The story of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz is the story of modern Egypt itself. Born in 1911 in the Gamaliya district of Cairo, Mahfouz witnessed the last days of British colonial rule and Ottoman influence, the nationalist struggle of Saad Zaghloul, the reigns of King Fuad and King Farouq, the military coup of 1952, the establishment of the republic, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s takeover in 1954, the Suez Canal crisis, the rule of Anwar al-Sadat, the Camp David accords of 1978 and finally the brutal dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. An avid reader, Mahfouz had a lifelong passion for the history of ancient Egypt, particularly its pharaohs: Akhenaten, who rejected pantheism in favor of monotheism; Menenre II, who ruled briefly at the end of the sixth dynasty; Khufu, who built the great pyramid at Giza; Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife and mother-in-law to Tutankhamen.
Mahfouz found inspiration in his country’s history, both ancient and recent, and in its transformation into a modern nation. His first three novels (Mockery of the Fates, Rhadopis of Nubia, Thebes at War) were historical works about ancient Egypt. He portrayed Khufu as a man struggling against his destiny; he imagined Menenre as falling in love with the Nubian courtesan Rhadopis; and he depicted Egypt’s fight for independence from foreign invaders. After the mid-1940s, Mahfouz’s interest shifted to social realism. His masterpiece, the “Cairo Trilogy” (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street), written in 1952 and published in 1956 and 1957, portrayed three generations of an Egyptian family struggling against an autocratic ruler, the patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. In trying to get out from under Jawad’s thumb, his children and grandchildren successively turn to capitalism, communism and Islamic fundamentalism. During the 1960s and ’70s, he experimented with other literary forms, such as Modernism, symbolism and even romance. In 1983 he combined his passions for ancient and modern Egypt in the ambitious and yet-untranslated novel Before the Throne, in which all of Egypt’s rulers, up to and including Sadat, are brought before a court presided over by Osiris to be judged for their actions.
Like Émile Zola, Mahfouz chronicled the lives of the most ordinary of his countrymen: peasants, workers, housewives, shopkeepers, prostitutes. Like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he set most of his novels in one beloved city–Cairo, in his case. Like his elders Taha Husayn and Tawfiq al-Hakim, he took on the role of national storyteller. He was exceedingly prolific: more than thirty novels and as many screenplays, thirteen collections of short stories, a handful of plays and numerous articles and columns for the newspaper Al-Ahram, which also published many of his novels in serialized form.
Mahfouz was capable of taking a firm stand at the risk of his popularity. He criticized Nasser at a time when the statesman received wide support not only in Egypt but also throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, he famously approved of the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, a position that resulted in the banning of his work in some Arab countries. Still, he continued to be read widely in the Arabic-speaking world, and translations of his work into English (via a half-dozen translators, which might explain why his work reads differently from book to book) brought him a worldwide audience, culminating in the Nobel Prize he received in 1988.
Mahfouz’s life was not devoid of contradictions. Although he was a man of letters, he also served as director of censorship for the State Cinema Organization, which garnered him criticism from his country’s intellectuals. His instincts as a writer prevailed, however, when in 1989 he offered his support to Salman Rushdie after the infamous fatwa on The Satanic Verses. Mahfouz opposed the fatwa as essentially un-Islamic and stated clearly his defense of freedom of expression. But in 1992 he appeared to shift his position slightly, saying that, while the fatwa was intolerable, Rushdie’s novel was “insulting” to Islam. Why Mahfouz, who in 1959 produced a novel (Children of Gebelawi) that portrays God, Adam, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as mere mortals, should have found The Satanic Verses to be offensive is a bit of a mystery. In any case, Islamic fundamentalists, bent on waging a culture war, turned against Mahfouz, precisely because of Children of Gebelawi. In 1994 he was stabbed in the neck and as a result of his injury he was unable to hold a pen or a pencil in his writing hand.
But The Professor, as Mahfouz was widely known in Egypt, remained active, receiving friends and admirers in his home for spirited literary discussions. His modesty was legendary, his devotion to his literary work exemplary and his influence extraordinary, particularly for a man who never traveled outside Egypt–he did not even attend the Nobel ceremony. His lifelong concern was his beloved Egypt, and how its two great civilizations–Pharaonic and Islamic–contribute to a unique and independent national identity.
With the death of Mahfouz, Egypt has been deprived of its greatest living writer and of its last icon of the twentieth century, and the world has lost one of its most humane literary figures.