A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Naguib Mahfouz Would Have Been 102

The irreplaceable Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian novelist whose greatest characters were the city of Cairo and its people, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, would have been 102.

I post this late on December 10 for a reason. The great storyteller always celebrated his birthday on December 11, but he was apparently actually born on December 10. So though today was his 102nd birthday, Egyptians will mark it tomorrow. As Raymond Stock, who is writing his biography, noted here two years ago:
FYI, his birthday has traditionally been observed on Dec. 11 — the day it was registered in 1911 — but he was actually born on Dec. 10, at 2:00 am, according to his birth record at Dar al-Mahfouzat.  This was fifteen years to the hour after Alfred Nobel's fatal stroke in San Remo in 1896.  Though I informed Naguib of this finding, he preferred to stick with Dec. 11: he was always a creature of very fixed habits.
On what would have been his 100th birthday in 2011 (Mahfouz died in 2006), I did a lengthy interview with Dr. Stock about his memories of the man, which you should go read now if you didn't then (or when I reran the whole interview last year). I won't run the whole thing again here, but it contains many memories of the man by an American who knew him well. Meanwhile, celebrate the great man's 102nd appropriately, by rereading some of his work. (If you've never read him, it's time to start. One of my questions in the interview was where someone coming to Mahfouz for the first time should start. I will repeat Raymond's answer here:
First one should ask, do you like short reads or long?  For long reads, one should begin with (if not the Trilogy) [the famous three novels of the Cairo Trilogy],  Miramar, Midaq Alley (now out in a new translation by Humphrey Davies), or Khan al-Khalili.  For shorter ones, Adrift on the Nile or The Thief and the Dogs are excellent, as are Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, Cairo Modern, Thebes at War, and The Coffeehouse (his last novel, which gives a brilliant, brief historical overview of Egyptian politics and society of the twentieth century, and is a moving story with some very poetic passages to boot).  Also the short stories in The Time and the Place.  These are all among his best works — very accessible and also entertaining.  But everyone would have their own list.  Incidentally, the last time I was asked this question, it was to choose his most representative works.  The titles I've recommended here are those I think would be most appealing.

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