Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab Nobel winner in literature, dies at 94

CAIRO: Naguib Mahfouz, who became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature and who was later stabbed by a religious militant who accused him of blasphemy, died here on Wednesday at the age of 94. His novels depicted Egyptian life in his beloved corner of ancient Cairo.

The prize, awarded in 1988, brought to notice a man who had already established himself as one of West Asia's finest and most beloved writers and a strong voice for moderation and religious tolerance. But fame had its perils. In 1994, an attacker inspired by a militant cleric's ruling that a Mahfouz novel written decades before was blasphemous, stabbed the then-82-year-old as he left his Cairo home.

Mahfouz survived, but the attack damaged nerves leading to his right arm, impairing his ability to write. A man who had once worked for hours at a time writing in longhand found it a struggle to "form legible words running in more or less straight lines," he wrote in the aftermath.

Still, 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, a collection of stories about the afterlife titled The Seventh Heaven.

"I wrote The Seventh Heaven because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death," the wispy-bearded writer said with a grin during a small gathering for his 94th birthday in December 2005. "Spirituality for me is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration for me." He explained his tight adherence to routine, saying "I'm a Sagittarius, I was born under a cold sign, so of course I have discipline" followed by a boisterous laugh.

Across the span of 50 novels, five plays and scores of short stories and essays, Mahfouz depicted with startling realism the Egyptian ``Everyman'' balancing between tradition and the modern world. Often the scene of the novels did not stretch beyond a few familiar blocks of Islamic Cairo, the 1,000-year-old quarter of the capital where Mahfouz was born.

The crowded neighbourhood of alleys and centuries-old mosques is the setting for his masterpiece Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, all of which appeared in the 1950s details the adventures and misadventures of a Muslim merchant family not unlike Mahfouz' own. It was his 1959 novel Children of Our Alley known by its English title Children of Gebelawi that brought him the most controversy. It was an allegory for the series of prophets that Islam believes includes Jesus and Moses Eissa and Moussa in Arabic and culminates in the Prophet Mohammad. First serialised in Egyptian newspapers in 1959, it caused an uproar much like Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, published a year later.

Egyptian religious authorities banned it from being published in book form, but it was published in Lebanon and later translated into English.

The controversy was resurrected when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in a 1989 fatwa, or religious verdict.

In a copycat fatwa the same year, Egyptian radical Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman later convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks said Mahfouz deserved to die for Children of Gebelawi. The attacker five years later was inspired by the fatwa.

The controversy over the book was renewed late 2005, when a magazine tried to publish the novel. Mahfouz said he would not agree to republishing it without the consent of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim clerical institution in Cairo. His position raised an outcry among many novelists who said he was bending to religious censorship but it reflected his non-confrontational style and desire to see consensus.

Mahfouz spent most of his adult life working for the government, his writing a sideline even as he grew more successful. He once described preparing a Parliament speech for the Minister of religious endowments. He handed the Minister with an envelope containing the speech, then sat down outside Parliament to review a short story he had just finished. To his horror, he realised he had the speech, and the minister had his story. The young writer rushed into Parliament "and exchanged the two envelopes when the minister wasn't looking." AP