Adieu Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz is no more. He passed away on August 30, 2006 at the age of 94. Mahfouz, was the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. For decades he held the torch of humanism in  Egypt and beyond. His writings were vibrant and cheerful like the alleys of old Cairo bringing all the facets of Cairo alive. Most of his novels were set within the1,000-year-old Islamic quarter of Cairo where he lived all his life wading through the crowded alleys and passing by the majestic mosques. But Cairo was only a symbol – a great one at that – for the world and its contradictions.

Mahfouz’s 50 novels and other writings were about Egypt veering  between tradition and the modernity in a strikingly realistic style.  The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street) is a masterpiece and brings several eras to life while narrating an outwardly simple tale of a Muslim family that resembles Mahfouz’s own clan.

Explaining the significance of Cairo and Egypt in Mahfouz’s work, the late Edward Said wrote: “As a geographical place and as history, Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz’s Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity.” (New York Review of Books, November 30, 2000). Below an image of Al Azhar in Islamic Cairo. Here are some breathtaking photos of Islamic Cairo that might explain why are old Cairo quarters so inspirational.

Mahfouz’s 1959 allegorical novel, Children of Gebelawi, imagined the lives of Quranic prophets and caused much uproar later banned by the clergy. Yes he was hounded by the extremists- and stabbed at the age of 82 – for being a humanist before a dogmatic faithful. But he held his ground and fought events with his good humour and creativity. Read a composite obituary here

 Mahfouz’s biographer and translator Raymond Stock, called him as “a great son of Egypt, a patriot in the fullest sense of the word.” Fatma Moussa, a prominent Egyptian writer put it aptly that his work’s relevance “has to do with the plight of humanity as a whole. He has presented it from the local angle, but it’s not really local at all. It’s kind of a microcosm of the whole world, a little image of the fate of man.”

Here’s a great excerpt:

“Zaabalawi!” he said, frowning in concentration, “You need him? God be with you, for who knows, I Zaabalawi, where you are?”
“Doesn’t he visit you?” I asked eagerly.
“He visited me some time ago. He might well come now; on the other hand I mightn’t see him till death!”
I gave an audible sigh and asked:
“What made him like that?”
He took up his lute. “Such are saints or they would not be saints,” he said laughing.
“Do those who need him suffer as I do?”
“Such suffering is part of the cure!”
(from ‘Zaabalawi,’ 1965)

And, for Urdu readers:
Please read Kishwar Naheed’s touching article (published in the Daily Jang) on her meeting with Mahfouz that talks of his humility, progressive views and living a full life even at age 94. Click here.  

Published on September 2, 2006 at 1:57 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Beautiful ! JazzakAllah

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