Saturday 17 December 2011

Naguib Mahfouz Centenary: chronicling Egypt's short twentieth century

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)
This week it was one hundred years ago that the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born. On occasion of the centenary of the only Arabophone Nobel Prize laureate, the Qantara website commemorated him as a writer of an imaginary historiography of Egypt's 'short twentieth century'. It traces Mahfouz's development as an author through the various literary guises he assumed during his literary career: pharaonist, chronicler, seismograph, allegorist, and -- finally -- a cultural monument.

This iconic status could not protect him from a violent assault in 1994, when a religious zealot attempted to assassinate the octogenarian because of his controversial views on religion. A self-described secularist, others interpreted his convictions as atheism. This was also the alleged reason for Mahfouz's transfer, earlier in his career as a civil servant, from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

Generally regarded as a realist who tried to faithfully depict the life of ordinary Egyptians in extraordinary circumstances, Mahfouz also tried his hand at more metaphorical approaches. It was in his manifestation of allegorist that caught the ire of the self-appointed guardians of 'true Islam'. They were particularly irritated by The Children of Gebelawi (also known as Children of the Alley):

The novel depicts a microcosm in a city, easily recognisable as Cairo, in which usurpers use material and physical violence to suppress and torment the population. There are many attempts to rail against this tyranny, each of which crystallises around individuals whose life stories and lines of reasoning point to Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Each of the three manages for a short time to achieve the best result for his supporters and takes it upon himself to fulfil the wishes of the patriarch Gebelawi, who lives in a villa somewhere outside the city – Old Paradise. The fourth "saviour" no longer defers to this ancestral figure, but sets out to fathom his secret, which eventually leads to Gebelawi's death. This pseudo-realistic portrayal casts doubt on the legend, on the myth. The author voices quite explicit and pronounced doubts over the sustainability of old and new messages of salvation, a doubt that also includes the modern sciences – 
To read the whole article, click here

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