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Issam Mahfouz (1939-2006): Recalling Poet, Playwright, Critic as the Attractive Modernist
By Mohammad Dakroub
Even in his early writings, which were mainly poems, Issam Mahfouz used to “create a sublime and penetrating theater of dialogue,” says Lebanese poet Shawqi abi-Shaqra about his friend. It is a disservice to Mahfouz to sum up his contributions in generalities. This creative artist made his unique and visionary contributions in different fields: first, in modern poetry; then in theater, where his basic and most notable contributions lie, as well as in literary studies, criticism, and research. He excelled at developing innovative methods for presenting knowledge and introducing creative and cultural works to the Arab reader in a deliberate and entertaining form. We cannot overlook the rich and distinguished literary page which he edited each Saturday in the Beirut-based An Nahar newspaper, providing the reader a font of cultural knowledge from an authentic modernist and progressive perspective; and for reasons we have yet to understand, that newspaper has abandoned this shining weekly literary page, a loss for both the newspaper and the reader.
Mahfouz wrote 45 books throughout his life, containing diverse artistic and cultural wealth within those works. Mahfouz’s writings displayed certain characteristic features which distinguish this comprehensive intellectual, observer, and visionary who expressed in his books an intellectual, modernist, and progressive position -- sometimes firm, sometimes flexible.
In the modern Lebanese-Arab theater movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mahfouz pioneered the transformation of theatrical writings in Lebanon from formal “literary” mode into a language of dialogue, the language of theater. This change in language helped to shift the theatrical movement from behind the walls of tradition and expose it to the light of modernism both in art as well as in social and political visions. He achieved this mainly through five plays: Al-Zanzalakht (The Chinaberry, 1964), Al-Qatl (The Killing, 1968), Al Diktator (The Dictator, 1969), Limaza (Why?, 1971), 11 Kadiyya Dod al-Huriyya (11 Cases Against Freedom, 1975), and Tabaa Khasat (Special Edition, 1968). But for some reason, Mahfouz stopped writing for the theater, although he never left the stage.
Next, he entered the arena of literature and critical studies. Mahfouz brought new and renewed formulas, bringing to criticism a dialogue tradition emanating from both a theater experiment and a critical attitude toward it.
Issam Mahfouz has given us a series of “dialogues,” which in fact are major research projects that examine aspects of our cultural and intellectual history through imaginary dialogue. In these “dialogues,” Mahfouz talks with intellectuals and philosophers, mainly those of the rational and progressive schools who believe in change, and who are committed to resisting oppression, repression, and pseudo-oppressors.
He wrote, for example, “A Dialogue with the Pioneers of Arab Renaissance in the 19th Century,” “A Dialogue with the Rebellious in Heritage,” “Dialogue with the Atheists in Heritage,” “Dialogue with Ibn Arabi” (mystic, philosopher and poet, 1165-1240) and other dialogue attempts which are closer to the artistic formation of literary works, including “Gibran: a Personal Portrait,” and “The Scenario of Arab Theater in 100 Years.”
His major concern in this innovative type of critical work was to be progressive, entertaining, and non-complex, all characteristics that perfectly describe his presentation of and his position toward these distinguished figures. Despite the entertaining format, this critical project presents to the reader cultural and factual materials that the author diligently researched, compiled, and produced, while critically examining them through contemporary modern lenses.
Also, he approached these intellectual pioneers appreciatively, recognizing the quality and value of their works. He did not resort to “killing the father” but, on the contrary, valued what these pioneering “fathers” had offered in rational and progressive contributions, showing how they enrich our modern culture with a wealth of knowledge and creative experiments.
In his “dialogues,” Mahfouz taught cultural journalism a poignant lesson and provided educational incentive: How is dialogue conducted with, or serves as a part of, the cultural and creative community?
In his many personal dialogues with distinguished Arab and world intellectuals, Mahfouz always adhered to an “educational working system” which included respect for the author with whom he spoke, first by familiarizing himself in advance with the author’s works and activities. Next, he showed respect for his readers by introducing them to the basic intellectual aspects of a given thinker or creative person. Even more important, he respected himself when he dialogued with the author not only out of his knowledge of the author’s works, but also from basing his dialogue on his personal intellectual and critical position, so that the dialogue became an actual debate rather than mere questions and answers.
Issam Mahfouz quoted the prominent Egyptian intellectual Farah Anton: “Some of those who tread upon carved-up and paved roads forget the efforts of those who made these roads.”
It is clear that Mahfouz, one of the most important intellectuals who carved up new roads of the contemporary theater in Lebanon, never forgot those pioneers who paved the way, thus presenting them to us in books that are convincing and entertaining as well as substantive.
Issam Mahfouz continued his dialogues and his struggle even with death itself: a stroke left him battling death for several months.
The man of dialogues has now left this world, but this world will preserve Mahfouz’s rich and cultural achievements, striking down death itself, while battling it at every step.