Naguib Mahfouz, 1911-2006

The father of the Arabic novel died a couple of days ago, at the age of 94 (NPR.org). Mahfouz is credited for being the first writer to have captured the essence of spoken Arabic in written prose. His works were only accessible to me via their English translations, but even then the two books I have read impressed me with his almost effortless ability to paint a scene and bring it alive.

Mahfouz' most controversial novel was Children of the Alley, which was a metaphorical retelling of the origins of faith, as set in a modern-day Egyptian slum. I found it a difficult and maddening book; not because I was offended by its content, but because I found the retelling to be monotonous - a crude kind of morality play, in which the outcome is known. I felt that had he chosen to go a different route with the characters, each of which represented a major figure of Abrahamic history (Adam, the Prophet SAW, etc), then it would have been more interesting, but ultimately the characters seemed trapped and destined to go through the motions that had been foretold. In so doing, it drained them and the significance of what they achieved, leaving them just.. people in a slum. Maybe that was the point? I was hoping that the personalities he tried to evoke would have a transformative effect, but ultimately nothing happened.

The book did inflame Islamists, who attacked Mahfouz and stabbed him in the neck. Mahfouz survived, though with partial paralysis, and continued his work. He was a brave man and a powerful artist. His legacy will endure, and that is something the Islamists can never destroy.

I heartily recommend this additional story on NPR about Mahfouz' works. Also, TIME has a piece on Mahfouz' life with much more detail.

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