Recent statements by Palestinian poet and critic Salma Alkhadra about acclaimed Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, in which she cast aspersions on the latter's literary merits, have evoked angry responses in Egypt and the Arab world.
In an interview with literary journal Shoroufat, Alkhadra asserted that Mahfouz "isn’t an interesting writer or a great novelist, although he has enthralled [readers] on the basis of the Arabic novel.” She also said that writer Amin Maalouf was "more interesting" than Mahfouz, and attributed Mahfouz's winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature to "chance."
Literary critic Shaaban Youssef described Alkhadra's statements as “a continuation of the smear campaigns that aim to tarnish Mahfouz's value to Arabic literature in recent years. Writer Edward El-Kharrat underrated Mahfouz’s talent, which he called 'average,' even to the point of saying that, if there were an Arab writer who deserved the Nobel Prize, it would be El-Kharrat himself or Syrian poet Adonis.”
Youssef went on to describe Alkhadra's comments as "strange." "When she says Mahfouz was neither interesting nor great, these are relative things differing from one reader to another, but it’s not a critical judgment," he said. "I could only classify it as an impression lacking sobriety and critical accuracy."
Nor are comparisons between Mahfouz and Maalouf appropriate, said Youssef, since they both belong to different traditions of writing. "Alkhadra wanted media hype because she wants attention, but this is her last dance on the media stage," said Youssef.
Alkhadra's statements "have no credibility," opined Iraqi novelist Ali Badr, explaining that Nobel Prize archives had revealed since 2000 that the committee had first decided to grant Mahfouz the prize in 1988.
"The committee was tending towards Adonis at first. By that time there was only one work about Mahfouz, published in English by Jewish writer Sasson Somikh," said Badr. "After that the committee sent the Swedish ambassador’s wife to Cairo to contact some literary experts, one of whom was Dennis Johnson Davis, in front of whom three names were posited: Mahfouz, Adonis and Sudanese writer Tayyib Saleh. Davis told her that Tayyib Saleh had only one good novel; that Adonis was a great poet but not accessible to the average reader; and that Mahfouz was the only one who had both considerable literary merit and a wide readership."
But according to Tariq Imam, a young writer, Mahfouz isn’t above criticism, and every reader has the right to criticise his work. Yet the problem, for Imam, lies in Alkhardra's credibility. "For me, there’s something lacking in what she said, and we don’t know what pushed her to say this," he said.
Moroccan poet Naguib Khadary, for his part, said: “I don’t know what to believe. But what we learn from history is that big events have many narrators, and these narrations often contradict each other. Some of these narrators are honest, some are liars; some are objective, while others are subjective – even deceptive.”
Saying that Mahfouz wasn’t a great writer is “far from the truth” as Sudanese author Tariq Attayib said, since "it isn't logical that the man credited with setting the basis for the Arabic novel wasn’t a great writer."