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Egypt's own, admired by the world - Naguib Mahfouz dies at 94

Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most influential writers in the Arab world and the first (and so far only) Arab writer ever to win the Nobel Prize, died in a Cairo hospital on Wednesday morning. He was 94. Mahfouz had been physically frail and nearly blind for several years. On July 19, he fell in the street during a midnight stroll and sustained a head injury. He had been hospitalized in intensive care ever since, his condition fluctuating as he suffered dramatic drops in blood pressure and kidney failure. According to Hossam Mowafi, head of the medical team caring for Mahfouz at the Police Hospital in Cairo, the immediate cause of the famed writer's death was a bleeding ulcer.

Mahfouz was born in 1911 in the Al-Jamaliyya district of Cairo, the youngest of six children in a relatively middle class family. He studied philosophy at Cairo University and wrote his first novel in 1939.

In the decades since, he had published some 60 more books, including heavily researched historical fiction and sprawling, intricately structured novels about contemporary Egyptian life.

Intensely prodigious throughout his life, he also wrote hundreds of short stories, screenplays, newspaper columns, essays and more.

By one estimate, Mahfouz put out an average of three books every two years since 1975. He kept up this pace until the very end. His last work translated into English, "The Seventh Heaven: Stories of the Supernatural," came out late last year. It followed a similar collection entitled "Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales," and a volume called "Dreams" - 104 sharp, short and dazzling prose poems that were taken down in dictation. (Proof that nothing but death would stop him, a second volume of the "Dreams" was scheduled for publication next year.)

Rather famously, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a religious fanatic in 1994, apparently in response either to the author's stance on the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses" or to the decision of Al-Azhar, one of the most important Islamic institutions in the world, to ban Mahfouz's 1959 novel "Children of Gabalawi" on grounds of blasphemy.

The attack severely damaged the nerve endings leading to Mahfouz's right arm and made him incapable of holding a pen - he never wrote in any way other than longhand. For that reason, he continued to "write" verbally with the aid of an assistant. But he said at the time that he could no longer compose full novels, only narrative fragments.

Mahfouz's greatest contribution to Arabic literature was the consolidation and strengthening of the Arabic novel itself.

Scholars have usually pegged Mohammad Hussein Haykal's "Zaynab" as the prototypical Arabic novel. It was published right around the time Mahfouz was born.

But Mahfouz was the first Arabic writer to commit himself fully to the form, using the novel - not native to the Middle East - to express the hopes and dreams of a nation by both plunging into its ancient past and enlivening its present on the page. His prose style was realistic and relished the tension between tradition and modernity.

Outside of his writing, Mahfouz stoked controversy with his support for the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, though he regularly spoke out for an independent Palestinian state and against the US's firm backing of Israel.

Mahfouz won the Nobel in 1988 on the strength of "The Cairo Trilogy" - "Palace Walk," "Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street" - all written in Arabic over three decades earlier. At the time of the Nobel, these novels, chronicling three generations in an Egyptian family through rise and decline, had not yet been translated into English. That came only a few years later.

As of the early 1990s, however, Mahfouz had become an international literary star and the most famous writer from the Arab world. Among contemporary novelists, he became one of the very few to shed his geographic prefix. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera, at a certain point, one no longer needed to slip in the words "Egyptian writer." Naguib Mahfouz's name was enough.

That said, he remained deeply rooted in Egypt and left his native country only twice before 1989.

When he fell ill this summer, Mahfouz's family reportedly declined offers of treatment in the United States.

His literary characters have become known across the Arab world, both through his books and through adaptations in Egyptian cinema.

Mahfouz himself cut an affable and immediately recognizable figure on the streets of Cairo. Even into old age, he used to go out almost every night to the city's cafes to meet friends, trade jokes and tell stories.

His death has elicited warm words of condolence from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef, Jordan's King Abdullah, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, French President Jacques Chirac and even US President George W. Bush, along with a deluge of literary figures such as dramatist Ali Salem, novelists Youssef al-Qaeed and Ahdaf Souief.

According to Souief: "[Mahfouz] was a massively important influence ... He single-handedly went through the whole development of the Arabic novel and made innovation possible for generations of writers after him."

Added Salem: "I [adored] him not only as a writer, but as a wonderful human being ... He [had] the best sense of humor in all of Egypt."

Mahfouz is to be buried today. According to the Associated Press, he said last year that he published his last collection, "The Seventh Heaven," "because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death."

Beirut,08 30 2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
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