Egypt's National Treasure

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When the Swedish Academy gave the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 there were still plenty of people in the U.S. who had no idea that there was such a thing as an Egyptian novelist. Mahfouz, who died Wednesday at 94, was the avatar of an Arab culture a lot of Americans had no concept of: a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, humane, humorous literary culture very different from the Islamic fundamentalism that was more visible on the evening news.

Mahfouz was born in the now almost unimaginable year of 1911, in Cairo, and for the rest of his long life he rarely left that city. He worked as a civil servant in Egypt's ministry of culture, but as one of his colleagues remarked today, he was put on earth to write. And write he did: in his lifetime he produced on the order of 50 books, working every morning, never deviating from a disciplined routine. "A writer must sit down to write every day, pick up his pen and try to write something — anything — on a piece of paper," he once said. (According to legend, when the Swedish ambassador paid him a call to inform him that he'd been awarded the Nobel, Mahfouz's wife refused to disturb him: he was taking his regular nap.)

As a writer he was a realist, recording the lives of middle- and lower-class Cairenes, faithfully and fearlessly registering both the changes that modernity wreaked on Cairo and the fabric of traditional Islamic life that resisted those changes. He wrote in elaborate classical Arabic, but his strength was as a mesmerizing tale-spinner. He's best known for his celebrated Cairo trilogy — Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street — which follows the fortunes of a merchant family not unlike his own through three tumultuous generations.

But Mahfouz did not always play the placid cultural observer. He was an early and vocal supporter of normalizing relations with Israel (some Arab countries banned his books in response.) His Children of Gabalawi, although set in modern times (it was published in 1959), features characters that loosely parallel figures in the Bible and the Koran. The novel's boldness attracted the attention of Islamic extremists, and in 1994 a young fanatic attacked him, stabbing him in the neck. Mahfouz survived, but lost much of the use of his right-and writing-hand. (His attacker fared worse: he was hung.) In his later years Mahfouz himself took on the aura of a fictional character: a humble creature of the cafés whose life was deeply embedded in his ancient neighborhood, who wrote over coffee on the banks of the Nile-he favored the Ali Baba Café-and bantered with friends and fellow writers, often watched over by government bodyguards safeguarding the national treasure.

Mahfouz suffered some backlash after he won the Nobel. The Western press was quick to take him up as the literary voice of the Arab world, and in turn some Arab critics took him to task for being too moderate and Western-friendly. In truth he was his own man, concerned only with a personal and human truth older and greater than politics. "I am a very old man, an introvert," he once told an interviewer, who wasn't sure whether Mahfouz was joking or not. "So winning the Nobel was really terrible for me. I won the prize, yes, but I lost everything else."