A Nobel for the Arab Nation

... was won by Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Naguib Mahfouz, chronicler of enduring human values from pharaonic Thebes to modern Cairo's back alleys. On the following pages are Larry Luxner's interview with Mahfouz, and Edward Fox's appreciation of his work.

After I had searched nearly an hour in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili bazaar for the legendary Zuqaq al-Midaq - the eponym of Naguib Mahfouz s most popular novel, Midaa, Alley - a young Egyptian noticed the Mahfouz paperbacks I was carrying and, in near-perfect English, asked me if I really expected to find the famous street.

"Lately, many people are looking for Zuqaq al-Midaq,'' he said, "but the real Midaq exists only in their minds."

After some polite conversation, however, Muhammad pointed out the tiny winding street that had - since the novel's publication - come to be known as Zuqaq al-Midaq. Once inside the narrow passage where Mahfouz used to walk daily, I spotted many shopkeepers who could easily have passed for Abbas the barber, Uncle Kamil the candy-seller, Kirsha the cafe-owner and other inhabitants of Mahfouz's fictional alley.

The alley is in the heart of the ancient Jamaliyya quarter of Cairo, where Mahfouz was born and spent his childhood and where much of his best work is set. His attachment to the quarter is still strong, decades after leaving it for the suburbs, but at 77he laments that he is not able to visit it as often as he used to. The great boulevardier has cut down on the long walks for which he was famous; now he goes mainly to the Ali Baba Cafe on Thursday nights, often in a car, to see his old friends. Last December, the writer's frail health prevented him from traveling to Stockholm to receive personally the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature: His two daughters accepted the award in his name.

Even so, the recognition of his accomplishment means the world to Mahfouz.

"The Nobel Prize has given me, for the first time in my life, the feeling that my literature could be appreciated on an international level," Mahfouz told Aramco World. "The Arab world also won the Nobel with me. I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition."

Hussein al-Habrouk, the writer's long-time interpreter and colleague, recalled that on the day of the announcement of Mahfouz's selection by the Swedish Academy last October, Mahfouz found ten reporters at his home who had heard the news before he had.

Since then, Mahfouz has been interviewed well more than 125 times. When I spoke to him in his sixth-floor office in the modern headquarters of Cairo's leading daily, Al-Ahram, at least a dozen other people were standing in line to see him - including an Egyptian reporter for a Spanish-language weekly in Madrid, television crews from Sweden and East Germany, and a middle-aged couple from Milwaukee.

That Mahfouz talks to the press at all is surprising, considering his near-deafness, his ill health and his hectic schedule. But Mahfouz - a practicing journalist who still writes a weekly column for Al-Ahram entitled "Point of View" - has never had trouble managing his time.

"Frankly, I am one of those people who have prepared my life well," he said. "I wake up early in the morning and walk for an hour. If I have something to write, I prefer to write in the morning until midday, and in the afternoon, I eat. At night, I prefer to sit and watch television. Thursdays and Fridays I consider my holiday, when I meet my friends and my literary colleagues."

According to Habrouk, journalists may no longer tag along with Mahfouz on his daily walks, and television reporters are now banned from the Ali Baba Cafe because their lights and camera equipment disturb the other patrons. Al-Ahram has even purchased a car and hired a driver for Mahfouz, to help him avoid the crowds that invariably pop up wherever he goes.

Mahfouz, whose office is decorated with a self-portrait, various paintings and a window from which he can look across most of downtown Cairo, had simpler beginnings.

He was born in 1911, the son of a middle-class Jamaliyyah merchant, and graduated from Cairo University in 1934 with a degree in philosophy. Following that, he worked in the university administration and then for the government's Ministry of Waqfs, or religious foundations.

"I started writing while I was a little boy," said the author, who wears thick bifocals and speaks passionately. "Maybe it's because I was reading a lot of books I admired, and thought that I would like to write something like that someday. Also, my love for good writing pushed me."

By 1939, Mahfouz had already written his first three novels, one of which - The Struggle of Thebs - drew a parallel between the Hyksos invasion of ancient Egypt and the pre-war British occupation of modern Egypt. He later began work on The Cairo Trilogy, a monumental, 1500-page work that has been published in French and Hebrew but only partly translated into English.

Then, in 1959, Mahfouz serialized one of his most unusual novels, The Children of Gebelawi, in the pages of Al-Ahram. This book, which portrays average Egyptians living the lives of Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, was so controversial that it was banned in all of the Arab world except Lebanon.

Despite the notoriety that Children of Gebelawi attracted, Mahfouz considers the trilogy to be his most important work by far. "If the point of view of the writer is important to his books, then I think The Cairo Trilogy and El-Harifish are much more important works than Children of Gebelawi," he said.

The Nobel Prize is by no means the first recognition of Mahfouz's stature as a writer. In 1970 he received Egypt's National Prize for Letters, and in 1972 won the Collar of the Republic, his nation's highest decoration. In addition, many of his novels have been made into films, and the characters of his stories have become household names throughout Egypt. But the Nobel Prize is the first time Mahfouz has ever received international acclaim.

Arnold Tovell, director of the American University in Cairo Press, says Mahfouz has been overwhelmed by all the resulting attention.

"From Egypt's point of view, it's a major event in cultural life, and Mahfouz sees it as a celebration of Arab literature in general," said Tovell, who says he visits the author at least once a day. "The reason for the worldwide response to Nobel Prize winners in literature varies enormously. Mahfouz is indeed a novelist in the classic sense. What he writes about is so accessible, so human, that it both literally and figuratively translates around the world in a way some other novelists' works do not.

"Through his collected works, you also get a portrait of 20th-century Egypt. Miramar, for example, is a reflection of what Egypt was like for the middle class, but with very specific characters, very real people dealing with extraordinary events in their lives."

The broad appeal of Mahfouz' works has meant that the AUC Press has had to reprint six of his titles because of unprecedented demand for the books. In addition, he said, Mahfouz books are now being translated into Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, French and Icelandic.

"The amount of attention paid to Mahfouz in the Arab press has been stunning," he said. "The whole business got started in these offices. One of the first things we had to do was make sure Mahfouz knew he had won. Since then, we have done nothing but represent him around the world to foreign publishers. We have licensed 20 foreign-language editions of varying titles, and there are probably another 20 which we're in the process of negotiating. In addition, Doubleday in New York has committed itself to publish 14 books by Mahfouz."

Throughout his career, Mahfouz has chronicled the vicissitudes of modern Egypt, and he has often been affected by them himself. Children of Gebelawi is still unpublished in full in Arabic, and until he won the Nobel Prize his works were banned in many Arab countries because of his outspoken support for President Anwar Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel. In 1985, Mahfouz wrote The Day the Leader was Murdered, a description of the Sadat years.

"We are passing through a very sensitive time," Mahfouz said, "and on the whole, this country is facing very big problems. We are like a woman with a difficult pregnancy. We have to rebuild the social classes in Egypt, and we must change the way things were during [President Gamall Abdel Nasser's time. As the tension eases, we must look in the direction of agriculture, industry and education as our final goals, and toward democracy under Mr Mubarak."


(From the ARAMCO WORLD MAGAZINEMarch-April 1989)

Larry Luxner lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he covers manufacturing and shipping news for the New York Journal of Commerce.

Saudi Aramco, the oil company born as a bold international enterprise more than half a century ago, distributes Aramco World to increase cross-cultural understanding. The magazine's goal is to broaden knowledge of the Arab and Muslim worlds and the history, geography and economy of Saudi Arabia. Aramco World is distributed without charge, upon request, to a limited number of interested readers.

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