Thursday, August 31, 2006

Preeminent Egyptian Novelist Naguib Mahfouz Dies

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz (Najeeb Mahfoudh), arguably the Arab world’s greatest novelist, and the only Arab to be awarded a Nobel prize in literature, at 1988, died yesterday at a hospital in Cairo. He was 94.

Mahfouz was a distinguished, prolific writer, a humanist, a free thinker, and a unique example of the rare breed of Arab intellectuals managing to break free of the constraints of Arab society to preach a universal message of tolerance.

It is no wonder that Islamists condemned him for this very reason. In 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by extremists while he was taking his daily walk to a favourite café in Cairo. He survived the assault but lived under constant protection by the authorities ever since.

In addition to the hostility he faced from the religious establishment, he was also criticized by so-called intellectuals in the Arab world for his moderate stance toward Israel and his outspoken support for President Anwar Al-Sadat and the Camp David peace accords. Before that, he was branded a reactionary because of his well-hidden disapproval of the destructive policies of President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the coup that brought him to power in 1952. Many of his novels were banned in Arab countries.

Mahfouz is most celebrated for his epic work, The Cairo Trilogy, a novel in three volumes (Bain Al-Qasrain, Qasr Al-Shawq, Al-Sukkariya) published in 1955, which follows the fortunes of a middle-class Egyptian family through three generations during British colonial rule, independence under the monarchy and the coup that brought Arab nationalists to power. The last installment was significant because it depicted the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt around WWII and the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) movement, which later produced people like Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The trilogy shares many similarities with The Brothers Karamazov (not surprising since Fiodor Dostoevsky was a huge influence on the Egyptian novelist), both in its underlying philosophical questions, and its portrayal of the author’s own struggle with spiritual and social issues.

His stellar novel, Children of Gebelaawi (Awlad Haritna), also known as Children of Our Alley, first published in a serialised version in the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper in 1959, brought him unwanted attention from Islamists. It was banned in Egypt on the request of Al-Azhar University because of its allegorical portrayal of God and the lives of the prophets Adam, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.

Children of Gebalaawi is divided into five episodes. The first four represent the stories of Adam (Adham), Moses (Gebel), Jesus (Rifa’a), and Mohammed (Qasim), while the last embodies modern man, or science (in the character of Arafa), on a quest to reinstate the rights of the poor and the oppressed inhabitants of the alley, also killing the enigmatic Gebelaawi (God) in the way.

Al-Azhar University, and later the fundamentalist Jihad group, condemned the work as blasphemous, since it depicted the Islamic prophet Mohammed as a womaniser, and an alcohol-drinking, hashish-smoking ruffian; the death of God (in the character of Gebelaawi); and the alleged ridicule of the Quran because the novel had 114 chapters (which, incidentally, is the number of suras or chapters in the Quran).

During the furor in the Islamic world following the publishing of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa for apostasy, blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdul Rahman stated that if Mahfouz was punished for his novel, Rushdie would not have dared write his. It didn’t help that Mahfouz publicly defended Rushdie’s right to publish his novel.

Naguib Mahfouz maintained that Children of Gebalaawi was a religious work that represented man’s search for spiritual values, and that he actually portrayed skewed ideas that man have made of God and religion.

Mahfouz was buried at Al-Hussein mosque near his birthplace in Cairo, according to his will. His funeral was attended by a few friends and relatives and a score of Egyptian officials, but the people of Cairo who made the characters of Mahfouz's novels were absent.

It is regrettable that funerals of great men, such as Mahfouz, in our Arab world are not attended by the Arab masses that were the main body of their work. Our people prefer to march in thousands at the funerals of their oppressors and dictators.

Big Pharaoh and Sandmonkey on Mahfouz.

NAguib Mahfouz. August, 2006