Egyptian writer, Nobel winner Mahfouz dies

Novelist, dead at 94, was first Arab to earn famed prize in honor of literary output

August 31, 2006|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Naguib Mahfouz, the cafe denizen who became the first Arab author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature - for novels that evoked the scent, color and texture of life in the streets of his native Cairo - died yesterday. He was 94.

Mr. Mahfouz had been hospitalized in Cairo since taking a fall last month. He died after suffering a bleeding ulcer, his doctors told news services.

Mr. Mahfouz's life traced an outline of the daily pleasures and political struggles of his beloved homeland, and the broader Arab world beyond. In his writing, he celebrated ordinary Egyptian lives, toyed with religion and criticized aristocracy. He suffered a knife wound at the hands of an enraged Muslim fundamentalist, and fretted in his final years over the "chaos" he feared would engulf Arab nations because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"I have a terrible vision of the reign of chaos," Mr. Mahfouz said in Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper at the beginning of 2003. "And those Arabs who imagine they will be at a safe distance are under a foolish and grave illusion, for they will be the first to pay the price of the war."

Tiny and frail-looking, in thick dark eyeglasses and oversized coats that hung from his frame, Mr. Mahfouz was a social critic, a philosopher and a passionate defender of free expression who remained undaunted by the threats of religious extremists who considered his work an affront to Islam.

Although condemned to death in a fatwa handed down by Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, Mr. Mahfouz refused to alter his routine of 30 years. He spent every Friday evening in repartee and gossip with a circle of friends and literary colleagues at a favorite coffee shop in Cairo's clamorous downtown.

It was en route to one such sitting that he was attacked in 1994 by a young fanatic who later admitted that he had never read a single Mahfouz novel. The attacker buried a knife in Mr. Mahfouz's throat.

The wound missed the author's carotid artery but caused nerve damage, leaving his right hand - the hand with which he wrote - incapacitated. After the attack, Mr. Mahfouz's already poor eyesight and hearing deteriorated.

But he retained his love of life. "The channels between myself and the sources of culture have been severed," he said in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "There is no book in my life now; there is no TV or music. I have only my friends left. They tell me about the novelties in life, and I am pleased with that."

Raised in the Gamaliya district in the heart of what is today known as Islamic Cairo, he was a keen observer of the colorful characters and the quotidian conflicts of the families living in the warren of streets surrounding the 1,000-year-old Al Azhar Mosque.

As a child, he admired the accomplishments of Western culture but resented its presence in the form of the British army. Although only 7 at the time of a 1919 popular uprising that won Egypt partial independence from Britain, he remained a lifelong adherent to the values of liberal democracy, tolerance and social justice embodied by the Wafd Party that led the revolt.

The various political philosophies that washed over the intellectual classes in the Arab world during his lifetime - Marxism, Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism - held little allure for Mr. Mahfouz. He was an early advocate of detente with Israel and, to the chagrin of many of his compatriots, defended the 1978 Camp David accords until the time of his death.

For the first half of his life, Mr. Mahfouz wrote - always in longhand with ballpoint pens - in relative obscurity while struggling to get by on the salary of a government bureaucrat. "In the mornings, I was an employee. In the afternoons, I was a writer," he recalled.

During a 37-year public-service career until his retirement at age 60, he was at various times a university secretary, an assistant to the minister of religious endowments, a director in the Ministry of Culture and an adviser on film. Ironically, for a lifelong advocate of free artistic expression, he also served for a number of years as Egypt's chief censor.

By all accounts, he was an able and conscientious employee, giving government business his full attention during working hours, and he said that the contacts he had with the public in his daily duties provided grist for his fiction.

With prodigious discipline, he returned home in the afternoon for a late lunch and then without fail would sit down and write for at least two hours a day. By the end of his life, he had produced more than 50 novels and short stories, eight volumes of essays, a number of screenplays and countless newspaper columns.

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