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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Naguib Mahfouz. La mort d’un père

by Alain Nicolas

Naguib Mahfouz: Death of a Father

Translated Thursday 21 September 2006, by Ann Drummond

The winner of the 1988 Nobel prize for literature has died at the age of 94, one of the founding fathers of the contemporary Arabic novel and an uncompromising democrat and pacifist.

By the time he received the Nobel prize in 1988, which made him the quintessential representative of literature in the Arabic language in the eyes of the world and simultaneously raised the genre to unprecedented prominence, Naguib Mahfouz had long since been the embodiment of Egyptian literature. From his birth on the eve of the First World War to the dawn of the 21st century, he followed, and sometimes took part in, the fate of a region affected as no other by the upheavals which did not die down with the transition to a new millennium.

Born in 1912 in the working class district of Gamaliyya into a middle class Cairo family, he went to university, where he studied philosophy and by the age of seventeen, he had already begun to get into print. With his degree under his belt, he went into the civil service, launching himself into a series of historical novels set in Egyptian antiquity: "Rhadopis of Nubia", translated into French last year, gives a flavour of what they were like. But this was clearly not the right direction for him, and the times in which he lived compelled him to move on to other subjects.

It was now the middle of the Second World War, and battles were raging on the country’s borders. In addition, English domination was exacerbating the tensions within nationalist circles, which, within only a few years of the war ending, would steer Egypt down the road of becoming a republic based on genuine independence. The young writer adopted the role of painter of his native city, depicting the life of that phenomenon peculiar to Cairo, the ’hara’ or local quarter. As early as 1947, "Midaq Alley" revealed his talent for great social realism, confirmed two years later in his work, The Mirage.

But his magnum opus will always be the 1,500 page trilogy consisting of "Palace Walk", "Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street". Critics were to elevate this family saga to the same level as the masters of the genre, such as Galsworthy, Martin du Gard and Thomas Mann. It reveals the transformations which take place in a family and a country over three generations. From the beginnings of national revolution to the aftermath of the First World War and the end of King Farouk’s regime, momentous swings of history and the individual stories of the Cairo bourgeoisie are woven together in a tight web from which emerge the different characters bound into it. But it is the local community, the quarter, which is the real hero, the main character in these works, which can be seen as the true founders of the modern novel in Arabic.

Yet they did not meet with instant success, and the author moved on to a different genre which also embodied post-war Egyptian modernity – the cinema. He wrote the screenplays for Salâh Abou Seif’s "Your Day Will Come" (1951), "Tough Guy" (1957), "The Immortal Song" (1959) and "Dead Amongst the Living" (1960), as well as "Fool’s Alley" (1955) for Tewfik Salah. All of these films can be seen as representatives in Egypt of the international neo-realist movement. Recognition for the trilogy after its publication in 1956-1957 brought him to the forefront of public attention, as an icon of the new national elite of the Nasser era.

It was this status which allowed him the freedom at particular moments to distance himself from the growing authoritarianism and take his comforts from the constraints of realism. He went back to the old tradition in Arabic literature of the satirical allegorical tale with his work "Children of Gebelawi" in 1959, which brought criticism from those in power as well as religious figures: it was not published until 1967 in Beirut.

But Mahfouz was the great man of Egyptian literature, and there followed in his wake a young critical generation whose works we can read today, from Sonallah Ibrahim to Gamal Ghitany, and who did not spare their criticism after the defeat of the Six Day War. As for Mahfouz, after playing skilfully with both his return to realism with "Adrift on the Nile" (1966) and "Miramar" (1967) and romans à cléfs like "The Thief and the Dogs" (1961) or "The Search" (1965), he returned to his favourite topic, the hara, or Cairo quarter, with "Respected Sir" (1975) and "The Harafish" (1977), his major works of the years in the run up to the Nobel prize.

The award of the prize in 1988 is in honour both of the man who put the Arabic novel on the map of the 20th century and of the man who was concerned with his times, fighting for peace, political democracy and personal freedom. These positions were to bring him close to death in 1994, when he was stabbed by two religious fundamentalists, members of the terrorist organisation al Gamaat al Islameya who were condemned to death and executed. His own fate is a summary of a people and century, and his books remain endless sources of discovery, happiness and pleasure.

Around thirty of Naguib Mahfouz’s works are available in French, many of them in paperback. Most of them are in Actes Sud editions, in the Sindbad series edited by Farouk Mardam Bey in Éditions de l’Aube and Gallimard.

Alain Nicolas


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