Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review

Mostafa Mahmoud: The Contrarian Philosopher (مصطفى محمود: الفيلسوف المُشاغب) by El Sayed El Horany: The late Dr. Mostafa Mahmoud has always been a controversial figure. From his days as an outspoken atheist, to becoming an author of such controversial books as God and Man  (الله والانسان), which is banned to this day, to his foray into beguiling Sci-Fi (The Spider) (العنكبوت), to his views on Islamic Philosophy, he has inspired hundreds of thousands, confounded as many, and even angered some. Mostafa Mahmoud: The Contrarian Philosopher,  by journalist Al Sayed Al Horany, tries to unravel the mystery behind this most enigmatic of Arab figures; an immensely prolific author whose works delve into almost every subject on earth, from sexuality, to religion, to faith, to crime, to psychology, to parapsychology, to magic; you name it, Mahmoud has written about it. But his private life has always been a closely guarded secret. Although there have been many books about the man, not one has managed to fully pierce the shell that surrounds him, not even this one. What The Contrarian Philosopher manages to achieve, however, is shed some light on his life through the eyes of some of his close friends; not much, but enough to make us understand a few things about the man and his contradictory nature.

To some friends, he was the kind, sage, hyper-intelligent genius whom you could always rely on for a sound piece of advice, to others he was an aloof, confounding eccentric whom you dare not approach unless invited to. In some of the most fascinating parts of the book, Mahmoud's second wife hints that the reason all his marriages failed was his extremely close relationship with his older sister, whom he treated like his mother, and who never truly approved of any of his wives. Moufeed Fawzy, the famous Egyptian reporter, and a once close friend of Mahmoud's, claims that the main reason the man was aloof and sometimes even harsh, was that he revered his privacy and freedom, and considered marriage something which enchained him and encroached upon his liberty.

But despite these candid accounts, the book mostly fails to break new ground when it comes to demystifying Mahmoud's enigma. But the book does have an ace up its sleeve, something which Mahmoud's fans will relish, and that is a batch of newly discovered and never before published writings by Mahmoud. These include a novella called "A Face Behind The Glass", an effective murder mystery with political undertones, and a series of fascinating articles that mainly reveal Mahmoud's opinion of the modern West and current Arab leaders. Let's just say he was not really a fan of either.

Overall, and despite the book's weaknesses when it comes to dissecting Mahmoud's psyche, the brief interviews with some of his close friends, and the never before published writings are worth the price of this book alone. As for the man himself, I still believe that the best way to get to know Mostafa Mahmoud, his genius, his obsessions, and his faults, is to read his entire bibliography.

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