Egyptian First Arab to Win Nobel Prize for Literature

From Times Wire Services

Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, an Arabic storyteller who chronicled the search for human values from the Nile Delta of the Pharaohs to the back alleys of modern Cairo, Thursday was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mahfouz, 77, the first Arab writer to win the award in its 87-year history, has been compared to Charles Dickens for his vivid portrayals of poverty.

One book of his was banned in Egypt, and another attacked former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s domestic and pan-Arabist policies.

The Swedish Academy said that Mahfouz, who has written 40 novels and short-story collections, was awarded the prize because of works “rich in nuance--now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively am-biguous.”


It commended his work for contributing to “a powerful upswing for the novel as a genre and for the development of the literary language in Arabic-speaking cultural circles.”

“His work speaks to us all,” the academy said.

Mahfouz also is credited with more than 30 screenplays, about a dozen of them based on his novels.

He told Egypt’s state-run news agency in Cairo: “I am extremely happy for myself and for Arabic literature. The news was a complete surprise to me. . . . I hope this will be the first step for our literary generations.”


Recent Trend Continues

The award continued a recent trend of the 18-member body to seek laureates outside the mainstream of European and American literature.

Wole Soyinka of Nigeria was honored in 1986. Exiled Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky won last year.

Mahfouz, the son of a Cairo civil servant, has shown little admiration for contemporary Arab writers, including himself.

Once asked to appraise his work, he said: “Probably like the rest of modern Arabic literature, fourth or fifth rate.”

The 1988 prize is worth $390,000, but it inevitably brings a further bonus in royalties and prestige. Sigrid Kahle, a Swedish specialist in Arabic literature, said Mahfouz could probably use both.

“At his age, he can’t support himself as an author, and he’s not lacking for enemies,” she said.

The Egyptian laureate said his frail condition might keep him away from the Swedish capital, and one of his two daughters or another representative may accept the prize in Stockholm on Dec. 10.


Though widely read at home, Mahfouz’s realism and his reputation as a “free thinker” dampened his popularity over the years.

Commentator Lotfi Kholi, a friend and colleague of Mahfouz at Al Ahram, Egypt’s semiofficial newspaper, said the Nobel laureate’s books had at one time or another upset both Muslim and political leaders.

He cited three novels, “The Thief and the Dog” in 1961, “Chatting on the Nile” in 1966 and “Miramar” in 1967, which attacked Nasser’s revolution.

“The books spoke of the shortcomings of dictatorship at a time when no voice dared to speak out against Nasser’s regime,” Kholi said.

Upset Egyptian Army

Mahfouz also upset the powerful Egyptian army with his 1974 book “Al Karnak,” about army intelligence scandals. The book later became a popular movie.

Egyptian censors banned his 1959 novel, “Children of Gebelawi,” which touched on religious themes not acceptable for publication in Egypt.

But President Hosni Mubarak and other officials sent congratulations Thursday.


Some of Mahfouz’s earlier novels were set in ancient Egypt, but took sidelong looks at modern society, the academy said.

The academy also cited “God’s World,” a collection of stories. “The artistic treatment of the existential questions is forceful and the formal solutions often striking,” the announcement said.

Daily Routine

Mahfouz routinely visits a coffee shop in Cairo’s Khan Khalili bazaar for an hour, then writes from 9 a.m. until noon in his office at Al Ahram, for which he writes weekly social and political commentaries.

He then takes an afternoon nap, but his wife, Attiyatallah, interrupted him Thursday to tell him of the award.

“He always felt he would never win it, but . . . I’ve been sure he would,” she said. “When I woke him up to give him the news, he couldn’t believe it and told me to stop joking.”

The Nobel prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry and economics will be announced next week. U.N. peacekeeping forces won the Nobel Peace Prize, announced Sept. 29 in Oslo, Norway.

Hopes rise for a wider audience in the West for Arab literature. Story in View.