(HOST) Books are popular gifts, and for one that combines classic storytelling with the urgency of current events, commentator Jay Parini says that the work of one particular author comes immediately to mind.
(PARINI) Ignorance is not always bliss, especially when it comes to the Middle East. And the consequences of our ignorance have been painful to observe during the past few years. I can’t think of a better, or more entertaining, way to begin learning about Arabic culture than with the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, who died this year at the age of 94.
He was the only Arabic writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and during his later years became a living symbol of modern Egypt itself.
His achievement lay in forty novels and volumes of stories published over six decades. He was called “the Balzac of Egypt,” meaning that – like the French novelist Honor de Balzac – he offered a vast panoramic picture of his society, from the highest to the lowest ranks. Mahfouz wrote about the human spirit, its anxieties and comforts, its struggle to survive in a world where forces conspire against spiritual growth and communal values.
For western readers his Cairo Trilogy – published in the fifties – will always be the center of his work. It’s a monumental sequence, with the names of each novel attached to a particular street in Cairo – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. These were the streets that Mahfouz walked as a young boy, his eyes and ears wide open. He follows the ups and downs of one family over several generations, from the outbreak of the First World War into the fifties and the July Revolution, when King Farouk was overthrown and modern Egypt began. Mahfouz was self-consciously looking outside native traditions for this work, imitating Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy. In doing this, he became a world writer, not just an Arabic one.
Mahfouz showed courage in his life, defending the Camp David accords and President Sadat, in 1978, even though he drew heated criticism from the Arab press. Later, he stood up for Salmon Rushdie after the Ayatolla Khomeini condemned Rushdie to death for his novel called The Satanic Verses. Always a moderate, like most Islamic people, Mahfouz suffered at the hands of fundamentalist extremists. Indeed, in 1994 he was stabbed in the neck by a young man who considered Mahfouz an infidel – an injury that paralyzed his writing hand.
I once met Mahfouz while traveling in Egypt, and found him both gentle and inspiring. He often met friends in the caf s of Old Cairo in the evenings for coffee and conversation, and I joined him at one of these. Although extremely deaf and nearly blind, he talked engagingly for hours about Middle Eastern politics, about writing, and the state of the modern world.
The death of Mahfouz is sad, but there is one consolation: he left behind a treasury of remarkable fiction that will not go away. And if we wish to learn more about the Middle East, there is probably no better place to begin than with the Cairo Trilogy.
Jay Parini is a poet, novelist and biographer. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College, where he teaches.