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Picture of Naguib Mahfouz, twentieth century Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist

December 11, 1911
Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz
Of Fame and Fatwas
by Steve King

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On this day in 1911 the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born. He was the author of some forty novels and story collections, and estimated to be the most read Arabic novelist both outside of and within the Arab world -- though some of his books were ominously banned, and remain so. His epic social chronicles -- most notably the Cairo Trilogy, which covers much of the first half of the 20th century -- are compared to, and were in fact written in emulation of, those by Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac. At the other end of the range, his novella The Day the Leader Was Killed provides a cultural snapshot for the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat. One of its central characters, the alienated Elwan, has the options and opinions of those who might have done it -- or of those born a little afterwards but to a similar Egypt, such as Mohammad Atta, who would grow up to do worse:
    We are a people more acclimatized to defeat than to victory. It is just a Mafia which controls us -- no more, no less. Where are the good old days?... My pride wounded, my heart broken, I have come to this café as a refuge from the pain of loneliness.... How many nations live side by side in this one nation of ours? How many millionaires are there? Relatives and parasites? Smugglers and pimps? Shi'ites and Sunnis? --stories far better than A Thousand and One Nights. What do eggs cost today? This is my concern. Yet, as the same time, singers and belly dancers in the nightclubs on Pyramid Road are showered with banknotes and gratuities. What did the imam of the mosque say within earshot of the soldiers of the Central Security Force? There is not one public lavatory in this entire neighborhood.... [Sadat is] a failure -- "my friend Begin, my friend Kissinger," is all he can say; his uniform is Hitler's; his act, the act of Charlie Chaplin. He's rented our entire country -- furnished -- to the United States....
Mahfouz would have been the last person to recommend terrorism. Muslim fundamentalists attacked him verbally for backing the Camp David Accord in 1978, and then his Children of Gebelawi was considered so blasphemous that it was banned in Egypt, and Omar Abdul-Rahman pronounced a fatwa against him. This was very nearly carried out in 1994, the 83-year-old Mahfouz stabbed in the neck and severely wounded just outside his apartment. "This incident," he said later, "is an opportunity to ask God to make the police defeat terrorists and to plead for the country to be purified of this evil in defense of people, liberty and Islam." The "opportunity" came with a warning: "They are trying to extinguish the light of reason and thought. Beware...."

On this day in 1991 Salman Rushdie made his first appearance after three years in hiding from the fatwa against him -- the issuing of which would not have been necessary, according to Omar Abdul-Rahman, had Mahfouz been made an example of earlier, when he first started to offend terrorist sensibilities.

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Related authors:  Martin Amis, Naguib Mahfouz, PEN, Kahlil Gibran, Salman Rushdie
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