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In writer's work, a vanishing Arab world

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 6, 2006



CAIRO

The life of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate who died last week, in many ways charts the rise and fall of a generation of Arab intellectuals who came of age during independence, imbued with socialist and nationalist values they expected would lead their nations to prosperity and prominence.

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A believing Muslim, Mr. Mahfouz, like many of his colleagues, was committed to the separation of church and state, represented in the independence-era slogan of "religion is for God, the nation is for all."

"He expressed enlightenment and tolerance that reject extremism,'' Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said after Mahfouz's death on Aug. 30. "He was a cultural light who brought Arab literature to the world."

More than anything, the man considered by some to be the father of the Arab novel loved Cairo. He rarely left his native city, and his most celebrated works were set amid the alleys and lanes of Islamic Cairo, portraits of the city and those who inhabit it.

But in the last half of his long life, the secular dreams of his youth, and the hope that Egyptians would be delivered from poverty by independence, faded under the weight of a rising, politicized Islam and the failure of the secular state to deliver social justice.

There could be no starker evidence of a changing society than the 1994 attack on him by an Islamic militant that nearly claimed his life. He had always held controversial opinions here, most notably his support for Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, but he was a low-profile figure largely ignored by the government and the public.

Then in 1988, his quiet labor was disrupted when he was awarded the Nobel prize. The following year, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini called for the murder of Salman Rushdie for the alleged crime of blasphemy. The blind Egyptian sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, later jailed in America for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, followed Khomeini's lead and appeared to call for Mahfouz's murder in a 1989 interview.

Had Mahfouz been murdered for his allegorical 1959 book "Children of the Alley," in which a poor Cairo father represents God and his sons Jesus, Mohammed, and other prophets, Mr. Rahman said Mr. Rushdie would never have dared to write "The Satanic Verses,'' notwithstanding the fact that Mahfouz's book was banned across the Arab world.

On Oct. 14, 1994, as Mahfouz left his house with a friend to attend his legendary weekly diwan with other writers and thinkers at a Nile-side cafe, a man stabbed him in the neck. At his trial the attacker, later executed, said he was inspired by Rahman's comments.

"He was the number one soft target in Egypt,'' says Raymond Stock, an American translator and writer currently working on a biography of Mahfouz. "To the Islamists, he symbolized unbelief and support for Israel – all the things they hate the government for. They couldn't get to the leaders, so they went after him."

But Mahfouz, who worked as a government censor in his early years, could at times be contradictory. He supported the peace treaty with Israel, but also defended the use of suicide bombers by Palestinians in their struggles with the Jewish state.

A martyr for free expression to some after his stabbing, he voluntarily agreed with Islamic authorities at Al Azhar University to withhold publication of "Children of the Alley," even after the government lifted its ban following the attack. After that decision, "some of his closest friends accused him of betraying fellow writers,'' says Mr. Stock.

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