Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Today in Literary History - Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz is Born in Cairo


On December 11, 1911, the Nobel Prize winning Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo. A student of philosophy, he was the author of thirty-three novels, thirteen short story collections, thirty screenplays, numerous stage plays, newspaper columns, essays, travelogues, memoirs, and political analyses. Mahfouz is said to be the most read Arabic novelist both inside and outside of the Arab world. Some of his books, most notably the Cairo Trilogy, which covers the first half of the twentieth century, and Sugar Street, which focuses on three generations of a Cairo family from the years 1917 to 1952, have been compared to Dickens, Tolstoy, and Balzac. And though he could write wonderful epics, he was also a master of the novella. His most notable is perhaps The Day the Leader Was Killed and focuses on the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat.

Although Mahfouz could and did write convincing portraits of assassins and terrorists, he took a firm stand against terrorism himself. When he verbally lent his support to the 1978 Camp David Accords, he was physically attacked by Muslim fundamentalists. His book, Children of Gebelawi (Children of the Alley), published in 1959 and first serialized in Egyptian newspapers, was considered so blasphemous against fundamental Islam that it was banned in Egypt, and Omar Abdul-Rahman pronounced a fatwa against Mahfouz. In 1994, Mahfouz, then eighty-three, was stabbed in the neck and severely wounded just outside of his apartment in an attempt to carry out this fatwa. “This incident,” Mahfouz said, “is an opportunity to ask God to make the police defeat terrorists and to plead for the country to be purified of this evil in defense of people, liberty and Islam.” Mahfouz only partially recovered from his injuries; he suffered from health problems, most particularly nerve damage that limited his ability to write, for the rest of his life.

Mahfouz loved Egypt dearly and portrayed its capital, Cairo, vibrantly in his work. His epic works introduced a character who became an icon in Egyptian culture – Si-Sayed, a domineering father struggling to hold his family together during times of trouble.

Mahfouz’s final published work, in 2005, was a collection of short stories about the afterlife titled The Seventh Heaven. “I wrote The Seventh Heaven,” said Mahfouz, “because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death. Spirituality for me is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration for me.”

Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the first Arabic writer to win. In July 2006, Mahfouz fell during a midnight stroll and injured his head. He spent the final month of his life in a hospital and died in Cairo in August 2006 at the age of ninety-four.

Also on December 11, 1991, author Salman Rushdie made his first public appearance after three years in hiding from a fatwa issued against him. According to Omar Abdul-Rahman, had the fatwa against Naguib Mahfouz been successfully carried out, it would have not been necessary to issue one against Rushdie. Both authors offended the tenets of extremist Islam and Muslim fundamentalism. Rushdie is known for his books that celebrate a whirlwind of language, most notably his "Booker of Bookers" winner, Midnight's Children.

Both Mahfouz and Rushdie are wonderful authors, though very different, and should be read by all who love great literature.

(The photo shows Naguib Mahfouz in 2004.)

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