Nobelist’s Fiction Brought to Life His Beloved Cairo

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Special to The Times

Naguib Mahfouz, the cafe denizen who became the first Arab author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature -- for novels that evoked the scent, color and texture of life in the streets of his native Cairo -- died Wednesday. He was 94.

Mahfouz had been hospitalized in the Egyptian capital since taking a fall in July. He died after suffering a bleeding ulcer, his doctors told news services.

A literary pioneer and icon of Arab letters, Mahfouz traced in his own life an outline of the daily pleasures and political struggles of his beloved homeland and the broader Arab world. In his writing, he celebrated ordinary Egyptian lives, poked fun at religion and criticized aristocracy. He suffered a knife wound at the hands of an enraged Muslim fundamentalist, and fretted in his final years over the chaos he feared would engulf Arab nations because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.


“I have a terrible vision of the reign of chaos,” Mahfouz said in Egypt’s semiofficial Al Ahram newspaper at the end of 2002 during the run-up to the invasion. “And those Arabs who imagine they will be at a safe distance are under a foolish and grave illusion, for they will be the first to pay the price of the war.”

Tiny and frail-looking, in thick, dark eyeglasses and oversized coats that hung from his frame, Mahfouz was a social critic, a philosopher and a passionate defender of free expression who remained undaunted by the threats of religious extremists who considered his work an affront to Islam.

Although condemned to death in a fatwa handed down by radical Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, Mahfouz refused to alter his routine of 30 years. He spent every Friday evening engaged in repartee and gossip with a circle of friends and literary colleagues at a favorite coffee shop in Cairo’s clamorous downtown.

It was en route to one such sitting that he was attacked in 1994 by a young fanatic who later acknowledged that he had never read a single Mahfouz novel. The attacker buried a knife in Mahfouz’s throat.

The wound missed the author’s carotid artery but caused nerve damage, leaving his right hand -- the one with which he wrote -- incapacitated. After the attack, Mahfouz’s already poor eyesight and hearing deteriorated even more.

But he retained his love of life.

“The channels between myself and the sources of culture have been severed,” he said in a 1997 interview with The Times. “There is no book in my life now; there is no TV or music. I have only my friends left.... They tell me about the novelties in life, and I am pleased with that.”


Raised in the Gamaliya district in the heart of what is today known as Islamic Cairo, he was a keen observer of the colorful characters and the quotidian conflicts of the families living in the warren of streets surrounding the 1,000-year-old Al Azhar Mosque.

As a child, Mahfouz both admired the accomplishments of Western culture and resented its presence in the form of the British army.

Only 7 years old at the time of a 1919 popular uprising that won Egypt partial independence from Britain, he was a lifelong adherent of the values of liberal democracy, tolerance and social justice embodied by the Wafd Party, which led the revolt.

The various political philosophies that washed over the intellectual classes in the Arab world during his lifetime -- Marxism, Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism -- held little allure for Mahfouz. He was an early advocate of detente with Israel and, to the chagrin of many of his compatriots, defended the 1978 Camp David accords until the time of his death.

For the first half of his life, Mahfouz wrote -- always in longhand with ballpoint pens -- in relative obscurity while struggling to get by on the salary of a government bureaucrat.

“In the mornings, I was an employee. In the afternoons, I was a writer,” he recalled.

During a 37-year public-service career until his retirement at age 60, he was at various times a university secretary, an assistant to the minister of religious endowments, a director in the Ministry of Culture and an advisor on film. Ironically, for a lifelong advocate of free artistic expression, he also served for a number of years as Egypt’s chief censor.


By all accounts, he was an able and conscientious employee, giving government business his full attention during working hours, and he said that the contacts he had with the public in his daily duties provided grist for his fiction.

With prodigious discipline, he returned home in the afternoon for a late lunch and then without fail would sit down and write for at least two hours each day. By the end of his life, he had produced more than 50 novels and short story collections, in addition to several volumes of essays, a number of screenplays and countless newspaper columns.

Mahfouz was only 10 or 11 when he decided to become a writer. He was enthralled by cheap European detective stories and would copy them over, changing the names of characters to suit himself. He published his first short story in 1932, still shy of his 21st birthday, and his first novel in 1939. Mahfouz’s magnum opus was “The Cairo Trilogy,” which he had completed as a single manuscript in 1952 after six years of work. His efforts to have it published as a unified work failed, and it was eventually published in a monthly journal in 1956-57.

The three books -- “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” -- follow one family living in Gamaliya across four decades of social and political upheaval. The novels, which begin before World War I and end after World War II, reveal corruption and licentiousness mixed with piety and dignity in an Egypt undergoing rapid modernization.

Mahfouz said he took his characters from his experiences but denied that the work was autobiographical. Nevertheless, there were clear parallels to his own childhood in “Palace Walk,” especially in the sympathetic portrait of Kamal, the youngest son of a stern and emotionally distant father and a doting, indulgent mother.

When Mahfouz began writing, the modern novel barely existed as a literary form in Arabic, the language of the Koran and of traditional poetry. But spurred by an urgent need to explore truth through fiction, Mahfouz popularized the novel with the Arab public and inspired legions of younger writers to follow his example.


After Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988, British and U.S. publishers rushed to market an English translation of the trilogy to satisfy the curiosity of readers, most of whom had never heard of the Egyptian literary lion.

Western reviewers struggled to define him: He was frequently likened to Charles Dickens, Emile Zola and Isaac Bashevis Singer because of his keen cultural observations.

At the time, John Fowles, the British author, wrote that Mahfouz had provided the “rare privilege of entering a national psychology, in a way that thousands of journalistic articles or television documentaries could not achieve.”

Arab readers were ecstatic but thought the honor was long overdue, especially considering that Mahfouz had published his key trilogy three decades earlier. “Nobel Wins the Naguib Mahfouz Prize,” needled a headline in Al Ahram.

Mahfouz was born Dec. 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children. A decade younger than his next sibling, he lived a solitary childhood. He came of age at a time when married women remained veiled and locked away behind wooden latticework mashrabiya screens, water sellers walked the streets and families lived on top of one another along alleys so narrow that people could reach out and touch their neighbors across the way. It was also a highly religious period.

His father was a minor civil servant who later went to work for a wealthy copper merchant in the bazaar. Although Mahfouz never criticized his father publicly, his fiction is sprinkled with overly strict, even cruel, father figures.


Mahfouz’s birth was apparently a difficult one; he was named Naguib Mahfouz Abdelaziz after the Coptic Christian obstetrician who delivered him, Dr. Naguib Mahfouz.

Mahfouz apparently liked the doctor’s name, because he never used Abdelaziz, his father’s clearly Muslim surname. According to Menahem Milson’s 1998 literary biography -- “Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo” -- Mahfouz lost a government scholarship to study in France because of this.

As he later disclosed, the committee handing out the scholarships based on a competitive examination assumed that Mahfouz was Christian and, not wanting to give too many prizes to the Coptic minority, awarded his to a lower-scoring Muslim.

Mahfouz and his family had moved in 1924 to Abbasiya, a more upscale section of Cairo. After attending Islamic elementary schools and a secular high school, he entered King Fouad I University, where he graduated in 1934 with a degree in philosophy.

Later in life, as cited by Milson, Mahfouz recalled a “horrible struggle” within himself during this period over whether to complete his master’s dissertation in philosophy or pursue his passion for fiction.

“I had to make a decision or go mad,” he said. He chose fiction.

Like many educated Egyptians of his generation, Mahfouz was convinced that the key to lifelong economic security was a government position. He worked at the university for five years before winning an appointment to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, due to the good fortune that a former professor and mentor had become the minister.


Several of Mahfouz’s stories would concern the struggles of young men to get jobs or to get ahead in the government bureaucracy, sometimes by corrupt means.

His first major works of fiction were historical allegories set in ancient Egypt that contained allusions to contemporary society and obliquely criticized the ruling monarchy and the high-living, Europe-worshiping pashas and beys of the Egyptian aristocracy.

But by the 1940s, Mahfouz had switched to works of social realism and had set his sights on creating an epic novel about his fellow latter-day Cairenes in the tradition of Dostoevski. That project eventually became “The Cairo Trilogy.”

After finishing the 1,200-page manuscript in 1952, and having failed to immediately find a publisher because it was so long, Mahfouz stopped writing books for five years and concentrated on screenplays. It was only after “Palace Walk” was finally published in 1956, to immediate acclaim, that he returned to literature.

A 1959 novel, “The Children of Gebelawi,” landed Mahfouz in trouble with Muslim conservatives. Serialized in Al Ahram, it was an allegory about religion with characters representing the prophet Muhammad, Jesus and Moses. The novel caused such a stir that it was never published in book form in Egypt.

But after Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 against Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie, extremists in Egypt dredged up the memory of the book and declared Mahfouz to be the Egyptian Rushdie, deserving of death for apostasy.


When the attack came in 1994, it was a shock, Mahfouz said. “They had been threatening me for a long time. But I never grasped the possibility that they might kill a writer because of a story he wrote. They used to try to assassinate ministers, or even the president, but to kill writers -- this was rather new.”

In the 1960s, Mahfouz shed the strict social realism of his earlier works and began to publish detached, existentialist short novels. Of these, the best known is “The Thief and the Dogs,” which casts a bleak light on the failures of the military officers and their hangers-on who took over when Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser threw out the Egyptian monarchy in 1952.

After his retirement from government work, Mahfouz kept an office at Al Ahram and wrote a popular weekly column filled with sage and pithy observations on the questions of the day.

Throughout his life, Mahfouz maintained a strong underlying belief in God.

“I think of him always,” he said in his 1997 interview with The Times. But he did not believe that his success had been preordained. “They say that after something happens, it becomes fate,” he laughed.

Because of his strict observation of routine and schedules, Mahfouz was considered something of an eccentric even by his friends and companions. He left Egypt only three times, twice on the instructions of Nasser to represent the nation at official meetings in Yugoslavia and Yemen and once for surgery in Britain. Even within Egypt, he never strayed beyond Cairo except for his annual seaside holiday in Alexandria.

Pleading ill health, he sent his daughters to Stockholm to accept the Nobel on his behalf. In his 1997 interview he explained: “I don’t like to travel, so I have arranged my life this way. I traveled only in cases of force majeure.”

Mahfouz often remarked that he could have done without the celebrity that came with the Nobel. He was once quoted in a profile in the New York Times as saying: “I am a very old man, an introvert. So winning the Nobel was terrible for me. I won the prize, yes, but I lost everything else.”


He was at once extremely private and extremely gregarious. He never tired of sitting in crowded cafes or of his weekly literary discussions with his circle of friends. Yet he could be so reticent on personal topics that some of these same colleagues did not realize until years after the fact that he had quietly married at age 43. He is survived by his wife, Attiyatullah, and two daughters, Fatima and Umm Kulthoum.

As he described it, he liked variety in his life -- but a very ordered variety. “I don’t like a week to pass without having gone to the movies, and to the theater, and to have worked and to have met my friends.”

Asked late in life what had given him the most pleasure, Mahfouz paused before answering: “To tell you the truth, there is nothing but my work. I dedicated my life to writing, in spite of the fact that I remained an employee all my life.” Over the years, he said, the great lesson that he learned was “to love my work more than its fruit -- more than what it could earn me.”

He will be buried today with a military funeral at a Cairo mosque.

Times staff writer Megan K. Stack in Beirut contributed to this report.



Major works

A look at some of the best-known fiction of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz:

* “The Cairo Trilogy” (1956-57): This tripartite epic -- “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” -- charts the life of a merchant and his extended family living in Islamic Cairo, the 1,000-year-old quarter of the capital where Mahfouz

was born. The domineering father casts an enduring shadow over three generations of his family in a tale that stretches over the first part of the 20th century.

* “The Children of Gebelawi” or “The Children of the Alley” (1959): The patriarch Gebelawi retreats to a mansion he has built in a desert oasis, banishing his children. The book is an allegory of the series of prophets that Islam believes includes Jesus and Moses -- Eissa and Moussa in Arabic -- and culminates in Muhammad. First serialized in Egyptian newspapers in 1959, the novel was banned in book form in Egypt.


* “Miramar” (1967): The story of a beautiful peasant girl who comes to work as a maid at an Alexandria hotel and her dealings with its residents. Told by four narrators, each representing different political views, the book was seen as a criticism of the rule of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

* “The Day the Leader was Killed” (1985): A young man and his fiancee struggle with poverty and limited opportunities, trying to get married. The story leads up to the day when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981, depicting the effect of Sadat’s rule on Egypt.

Source: Associated Press


An Excerpt

She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock. A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently, she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her room would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet rapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase.

Habit awoke her at this hour. It was an old habit she had developed when young and it had stayed with her as she matured. She had learned it along with the other rules of married life. She woke up at midnight to await her husband’s return from his evening’s entertainment. Then she would serve him until he went to sleep. She sat up in bed resolutely to overcome the temptation posed by sleep. After invoking the name of God, she slipped out from under the covers and onto the floor. Groping her way to the door, she guided herself by the bedpost and a panel of the window. As she opened the door, faint rays of light filtered in from a lamp set on a bracketed shelf in the sitting room. She went to fetch it, and the glass projected onto the ceiling a trembling circle of pale light hemmed in by darkness. She placed the lamp on the table by the sofa. The light shone throughout the room, revealing the large, square floor, high walls, and ceiling with parallel beams. The quality of the furnishings was evident: the Shiraz carpet, large brass bed, massive armoire, and long sofa draped with a small rug in a patchwork design of different motifs and colors.

From “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz