Mahfouz: Ties from the Antipodes
By Paz Alicia Garciadiego
Translated by Laura Gorham
This article is also available in Spanish)
18.10.2011 - It was midday in the '70s when I
first saw Cairo. It was a brief trip and, happily, touristic. The
city impressed me more than anticipated. At least, far beyond my
expectations. Because, beyond the Nile, the pyramids and the
museums crowded with poorly displayed treasures, was a boisterous,
dusty city, filled with twists and turns, voices, smells, plastic
and flies. Just like many babbling avenues in Mexico City. The same
noisiness, bustle and grime. The crowded avenues of Cairo were,
unequivocally, just like Mexico. My Mexico.
A critical reflection would point out, of course, that this was
my first trip to the third world. That would be correct. But only
in part, because beyond the chronic lack of maintenance that
characterizes poor countries, Cairo and Mexico had a similar pulse.
Cairo seemed close to me, near, dear, my own. In the half
language with which I managed to communicate with the Cairenes, I
discovered that behind the enormous Arab heritage in the language,
the Andalusian courtyard, the fountain in the middle, just like my
rambling family home in the Mexican provinces -there was a tone to
human relations, more concretely to familial ones, whose codes were
not only similar, but required no translation. They were my
I could not define the relationship of these underlying
structures. I could only recognize them. Many years passed before,
at the beginning of the '90s, wandering one night through a well
known bookstore in Mexico City, I discovered a novel written by an
Egyptian who had just won the Nobel Prize. I bought it.
It wasn't that he had won the Nobel Prize. At this point, the
uneven quality of its winners was public knowledge. I was
attracted, nonetheless, by the author being Egyptian and the novel
about the slums in the old city center of Cairo in this century.
Midaq Alley. Memories of that trip came back to me. It was
precisely those alleyways plagued by children, rats and yelling,
that had fascinated me. At this point, I don't think there is any
need to clarify that I have always had a dark attraction for the
I read Midaq Alley. I loved it. I read it with
adolescent voracity. In a single sitting, in one bite. I discovered
Mahfouz, the implacable narrator, the teller of tales, the
storyteller. I looked for other novels, but in those days in
Mexico, no others were to be found. So I took advantage of a trip
to the United States to find other titles. In a bookstore in Los
Angeles, I managed to get another 11 titles. All edited by Cairo
I returned to Mexico with my suitcase loaded with novels, like a
child with a new toy. Enthralled and filled with hope, I placed
them on the edge of my reading couch. It was one of those periods
of scant work, and the intention of adapting one of them for film
never crossed my mind. It was the pleasure of reading for the
pleasure of reading.
I put The Beginning and the End on the bottom. I
thought - and still think - it was an awful title, therefore the
one that least appealed to me. It was a long novel, a very long one
that began, like the good films of old time Mexican cinema, with
the death of the father. From that moment on, the lives of the four
siblings - three males and one female - cross and intertwine with
their bad luck and inescapable destiny.
With great mastery, Mahfouz strung together, with the stitches
of a medieval embroiderer, the comings and goings of this family
that, in one fell swoop, landed in poverty. Of that shame-filled
middle class family that barely managed to make ends meet, that
finally, falls into poverty without any modesty. From the gray
apartment to the basement.
It reminded me powerfully of the family histories of the early
20th century in Mexico, when the revolution forced a readjustment
of the social classes and the migration of a large part of the,
until then, naïve and happy, provincial middle class to Mexico
City. It had, in addition, a familiar reek of melodrama that shows
its kinship with Mexican films of the forties.
And when I say reek of melodrama, I do not use the term
disparagingly. Quite the contrary. Dickens and Dostoyevsky wrote
melodrama, week after week, diligently and meticulously. In
melodrama lie the vicissitudes of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina.
Melodrama is the cloak that covers most of 19th-century literature,
with which I at least was educated and informed as a reader.
Mahfouz also handled melodrama with mastery, entwining all of
the incidents of the novel with one another, even those that, at a
first glance, appear most banal. I read the novel with rapture. I
locked myself in for two whole days. I stopped answering the phone.
I took advantage of the fact that Ripstein - Arturo Ripstein, film
director and my husband - was working from dawn to dusk those days.
It was me, my couch and Mahfouz.
I advanced through it panting, enthralled, but without the least
hint, yet, of the idea of adapting it to film. One of the
advantages I have preserved to date is that, in spite of having
made several adaptations, I still read as a reader, and not as a
"fisher" for ideas and projects.
So then, I arrived almost to the end. I saved the last two
chapters. Night was falling. I took the phone off the hook. There
were only two chapters. The lucky brother had just discovered that
his little sister, so wretched and unattractive, had prostituted
herself. As a member of a traditional family, he had to protect its
good name. The code of honor closed in on them like a subway
arriving at a station.
I remember reading the next pages in a kind of frenzy. The
brother leads the tarnished sister toward suicide, to later commit
it himself. The Nile swallows both of them.
Suddenly, the novel had taken on a new breath. Unrelenting
destiny closed in upon it and elevated it to the level of tragedy.
So many sorrows and woes, so much maternal fretting, all that
sacrifice for nothing. Two bodies floating down the Nile. Joined by
a profound and incomprehensible family tie. The family, birthplace
of the purest love and hatred imaginable. Of the greatest
frustrations. Of the most intimate, profound and unfathomable
Ripstein returned when I was two paragraphs from the end. He was
burdened with a day filled with work incidents he wanted to tell me
about. I chased him from the room with blows, between sobs. My
heart was breaking. When I finally finished, I emerged amazed,
hypnotized. Amazed because it had been years since I had cried
while reading. I remember having left Wuthering Heights a
wreck of sniffles and tears; but then I was 14. Then, in those
yesterdays, I cried. Today, I was an adult, seasoned and buffered
by life. Nonetheless, my eyes were swollen with tears.
My other amazement was due to the profound determination that
took hold of me as soon as I finished the novel. I had to adapt it.
I must adapt it. That doesn't happen to me. Reading and immediate
adaptation is not the norm for me. Yes, I have worked on a good
number of adaptations, but I have come to them along various
winding paths. Never immediately after reading, with the urgent
need to incorporate in my veins, in my bowels, what I had just
However, that is what happened to me with The Beginning and
I went into Ripstein's studio and blurted out without further
ado: "If I can't adapt it, I will kill myself. We need to get the
rights. If necessary, I will go to Cairo with cactus needles
embedded in my knees." In view of this reaction, Ripstein hastened
to read it. Fortunately, he liked it with an intensity equal to my
own. But the path to the copyright is a tortuous one, especially
when one is filming in countries such as ours, burdened with
problems and lacking in resources.
We knew that a well known author could cost quintals. And the
Nobel, in addition to prestige, had made Mahfouz suddenly popular.
In a matter of two months, he went from a total unknown, to
required reading for aunts and subway passengers.
A few months later, for his birthday, we gave my father-in-law,
Alfredo Ripstein, Midaq Alley. Probably this choice of
gift followed an unconscious strategy. Very unconscious, because at
that point he had been retired for years, decades. The strategy
If you watch an Egyptian film of the '40s and a Mexican one from
the same period, you could mix them up: the actors, the actress's
clothing, the exalted tones of black and white, the exaggerated
performances and the glittering sets made with insufficient money.
It was understandable that the old producer would feel caught up by
that novel that was destined to remind him of so very many
And so, the glow of the golden era of Mexican film that resounds
in Mahfouz's novel quickened the nostalgia of my father-in-law, the
old producer of films of every sort. He decided to buy the rights
to Midaq Alley and The Beginning and the End.
Ripstein and I were adamant. We were not interested in Midaq
Alley - a magnificent novel, by the way - but The
Beginning and the End, a much longer, sadder and lesser known
novel. That one was ours. The one that had become embedded in our
Months later, the rights were obtained. We were lucky, very
lucky, because, as in all of the Cinderella stories, chance plays a
part, and a big one. Mahfouz had a weakness for Mexico, which he
felt was a kindred country, a parallel country beyond the Atlantic.
Both dry, both with pyramids, both with ancient cultures, both
That love, his generosity, and the fact that he worked for long
years in the Egyptian film industry, conspired to make him sell the
rights for an amount that was not burdensome. We were able to film
The Beginning and the End. I plunged into adapting it. I
faced the task of dealing with the almost epic dimensions and
intentions of the novel. However, it was a pleasurable, easy,
I discovered, while working on it, that my first impression
about Cairo was true. That the pulses of both cities were akin.
That we were united by much more than what divided us. That Mexico,
through its Spanish heritage, took from Egypt the alleyways of its
city centers, its neglected neighborhoods, its evening bustle, its
love of rooftops, its morbid penchant for steam baths, and above
all, its close family structure.
The family, the universe upon which our biography is written;
strung together with each one's traditions, customs, secrets,
philias and phobias. Both Mexico and Egypt - I boldly assert - have
been enclosed societies with governments that are more or less
paternalistic, if not decidedly authoritarian, in which public
dialogue has been confined to occasional café chatter and rumors.
In them, the solution to the problem of society and individual men
is tied up and resolved behind doors, at the family hearth: warm,
suffocating, loving, stifling.
I believe - and again I am venturing a risky hypothesis - that
in both, the development of the citizen took place outside our
borders, beyond our seas. This is perhaps our mark of Cain.
"Citizen" is a basically individual entity, responsible to his
peers, not to God, the product of morality and his relationship
with it, that "modern" man in the full extent of the word, secular
by definition, came to Mexico, and I assume Egypt (Coetzee dixit)
as an afterthought, stumblingly. In both cases, as an import.
When I say this, I in no way mean to detract importance or
influence from this fact. For Mexico, the arrival of modernity and
the ideas of the French Revolution meant, no more or less than
independence from Spain, and a stumbling transit toward
independence that would leave it sunk in a series of religious
conflicts that did not end until 1939, with a concordat between the
faithful and the State, after thousands and thousands had died.
We were secular for a little over a century without having
digested it. Without having wanted it, without knowing what it
meant. Modernity descended upon us in one fell swoop. I think a
good part of our problems are due to this premature birth of
I imagine - and here I apologize beforehand for my audacious
presumption - that Egypt entered into contact with the modern West
with the arrival of the Napoleonic hoards, and that, likewise, of a
sudden and from outside, a fraction of the enlightened middle class
embraced the ideas of the Encyclopedists and the French Revolution;
and with them, became modernized in the midst of a society that was
firmly isolated from such waves of thought.
To this friction between the archaic and the modern we owe, I
again venture, the preeminence of the family. It would seem that
societies are saying: I don't understand this world, and therefore
I will seek refuge at home.
And for me, infinitely more evil than Mahfouz, there - at home -
is where horror is found, flaunting itself behind closed doors,
embodied in the family. In The Beginning and the End, this
novel that had bewitched me, the family practices phagocytosis on
itself. They eat each other. And the family becomes
cannibalistic because it is the agency regulating society, its
individuals. It is the beginning and the end.
The family depicted by Mahfouz reminded me of my paternal
family, suddenly impoverished at the beginning of the 20th century,
in which, as in Mahfouz's novel, the women had to sacrifice
themselves for the sake of the future of their brothers. And, as in
the family in the novel, the sacrifice turned them into social
pariahs, husbandless, childless, without reputation or destiny.
Although family themes have always been dear to me, it wasn't until
The Beginning and the End that I threw myself into them.
Not couples, not mothers. The family as a whole: father, mother,
brothers, sisters. Ties that bind, that protect; ties that
I owe to Mahfouz, and the elements his novel provided me with,
having allowed myself to delve into Mexican families, even though a
mother in the Mexican city of Guadalajara told me: "I don't know
what they're like where you come from" - Mexico City - "because
here, we mothers love our kids very much." I didn't want to clarify
that my father was born in Guadalajara. My grandmother was also a
native of that city, and surely also of her same ilk.
The Beginning and the End allowed me in turn to speak
of the wound of motherhood, of the Mexican mother, to be more
precise, that favorite of Mexican films of the '40s. And I, mother
that I am, am hugely grateful to him for this. I am grateful that
he allowed me to feel my way around the bottomless pit, full of
twists and turns, that is motherhood.
On another occasion, a new, somewhat idiotic, director slapped me
with simplistic feminism: "All the women in the film are either
dumb or whores." Clearly, the director either did not have or did
not understand sexual urges, or, with an unconsciously macho
viewpoint, she discredited them.
She was, without even suspecting it, a victim of that Puritanism
that believes that talking about what is wrong, is wrong. Who
thinks that one should not say slaves, but temporary workers. That
manual laborers should be good and spirited, and women strong and
independent. Any resemblance to reality should be proscribed. She
lived in the empire of 'should be,' just like the heroes of
socialist realism, today fortunately buried and forgotten.
Mahfouz, on the other hand, showed a predilection for complex,
dual, tortured and tortuous female characters, and was little given
to moral judgements. He depicted ones that, at a simplistic first
glance, could be deemed whores and fools, and who, in depth, are
discovered to be the survivors of their calloused world. Those who
get ahead in the day to day.
Beyond these lacks of understanding and differences with my
co-nationals, the adaptation of The Beginning and the End
was, first and foremost, easy, quick and especially passionate.
Which did not prevent it from facing countless obstacles entailed
by translating one society to another. I said that we share -the
Egypt-Mexico axis - the family framework, the noise at gatherings,
the way we make friends. The human in humanity joins us.
That is why I get slightly indignant when people ask me in
amazement, "How did you ever think of adapting an Egyptian novel?
Cairo in Mexico?" they would say in disbelief. I adapted
Maupassant, so very French, without anyone finding it the least bit
strange; and I swear that if I were to adapt Ibsen's A Doll's
House, it would be seen as natural, in spite of the fact that
Norway, so Lutheran, so Nordic, so civilized, lacks any links with
Mexico comes from deep-rooted and cherished Spanish extraction,
and incorporates, without even knowing it, hundreds of Arab
traditions. We eat marzipan and dates at parties, delicious
enasaimada pastries, we refresh ourselves in patios with
fountains and colonnades; our markets are chock-full of scents,
spices, flavors. And the language, this Spanish that is so well
aged, owes a huge debt to Arabic, a debt of almost 18 percent. Not
for nothing, Al Andaluz was Arab for 700 years. And we are what we
speak, and the origins of what we speak. Language is the greatest
forge there is. And my language, Spanish, has among its mothers,
Therefore, because of the shared ties, it irks me that people
find it extraordinary that I should adapt an Egyptian. I think the
only explanation lies in the encumbrances of colonial thought. You
can adapt the "center," copy it, emulate it. But not a peer,
another poor member of the periphery.
I would be less than truthful if I dismissed the difficulties I
faced in the adaptation. That would be an act of frivolous
distortion. The first difficulty I faced is more of a technical
order: the novel was long, loaded with characters, incidents and
reversals faithful to the tradition of the 19th-century Russian and
English novels in which, I also venture, Mahfouz was steeped.
If Mahfouz had not been such a good novelist, I could have
excluded outright a good part of the novel. Directly removed one of
the children. I was tempted to eliminate the first born, a
scoundrel and troublemaker, because, for the simple reason of
living away from home, he was seemingly freer from the oppressive
But Mahfouz is a veteran teller of stories. And every
storyteller knows that each act must be linked, intertwined with
the rest of the plot. And The Beginning and the End is
told with such mastery that if I removed a brick, a seemingly
trivial episode, the whole construction would collapse. I think I
recall, if memory does not play me false, that all I managed to
eliminate was a noisy wedding attended by the eldest son as a
But, finally, these are only technical difficulties inherent in
adaptation. Novels and film are ostensibly similar, but they have
different, almost opposite, grammars. You have to find a way to
tell the novel in film. The greatest difficulties I found in the
adaptation were in the different amorous practices. In Mexico, for
at least the last two centuries, the sentimental relations of
couples occur apart from the family. The family of the young
marriageable woman may or may not like her candidate for husband;
they may pull out their hair in fury, but in the final analysis,
the parents of the bride and groom only occupy the position of
witnesses to the ceremony. They can give their blessing, but never
This has been so since the days of my great-grandparents, my
great great grandparents and farther back. There is no dowry,
no imposition, no economic transaction whatsoever.
Therefore, it was impossible for the family to order the second
brother to marry the abandoned fiancée of the favorite son, as in
I had no choice but to sexualize it: the young woman would be
dishonored and with child. But more than a purely sexual seduction,
it was an act of revenge: the vendetta of the protagonist against
life and the part of redeemer which he had drawn in the family
assignation of roles. This marriage of convenience was as alien to
him as it was to me. The axis of the conflict shifted from the
sphere of traditions to that of psychology.
Gabriel, my protagonist, does not assume his role of redeemer in
a joyous fashion. The mother and her love, partial and excluding,
oppress him. He is a messiah not only in spite of himself, but
against himself, who calls on God to free him from his mission. He
is a twisted and terrified redeemer. And this vision is a departure
from Mahfouz and is irreparably mine. It is a reading based on my
tradition, foreign to Mahfouz's universe. Because, in addition, as
I said and say again, Mahfouz is a man of much better sentiments
than I. For him, the mother acts for the good of her children.
There are no hidden motives, no doubts, and, therefore, no
When I made the adaptation, I kept the tone of melodrama present
in Mahfouz's novel; only I inverted the moral inflection of the
story. I told it from the dark side of human feelings. The side of
shadows, guilt, sin. It is in my nature to seek the sordid, like
the scorpion in the fable.
Now then, once I decided to make the moral and sexual inversion
in the plot, I faced what would prove to be the greatest challenge
in the adaptation: the end of the novel. I said that the ending
shook me. That was what made me cry, made me decide to adapt it,
come what may.
I thought that the novel occurred in a tone of family melodrama;
that I could change its moral tone without modifying that
melodramatic tone. However, the end was a different matter. Gabriel
and his younger sister Mireya - in my movie, Hassanayn and Nefisa
in the novel - go to their appointment with death under a
completely different narrative breath. For me, the brother leading
the young prostitute to suicide was unthinkable, intolerable. The
brother was the vehicle and the victim of fierce destiny, which, by
forcing him to put an end to his sister turned whore, destroyed him
in the process.
We moved from melodrama to tragedy. It was man against God. The
change of genre captivated both Ripstein and me. We decided not
only to use it, but to emphasize it. Indeed, the film uses two
themes as background music for the first part: the melancholy
"Death and the Maiden" by Schubert, and the quartet from Verdi's
Rigoletto that speaks with the same passion of the
downfall of a family.
But at the end of the story, when the two siblings leave the
police station and head toward death, the film's music changes
drastically. The Drums of the Bronx - French workers who played oil
drums with mad frenzy in the '80s - change the narrative tone of
the film and aid the passage from melodrama to tragedy. That set
our tone. Now I had to find out how. In the first stage, I thought
the solution to the suicide would be to jump in front of the
Mexico City has no rivers at all. It is probably the only great
capital without an ocean or a river running through it. The subway,
thus, becomes the substitute for the Nile. The urban river that
would swallow up the sister while the brother watched from the
escalator by the other track. It was a difficult shot. Ripstein
films in sequence shots. He films, therefore, in real time; what
happens on screen takes the same screen time as life beyond the
A sufficient amount of time had to pass on screen for the
brother's repentance to be "believable," realistic. We made our
calculations and decided it should be at least four minutes. Less
than that and his decision seemed rushed, almost trifling, a mere
Shooting began. We had a permit to film. But we got the call
that makes a film production tremble. We were refused permission to
film in the city's subway system. The official in charge assured us
that he was ready to lose his job before he would grant us the
permit. He declared that filming a suicide in the subway was to
promote it. He thought: "If they are going to kill themselves, let
them do their nastiness somewhere else and not in My Subway." The
mental labyrinth of lower bureaucrats has no logic or limits, only
the diminished perimeter of their power.
We searched and found another solution that, in the final
analysis, was fortunate. The suicide would take place in the very
steam baths the sister frequented to practice her prostitution: an
old building from the '40s, five stories high with many and sinful
private rooms. Very Cairene. It was an ascent to hell.
Perfect, the loose ends were getting tied up, in addition to
allowing us to film in interiors and lengthen the sequence to nine
long minutes. Thus, the time of guilt was better established. I had
to reread the novel - which I rarely do - to get the subway scene
out of my eyes and rewrite it for the baths. To my amazement, when
I reread it, I discovered that I had unconsciously inverted terms:
In Mahfouz, it is the sister, generous and magnanimous, who spares
the brother the painful task of killing her by proposing she commit
suicide. Mahfouz has a weakness for female characters.
I, on the other hand, had inverted the situation. The chosen
brother convinced his poor little sister to commit suicide.
Selfish, Messiah and Savior in spite of himself, bearing the whole
burden of his family, he opted for the perfect solution: thanks to
him, she opted for suicide. The Savior is left with his hands clean
of blood and guilt in his chest.
I had made the change without realizing it, while I wrote immersed
in the frenzy of the last sequence. My sequence. We were shooting,
it was the time to act and not to think of whys and hows. So the
change in point of view went ahead without further reflection.
Finally, it was the one that answered to my instincts and
Months later, with the film already edited and post-produced,
even after it won at the San Sebastian Film Festival, as I watched
a documentary on the honor murders that occur with certain
frequency in some Arab countries, I realized that for Mahfouz, this
was a moral condemnation of a concrete social act, a sociological
judgement; for me, it was unthinkable, pure and simple. It was
horror, and that horror required a Mephistopheles, or so I
For years, I believed that that was the greatest difference
between Mahfouz's novel and my screenplay. The point where two ways
of facing reality meet and part, and that I, after all, was a
daughter of the West. Years went by and, as fate would have it, no
more than a month ago, I got another surprise. I read an article in
a Mexican paper talking about how in 20 of the 30 Mexican states,
that is to say, in two thirds of the country, there are laws that
punish with lesser sentences, from three days to three years,
husbands who murder their wives after these have sullied their
honor. "Honor" exempted them from the sentences normally given to
murderers. I jumped from my sofa.
My country was again approaching Mahfouz's Egypt without my
knowing it, without my suspecting it. This wild and half breed
Mexico still has fruitful laws that safeguard the honor of the
family and that of the husband, above and beyond the life of
alleged adulteresses. And I use the feminine, because this
legislation only applies to males. What a surprise and what twists
life offers. Again the resemblances.
Finally, watching other Mahfouz films, especially The
Beginning and the End, which I saw without subtitles, I find
over and over this familiar world that moves me by its proximity.
Even the films of '60s and '70s, crossbred responses to La
Dolce Vita, in which both countries showed that the modernity
that had impregnated them to the point of depravation, are
identical. Equally forced, fake, falsely "modern."
Mahfouz's world approaches mine. Now, it is my world. I
incorporated Mahfouz into my intellectual biography just as I did
Dostoyevsky, the Brontes, Vargas Llosa and Amos Oz. Today, he is as
mine, as much a part of me, as any writer from my land and in my
language. He is part of that vast country that is reading.
I am satisfied with the transfer we made of Mahfouz's world to
the Mexican universe. Therefore, when I think of The Beginning
and the End, the movie, I do so with delight. When I think of
the novel, I do so with great pleasure, intimate and secret
because, like all great novels, one holds the basic assumption that
it was written only for oneself. And, finally, when I think of
Mahfouz, I think of him with cherished intimacy. The intimacy of
the old neighbor, the uncle, the witness to my biography, mine and
that of so many others.
That mute witness, affectionate and close who, in telling his
stories, his tales, allows us to untangle humanity, to dissect
hearts. The black and white, contradictory, generous and petty
hearts of everyday man, of our daily neighbor. Mahfouz has died,
and with him the storyteller is gone. And the barrio has gone