In writer's work, a vanishing Arab world

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

But it was a decision much appreciated by Islamists. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement mourning his passing and praising him as a pious man. "A lot of the things he wrote were wrong, but his agreement with Al Azhar not to publish that blasphemous work was a sign he understood his mistake,'' says Abd al-Munim Abu al-Futuh, a member of the Brotherhood's guidance council.

The attack left the then 83-year-old Mahfouz unable to grasp a pen for years, though it didn't end his hunger for contact with his other friends and writers. Until the last months of his life, he still kept up his weekly salons, his wry and self-effacing presence the glue that held together a dwindling number of Egyptian intellectuals.

"He was the most hail fellow, well-met sort of person that you could imagine,'' says Stock.

In his final years, says Stock, Mr. Mahfouz was a supporter of Mubarak, going so far as to publicly endorse him for president in the country's last election, and the government in turn embraced him as a popular figure whose glory they hoped would reflect upon them. That was a sharp turn from his views on Mubarak's immediate predecessor Anwar Sadat, who was murdered by Islamists for his peace deal with Israel.

Mahfouz loathed Mr. Sadat for his infitah, or open door, policy that reduced the role of the state in Egypt's economy and in providing social welfare, and allowed for more foreign and private investment. He saw the policy as a betrayal of the socialism that Egypt needed, and as the unintentional fuel for the rise of militant Islam.

In his short novel "The Day the President was Killed,'' focusing on a poor family in the days before Sadat's assassination, he chronicles the hardships and disillusion created by the government's economic failures, how so many Egyptians and Arabs have been left feeling adrift in a modern age that has yielded few fruits.

But while still critical of those economic policies that Mubarak carried forward, he saw Egypt's current leader as offering the best possible course. "I think he was very practical-minded,'' says Stock. "He saw Mubarak as building on the best of Sadat with his more grandiose excesses. During his time in power, Egypt had not fallen apart against great odds and Mubarak didn't participate in any foreign adventures."

Nevertheless, the author never gave up on his socialist ideas, or his ties to the people of Cairo's streets – even as the bars and cafes of his youth were either given over to the tourist trade, or vanished altogether.

Key dates in the life of Naguib Mahfouz

1911 - Born in Cairo.

1939 - First novel, "Mockery of the Fates," published.

1956-57 - Famous Cairo trilogy ("Palace Walk," "Palace of Desire," and "Sugar Street") is published.

1959 - Controversial "Children of the Alley" serialized in Egyptian newspapers. Egyptian authorities banned book from publication.

1972 - Among his positions as a civil servant were Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art and as consultant on Cultural Affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

1988 - Awarded Nobel Prize in literature.

1994 - An attacker stabbed Mahfouz in his neck, damaging nerves.

2005 - "The Seventh Heaven," a collection of stories about the afterlife, is published.

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