Naguib Mahfouz, 94, Novelist and Nobelist
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Naguib Mahfouz, who died Wednesday aged 94, was the first Arabic language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and is credited with transforming written Arabic into a vehicle for popular literature.
Best known for the three books that comprise his “Cairo Trilogy,” published in the 1950s, Mahfouz became enormously popular all over the Arab world. But it was only after winning the Nobel Prize in 1988 that he became famous in the West. Late in life he aroused the wrath of Islamic militants and was fortunate to survive an assassination attempt in 1994.
Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children of a minor civil servant, and grew up in the Gamaliyya quarter of old Cairo. His childhood was colored by the period of intense nationalist activity that led to the 1919 revolution, and he witnessed British troops firing on independence demonstrators outside his own home.
In 1930 he enrolled as a philosophy student at the newly established University of Cairo, and soon afterward published his first article, which focused on the inevitable triumph of socialism. He soon completed an Arabic translation of James Baikies’s “Ancient Egypt,” which was published in 1932,and, by the time he graduated, he could read Zola and Balzac in the original. He never managed to finish a novel by Dickens.
After graduating, he began writing short stories, and his first collection,”A Whisper of Madness,” was published in 1938. The next year he went to work for the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
His first novel, “Games of Fate,” was published in 1939. Heavily influenced by Walter Scott, it was a historical, romantic novel set in ancient Egypt and featured an oppressive monarchy and the expulsion of foreign invaders. “New Cairo” (1946) was the first of five novels set in contemporary Cairo.The characters, who included a beautiful prostitute, a dope-addicted pedophile, and a “cripple-maker,” were both fascinating and shocking for Egyptian readers — the mere thought of writing about such subjects had hitherto been taboo.
In 1947 he began his most ambitious work, the “Cairo Trilogy,” which he described as “a history of my country and myself.” It was the 1988 French translation of Volume 1 that apparently brought him the Nobel Prize, since none of the committee members could read Arabic.
The 1,500-page trilogy is the best-known piece of fiction in Arabic, and its use of the vernacular, its psychological detail, and its sheer social scope were revolutionary. Such a book had never been seen in Arabic before and it was a huge and immediate success.
After the 1952 revolution, which ended the monarchy and put Nasser in power, Mahfouz felt that the world he had chronicled had begun to disappear. For a time he worked on a number of screenplays. He finally transferred to a post in the Ministry of Arts. By 1959, when he eventually resumed fiction writing, his style had changed again.
“Children of Gebelawi” (1959, translated 1981) is an iconoclastic allegory in 114 chapters (the same number as the Koran) that concludes with a vision of man searching in a dump for clues about salvation. It was condemned as blasphemous and was not published in Egypt. Late last year, a monthly magazine tried to publish the novel, but Mahfouz said he would not agree without the consent of Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning.
From 1960 onward, more than 30 of Mahfouz’s novels and short stories were adapted for the screen, and his work began to be revered by movie-going Egyptians who had never read his books.
Egypt’s humiliation in the Six-Day War threw him into a new spiritual crisis that reached a peak with “Miramar” (1967), a bleak tale in which the lone figure of hope in a corrupt world is a peasant girl living in squalor in Alexandria. After his retirement from the civil service in 1972, he completed the best received of his later novels, “Wedding Song” (1987), the story of the supposed suicide of a playwright after rumors that he has murdered his wife and child.
During the late 1970s, Mahfouz’s work was attacked because of his support for the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. But the public continued to read his books, and his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1988 was universally welcomed. He himself received the news with typical understatement: “I was not even aware that I had been nominated … I thought the world had forgotten us.”
After the award ceremony, his rather retiring life briefly became a whirlwind of chat shows and public appearances but, though he was now a national symbol, none of this dented his modesty.
In 1988, “Children of Gebelawi” was serialized in Al-Ahram, and publication set off a renewed barrage of abuse as well as a death sentence from one of Egypt’s leading imams. Although Mahfouz was recognized everywhere (his portrait adorned Egypt’s postage stamps), he refused offers of protection.
His acceptance of the Nobel Prize, his condemnation of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and his defense of Salman Rushdie all exacerbated his situation and, in October 1994, he was attacked on the street near his home, stabbed twice in the neck. Two Islamic militants were later hanged for attempted murder.
Renowned for his simplicity, Mahfouz continued to live in a modest Cairo flat with his wife, Attiyat-Allah, and his two daughters. He suffered from chronic health problems, but he still lived up to his nickname, “Omega,” for the ticktock of his schedule.
Every morning he rose at 6 a.m.,went for an hour’s walk through Cairo to the Ali Baba cafe, read through the morning’s newspapers, and then returned home to write for two hours. Every afternoon except Thursday he received visitors from around the world at Al-Ahram, for which he wrote a column.
Apart from two government-sponsored visits to Yemen and Yugoslavia and a trip to London in 1991 for an operation, he never set foot outside Egypt.
Last year he published “The Seventh Heaven,” a collection of stories about the afterlife.