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Δευτέρα, 21 Μαΐου 2007

NAGUIB MAHFOUZ: EGYPT'S GREATEST MODERN WRITER

NAGUIB MAHFOUZ (1911-2006­) is the "international" writer; he is the first Arab author ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988); he is also, by dint of the intense particularity of his work, the authoritative social historian of middle-class Cairo's turbulent century. Critic Farouk Abdel-Qader has recently contended that it was with Mahfouz's decision, one evening in 1938, to make writing novels the principal objective of his sustained literary endeavours, that the existence of the genre in Arabic literature first became viable. Mahfouz has been prolific, popular and stimulating, and the Nobel can only be seen as a belated western acknowledgement and the culmination of a whole series of more local triumphs. "It wasn't one of my dreams to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature," he told Ragaa El-Naqqash in a series of 1998 interviews, "and I never aspired to it, so much so that Arab writers who paid attention to it really puzzled me." As an Arab writer, he had already achieved the maximum degree of success possible. He did not dare rank himself among either the "giants of western literature" or those of Arabic literature; but his project of bringing the Arabic novel to maturity was all but complete.
A civil employee throughout his life, Mahfouz was born in Gamaliya, near the Mosque of Al-Hussein, and moved to Abbassiya with his family at the age of nine. A quiet observer of family life, he submitted his days to a strict routine which enabled him to take his job seriously, write and maintain friendships, actively participating in the regular cafι gatherings of intellectuals from a very early age. A public figure only insofar as he is an essentially gregarious being, Mahfouz has startlingly managed to avoid clashes with political or social powers, keeping a low profile and preferring to let his 70 or so novels and short story collections speak for him, in the tranquil, ironic way that literature everywhere employs to comment on history. The two main occasions on which clashes were forced on him were the publication of his novel Awlad Haretna (The Children of Gabalawi, 1959), which, by drawing on the lives of the Qur'anic prophets, was long banned by Al-Azhar; and an unprovoked attempt on his life in 1994 perpetrated by a young terrorist who in all likelihood had not read a single page of his work. Since then, Mahfouz has continued to write in his old age, recording both real and fictional memories and frequently evoking death.
Mahfouz's influence is widespread. Following a series of novels on Pharaonic themes, he astounded his readers with Al-Thulathiya (The Trilogy, 1956-7), a mammoth work whose three novels (Palace Walk; Palace of Desire; Sugar Street) follow the life journeys of a number of middle-class families from 1919 to 1952. It is to that period, directly before and after the publication of The Trilogy that famous novels with social themes like Zuqaq Al-Madaq (Madaq Alley) and Bidaya wa Nihaya (A Beginning and an End) --usually referred to collectively as Mahfouz's "realistic period" --belong. Later he adopted a more contemplative approach, referred to as his "intellectual period" --and in novels like Al-Liss wal-Kilab (The Thief and the Dogs) and Al-Simman wal-Kharif (Autumn Quail) added a philosophical dimension to the socio-historical commentary which he had learned to present in absorbing literary form. His long epic Al-Harafish (The Riff-Raff), which draws on Egyptian inner-city life at the turn of the century, constitutes perhaps the most successful example of the two approaches combined.

AL AHRAM

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