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Happy birthday, Naguib Mahfouz

December 11, 2011 |  8:26 am

Naguib-mahfouzHe was the first Arab author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and, had he lived, today would be Naguib Mahfouz’s 100th birthday.  His writings — most famously his magnum opus “The Cairo Trilogy” — evoked what John Daniszewski, the former Times staff writer who wrote his obituary, termed “the scent, color and texture of life in the streets of his native Cairo.” Born Dec. 11, 1911, Mahfouz, who was also a screenwriter, journalist and essayist, died in 2006 at 94.

To commemorate his 100th birthday, the American University in Cairo Press (and Oxford University Press) has published a 20-volume Naguib Mahfouz Centennial Library, which includes the author’s 35 novels. Anchor Books, a division of Random House, is reissuing his Cairo trilogy in new paperback editions.

A social critic, philosopher and passionate defender of free expression, Mahfouz was often threatened by religious extremists who, Daniszewski wrote, "considered his work an affront to Islam." In 1994, he was attacked by a young fanatic who plunged a knife into Mahfouz’s throat, nearly killing the writer. The attack left him unable to work with his right hand, his writing hand, and his health further deteriorated.

A private man who avoided travel at all costs — he sent his daughter to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 — Mahfouz once remarked to the New York Times that he could have done without the celebrity that came with the award. “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.”

At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq after 9/11, he feared that chaos would engulf Arab nations. “I have a terrible vision of the reign of chaos,” Mahfouz told Egypt’s semi-official Al Ahram newspaper. “And those Arabs who imagine they will be a safe distance are under a foolish and grave illusion, for they will be the first to pay the price of the war.”

The chaos he envisioned didn't come as a result of the war in Iraq, but a different kind of change came to the Arab world this year, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, and now Egypt is going through the growing pains of revolution. It’s a shame that Mahfouz isn’t around to provide perspective on the historic changes taking place in his homeland.

More after the jump

After being awarded the Nobel, many of his works were quickly published in America. The three books that make up “The Cairo Trilogy" — "Palace Walk," “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — follow one family "across four decades of social and political upheaval,” Daniszewski wrote. “The novels, which begin in World War I and end after World War II, reveal corruption and licentiousness mixed with piety and dignity in an Egypt undergoing rapid modernization.” 

The following is an excerpt from "Palace Walk," which The Times ran with Mahfouz’s obituary on August 31, 2006:

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.



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 Photo: Undated photo of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo, Egypt. Credit: EPA/STR