Naguib Mahfouz

Remembering one of Egypt’s first great novelists.

Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, died today at the age of 94. I met him in December. He was at the back of a bar in a Cairo hotel on the Nile, and in the orange glow of the dark room he pressed his eyelids together like a cat dozing in the sun. He’d fallen at home earlier in the day, and he seemed fragile.

His friends were concerned for his health, especially Raymond Stock. Raymond is an American academic and Mahfouz’s biographer and translator. It is worth noting that for all the boilerplate criticism of Orientalism and how Western writing on the Middle East implicitly subjugates the Arab world, two of Mahfouz’s most careful scholars, and greatest admirers, are Westerners. Professor Menahem Milson is an Israeli academic here in Jerusalem and the author of another biography of Mahfouz, and Raymond is a Michigan native who has made Cairo his home these last dozen years. On this day, Raymond had invited me to meet Mahfouz and I asked along my friend Muhammad, a 26-year-old Egyptian journalist and intellectual. Mahfouz is part of his heritage, just as the pyramids are, and he had never seen his hero up close.

Mahfouz seemed to enjoy these nights out with friends, admirers, and strangers, to smoke, talk, and mostly, at his age, listen. He was so hard of hearing that his interlocutors took turns sitting next to him to shout in his ear and ask their questions, “NAGUIB BEY, NAGUIB BEY, WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT … ?”

Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and raised in Gamaliya—a working-class district named after the “Camel road”—among the monuments of the ancient city’s Fatimid period where he first learned to listen to the generations of Egypt and heard their warnings, their dreams and petitions, and the echoes of them. For instance, in the plot against the rebel pharaoh Akhenaton, Mahfouz heard the clamor of Anwar Sadat’s Islamist assassins, who sent the president off to the next world shouting “death to the pharaoh.”

Fate left all that material in Mahfouz’s path, but it was the politics that men make that cursed his beloved Egypt with military dictatorships and yet more tyranny. Nasser’s revolution found an easy external enemy in Israel while the country’s perpetual internal foes went unchecked—poverty, illiteracy, disease, and dictatorship. That is probably not how Mahfouz would have imagined Egypt’s future when he graduated from Cairo University in 1934, during a time of social ferment and hope, when the country was steered by liberal intellectuals, writers in whose work he had immersed himself since adolescence. Their themes were equal rights for women and minorities and an Egyptian identity based not on religion but on the country’s long history and territorial integrity. They derived their ideas from classical liberal principles, the work of French and English political philosophers, and thus could hardly see themselves as anti-Western. Rather, it was a generation that struggled with the challenge of the West, a generation that, among its many other cultural achievements, made the novel into an Arab art form. After all, Mahfouz and the Arab novel are almost exact contemporaries; the first modern Egyptian novel, Zeinab, was published three years after Mahfouz was born.

His own first novel was published in 1939, and he went on to write 40 novels and short-story collections, dozens of screenplays and literary criticism. Among his best-known books are Thief and the Dog, Miramar, and The Cairo Trilogy, a multigenerational family epic that begins with the 1919 Egyptian revolution—arguably the only popular revolution in the modern Arab world—and extends through the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power. Mahfouz was not merely a scribe; he also participated in modern Egyptian history, albeit unwillingly, for the Islamists came for him, too, more than a decade ago to repay him for a book.

Children of the Alley first appeared in serial form in 1959 and so outraged the religious authorities for its depiction of God and the prophets that Mahfouz agreed not to have the book published in Egypt, though it has been in circulation elsewhere in the Arab world and in dozens of other languages ever since. A year after Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize, Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind sheikh now held in a U.S. penitentiary for his involvement in the first World Trade Center attack, noted that had someone punished Mahfouz for his famous novel, Salman Rushdie would not have dared to publish Satanic Verses. In 1994, one of Sheikh Omar’s acolytes acted on the hint and stabbed Mahfouz in the neck and nearly killed him. And thus Mahfouz joined the long line of Egyptian writers and intellectuals caught between the state on one side and the religion of the state closing in on the other flank.

That night, the Mahfouz circle was talking about Children of the Alley again. A local newspaper, the same one that reprinted the notorious Muhammad cartoons, had excerpted sections of the banned novel without the consent of Mahfouz or his publisher, and no one could figure out why. Mahfouz was angry. The last thing he needed was trouble from the Islamists again, and he had promised Al-Azhar, the state’s highest religious authority, that the book would not be published in Egypt without their permission.

“It is obvious why the men of religion don’t like the book,” Muhammad said to me. “The characters are named so that they refer to specific prophets, and the last prophet is named after science. This is very controversial since in Islam the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, is Muhammad, the messenger of God.” Muhammad believes that Children of the Alley is Mahfouz’s best book. “Better than the Bible and the Quran,” he whispered. I told him he should let Naguib Bey know that. “I’ll have to shout it out loud, and everyone will look at me,” he said.

Muhammad is an extremist of self-effacement, a writer who burns or destroys many of his own stories and articles and tells me later about the Western and Arab sources he has drawn on, the historical analogies and careful arguments he uses to make his case. For instance, Muhammad wonders if the real question is not what went wrong for the Arabs, but what the historical processes were that went right for the West. I figure that whatever the questions are, at least a few of the answers to the world’s problems are somewhere in Muhammad’s ashtray.

Still, I understand why his hero Mahfouz unnerves him. Mahfouz is an example of a liberal intellectual who spoke his mind and paid for it over many years. Why pursue that sort of life if—in spite of the avid readership and the interested fans—the result is only alienation from one’s society? A sensibility as expansive as that—as large as Mahfouz’s—can have no rest in Egypt. Nonetheless, Mahfouz loved his country so much he left it only twice; someone else went to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize. What Egyptian cultural life will look like after his death is a question that not even he could have answered.

But at the end of the evening, Muhammad made his way through the small throng of admirers and leaned down to tell the old man what his work had meant to him. “Again please,” Mahfouz said. So Muhammad had to say it again, loud enough that everyone in the room turned to look.