair share of death threats, so he must have done something right. There was in fact at least one assassination attempt on him, when he was 82-years-old.

I definitely recommend this eye-opening  and political overview of life and hypocrisy in Egypt. Based on his writing it is hard to see the connection to his strict Muslim upbringing. Indeed, the author himself was apparently wondering how a free thinking artist could have originated from a background like his. I find it that usually the writing of someone who has seen both sides, and has taken a critical look at life from many sides, usually produce the most fascinating work.

“The meaning of nationhood has changed… It is no longer a land with borders, it’s a spiritual environment  defined by opinions and beliefs.” Many of the things he wrote about in Mirrors still stand today, and it would have been interesting to see the reactions towards this book in Egypt in 1977.







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