In the Western mind when the word Arab seems to have become synonymous with ‘terrorism’, it is interesting to read such fullsome tributes to an Arab writer. ‘Egypt’s National Treasure’, writes Lev Grossman in Time magazine paying tribute to Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, who died Wednesday at 94. “Mahfouz was considered the eminent literary voice of the Arab world — a title that was as much a burden as it was an honor.”

“When the Swedish Academy gave the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 there were still plenty of people in the U.S. who had no idea that there was such a thing as an Egyptian novelist. Mahfouz was the avatar of an Arab culture a lot of Americans had no concept of: a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, humane, humorous literary culture very different from the Islamic fundamentalism that was more visible on the evening news.

“He wrote in elaborate classical Arabic, but his strength was as a mesmerizing tale-spinner. He’s best known for his celebrated Cairo trilogy — Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street — which follows the fortunes of a merchant family not unlike his own through three tumultuous generations.

“But Mahfouz did not always play the placid cultural observer. He was an early and vocal supporter of normalizing relations with Israel (some Arab countries banned his books in response.) His Children of Gabalawi, although set in modern times (it was published in 1959), features characters that loosely parallel figures in the Bible and the Koran. The novel’s boldness attracted the attention of Islamic extremists, and in 1994 a young fanatic attacked him, stabbing him in the neck. Mahfouz survived, but lost much of the use of his right-and writing-hand.”

“Mahfouz suffered some backlash after he won the Nobel. The Western press was quick to take him up as the literary voice of the Arab world, and in turn some Arab critics took him to task for being too moderate and Western-friendly. In truth he was his own man, concerned only with a personal and human truth older and greater than politics.”

In America, Mahfouz is probably more widely known than read, says The Washington Post. “His fame and politics made that inevitable. There was the assassination attempt a dozen years ago by the same group of goons who tried to blow up the World Trade Center. There was his backing of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. There was his insistence on religious tolerance. The 1988 Nobel as career capstone.

“But Mahfouz’s lasting mark on the world stage will surely be a measure of how deeply he believed in the power of fiction — in the ability of myth and story to be a guidepost to our lives. He was a serious man, and he devoted his life to making up stories: more than 30 novels, hundreds of short stories, a handful of plays and movie scripts. Almost all of them document his particular corner of the universe — Cairo, one of the world’s most ancient cities. Ninety years old, going out six nights a week, the cafe life, the writer as social intellectual.

“Like Faulkner, he never really left home.”

Up until a fall in July that put him in hospital, Egyptian laureate Naguib Mahfouz, could be found on almost any given night with friends at one of his many literary haunts around Cairo, says the BBC.

“It was a tradition that began decades ago, when he and his fellow writers and poets would gather in the city’s many coffee shops, restaurants and hotels to mull over the issues of the day.

“In later years, these gatherings or “diwans” would attract a new crowd – thinkers from a broad spectrum of professions who kept the ageing writer in touch with the changing world.

“They would also become an opportunity for fans to spend some time in the company of the only Arabic writer to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which he won in 1988.

“Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who knew Mahfouz well, said the meetings allowed people to pay ‘a kind of homage’ to ‘the grand old man of Egyptian literature’.

“People held him in great affection. He was a very big deal. People could be in his presence for a bit,” she said.

1911: Born in Cairo
1934: Graduated in philosophy from Cairo University
1959: Al-Azhar, one of the most important Islamic institutions in the world, bans novel because it includes characters representing God and the prophets
1988: First and only Arab to win Nobel Prize for literature
1994: Mahfouz stabbed in the neck by Islamist militant angered by his work
2006 (30 August): Passes Away

SWARAAJ CHAUHAN, International Columnist
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Copyright 2006 The Moderate Voice