Thursday, August 31, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

The life and career of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz were often just as notable as the eccentric characters who populate his wide-ranging works of fiction.

An outspoken social critic who urged moderation among Arabic nations, he was an early and vocal supporter of Egypt's 1978 peace treaty with Israel. A decade later, Mahfouz at first condemned the fatwa against Salman Rushdie as "intellectual terrorism"; he later mitigated his views.

For more than a century, Islamic fundamentalists had often charged Mahfouz himself with blasphemy, especially for his portrayal of Muhammad in Children of Gebelawi, a novel written in 1959 (and no longer in print in the West). Renewed denunciations of Mahfouz accompanied the Rushdie affair, and in 1992, a lone assailant stabbed him in front of his apartment building.

A good summary of Mahfouz's political activism can be found here.

The New York Times obituary calculates that he wrote "33 novels, 13 anthologies of short stories, several plays and 30 screenplays." But he will long be remembered outside of Egypt for his Nobel Prize in Literature, for his Cairo Trilogy, and (perhaps) for a film starring Selma Hayek, which took his novel set in Cairo, Midaq Alley, and transplanted it to Mexico City.

Not surprisingly, far more Americans have seen the movie than have read the novel--but both are excellent in their own ways. After I read the novel, I wrote that it is reminiscent of Tales of the City and "could be (unfairly) dismissed as Melrose Place in Cairo," but "scratch below the surface, and you'll find a morality tale about the ultimate displeasure that materialism brings to those who worship it." The book has improved in my mind with age; I find it immensely more memorable than I would have expected when I read it. It's probably as good as place as any if you're looking for somewhere to start in his vast oeuvre.