Naguib Mahfouz

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Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel laureate novelist, has died at 94. A doctor said that shortly before Mahfouz died, his wife was whispering in his ear, and he was nodding and smiling. He never lost his sense of humor.

Many of his works are available in English. I read one of his novels, and he reminds me of Charles Dickens. His characters are so sharply drawn and he paints such vivid word pictures that, with a little imagination, you feel as if you are actually present.

That is the value of great literature. It can transport you like a time machine to places it is otherwise impossible to go. Therefore, you can get a feel or sense of Egypt that is not available from news reports, polemics or instant histories by self-appointed instant experts.

Mahfouz was a true patriot, a man who loved his country and its people. Some of his books irritated religious conservatives, but the Muslim Brotherhood says it plans to attend his funeral. He led a disciplined life. He worked for the government from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., wrote from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and read from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. He never went to parties or meetings and even declined to receive his Nobel Prize in person.

His life spanned most of the 20th century. He saw the end of British colonialism, the military officers’ revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as two world wars. Most of his novels, however, are about ordinary people struggling with their lives in the background of these larger events.

There is, in fact, a great deal of Arab and Israeli literature available in English translation, and since our politicians have embroiled us in the Middle East, we might as well try to understand the region and its people. In my cold-sober moments, I believe with all my heart the U.S. should withdraw from the area, for there are no easy or bloodless solutions to the conflicts there.

Yet, the Middle East exerts a strange fascination. I remember walking over the Etzion Bloc near Hebron in the late 1970s with a burly Israeli officer who had fought there as a teenager in the Palmach. After reminiscing about the battle, which was desperate and bloody, he suddenly said, "So much of this land is sacred to somebody, you can hardly find a place to spit."

It’s true that no matter where you go in the Middle East, you are standing on land that has been inhabited and fought over for more than 3,000 years. It is truly the cradle of Western civilization. So much of what we are and what we have today derive from those people who struggled there millennia ago. We don’t know what it looked like 3,000 years ago, but today it certainly doesn’t look like it’s worth fighting over. It is a hard, rocky place, and the sand seems thirsty for blood. Being there reminds you of how very young our own country is.

I just finished Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. It is less a history of events than it is a history of ideas — philosophical, political and religious — that have developed in the area since the birth of the prophet Muhammad. The book takes you to the 1980s. One thing reading this book will do for you is to put away forever the idea that there is a unified, monolithic Islam about to sweep the world. Islam, like all religions, has always had its divisions.

What he does best, in my opinion, is show you how European colonialism so seriously damaged the society of the Arab world. I saw traces of that when I was in Cairo, Egypt, in the late ’70s. Even then most things were imported, because the colonial powers were interested only in cheap labor and in extracting raw materials. The last thing they wanted to invest in was either education or industrialization. It is not something easy to overcome by any country short of capital and overpopulated.

We should remember that the Arab people have been around a lot longer than we have, and though struggle they must, they will emerge eventually with a good and strong society.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2006 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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