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Egyptian Nobel Laureate Dies at 94

August 30, 2006 at 6:40 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The novels of Naguib Mahfouz were set in his own ancient neighborhoods of Cairo, but told stories that resonated well beyond. Mahfouz was long regarded as the Arab world’s foremost novelist. His best known works in English are the novels in the so-called “Cairo Trilogy.” And in 1988, he became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

His was a strong voice for religious tolerance and women’s rights in the Muslim world.

NAGUIB MAHFOUZ, Nobel Laureate (through translator): I support human rights in general, and it is impossible to support human rights and avoid giving half of humanity, which is women, their rights, too. So I support women in their right to learn, work, and all other things that any free person can take in this culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: But his writings and ideas made him the target of religious fundamentalists. In 1994, he was stabbed by an Islamic militant. Mahfouz continued to work into his last years. The author of more than 30 novels died today in Cairo at age 94.

And joining us is Roger Allen, a leading translator of the works of Mahfouz into English. He’s a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Allen, why don’t we just start with the big picture? What was Mahfouz’s significance to Arabic and world literature?

ROGER ALLEN, University of Pennsylvania: Well, let’s start with world literature, because obviously he’s the first and, in fact, the only Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize. So when you’re dealing with a non-Western writer like him, a primary function of this event is to introduce a world readership and, in our case, an Anglophone readership, to a literary culture which may be quite unfamiliar.

And that, as I well know, has been the case in that Naguib Mahfouz’s works have been introduced into school curricula, into anthologies of world literature, and so on. That’s on the global, if you would like, the world scale.

But even before he won the Nobel Prize, Naguib Mahfouz was acknowledged throughout the Arab world, and perhaps for the first time in that very diverse series of nations and cultures, as the person who laid the foundations for the Arabic novel, by which I mean the novel being a complex form, that he studied it, he discussed ways in which style, content and structure should be integrated along with the Arabic language.

And during the 1940s, during the Second World War, he set himself to produce a whole series of works in which all these factors came together in a very mature way to essentially provide the foundation of the Arabic novel with the trilogy, which you’ve just mentioned, as perhaps the foundational work.

Themes of his novels

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, most of the stories take place not only in Cairo, but in a particular district in Cairo. He often writes about very ordinary people. Tell us about the themes that he was addressing.

ROGER ALLEN: Well, obviously he's a civil servant. He was a civil servant throughout his life. Many of his novels involved bureaucrats, petty bureaucrats, people from the middle class, the attempt of the middle class to improve its lot, but also of the poorer classes, as well, the people in the older quarters of the cities.

But his themes obviously include the great theme of all novels, which is the process of change. But he was particularly interested, because he studied philosophy at the university, in some of the dilemmas, such as the integration of religion and science; the process of trying to create a post-independence society; and to provide a sense of national identity based on all those factors, religion, socialism, and the process of trying to blend everything together, so as to produce a novel form which would serve its function reflecting society and trying to advocate the process of change.

Fatwa against Mahfouz

JEFFREY BROWN: And he saw some of his books banned.

ROGER ALLEN: Indeed.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned the attack on him. He clearly lived in a debate or contention that is very much with us today, this debate over modernity and religion, the role of religion. Tell us how it played out in his life.

ROGER ALLEN: Well, you've just described, of course, the tragic fact that, in 1994, as the result of a fatwa issued by Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was later to come to the United States and be involved in the first bombing of the World Trade Center, a fatwa was issued in 1989 following the Salman Rushdie-Ayatollah Khomeini fatwa against Mahfouz.

He was very concerned about the status of religion and the process of belief in a modern society and in a society, particularly in the Arab world, where you were contrasting the forces of secularism and, if you like, popular religion, a term I prefer to fundamentalism.

And as we know now, I might say to our cost, these are primary issues in the majority of states in the Middle East as we speak. And that was for him -- throughout his life, in fact, beginning in the 1930s -- a primary concern of his.

Naquib Mahfouz- end of an era

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you knew him well.

ROGER ALLEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us a brief idea of the man. I read that he had some -- he was highly disciplined in his writing habits. He also liked to frequent the literacy cafes of Cairo. Tell us, give us a brief look at the man.

ROGER ALLEN: Indeed. I said earlier he's a civil servant. He was incredibly organized. The joke was that in Cairo you could set your clock by where Naguib Mahfouz was at any time, at least until the attempt on his life when his life became more constrained.

But the thing I would say about him is, firstly, in spite of his fame, in spite of his genius as a writer, he was an incredibly humble and open personality, always ready to listen to other people, and never wishing to dominate conversation.

But the thing which will remain with me forever from my meetings with him was the fact that, if Egyptians have one of the greatest proclivities for humor in the world, as far as I'm concerned, Naguib Mahfouz was one of the great humorists that I know, a master of the one-liner, whether in the form of a joke or a retort to something which somebody else has said.

He was a very, very humble and a great man and a great intellectual. And his death is really the end of an era in a very real sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Roger Allen, thanks very much for joining us.

ROGER ALLEN: Thank you.