Leading Arab Novelist Gave Streets a Voice

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian novelist who was the first Arabic writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature and who was often considered the greatest writer in the Arab world, died yesterday at Police Hospital in Cairo at age 94. He had pneumonia and kidney ailments and had suffered a head injury in a fall at his home in July.

Mahfouz lived his entire life in Cairo, which provided the inspiration and backdrop for almost all of his writing. In spite of his productivity -- he wrote more than 50 books, including plays, short stories, essays and 34 novels -- he was little known outside the Arab world when he was awarded the Nobel in 1988.

Since then, his works have been widely published in translation, and his writing and public views made him both beloved and reviled in his homeland. He was seen as a voice of moderation, denouncing both Islamic fundamentalism and recent American incursions in the Middle East.

He supported the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and in 1989 he condemned the Islamic fatwa death sentence pronounced on Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie. Mahfouz declared Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini guilty of terrorism, saying his action violated human rights and was "also against Islam because it harms the reputation of Islam and Moslems in the civilized world."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak described Mahfouz yesterday as "a cultural light who brought Arab literature to the world. He expressed the values of enlightenment and tolerance that reject extremism."

Mahfouz found himself a victim of extremism on several occasions, most forcibly in October 1994, when an Islamic militant stabbed him in the neck outside his Cairo home. Fortunately for Mahfouz, he lived across the street from a hospital, where doctors saved his life. Within days, Egyptian police gunned down one assailant and arrested a cabal of other plotters.

Three months after the attack, 13 Muslim radicals were convicted, and two were sentenced to death. The ringleader was Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in federal prison in the United States for orchestrating terrorist bomb plots in New York.

The knife attack severed nerves in Mahfouz's right arm, making him unable to hold a pen. (He had always written longhand.) With physical therapy, he regained the ability to use his hand and returned to writing. His final collection of stories, "The Seventh Heaven," was published in December.

Frail, diabetic and nearly deaf, with thick glasses and an ever-present cigarette, Mahfouz was hardly an imposing figure. Yet through sheer longevity -- he was born when Egypt was under the colonial control of Britain -- and the power of his storytelling, he became something of a forward-looking conscience of the Arab world.

His implicit criticisms of Egypt's political and religious leaders were evident in his writing, but his greatest achievement lay in bringing a rarely seen world to life. With his early study of English, French and Russian fiction, he introduced the novel and short story to Arabic letters and brought a newfound sense of realism, particularly in his masterpiece, the three-volume "Cairo Trilogy," which was published in the 1950s.

He set most of his works in the ancient Islamic quarter of Cairo, with its mosques and serpentine alleys teeming with shopkeepers, metalsmiths, government workers, peasants, prostitutes and thieves. His vibrant novels portraying life at every level of society were often likened to those of such other writers of urban social realism as Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola.

In "Palace of Desire," the second volume of the "Cairo Trilogy," he vividly depicted life in the alleyways:

"Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shouts, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman's bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups."

English novelist John Fowles wrote that Mahfouz's fiction allowed readers the "rare privilege of entering a national psychology, in a way that thousands of journalistic articles or television documentaries could not achieve."

Naguib Abdel Aziz al-Sabilgi Mahfouz was born Dec. 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children of a civil servant. He spent his early years in Cairo's centuries-old Gamaliya section before moving with his family to a suburb.

He planned to study medicine at the University of Cairo -- where courses were taught in English and French -- but switched to philosophy and literature, graduating in 1934. Besides several Arabic-language writers, his literary influences included Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner and Shaw.

Beginning in the late 1930s, Mahfouz held a succession of jobs with the Egyptian government, culminating in an appointment as director of the national film agency in the 1960s. All the while, he maintained a diligent writing schedule. He published several historical novels before developing his realist style in the 1940s.

In 1946, he began to write his 1,500-page "Cairo Trilogy"-- whose three parts are "Palace Walk," "Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street" -- describing the fortunes of modern Egypt through the experiences of a Cairo family not unlike Mahfouz's own.

After several years of silence, he returned in 1959 with "The Children of Gebelawi," a religious allegory that some conservative Muslims considered blasphemous. Crowds marched in the streets in protest, and the Al-Ahram newspaper had to get the personal permission of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to publish the work in serial form. It did not appear in Egypt as a book until this year. In the United States, it was published as "The Children of the Alley."

Later in his career, Mahfouz adopted experimental techniques, but his tales were often seen as anguished visions of Egypt's decaying social order. His 1985 novel "The Day the Leader Was Killed" was about the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Near the end of his life, Mahfouz could hold a pen for only 30 minutes at a time. As a result, he wrote a series of vignettes that were included in his final book.

Each morning, Mahfouz walked through the streets of Cairo, arriving at the Aly Baba cafe at 7 a.m. to read the day's newspapers. On Fridays, he convened a salon of intellectuals at a restaurant. Except for summers at the Egyptian resort of Alexandria, he seldom left Cairo. When he was awarded the Nobel, he sent his two daughters to Stockholm to accept the prize.

They survive him, along with his wife, Attiyatullah.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company