Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz dies aged 94

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The Independent Online

Egypt paid tribute yesterday to Naguib Mahfouz, father figure of Arabic literature, who died in Cairo aged 94.

Mahfouz, rose to prominence with his portrayals of Egypt under British occupation and the subsequent autocratic rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. His gently sardonic style of writing influenced writers across the Arab world.

The winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature had been ill since sustaining a head injury during a fall in July. He had been suffering from a bleeding ulcer, kidney problems and cardiac failure. Doctors were unable to revive him after he suffered a heart attack early on Wednesday morning.

Mahfouz's 1945 book "New Cairo" combined social criticism and psychological insight to portray living characters in the deeply Islamic slums of Cairo. The realistic style of New Cairo is credited with starting a new school of Arab writing. Another four realistic works followed.

Mahfouz's writing on taboo topics often rankled Islamic conservatives in Egypt and led to an assassination attempt 12 years ago when he portrayed God in one of his novels. The knife attack damaged a nerve and seriously impaired his ability to use his writing hand. Two of his attackers were subsequently hanged.

"They are trying to extinguish the light of reason and thought. Beware, " Mahfouz said after the attack.

Mafouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988 for works which "formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind".

"He came to this world only to write," Egyptian writer Youssef al-Quaid told Egyptian television. "He was the most famous writer in Egypt... He had an incredible ability to create and create all his life."

Mahfouz's support of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel brought him the wrath of many Arab countries, who banned his novels. But many of his works have been made into Arabic films and his books have been widely sold across the Arab world.

His novels, known across the Arab world and translated into several foreign languages, detailed the minutiae of Egyptian life while making subtle - but often controversial - political and philosophical statements. The combination of the political and the personal, said friend and cultural writer Gamal al-Ghitani, made Mahfouz " the conscience of Egypt" .

The oeuvre spans the history of the modern Egyptian state. With his first novel published in 1939, Mahfouz's prolific output stretched to more than 30 novels, over 350 short stories, and five short plays. Many of his works reached a mass audience by being converted for cinema. Among his best-known works are The Cairo Trilogy, and Children of the Alley, the latter of which aroused the opprobrium of Egypt's conservative religious establishment, and was banned.

The Cairo Trilogy, which was published in serial form beginning in 1956 - four years after the Egyptian revolution - won critical acclaim across the Arab world for its unpretentious depictions of urban life, and wound meditations on family and authority for its audience into the fabric of an ancient and familiar city. Children of the Alley, originally published as a serial in 1959 in the Egyptian newspaper-of-record Al Ahram, was met with severe criticism for its supposed allegorical representations of God, Jesus, and Mohammed - in transgression of strict Islamic rules.

The stigma, in some eyes, of having made such a transgression was many years later to nearly kill Mahfouz. In 1994, six years after receiving the Nobel prize and extolling publicly in his address to the Swedish Academy Islam's " value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge" , he was attacked near his home by religious extremists motivated by an alleged fatwa against his work. The then-83 year old was seriously wounded in the neck, and suffered severely damaged nerves to his right (writing) hand.

The 1994 attack was the low-point of Naguib Mahfouz's difficult relationship with some elements of the religiously conservative society in which he lived and worked. His friends avow his liberal principles however, and insist that he had no particular axe to grind with those that believed in the prominent role of Islam in politics. Gamal al-Ghitani told The Independent that, overall" Naguib believed in democracy - even for Islamists. In 1992, when the Algerian army nullified the victory of the Islamists in the elections there, he was angry. He said " the result is the will of the people". Earlier this year, Naguib played what has come to be seen as an ironic final twist in his relationship with the forces of conservative Islam - he asked permission for the belated publication of Children of The Alley.

Since the debilitating knife attack in 94, Mahfouz's health and daily habits became something of a conversation point amongst intellectual circles in Cairo. The ageing Mahfouz, who in latter years was effectively blind, and deaf in one ear, would hold court each Friday in a hotel or bar with a group of friends and admirers.

Egyptian state media, Arab channels and friends have been lining up to pay tribute to the writer. Channel One has been reporting rumours that President Hosni Mubarak will attend his funeral, which will be held on Thursday. National television has also rescheduled programmes for the coming week, intending to show all of the 15 films made so far from his novels. Cultural commentators have been underlining the importance of Mahfouz's work, and what will become his enduring legacy.

Mahfouz's friend, translator and official biographer Raymond Stock said that, " in general, there is a great deal of sadness. His death is symbolic of the end of an era... the end of a great generation of litterateurs." Commenting on his legacy, Mr Stock went on to say that " He has left an incredibly rich and varied legacy. He gave the everyday flavours of life, but his great genius was that he could transcend the local and make it universal."

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