Naguib Mahfouz, only Arab Nobel winner in literature, dies at 94

Monarch condoles Mubarak, writer’s family

CAIRO — Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, died Wednesday at the age of 94, bringing tributes from literary figures and world leaders for an author who became a symbol of liberalism in the face of extremism.

Mahfouz’s novels depicted modern life in his beloved neighbourhood of Cairo, a teeming district of millenium-old mosques and winding alleyways. He brought to life his city’s traditional families as they faced the 20th century’s upheavals, including the changing role of women.

But he raised controversy among conservatives with his calls for religious tolerance. In 1994, a militant stabbed the then-82-year-old Mahfouz, accusing him of blasphemy because one of his novels, “Children of Gebelawi,” a religious allegory.

Still, Mahfouz continued to write, often dictating stories. He was admitted to the hospital last month after falling in his home and injuring his head, then died Wednesday morning after a sharp decline, said Dr  Hossam Mowafi.

“His wife last night was whispering in his ears and he was smiling and nodding,” said Mowafi. The Nobel Prize, awarded in 1988, introduced to the world a man seen by many as the Middle East’s greatest writer, with 34 novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, dozens of movie scripts and five plays over a 70-year career.

In a condolence statement, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised Mahfouz as “a cultural light” who expressed “the values shared by all, the values of enlightenment and tolerance that reject extremism.” King Abdullah condoled Mubarak and Mahfouz’s family.

“We lost a great innovator and one of the pillars of literature,” the King said in a cable.

US President George W. Bush was saddened at Mahfouz’s death, calling him “an extraordinary artist who conveyed the richness of Egyptian history and society to the world”, the White House said.

A condolence came from Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest Islamic group. A statement on the group’s website Wednesday said “Children of Gebelawi” was seen as a “violation” of Islamic tenets.

Still, Brotherhood leader Mohammad Mahdi Akef said that two senior figures of the group intend to attend Mahfouz’s funeral Thursday.

“We are not gods to punish and reward people. It’s not time to judge him or history, we’re asking for [God’s] mercy for him. He is a great writer,” he told the Associated Press.

Mahfouz’s combination of his literary prominence, modesty and irrepressible sense of humour enabled him to unite Arabs from across the political spectrum — even those who differed with his backing for normalisation of ties with Israel after Egypt signed the 1979 Camp David peace accords.

In his final years, he kept up his evenings in Cairo’s literary cafes, meeting his anti-Israel friends in one and his pro-normalisation ones in another.

“I differed with him a lot, on his stance from Camp David, Egypt’s 1952 revolution, Egypt’s Arabism… He was a liberal man and always asked us to judge him by his writings,” novelist Youssef Qaeed, an old friend of Mahfouz, told Al Jazeera TV.


The state has ordered a military funeral for Mahfouz at a mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood.

But first — in keeping with a request in his will — private prayers for family and friends will be held at Hussein Mosque in Cairo, where his mother took him to pray as a child.

Cairo was for Mahfouz what Saint Petersburg was for Fyodor Dostoevsky or London for Charles Dickens — a canvas on which to depict with startling realism the travails of an Everyman.

The scene of some novels rarely stretched beyond a few familiar blocks of Gamaliya, the corner of the district where he was born on December 11, 1911.

The crowded neighbourhood is the setting for his 1956-1957 masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy — “Palace Walk”, “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street”, which depict a merchant family not unlike Mahfouz’s own.

It introduced a character who became an icon in Egyptian culture: Si-Sayed, the domineering father, who lords his authority over his wives and daughters but holds the family together — a character Mahfouz drew from his own father.

Mahfouz’s Cairo was a place of traditional families, but also prostitutes, drug dealers, and political dissidents.

Promising young men die fighting British colonial rule, revolutions inspire and then bitterly disappoint, women strain against religious and traditional restrictions, gracious old manners surrender to modern ways.

“It has to do with the plight of humanity as a whole,” said Fatma Moussa, a renowned Egyptian critic and writer.

“It’s kind of a microcosm of the whole world, a little image of the fate of man.” He moved easily between genres, from social realism to religious or political allegories.

The “Children of Gebelawi” — or “Children of Our Alley” by its Arabic title was first serialised in Egyptian newspapers in 1959, when Egyptian religious authorities banned it from being published in book form — though it was published in Lebanon.

In a 1989 fatwa, Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman — later convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks — said Mahfouz deserved to die for “Children of Gebelawi.” The man who stabbed Mahfouz admitted in his trial he had never read the book but said he was inspired by the fatwa.

“Children of Gebelawi” will be republished along with all Mahfouz’s other works next year, his publisher said.

The attack damaged nerves leading to Mahfouz’s right arm, seriously impairing his ability to write. A man who had once worked for hours at a time — writing in longhand — found it a struggle to “form legible words running in more or less straight lines,” he wrote in the aftermath.

Still, he continued to produce short-short stories, sometimes only a few paragraphs long. His final published major work came in 2005, a collection of stories about the afterlife titled “The Seventh Heaven”.

“I wrote ‘The Seventh Heaven’ because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death,” the wispy-bearded writer told AP with a grin during a small gathering for his 94th birthday in December.

“Spirituality for me is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration for me.”

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