The Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz has died at the age of 94. Although stabbed in the neck 12 years ago by an Islamic militant accusing him of blasphemy, Mahfouz seems to have kept happily active until nearly the end. From the AP:
Mahfouz maintained a busy schedule well into his 90s. In his final years, he would go out six nights a week to meet friends at Cairo’s literary watering holes, trading jokes, ideas for stories and news of the day.
He continued to work, producing short stories, sometimes only a few paragraphs long, dictating each day to a friend who would also read him the newspapers. His final published major work came in 2005 ‚Äî a collection of stories about the afterlife entitled The Seventh Heaven.
I’ve read only one Mahfouz book – a Chicago book club round-tabled Sugar Street, the final work of the Cairo Trilogy – but his name has come up a few times in research I’m doing about the International Writers Center. In October 1994, the William Gass-directed IWC put on The Writer and Religion Conference in St. Louis. Just a few days before the beginning of the four-day symposium – conceived in part to explore the emergence of fundamentalism and the relationship between religion and a writer’s freedom – this major literary figure was assaulted by a religious fanatic. (Two men were later hung for the attempted murder.) The news must have been an eerie stage-setter for the conference itself. William Gaddis, a key conference presenter, was one of several attendees to make reference to the stabbing:
The real war spreading through the world today, however, is not among religions and sects one against another; but one more clearly and frighteningly defined by a prominent victim of religious zealotry who calls “secularism the fanatics’ most important target,” as the daylight stabbing of Egypt’s Nobel laureate in literature reminds us. Sentenced to death for his writings by Islam, found blasphemous by the Vatican’s newspaper, sidestepped in a suit charging blasphemy and seditious libel in a London court holding England’s blasphemy law as applying only to Christianity, Salman Rushdie received his deepest insult from the pusillanimous administration of George Bush which refused an encounter with Rushdie, who was dismissed by a toad named Fitzwater as simply “another writer on a book tour.”
The AP obit referred to above included this paragraph, which was news to me:
In late 2005, an Egyptian monthly magazine tried to publish the novel [Children of Gebelawi]. Mahfouz said he wouldn’t agree to republishing it without the consent of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim clerical institution in Cairo. His position raised an outcry among many novelists who said he was bending to religious censorship ‚Äî but it reflected his non-confrontational style and desire to see consensus.
As I wrote this post, NPR aired a remembrance.