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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Naguib Mahfouz and the Nobel Prize: A | Middle East Forum

"Get up!" she told him. "Al-Ahram just called and said that you have won the Nobel Prize!"

In 1926, George Bernard Shaw refused to accept the money for the most sought-after literary award in the world. "I can forgive Alfred Nobel for inventing dynamite," he declared, "but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize."
Early on the afternoon of Thursday, 13 October 1988, seven ty-six-year-old Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, as he had done virtually every day since retiring from the civil service nearly seventeen years before, went into his bedroom for a nap. He had just closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep- not expecting to wake up before he usually did, at 5:00 PM- when his wife, Atiyatallah (aged fifty-one), still wearing her kitchen apron, came to him excitedly: "Get up!" she shouted. "Get up, get up!"  The groggy Mahfouz couldn't believe his senses. As a rule, his wife did not wake him from his nap- and he did not want her to start making a habit of it now.                        

"Get up!" she told him."Al-Ahram just called and said that you have won the Nobel Prize!"

Now, Mahfouz thought, this truly is the limit. For some years Atiya (or Atiyat), as she was also known, had been obsessed that her husband would someday win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He himself, he said, did not think about it much. True, he had to his amusement read many times in the Cairene newspapers, mainly in the 1970s, that his name was on the shortlist for the prize in Stockholm. How the savants of the Egyptian press could possibly know something so obviously well-guarded as who were the few favored candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature always amazed him. And true, he was aware that his name had been put forward by a number of academics, specialists in Arabic literature, as deserving a close look by the Nobel Committee, and in more than one year. But Mahfouz also knew this did not guarantee that the highly secretive body in distant Scandinavia would choose him as a serious contender for the world's most respected literary award. And so, it was pointless to dream.

Atiya, however, had faith in her man-even if she was not a great reader of fiction. Though they had been married since September 1954 (when she was roughly seventeen and he was forty-two), she later admitted to me she had never read any of Mahfouz's novels all the way through at the time she woke him up from his routine qaylula that fateful day in October. Given to wearing a turban instead of the usual bare head or veil, a woman who liked Chinese vases, Indian draperies, and imitation Louis-whichever tapestries, she was a housewife, "rabbat al-bayt" literally, "mistress of the house" as she proudly called herself, whose background and education remain a mystery.

Regardless, she was definitely not an  intellectual. She knew her husband's works the way that most Egyptians did-through the dozens of highly popular films and TV serials drawn from them. Yet she also perceived something that most others could only see indirectly, reflected in his art: Naguib Mahfouz was no ordinary man.

Ordinary or not, Mahfouz was extraordinarily annoyed to be jarred from his customary afternoon rest. He was convinced that his wife was only teasing him. Or, even worse, that she had succumbed to a practical joke played on them by his colleagues at the great Cairene daily al-Ahram, where he had been a columnist since leaving the Culture Ministry at the mandatory age of sixty. He even though he knew the inspiration for the prank.
That very morning, he had gone, as he usually did on Thursdays, to the office he shared with several other writers at el-Gelaa Street headquarters of al-
Ahram.  There, in a spacious but sparsely furnished sixth-floor office, he had sat with a few of the same formerly large group of colleagues who used to gather there every Thursday morning for years in the lair of the late, widely-revered novelist, playwright, and fellow columnist Tawfiq al-Hakim. Except for these weekly gatherings, al-Hakim's office had been locked up tight since his passing in 1987. No one, it was thought, could really fill the great man's shoes.

On this particular Thursday, Mahfouz would recall, "We talked about a variety of topics, one of them being the Nobel Prize, whose announcement was expected that day. I told them that we will be reading on the first page of Friday's al-Ahram a small item, as usual, which would tell us who had won it!" This must have given some of his colleagues the idea for a bit of fun at his expense, he thought. The idea really irked him.  Thus, when Atiya tried to rouse him, he erupted from his disrupted slumber: "Enough of these dreams-let me sleep!"

Since Atiya had begun talking about his inevitable winning of the Nobel Prize, Mahfouz had tried to persuade her there were more important things to focus on. "I used to tell her, 'Be reasonable; and realize that it wasn't easy to win a Nobel;' he said, "and that it wasn't on my mind. l begged her not to talk about it, or to even think about it. I would tell her, 'Our life is wonderful and satisfying, and I don't want you to think that this will happen to us, like something out of A Thousand and One Nights.'"

But as he was impatiently reminding her of all these things again, the telephone rang. On the other end was Muhammad Basha, a reporter at al­ Ahram. "Mabruk, ya ustaz!" ("Congratulations, Professor!") Basha told him. Mahfouz was still convinced that this was a joke, but then Salama Ahmad Salama, deputy editor of the newspaper, came on the line."Mabruk, ya ustaz. sharraftana!" he exclaimed. ("Congratulations, Professor-you have honored us!") Even then, Mahfouz thought, maybe someone was just imitating Salama's voice-but it sure sounded like him!

Mahfouz sat back down on the edge of his bed, "confused and disbelieving" as he put it, when a moment later the doorbell sounded. Atiya, still dressed in kitchen apparel, answered the door. In stepped a very tall man plus a number of people with him. Suddenly one of the arrivals announced, "His Excellency the Ambassador of Sweden, and his wife!"
At this point the awesome truth fully dawned on the elderly writer, who stood dumbfounded in his pajamas and robe de chambre, surprised by the news of a lifetime. But before he had time to think, the ambassador, Lars-Olaf 
Brilioth, handed him a "symbolic gift which resembled the metal handiwork you find at the Khan al-Khalili" (the great medieval market-a truly historic tourist trap-in Cairo). Facing the fact "that the matter was serious:' Mahfouz quickly excused himself, went to his room, and returned wearing a beige lei­ sure suit. (After his retirement, he refused to wear a tie.}

Emerging from his bedroom, he saw that, despite the excellent manners of Brilioth and his wife Barbro, "my little apartment had become something like a bazaar". The place was jammed with journalists and photographers, both foreign and domestic, all congratulating him, expressing their joy at his triumph, and squeezing as many quick interviews out of him as possible. Mean­ while, the telephone rang constantly, often answered by a reporter-Atiya was too busy trying to cater to all the unexpected guests to answer it herself. (Even in normal times, Mahfouz's poor hearing prevented him from responding to the phone directly.)

Fleeing from this melee, Mahfouz went back to al-Ahram, where he had been that very morning. There, as his fellow staffers took "hundreds" of commemorative photos with him, Mahfouz realized he had forgotten something that on any other Thursday he never could have let slip from his mind: it was getting close to the hour that he met his friends, the Harafish. This was a group of Mahfouz's closest companions, whose mutual association reached back more than forty years before his Nobel.

Mahfouz owed his acquaintance with the Harafish to his earliest literary prizes. In 1940 he had won his first literary award, endowed by a wealthy Egyptian patron of culture, Qut al-Qulub al-Damardashiya, a descendant of the sixteenth-century shaykh who founded the Damardashi Sufi brotherhood. Mahfouz and another young novelist, Ahmad Bakathir, shared the first prize of forty Egyptian pounds-an astounding sum in those days. Mahfouz's twenty were awarded for his novel Radubis, the second in a sequence of three historical novels set in ancient Egypt, and the second of his novels to be published. (The first was bath al-aqdar in 1939, since published in English as Khufu's Wisdom.) Bakathir was recognized for his novel, Salama al-qiss (Salama the Priest), set in his birthplace of Yemen.

This prize, Mahfouz later said, certainly helped him-and many others, it seems-financially. For weeks after it, he treated his friends from his neighbor­ hood in Abbasiya-to which he had moved at around age ten from his native Gamaliya-on the largesse of Qut al-Q ulub. "There was kabab il-ga'iza (kabob of the prize), and koftat il-ga'iza (kufta of the prize), and wiski il-ga'iza [sic], too"
 he once told me. But even more important, the prize "lifted my spirits considerably" in what had been a very discouraging period. "At that time, I had met failure when I tried to have my novels serialized in newspapers, even in little newspapers." He thought anything he wrote would be destined for obscurity.

His morale raised by this unexpected success, he plucked up the courage to submit his next novel, Kifah Tiba (published in English as Thebes at War), in a competition organized by the Ministry of Education and the Arabic Language Academy in 1941. Competing with him once again was Bakathir, and also another young writer, Adel Kamel, who entered his novel Malik min shu-a (King of Rays), on the life of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who had suppressed Egypt's ancient pantheistic cults in favor of worshipping the sun god alone. They all won awards, and their work attracted the attention of one of their neighbors from Abbasiya, Abd al-Hamid Gudah al-Sahhar. Sahhar, a novelist himself, decided to create a publishing house to promote the work of these prizewinners. He called it Lajnat al-Nashr lil-Gami 'iyyin (the Committee for Publishing the University Graduates), which eventually became Maktabat Misr (the Egyptian Bookshop)-and remained Mahfouz's Arabic-language book publisher nearly until his death.

Thebes at War, the story of the expulsion of the alien Asiatic Hyksos by the Egyptians under Pharaoh Ahmose I, is a transparent allegory about the modern-day occupation of Egypt by the British, who came in 1882 and left in 1956. Less transparently, it was also an attack on Egypt's primarily Albanian, Turkish, and Circassian elite under Egypt's then-monarchical rule, which, the novel insinuates, constituted another form of occupation. Literary critic Sayyid Qutb, the future chief theoretician for the Muslim Brotherhood (and intellectual godfather of modern Islamist terrorism), but then a secular liberal, wrote that this book belonged in the home of every patriotic Egyptian. Thebes at War was Mahfouz's first major critical success, and he would remain loyal to his old friend Qutb to the very end-when, condemned with several others in the Brotherhood's leadership for plotting against President Gama! Abdel Nasser, he met his demise at the end of a state-supplied rope in 1966.

The top Arabic Academy prize-which went to Mahfouz-was worth one hundred Egyptian pounds (LE). This amount was so stunningly huge-an average civil servant might earn only several LE per month, considered good pay at the time-that "it might have been in its time more beneficial than the money from the Nobel now." (This is a bit doubtful. Prior to Mahfouz's Nobel, his income was still modest-8 LE monthly in roughly 1944, as he recounted
 to Gama) al-Ghitani-despite a pension from the government for his more than three decades in the civil service, and the income from his numerous but poorly paying books and movies.' The cash award of the prize for literature in 1988 was worth approximately $390,000.)

Mahfouz gave one fourth to his wife, one fourth to each of his two daugh ­ ters- Hoda (nee Umm Kulthoum, then roughly thirty-four) and (Faten, nee Fatima, two years Hoda's junior), and his own portion to charity. In a televi­ sion interview in Cairo in August 2017, Hoda claimed that her father gave his share to health and education for the Palestinians, having been moved to assist their cause during the Second Palestinian Intifada-which erupted the year before-"even if only in a modest way." He was content to live on his royalties as a writer and his monthly income from al-Ahram as a columnist (and pen­ sioner), though he wanted his family's shares to provide them security from the "exigencies of time."

Regardless, the effect on their lifestyle, or at least their financial reputa­ tion, was such that both daughters, already highly marriageable, said they received a sudden leap in the rate of marriage proposals after their father's Nobel. But they were unimpressed, and no weddings ensued.

In any case, the eager young novelists who competed against each other for the same prize in 1941 soon began sitting together each Thursday evening on a houseboat in what is now the suburb of Agouza, in Giza, on the west side of Greater Cairo. Adel Kamel. who despite his great promise as a fiction writer abruptly gave up his literary avocation to pursue a career in law in the mid- 194os, invited Mahfouz to join this already-established gathering. Among the group's founding members was a dashing, mustachioed young officer in the King's Cavalry, Ahmed Mazhar. Beginning in the 1950s, Mazhar became one of Egypt's most famous actors and also earned a reputation as one of its great equestrian champions- both roles lasting for at least four decades.

Mazhar, who passed away in May 2002 at age eighty-five, gave the little shilla (intimate society of friends) its name. In doing so he took a term used by the late-eighteenth /early- nineteenth-cen tury Egyptian historian Abd al ­ Rahman al-Jabarti, the Harafish (singular,  harfush). This word, whose origins go back to the Mamluks - the military slave dynasties that periodically ruled Egypt from medieval to early modern times had in the twentieth century 
come to mean "the hopelessly unemployable," "the ruffians," "the riff-raff," or - as Mazhar described it to me -"the agents-provocateurs at the edge of every demonstration" always on hand to stir up trouble.

Whether or not they lived up to this provocative name, the Harafish indulged in the common pleasures of artists, and of many other Egyptians, over the years-hashish, and probably women, among them. (Readers might recognize them, in extreme caricature, in Mahfouz's 1966 novel, Tharthara fawqa al-Nil, published in English as Adrift on the Nile, a book that nearly got its author in serious trouble with the authorities for depicting the corruption of cultural life in then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab socialist paradise.) Despite the loss of several members to death and natural drift over the years, in 1988 the Harafish still saw each other every Thursday evening, starting at about six o'clock.

For the roughly half-century of their existence, the Harafish, like Mahfouz himself, stuck to a rigid schedule. By the late 1980s, the houseboat in Agouza was long gone. Instead, they began their evening at the Kasino Qasr el-Nil, a sprawling cafe, restaurant, and nightclub complex on the banks of the Nile across a traffic circle from the new Cairo Opera, which opened the year of Mahfouz's Nobel.

The old opera house, built by Khedive Ismail to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, had burned down in a suspicious fire in 1971. Many whispered that employees who had been stealing items from the building, a replica of La Scala in Milan, were afraid of a coming inventory, and so had set the fire to cover up their crimes. This rumor is spread about virtually every major fire in Cairene public buildings-which does not mean it is not true.

From Midan il-Obra (Opera Square), the Harafish would go for a drive, usually with Adel Kamel at the wheel, to the outer limits of Cairo (a bit like the party of revelers who motor out near the pyramids of Giza near the end of Adrift on the Nile, though that caprice ended much more fatally). The evening would end with dinner at the house of filmmaker Tawfik Saleh, who joined the group in the mid-195os-though this practice ceased after a rupture that led Saleh to leave the group in 2005.

As the always-detail-minded Mahfouz prepared to go to them this his toric evening, he remembered he had forgotten his package of cigarettes at home. Like everything else in his life, Mahfouz planned even the smoking of cigarettes with the precision of an Olympic timekeeper. For years, when sitting with friends at his weekly venues such as Thursdays with the Harafish
 or his former Friday 11 adwa at the Cafe Riche and the Cafe Opera before it, he would lay his watch and his packet of cigarettes side by side on the table as they talked. At the top of the hour, he would light up a sigara. He always arrived on time, and he always left on time, and he always smoked on time. He also wrote his books, went to and from his office, took his meals, and did everything else strictly on time. His hours were as fixed as the rising and set­ ting of the sun-only more so, as these celestial movements shift on the clock face with the passing of days. Not so the habits of Naguib Mahfouz-nothing would change these immutable devices, without the discipline for which he likely would not have won his Nobel Prize.

Among his other habits was modesty-he apparently could not bring himself to borrow cigarettes from what must have been the dozens of friends and admirers around him at the newspaper building.  Yet today his rigid cosmos would slip in its firmament. When his taxi neared his house, at 172 Sharia al-Nil (in the same building as famous take­ away restaurant for local Egyptian food Neama, in Agouza), he saw something truly frightening. What he had seen at al-Ahram was nothing compared to what faced him now. "Suddenly I came upon a demonstration in front of my house-a huge number of journalists and broadcasters and TV cameras —so I told the driver, 'Take me to Kasino Qasr al-Nil!'"

Mahfouz had, he said, been afraid that if he had gone into his flat at that time, he would not have been able to get out of it again that evening. But when he arrived at Kasino Qasr al-Nil, three kilometers or so from his home, he encountered an even more intimidating throng of the same kinds of people­ his personal habits were more than slightly well-known, it seems.

At the kasino-a name given to outdoor eateries in Egypt-he found Adel Kamel, Ahmed Mazhar, and Tawfik Saleh waiting for him. The foursome didn't stay long, but soon retreated to Saleh's house in Giza, after which Kami! drove them around in his car. (One stop, Mazhar recalled to me, was at the Fishawi cafe in the Khan al-Khalili, in the neighborhood where Mahfouz was born.) Their mood was euphoric-Mazhar said they all had felt he would win the Nobel Prize one day-only Mahfouz himself had doubted it.

After driving out with his friends to the pyramid-strewn Saqqara Road – "Just like any other Thursday," remembered Saleh—Mahfouz finally got home at 1:30 AM, more than ninety minutes past his usual hour of return. There he found his wife and two daughters-both had been at their respective jobs when the news first broke that afternoon.  
Also milling about was a group of foreign journalists. They were booked to travel on the morrow, and they would not be going anywhere until they got their interviews with the Arab world's first Nobel laureate in literature. So, the dutiful old civil servant did not let them down—and did not get to sleep even when the sun had risen again the next day.

From that day on, Mahfouz's life would never be the same again. The jubilation in Egypt was almost total. Hearing about it reminds me of the mass celebrations in the streets of my hometown of Detroit when our baseball team, the Tigers, won the World Series in 1968. Just the year before, half of the inner city had burnt down in some of worst race riots in American history-but there were no racial lines when it came to cheering the Tigers. Mahfouz's Nobel Prize came at just the right time for a country devastated by rising inflation, crumbling infrastructure, simmering tensions after ongoing Muslim militant attacks on Coptic Christians, and a still-painful and costly boycott by most other Arab countries over Egypt's separate peace with Israel. Mahfouz himself had been a victim of the rejectionist consensus that led to the boycott. When he, Tawfiq al-Hakim, and a few others had called for peace talks with Israel as early as 1973 (and perhaps even earlier), their books were banned, and Mahfouz's name was stripped from the films based on them, or whose scenarios he composed, when they were broadcast in the Gulf.

But after his Nobel, journalists from hardline states opposed to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, who had apparently stopped sending reporters to Egypt when the boycott began that same year, called upon Mahfouz in droves. Most notable of all was Syria, which sent a television crew as soon as the news of his Nobel was confirmed. Mahfouz said, "My friend Yusuf al- Qa'id [the Egyptian novelist and editor at al-Musawwar] told me that the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, previewed the conversation himself, and that after doing so, he ordered it to be broadcast immediately." Though Mahfouz's books are apparently still not available in Saudi Arabia, even the press in that most officially anti-secular of all Arab states (despite recent reforms) immediately hailed him as a universal hero of the entire Arab nation.

For most Egyptians as well, Mahfouz's Nobel was a source of national pride. Some even saw it as revenge upon the colonial powers that had lorded over the country for generations. This was definitely a day of "Lak yawm, ya zalim!" ("You'll get yours, Tyrant," also the name of a 1951 film Mahfouz wrote for director Salah Abu Sayf.) And for the moment, at least, the prize seemed to heal the divisions that had been widening in the society in recent years.

For weeks afterward, Mahfouz could not walk down the street without strangers stopping and embracing him. He could not pay for a cab ride – the drivers would compete to deliver him wherever he wanted to go, for free. "If I tried to pay, they would swear that they would divorce their wives if they ever received any money from me. I would be so stunned that I would just get off at my destination, overcome with embarrassment:

There were more official, sometimes ironic, signs of appreciation also. Ibrahim Nafie, then chairman and chief editor of al-Ahram, instructed that Tawfiq al-Hakim's office be given to Mahfouz. This was a natural but still remarkable event. He had been his close friend al-Hakim's obvious heir for the mantle of Grand Old Man of Arabic letters since his death the previous year, yet Mahfouz, who had twice received Egypt's highest literary award (in 1957 and 1970), had not been considered worthy of his mentor's place until he won the Nobel. However, no sooner had the office been given to him than it ceased to be a place for productive writing and for literary gatherings, as it had been under al-Hakim. Instead, by necessity it became the place where Mahfouz met the streams of journalists and researchers who set upon him there every Thursday until exactly six years after his Nobel was revealed (a date whose significance will become clear later).

Within a year or two, Mahfouz had given so many interviews and received requests for so many more that he felt that he no longer had proper time for his art or his family and friends. "At first I thought this would just last a month or two," he jokingly complained, "until I realized that it will never end." The demands were so numerous, and his loss of privacy so extreme, that for a while he thought he would even have to give up one of his favorite passions in life-Alexandria. He had been taking the Superjet bus up to ''the bride of the Mediterranean" (the city's official nickname) every summer for years, always traveling alone, but now even this was being invaded by reporters. Though he overcame this problem, he still found his new life exhausting. He had thought he had retired, but suddenly found himself a muwazzaf (appointed employee) all over again. Now, however, he no longer seemed to labor for himself, but for someone who had died long ago: "I wonder when I can stop working for Mr. Nobel," he mused.

And there were higher official honors than his new space at al-Ahram. President Hosni Mubarak, whose administration had paid Mahfouz scant public attention since coming to power in 1981, called him shortly before the writer went out to al-Ahram on the afternoon of the prize's announcement. "It was a one-sided conversation," Mahfouz said.  
"I could hardly hear him." Nonetheless, Mubarak presented Mahfouz with the state's highest civilian honor, the Collar of the Nile (Qiladat al-Nil), the following month. "The collar was so heavy that when the president put it around his neck, Naguib sagged, like so," said Sture Allén, then-permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who accompanied Mahfouz to the ceremony, when I interviewed him in his office in Stockholm on 10 December 1999.

Mahfouz's daughter Hoda created a scandal in August 2017 when she claimed that the collar - allegedly solid gold, but actually gold—plated silver—had been "adulterated." This charge was quickly denied by Farouk Hosni, long­ time Minister of Culture under Mubarak (who fell in a U.S.-backed military coup prompted by popular protests in 2011).
Then there came intense negotiations with the Nobel Committee, which wanted Mahfouz to attend the award ceremonies in Sweden. These are held each year on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death. According to his official birth record, which I have examined at Dar al-Mahfouzat in the Cairo Citadel, this was Mahfouz's actual birthday, though the event was not registered until the next day. Unaware of the real date until I informed him of it in 1992, and ever the man of habit, he continued to observe it on 11 December as he had all his life. Curiously, Alfred Nobel suffered a fatal stroke at 2:00 AM on 10 December 1896- the same day and hour that Mahfouz would be born, fifteen years later.

At the time of his Nobel, Mahfouz had traveled out of the country only twice. Once was to attend a conference in Belgrade, including a tour of much of former Yugoslavia-a place he quickly loved- in 1956. The second, ten years later, was on a boat trip to visit Egyptian troops in Yemen-where he felt despair at the Egyptian military's impending defeat. Both sojourns were at the orders of the Culture Ministry, where he worked. Since 1960, Mahfouz had suffered from diabetes, which he controlled via diet without insulin, but the interruptions of his normal daily rhythm on the arduous voyage to Yemen caused him to lose fourteen kilos, and he resolved never to travel abroad again.

When Sture Allén came to see Mahfouz at al-Ahram the following week to discuss details of the Nobel ceremonies, he was accompanied by Egypt's youthful deputy minister of culture for foreign relations. This was Mohamed Salmawy, later the editor of the French-language al-Ahram Hebdo, and a well­ known playwright, but at that time of only fledgling reputation. Salmawy had known Mahfouz since early 1973, when they had both, along with scores of 
other writers, signed onto Tawfiq al-Hakim's famous letter to President Anwar al-Sadat protesting the lack of action in the standoff with Israel. But Salmawy did not consider himself to be among Mahfouz's inner circle, so he was as shocked as the Swedish diplomat was when the Nobel winner spontaneously suggested that Salmawy represent him in Stockholm . The idea was also fraught with procedural pitfalls-according to Nobel traditions, the writer himself or a member of his family should appear in person to accept the prize. Government employees such as Salmawy are only permitted to make statements on the prize· winner's behalf if they are chosen by the recipient personally in the absence of an available family member or friend who does not occupy an official position. There were other problems, more of pride than procedure, waiting to spring up as well. A number of  senior intellectuals and cultural figures objected to the choice of such a relative newcomer to represent Egypt's most honored author in his moment of triumph for the nation. One of these was Gama! al Ghitani, a novelist and journalist at al-Akhbar, Cairo's second-largest news organization, and a protege of Mahfouz, who is said to have called up the prizewinner and demanded that he be sent instead of Salmawy to fulfill this national honor.

''Am I not closer to you than he is?" al-Ghitani allegedly asked, to which Mahfouz retorted, "If l were to choose the person closest to me, it would have been my late mother-is that who you'd want me to send?" Mahfouz is claimed to have added that al-Ghitani was not fluent in foreign languages, and therefore did not qualify for the role. When al-Ghitani persisted, telling Mahfouz that he "had no right" to make such a decision on his own when Egypt's reputation was at stake, Mahfouz evidently hung up the phone without saying goodbye. Al-Ghitani apparently published at least one article attacking the choice of Salmawy for this task, to which Mahfouz replied in an interview in al-Musawwnr. "It's a disgrace ('ayb) what is being said about my decision in this matter" he said. Yet there was no apparent long-term damage to the enduringly close friendship between Mahfouz and al-Ghitani, who generously hosted Mahfouz and his friends for regular Tuesday night meetings on a restaurant boat in the Nile for eleven years (1995 to 2006). He was also one of the few people allowed regular access to Mahfouz in hospital during his final illness in July-August 2006.

The most senior objector was Tharwat Abaza, a novelist of Mahfouz's generation who was then head of the national Writers' Syndicate-later deposed-and simultaneously vice president of the Majlis al-Shura, the upper 
house of the Egyptian parliament, where he remained until his death in 2002. Abaza is said to have attempted to see President Mubarak in an effort  to get  the chief  of  state  to  dictate  a different,  more  dignified choice  to  represent  Egypt in Stockholm.  But the president evidently decided that this was a personal matter, so it was purely up to Mahfouz himself to decide who would speak for him. Again, as was typical of Mahfouz, this abortive intervention seems not to have caused any clear and permanent damage to his decades-old bond with Abaza, of whom he was very fond.

That still left the Swedish Academy, which oversees not only the Nobel prizes themselves, but also the award ceremonies in Stockholm, in a quandary. Who would come in place of Mahfouz? The solution came from a person who had never flagged in her feeling that Mahfouz would someday receive this very invitation-his wife, Atiyatallah. She convinced her husband that their daughters could fulfill the "family member" requirement while Salmawy, a graduate of the Cairo branch of elite, Alexandria-based Victoria College, would translate and deliver in English Mahfouz's mandatory Nobel lecture. In it he described himself as "a child of two civilizations"-the pharaonic and the Islamic-and then focused on Palestinian national and human rights. Atiyatallah's efforts were evidently supported by Fathi al-'Ashari, a writer at al-Ahram who later became Mahfouz's appointments secretary. (Tawfik Saleh, the filmmaker, also claimed to have been first to raise the idea of the daughters' going- and that Barbra Brilioth made the final pitch, suggesting that they wear traditional Egyptian attire to the ceremony.)

This arrangement agreed upon, Hoda and Paten were sent to Shahira Mehrez's folkloric gown shop downtown, where they were each fitted out with a peasant gallabiya (a long, body-stocking style robe) and a bedouin dress­ which they wore to receive, from the hands of  King Carl XVI Gustaf, the Nobel medallion and diploma for literature.

The Nobel night was beamed back to a still-ecstatic Egypt live by satellite. But in the corners of the dream a twenty-nine-year-old nightmare revived and stirred. Beginning a few months after the festivities in Stockholm and celebrations at home and climaxing just after their sixth anniversary, in 1994, it would shatter Mahfouz's (and the country's) Nobel reverie and throw a chill over what had been a brief, but deeply heartwarming, period in recent Egyptian history. It also presaged much of what has come to chill our own.

So what happened to dampen the magic of this brief, golden time? The answer lies encrypted in the complex interplay of politics, literature, and religion in Egypt during the last century. And in the repeated, near
 fatal reactions to an allegedly heretical novel written by Mahfouz more than three decades earlier.

But first, let us see what made Mahfouz's Nobel triumph possible-and how, after he became one of the literature prize's most successful winners, the notoriety it brought him nearly killed him in the end.
Mahfouz has said that when the Swedish Academy announced him as the winner of the 1988 prize for literature in Stockholm, he was told how "a silence fell, and many wondered who I was." Although he had been a star in the Arab world for decades, his work-and that of his contemporaries, both great and lesser-was little read in the West. Only a handful of Mahfouz's books were available in English, French, German, and other Western languages . The only tongue into which his flagship work, The Cairo Trilogy (al-Thulathiyya) had yet been wholly rendered was Hebrew which, like Arabic, apparently no one on the Academy's Nobel Committee for Literature could read.

The movement to translate his novels westward only seriously began with several books commissioned by the American University in Cairo Press in the early 1970s. In the late 1960s, the AUCP, headed at the time by Mason Rossiter Smith, first approached Mahfouz at the suggestion of Kennett Love, an American journalist teaching at the AUC. The first works—The Beginning and the End (Bidaya wa-11ihaya), The Search (Al-Tariq), Miramar (his masterpiece of Alexandria in the 1960s), and The Cairo Trilogy-Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar  Street  (known collectively in Arabic as ai-1hulathiyya) were signed over in 1972, but these contracts dealt only with translation rights, not with publication. Instead, the AUCP, aware of its own limited distribution, offered the translated texts of these novels to a succession of larger foreign publishers. As a result, it was not until 1974, when John Rodenbeck—who, like Love, believed Mahfouz would someday be a Nobel laureate-took over as director that the AUCP began to publish his works, having failed to obtain co-publishers abroad. By 1985, under its German-born director, Werner Mark Linz, the press had signed a contract with Mahfouz that granted them the exclusive right to com­ mission publication of his works in trans lat ion. (A few titles remained outside this agreement, but eventually all fell into it as old contracts expired.)

Largely  due to this vision, Mahfouz's works were read in  sufficient variety to convince the Nobel Literature Committee of his merit. Still, the number of books cited by the Committee was necessarily limited . These were, in order of 
their mention: Midaq Alley (Zuqaq al-midaqq), Adrift on the Nile (1harthara fawqa al-Nil-literally, Gossip on the Nile, but which the Committee listed under a translation of its German title, Das Hausboot am Nil-The Houseboat on the Nile). Also, The Cairo Trilogy (al-1hulathiyya), Children of Gebelawi (Aw/ad haratina), and finally, a collection of short stories {drawn from several separate original collections) called Gods World (from the title of one of Mah­ fouz's actual collections, Dunya Allah). Of these, Midaq Alley was available in English, German, and Swedish; Adrift on the Nile in German and Swedish; the first two volumes of The Trilogy in French (the third volume, apparently, was privately commissioned by the Nobel Committee to be translated into Swedish, as Allen told me was done with some works), while Children of Gebelawi and God's World were among the few books by Mahfouz then published in English.

When this list became known in Egypt, a buzz began about the fourth item as memories of the dawsha (uproar) over Children of Gebelawi started to return. Many people downplayed its importance, but there was a feeling of discomfort when the subject came up. To understand why, we must trace the history of this novel's notoriety and see how it triggered the lslamist reprisal against its creator thirty-five years after it first appeared. And to do this, we must look back at Mahfouz's evolution as a writer and what set him on the path to his Nobel.
Before the 1952 Free Officers' coup,  which  in  two years turned  Egypt  from a constitutional monarchy under British influence into the aggressive Arab nationalist dictatorship of Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mahfouz had just begun to gain recognition. This started with his informal trilogy set in ancient Egypt, 'Abath al-aqdar (The Mockery of the Fates), Radubis, and Kifah Tibah (now published in English as Khufus Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia, and Thebes at War). When these were largely (though not completely) ignored, he switched to straightforward contemporary realism.

This culminated in the massively successful Cairo Trilogy-originally composed as one volume, but published as Bayna al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), Qasr al-Shawq (Palace of Desire), and al-Sukkariya (Sugar Street)-that told the story of three generations-spanning the two world wars-of a family in Mahfouz's original district of Gamaliya. In both these phases, the ancient and the contemporary, Mahfouz was essentially critiquing modern Egyptian society. But after the coup, which popular acclaim and regime propaganda dubbed a revolution, the world Mahfouz had known abruptly disappeared.

In April 1952, when he finished writing the 1,500-page work that would become 11 Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz did not know he wouldn't compose another novel for at least five years. This long hiatus-one of only two in his seventy-year career-had two primary causes. First, he wanted to observe the new society created by the revolution before critiquing it in fiction; second, for reasons that are still obscure, he experienced a profound psychological crisis that robbed him of any desire to write stories. Whichever of these causes (if either) was chiefly to blame, his normally steady and prodigious literary pro­ duction simply stopped.


This happened while he was at the height of his powers. When the Trilogy was finally fully published in 1957, it won him the State Prize for Literature, the highest award in the country, and his status as Egypt's and the Arab world's greatest living novelist was affirmed. Hence, it was not surprising that in the same year he was courted by Cairo's largest newspaper, al-Ahram, to write a new novel that would be serialized in its pages. The paper's editor, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, President Abdel Nasser's right-hand man in the media, had been collecting as many high-profile novelists as he could to bring under his protective wing at al-Ahram . These already included such luminaries as leading novelist and playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim, philosopher Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, and lhsan Abd al-Qaddus, the popular fiction writer and son of the former actress and founder of the magazine named for her, Rose El-Youssef. It was Abd al-Qaddus, who had grown up near Mahfouz in Abbasiya, who first approached him with the idea of writing a novel for al-Ahram at a party at Rose EI-Youssef's headquarters on Qasr al-Ayni Street in 1957.  Mahfouz told me that he replied, "I don't have anything now, but I'll keep it in mind."

He refused to say for sure if that is what prompted him to start writing his first new fiction since the coup. But soon after the conversation with Abd al-Qaddus, Mahfouz began work on a novel that Heikal would publish between September and December 1959 in al-Ahram. Mahfouz titled it Awlad '1arati11a, after a children's rhyme he had heard in Gamaliya.  

Awlad  haratina means literally "The  Children  of  Our  Alley" or   "The Children of  Our Quarter. It was the first of Mahfouz 's novels to be translated into English (in 1962), though not the first to be published in that language when it appeared in London and Washington in 1981. (Mahfouz's first novel published in English was Midaq Alley-in Arabic, Zuqaq al-Midaqq- which came out in Beirut in 1966.)  Awlad haratina's first English translation, by Phillip Stewart,
 was called Children of Gebelawi, after a major character in the story. But in 1995, today's standard translation by Peter Theroux appeared under the title Children of the Alley-and did so through the encouragement of Mahfouz's first editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. However, the novel did not appear in Arabic outside of newspaper pages in Egypt-except as a book imported from Beirut, where it was first published in 1967, and then sold in Egypt in a plain brown wrapper. (The AUCP began to publish the English version, Children of the Alley, in Egypt in roughly 2000.) In any case, translation would be a key element in the history of this work, its role in Mahfouz's life, and even in Mahfouz's selection as a Nobel Prize winner.

Children  of  the  Alley's  500-plus pages offer an allegory of the rise of man­ kind and its struggle against evil and tyranny, from the Garden of Eden to the era of modern science. The parable-like tale evolves through the lives of characters who, at least superficially, resemble the great figures of the Judeo ­ Christian-Islamic tradition: Satan, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad-even God himself. An analysis of these apparent similarities would take too long here, so let us just say that Mahfouz himself rejected any comparison between his work of fiction and the revealed books of religion (the Torah, New Testament, and Qur'an), or the sacred personae therein. As we will see, that is not entirely accurate.

Unfortunately, when this book appeared as a daily feature in al-Ahramno such disclaimer accompanied its installments. By the time the part of the book named after the character Rifa'a (obviously based on Christ), and the following section, called "Qasim" (who in some ways mimics Muhammad) had run, trouble broke out that has not reached its end even now, nearly six decades later. A group of conservative shaykhs led by the late Muhammad al-Ghazali wrote to President Abdel Nasser to have publication of this "blasphemous" work stopped. During Friday prayers, angry crowds are said to have spilled out of al-Azhar and other mosques downtown, calling for the blood of this "infidel" author, Naguib Mahfouz.  During this time, Mahfouz. himself was occasionally threatened on the street, according to reliable sources who knew him then, though Mahfouz denied it to me. In any case, such threats would hardly be the last.

Abdel Nasser told Heikal of the shaykh's objections and asked whether he intended to keep publishing Children of the Alley through to its end. Heikal said he would, but in return, Hasan Sabri al-Khuli, Nasser's chief books censor, whom Mahfouz ruefully called "the director of publishing" came up with a
 compromise. In what he euphemistically termed a "gentleman's agreement" Mahfouz was made to give up any right to publish the novel as a book in Egypt-but he was permitted to do so abroad. And there would be no further discussion of the matter in the Egyptian press-a rule which, with few exceptions, held until at least 1970.

This suited Nasser and his men just fine. Mahfouz told translator Peter Theroux, photographer Robert Lyons, and this writer in an April 1992 visit to his al-Ahram office that since the regime considered the book to really be aimed at itself, it was glad that al-Azhar stepped in to bear the onus for banning it. Neither Mahfouz in his lifetime, or his estate after his death, has ever legally challenged the terms of this arrangement.

Thus the issue has rested-but has never really died. On the same day that Atiya's prophecy came true, and her husband won the Nobel Prize, it would start to come back to life again-with its own prophetic purpose.
The unease stirred by the Swedish Academy's imprimatur on Children of the Alley  increased in part because of a different, but ultimately parallel, controversy launched by a fellow writer (and colleague at al-Ahram), Yusuf Idris. It was Idris who, virtually alone among the major literary figures in the country, dared to challenge both Mahfouz's receipt of the award and the legitimacy of the Nobel Prize itself.

In articles for the popular opposition daily al-Wafd-the eponymous organ of the party to which in its pre-1952 form Mahfouz had given his fervent allegiance-as well as in al-Ahram, Idris declared his deep sense of anger and even betrayal. He charged that the prize, controlled by Israel and international Jewry, had been given to Mahfouz in reward for his support of the 1979 Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty, which grew out of the Camp David Accords. Privately, Idris claimed that he himself deserved the Nobel- and he had, he said, been nominated the previous year, according to reports in the press. Mahfouz did not respond in print at the time to these charges, but most Egyptians thought them at best inappropriate and egotistical, and at worst a bit balmy. Yet Idris, the acknowledged master of the Arabic short story and widely admired throughout the region (even by Israeli scholars of Arabic literature), had many fans who preferred him over the older, less flamboyant Mahfouz. Idris also struck a popular chord against perceived perennial Zionist plots- and so not everyone disagreed.

For Idris, the moment of reckoning came not in Stockholm, but in Bagh ­ dad. Shortly after Mahfouz's Nobel puzzled the press corps in Sweden, Idris
 was chosen to share Iraq's 1988 Saddam Hussein Prize for Fiction with Palestinian novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. Idris was to receive it at the closing of the then-annual Mirbad International Poetry Festival, sponsored by the Iraqi government in November-an event I attended for several years running in the late 1980s, including that one. In preparation for the great day, and continuing his attacks on Mahfouz, Idris declared that Hussein's prize-that of the (then) Arab hero who had just beaten the Persians-was a higher honor for an Arab writer than the Nobel. (It was also the most lucrative offered by an Arab institution, if far below the value of the Nobel purse.) Yet, when Hussein brusquely appended the beribboned medallion around Idris's neck without a word and moved onto the next recipient, the look on Idris's face, which I viewed from up close, was one of searing disappointment and despair. A normally kind but unpredictable and quixotic man, he never recovered from the shock of Mahfouz's Nobel. Yusuf Idris died of a brain hemorrhage in London, still railing against his fate, on 1 August 1991-leaving a void that could not be filled in Egypt's ever-turbulent literary scene.

Idris's belief that he was in line for a Nobel before Mahfouz was implicitly dismissed by Swedish Academy member Kjell Espmark, who became head of the Nobel Committee for Literature in 1988. In his 1992 book, The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria Behind the Choices, which examines all Nobel literary awards from  the  first in 1901 to 1990, Espmark  hints that Idris had ruled himself out by making public misstatements about the nature of the Nobel selection  process.
Espmark writes that on 9 June 1984 the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter quoted Idris as telling a Swedish ex -par ty leader that he "would gladly accept a prize shared with an Israeli author! A new variation of the Begin-Sadat Peace Prize! The literature prize as a political demonstration! Do they think like that, those who give the Nobel Prize?" An obviously disgusted Espmark adds, "No indeed, they don't."

Perhaps the strangest related episode came in the form of a visit to Mahfouz at home by a group of Palestinian dignitaries, shortly after the Nobel's announcement. Though he refused to name him or any of the other members of this unsolicited delegation, Mahfouz told this writer it was headed by "the foreign minister" of the PLO (who at that time was Farouk Kaddoumi). The Palestinians brought with them a bag of cash in U.S. currency, an amount they said was equal to the value of his Nobel award. They asked him to decline his prize-evidently because they viewed it as tainted with some sort of Zionist connections-and to accept the cash in compensation for the lost honorarium instead. Mahfouz told me that he politely declined the offer.

In April 1996, a front-page article in the influential London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat again raised the issue of Zionist influence on Mahfouz's Nobel. The article's author made the peculiar revelation that an Israeli professor of Arabic literature at the University of Leeds, Avihai Shivtiel, had nominated Mahfouz for his prize. He reproduced a letter that Shivtiel had sent to Mahfouz informing him of his nomination, with Mahfouz's thankful reply.

As it turned out, and as any reader of the numerous Egyptian government publications in honor of Mahfouz's Nobel would know, letters of the type Shivtiel had sent were common-and hardly secret. Shivtiel had simply  responded to a call for suggested nominations circulated by the Nobel Committee to Arabic-language departments in universities around the world. Shivtiel did not identify himself as an Israeli in his letter, and it probably wouldn't have mattered to the Egyptian author-Mahfouz already  knew  many  Israeli specialists in this field, some of whom had visited him in Cairo.

And, as Sture Allén said in our December 1999 interview, such suggestions are not true "nominations" but only a step in the process. Writers are officially nominated only after an extensive appraisal of their works and careers, often prepared by one or more specially commissioned critics. The name must then be accepted by a vote of the committee for formal consideration in the competition for that year's prize. Shivtiel's letter, which was hardly unique, was not crucial in this process, though it doubtless helped reinforce an already overwhelmingly positive impression of Mahfouz.
So, how did Mahfouz really win it?  In the 1980s various individuals and organizations worked to focus the Nobel Committee on Arab writers to make up for decades of neglect of this major world literary tradition, and of Third World authors in general. Up to that point, there had only been four literature winners from the developing world: Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1971, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982, and Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka in 1986. (Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata-not from the Third World per se, but from beyond the frontiers of the old European colonial dominions-had won in 1968.)

In the period immediately before 1988, efforts had been made to introduce modern Arabic literature to Swedish cultural life, mainly by the late Sigrid Kahle, wife of John H. Kahle, former Swedish ambassador to Tunis. Sigrid Kahle had cooperated with U.S.-based Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, founder
 and director of the massive Project for  the Translation  of Arabic  (PROTA), in organizing a conference on modern Arabic poetry-of  which  Mrs. Kahle was a prominent Swedish translator-at the University of Lund. Jayyusi and another leading scholar of modern Arabic letters, Professor Roger  Allen  of the University of Pennsylvania, were also directly involved in forwarding the names of Arabic litterateurs to the Nobel Committee's attention.* The committee's choice narrowed to Mahfouz and the Syrian poet known as Adonis ('Ali Ahmad Sa 'id), himself a particular favorite of Sigrid Kahle. Espmark cites Allen's December 1987 article in World Literature Today. proposing Mahfouz and Adonis as the best two candidates for an Arab Nobel, as "prophetic" In the end, Espmark said, the committee chose Mahfouz  because of a tendency  to prefer creative prose over poetry.

Esprnark quotes Allen: "It was in the new and largely imported field of fiction that enormous efforts had to be made by the Arab litterateurs during the early decades of this century. Najib Mahfuz [Mahfouz's name as transliterated from formal Arabic, not his preferred colloquial Egyptian] is acknowledged throughout the entire Arab world as the great pioneer in the mature Arabic novel: Then Espmark adds, "This reads like a justification several months in advance for a choice that, in the usual way, was prepared for over  the course of several years." In recognition of their contributions, both Roger Allen and Salma Khadra Jayyusi were invited to attend the 1988 Nobel ceremonies, though only Jayyusi came. Allen, who had just attended the Mirbad Poetry Festival in Iraq-where Idris had received half the Saddam Hussein Prize­ prior to receiving his invitation, felt compelled to deal with end-of-semester duties at his teaching post rather than make the arduous trip to Stockholm.

Another, probably equally important factor in Mahfouz's selection for  the prize was the accessibility of his works to members of the committee, Mahfouz's having been more extensively translated into European languages than those of Adonis.

Mahfouz's own answer to the charge that Israel controlled his Nobel was blunt: "Why should the Israelis give it to an Arab, Muslim writer, when the Arabs are seen as their principal enemy in the world, and when they could just as easily give it to an Israeli or Jewish one?" he asked. "And if they had wanted 
to reward me for my loyalty to Camp David, they could simply have deposited the cash in my personal bank account."


Still, for Muslim militants the idea that Israel had given the prize to Mah­ fouz in return not only for his support for peace against the Jewish enemy, but also in compensation for his alleged slandering of lslam in Children of the Alley, began to take hold. Numerous books and pamphlets expressing this view began to appear (and still do). Rumors of death threats began to surface.

Unfortunately, there would be more than threats in Mahfouz's future.
On 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his infamous St. Valentine's Day fatwa against Salman Rushdie for 111e Satc111ic Verses. Two months later, "The Blind Shaykh," Omar Abdel-Rahman - a blind radical preacher allegedly funded by his close friend Osama bin Laden told a Kuwaiti newspaper that if Naguib Mahfouz had been killed for publishing his allegedly blasphemous novel Awlad haratina in 1959, Rushdie would not have dared to bring out 771e Satanic Verses in 1988. Though there was evidently no formal, written fatwa to this effect, my own Islamist sources have told me that this statement was considered as a fatwa by Shaykh Omar's followers, and that a verbal fatwa with the same message was distributed on cassette tapes in Egypt (and probably abroad).

Mahfouz, however, as a firm believer in fate, and feeling he was already too old to worry, declined the government's offer of personal guards-though he did permit some discreet protective surveillance of his home and family. He did not change his attitude toward his own personal safety even after his friend Farag Foda, a fiercely secularist and religiously erudite writer, was fatally shot by followers of Shaykh Omar on 9 June 1992. Mahfouz, who was next on the warning list that the killers had sent to Foda before his death, was even (correctly) called "the number one soft target in Egypt" by Chris Hedges, former Cairo correspondent of the New York Times. Yet Mahfouz refused to alter any part of his way of life; he thought that the conditions already imposed on him by the Nobel, which in his view had come "twenty years too late" had been more than enough to bear.

All appeared deceptively calm until  the early evening of Thursday, 13 October 199 4. Three young men-one or more of them dressed as Gulf Arabs-came to Mahfouz's door, bearing flowers and sweets, claiming to be admirers of the Ustaz. Atiya answered the chime, as usual. No, Naguib was not at home now-he was out with his friends, the Harafish-but they could catch him the next day, when he left his house just before 5:00 PM to go to his
 regular Friday nadwa at Kasino Qasr al-Nil. And so the men left. When they had gone, Atiya reflected, "They had funny-sounding accents for Gulf Arabs." The next day, 14 October, the Nobel Peace Prize was announced for Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat in recognition of their achieve­ment of the Oslo Accords the previous September. (Thanks to a leap year, this arguably was the true sixth anniversary of Mahfouz's prize in literature, which technically fell the day before.) As Mahfouz took a seat in the passenger side of his friend Dr. Fathi Hashern's car - as he did that day each week, heading to Kasino Kasr al-Nil-a thin, neatly dressed young man wearing a floral­ patterned shirt approached him from the pavement. He put his hand through the open window, and the nearly blind Mahfouz, thinking it was one of the many well-wishers who still congratulated him for his Nobel, reached out his own hand to shake it. But instead of grasping Mahfouz's hand, the youth thrust a long switchblade knife (twice, according to one of the surgeons who treated Mahfouz), very hard, into the eighty-two-year-old writer's throat.


Mahfouz made no sound. (He later said, "I felt that a great beast had seized me by its talons") But when Hashem, then a former veterinarian turned pharmaceutical salesman, saw that his body was rocking strangely, he ran around from the driver's side, which he was just entering after helping Mahfouz onto his seat. He thought the young man was merely annoying Mahfouz-he did not yet see the knife in his eminent rider's neck.

Hashem shouted, "Hey, what are you doing? Don't you know that's Naguib Mahfouz?" His eyes locked into those of the assailant, who suddenly fled on foot, disappearing, some witnesses claim, into a waiting yellow Mer­ cedes bearing plates issued by Egyptian customs in Suez (indicating that it had probably been shipped from Saudi Arabia), where several accomplices waited to make their escape and rapidly sped away. Hashem would later say that he never saw the entire face of the attempted assassin-he really saw the man only from the bridge of his nose upward.

Mahfouz's life was saved by three unique factors. First, he lived next to one of Cairo's few facilities for trauma emergencies, the Police Authority Hospital, only fifty meters from his door on Sharia El-Nil. Second, perhaps because he lived so close to a police institution, his assailant used a quiet weapon-the shock of any gunshot wound probably would have killed a man of Mahfouz's age and frailty. (For  Islamists, the use of blades is symbolic as well because it conjures the image of sacrifice and answers the Qur'anic call in verse 47:4  to "smite their [infidels'] necks") Third, the hospital's chief surgeon, the only one capable of directing the four-hour-plus microsurgery required to repair 
the several badly damaged and severed arteries in his neck, was there for the first time in anyone's memory on a Friday.

After a swift military trial of sixteen defendants rounded up in a much larger sweep within a day of the stabbing, two  young  men  were condemned to death, eleven received prison sentences, and three were acquitted for allegedly plotting to kill Mahfouz and to overthrow  the state. Muhammad  Nagi, age twenty-one, was convicted of plunging the blade into Mahfouz, largely based on Fathi Hashem's eyewitness testimony, plus a televised confession (which he retracted when I spoke to him during the trial, saying it had been extracted under torture). In it, Nagi admitted he had never read any of Mah­ fouz's writings and attempted to murder Mahfouz strictly under orders from Omar Abdel-Rahman. Muhammad al- Mahallawi, age twenty- three, was found guilty of casing Mahfouz's house to aid in the crime, and both young men were hanged on 29 March 1995 in Cairo's bleak Bab al-Khalq prison.

(I have also often wondered if, had I been in Dr. Fathi Hashem's car, as I normally would, on that fateful day in October, this story would not have turned out very differently.  But I had unexpectedly delayed by a week my return from a trip to the States--where I heard the breaking news on the radio while visiting the New York offices of the American Research Center in Egypt, which had just awarded me a fellowship to support Mahfouz's biography--and so will never know.)

The operation to assassinate Mahfouz was clearly modeled on the November 1991 attempt on the life of Mohammed Zahir Shah, the exiled king of Afghanistan, at his home just north of Rome- apparently the first major action of its kind by al-Qaeda. A fanatic posing as a Portuguese journalist stabbed the aged ex-monarch, who also lived for many years afterward . Both plots presaged the successful murder of Ahmed Shah Massood, the formidable leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, on 8 September 2001, which heralded the launch of the terror attacks of 9/11 in the United States three days later.

Although those sixteen defendants—the result of a likely "arrest the usual suspects" sweep the morning after the assault-were duly tried in the military court, a further sixteen were reportedly detained after fleeing to various Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, and extradited to Egypt, where they were apparently held without trial. Their ultimate fates remain unknown.

During his long recovery from the knife attack, the haggard and for ­ weeks-homebound Mahfouz showed no forgiveness to the young men accused 
of trying to take his life, despite pleas from some quarters to do so. He refused to intercede for their lives after they brought hell to his, something we dis­ cussed as I briefed him at home after each session for several days of the trial as it moved along toward a predictable conclusion.

"One should not comment on the law's execution," he declared, with emphatic finality. If he later changed his mind and tried to act to spare them, he took that secret to his tomb.
As the trial drummed on, I unexpectedly bonded somewhat with the defendants, who at the start of proceedings lifted up their flimsy white cotton prison body shirts to show me the marks of alleged torture on their shoulders, chests, and backs. Some days later, when they saw me enter, they shouted (in Arabic), "We love you, Raymond!" I later learned this was because they mistakenly believed I was a human rights investigator sent by the U.N. to rescue them. At this outburst, [was hauled away by security personnel and lectured in a back room that my research on the attempted assassination - even my biographical project itself-was "dangerous." I was not allowed back in court until I could acquire formal credentials from the Financial Times some days later.

On the closing day, when the verdicts and punishments were handed down, most of the defendants in the desert courtroom at the former British aerodrome at Haikstep shouted to me their hatred of Mahfouz and their loyalty to the Blind Shaykh-all of which they had denied at the trial. Mohamed Nagi, the chief defendant, tried to say something to me from his cage, but several men from State Security dragged me away before I could get near him. Out­ side the courtroom, because the families and lawyers of the defendants had been kept out of the proceedings that morning to prevent emotional scenes, I took it upon myself to relay the verdicts and sentences-including those two executions-to the waiting relatives. Most of them came up to me repeatedly, not believing their ears, until repetition of the awful truth finally wore them down.

For weeks, I pestered the Interior Ministry for permission to visit the two men-especially Nagi, to learn what he had wanted to tell me on that last day in court when he was sentenced to hang-not entirely for trying to kill Mahfouz, but for also plotting to assassinate Mubarak. Finally, I was promised the chance to see Nagi on the first Saturday in April, only to find he had ascended the scaffold in Bab al-Khalq on the Tuesday before. I then visited his family, whom I had told of his death sentence at Haikstep, in the remote Cairo suburb
 of Ain Shams, an Islamist stronghold they had moved to from the even more infamously militant village of Mallawi, a restive town in middle Egypt where security authorities insisted that foreigners travel only in armored cars with multiple motorcycle escorts .'Nagi's parents treated me like a son, and sent Mohamed's eight-year-old sister (already wearing a hijab) to me bearing a copy of the condensed version of  Mahfouz's patriotic novel set in ancient Egypt. Kifah  Tiba (Thebes at War)mandatory reading in the nation's schools- to show they had no enmity to the author. They too, they said, had been led to believe they would see their boy before his hanging. and on the same day the authorities had also promised me - but it was evidently all a ruse.


His parents swore Mohamed had been at home with them on the day of the stabbing. Yet Dr. Fathi Hashem vehemently averred he was sure this was the man he had confronted at the scene. Some weeks into the trial a print of Nagi's palm was allegedly found on the passenger door of Hashem· little red Fiat- though that h not as conclusive as a fingerprint. and the delay was rather strange.

Mahfouz did generously absolve the man who had first aroused Islamic anger against Children of the Alley – not the Blind Shaykh. but his intellectual predecessor (and superior) Muhammad al-Ghazali, the leader of the three scholars from  al-Azhar who  had  fomented  the  poisonous  protests against Children of the Alley in 1959. When al-Ghazali implausibly denied that he had meant the writer and harm, he then went out of his way to visit Mahfouz in hospital during his long convalescence, and Mahfouz chose to believe him – even though al-Ghazali had treacherously betrayed his promise to testify against the killers of Mahfouz's friend, the brave (and hilarious) anti-Islamist activist Farag Foda, in 1992 – a crime also ordered by Omar Abdel-Rahman. (Instead, he testified for the defendants, on religious grounds—shocking the court.)

Al-Ghazali refused to speak about his long-standing, bitter condemnation of Mahfouz's book, which he never abandoned despite their personal reconciliation, when I approached him in Cairo in 1995. He died in Saudi Arabia a few months later, in March 1996 
and may still be in my experience, the armed car with motorcycle escort amounted to screaming 'The targets are coming! The targets are coming!" as we roared through the sleepy, ancient hamlets along the Nile.
Mahfouz made clear his forgiveness of the faithless cleric in news inter­ views at the time. He signaled it as well, posing with a copy of al-Ghazali's home, Nahw tafsir mawdu 'I li-suwar al-Qur'an al-karim (Toward on Objective Interpretation of the Chapters of the Glorious Qur'an), for a poster and postcard issued in an anti-illiteracy campaign mounter by the American University in Cairo's main library in 1995. They displayed an image of Mahfouz, smiling in his bathrobe and pajamas, his eyes beaming behind massive spectacles, bran­ dishing the outsize book next to the English word "READ" set vertically along the left margin, and the Arabic equivalent, "Iqra," at the bottom.
For Mahfouz, the stabbing changed his life utterly-even more than the Nobel that helped summon it. After nearly two months in hospital, he went home just in time to celebrate his eighty-third birthday with friends who took him out to the Giza pyramids for lunch. But the carefree days of early morning strolls on the Nile, of going to cafes alone to read the papers, were gone. Also lost was his beloved second home, Alexandria, where he kept a summer flat and had for many decades spent long evenings in literary confabulations with friends-but to which he could no longer safely or comfortably travel. Not just for then, but forever.
Ironically, thanks to a crucial, psychologically-beneficial regimen first proposed, Dr. Yahya al-Rakhawi, who had a private clinic on the Moqattam Mountain overlooking the capital, Mahfouz soon was going out even more often than before, spending every evening but one each week out with his companions. Most of these came from his old circle of admirers from the Kasino Qasr al-Nil. And he continued to see the Harafish, who then included the vehemently anti-American and anti-Israeli al-Rakhawi, every Thursday. (When Tawfik Saleh left the group over a disagreement in 2005, in large part over the admission of al-Rakhawi, whom he considered an outsider, the last of its long-standing members, besides Mahfouz was gone.)

Mahfouz's house became a fortress of state security. When he left it, he moved in an armed convoy- though the security detail's frequent tendency to fall far behind the car he traveled in left him nearly as vulnerable as before.

Tragically, the knife touched the nerve controlling his right arm and hand, numbing them permanently. For four years after his stabbing, despite intensive physiotherapy, he could write little more than his name. But on 14 February 1999-eleven years to the day after Ayatollah Khomeini's fateful fatwa against Salman Rushdie-Mahfouz published his first new work after the attempted
 murder-in Nisf al-d1111ya (Halj· the World), a Cairene magazine for women. This was a series of seven poems-another first for the famous man of prose­ made up entirely of quotations from popular songs remembered from the various stages of his life, from infancy to old age. He called this beautiful, highly inventive, and very autobiographical work simply T11e Songs (al-Aglumi).


He followed this with an ongoing series of short, sometimes only a para­ graph-long, vignettes called Dreams of the Time of Recovery (Ah/am fatrnt al-naqaha), later published in two volumes, 711e Dreams (2004) and Dreams of Departure (2007)-later combined in a single binding by Anchor Books/ Random House in 2009. Also serialized for six years in Nisf al-Dunya, the Dreams reflect visions that obsessed him during his convalescence after the stabbing.
Dream 5 is particularly nightmarish:

I am walking aimlessly without anywhere in particular to go when suddenly I encounter a surprising event that had never before entered my mind-every step I take turns the street upside-down into a circus . The walls and buildings and cars and passersby all disappear, and in their place a Big Top arises with its layered seats and long, hanging ropes, filled with trapezes and animal cages, with actors and acrobats and musclemen and even a clown. At first I am so happy that I could soar with joy. But as I move from street to street where the miracle is repeated over and over, my pleasure subsides and my irritation grows until I tire from the walking and the looking around, and I long in my soul to go back to my home. But just as I delight once again to see the familiar face of the world, and trust that soon my relief will come, I open the door-and find the clown there to greet me, gigg ling."

Another dream, #179, seems much more optimistic-but it contains a major and, at the time, potentially fatal confession:

My dear, deceased friend came to visit me. He queried me, "Why are you so sad?"
I told him that my weak eyesight and hearing have cut me off from the sources of culture that I used to read, hear, and see.  So he took me to 
a publishing house managed by one of our university colleagues, and asked him for a work on all the modern ideas about science. philosophy. and literature.

The man produced a big book. Along with it, he gave us a brand-new printing of the Holy Qur'an, saying that the hefty tome contained an interpretation of the sacred text that had never been seen before.
We took these gifts with us. On the street my friend said, "l will come to you every evening to read you a chapter of the Glorious Qur'an, as well as a chapter from the other book, until we finish them both."
"May God grant you mercy" I welcomed him, "and set you to dwell in the broadest glades of paradise."

Of course, the "big book" on "science, philosophy, and literature" from which the dreamer's deceased friend has pledged to read a chapter to him each night, along with a chapter from the Qur'an until both books are finished, is undoubtedly Children of the Alley. Since the modern tome also interprets the Qur'an­ which, like Children of the Alley, has  114 chapters-here Mahfouz finally admits that his novel really is meant to parallel the stories in the sacred scriptures, a fact he had always prudently denied. And he acknowledges that his creeping loss of eyesight and hearing had left him isolated and dependent upon friends for all information—whether reliable or not.

Was Naguib Mahfouz's Nobel Prize a blessing, or a curse?

The award came too late to truly improve his own lot, though it brought him great pride, and was of lasting benefit financially to his wife and two daughters. It changed the routines he loved, and thanks to the notoriety it brought him, nearly cost him his life.

Yet more than any other winner of this most-desired literary award, he gained a prolonged boost in international sales of his books, which in 2018 are available in five hundred editions in at least twenty-six languages. The "Nobel Effect" for most winners ends after a year or so, but for Mahfouz (though his books are now less easily found in the United States than they were just a few 
years ago) it has endured far longer. Though he is gone, these works-his other children-seem destined to live on long. And he opened the West, and much of the rest of the world, to the previously little -known delights and insights of Arabic literature. Indeed, Mahfouz was the first person to do so since the long-forgotten authors of A Thousand and One Nights.5

Many of those who played a vital role on, or in helping to bring about, that tumultuous day in Cairo nearly three decades gone by, and/or all that fol­ lowed, have passed away. Among them are novelist Gamal al-Ghitani (1945-2015), Swedish translator and writer Sigrid Kahle (1928-2013), AUCP director Werner Mark Linz (1935- 2013), actor and horseman extraordinaire Ahmed Mazhar (1917-2002), and brilliant film auteur Tawfik Saleh (1928-2013), without whose invaluable aid and advice my work would not have made it this far. Mahfouz's widow, Atiyah, died at roughly seventy-seven in December 2014, and Faten, the younger of his two daughters--both of whom kindly worked very hard to help me in the early days of my research, for which I remain very grateful-succumbed to a long illness in April 2017.   Their ingeniously funny, impeccably polite and always affectionate father died on 30 August 2006 from complications following two falls (one at home in mid-July, the other a few weeks later in the same Police Authority Hospital that miraculously saved his life in 1994).  This writer owes the greatest debt to this supremely patient man, whom his friends lovingly called "Naguib Bey," or simply "Ustaz (Professor) Naguib"-and who is missed most of all. 

Omar Abdel-Rahman, the "Blind Shaykh" who ordered Mahfouz's extir­pation, expired in a federal prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina, in February 2017, while serving a life sentence for his role in plotting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. The instigator of President Anwar al-Sadat's murder in 1981 as well as that of a thousand foreign tourists, police­ men, and ordinary Egyptians in the Islamist uprising he directed in the 1990s, Abdel-Rahman is mourned only by his family and his regrettably numerous twisted followers.

Warming his heels in his final prison-along with countless other jihadis, who no doubt expected a different destination—the Blind Shaykh would know, though unable to see him, that Naguib Mahfouz dwells "in the broadest glades of paradise."
Raymond Stock, a expert on Middle Eastern cultural and political affairs, is Instructor of Arabic at Louisiana State University and a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.  He lived in Cairo for twenty years (1990-2010), and has translated seven books by Egyptian 1988 Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), whose biography he is writing for Farrar, Straus & Giroux book publishers in New York: Mahfouz cooperated in the research.  A 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, with a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (including ancient through modern studies) from the University of Pennsylvania, Stock served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Drew University in 2010/2011.  A frequent commentator in the media, his articles and translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in Bookforum, The Diplomatist, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes, Harper's Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Journal of Arabic Literature, The London Magazine, Middle East Quarterly, Zoetrope: All-Story and many other venues.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), who in 1988 became the Arab world's first Nobel Laureate in Literature, authored roughly sixty books, covering virtually every style and genre of fiction. He also produced numerous movie scripts and scenarios, including for many of the top films in Arab cinema history. Little known beyond his native region before his Nobel, his works now appear in over four hundred editions in at least thirty languages, evidently making him the writer to have most benefited in world recognition and sales as a result of this honor.  In 1957, he won Egypt's highest plaudit in this field, the State Prize for Literature, for his legendary Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street).  In 1992, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters as an honorary member.  In 2005, he was named in the shortlist for the first Man Booker International Prize for fiction, and he received countless other awards internationally. This notoriety also brought with it unprecedented perils. In 1994, Mahfouz narrowly survived an attempt on his life by an Islamist fanatic, apparently ordered by Shaykh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a close associate of Osama bin Laden, who passed away in a federal prison hospital in 2017 while serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up key targets including the World Trade Center in New York. The attack on Mahfouz--the first of its kind on any Nobelist--was in retaliation for his novel Children of the Alley (1959), an allegedly blasphemous allegory of humanity's journey from the Garden of Eden through the era of advanced science, banned from Arabic publication in book form for decades in Egypt by al-Azhar, the nation's great center of Islamic orthodoxy. After a swift and controversial military trial, two young men were hanged and eleven others sentenced to prison for conspiring in the assault and for plotting against the State. His writing hand partially paralyzed by the assailant's blade in his neck, after several years of intensive physiotherapy, Mahfouz resumed his creative output in 1999. His final work, The Dreams, was being serialized in a Cairo women's magazine at the time of his death at age 94.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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