Balzac in Cairo

<strong>Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate</strong>

Rasheed El-Enany <em>Haus Publishing, 176

Mention modern Arabic literature and one name usually comes up: Naguib Mahfouz. Like a barrel of Saudi Arabia's Arab Light oil, Mahfouz is the benchmark by which all other modern Arabic writers are measured, from a western perspective at least.

Mahfouz lived a long time and his life's work is huge: 30 novels, more than 100 short stories and hundreds of unpublished "Dreams", plus many years of journalism. So it comes as no surprise to find another book written about him, to add to the many others published since 1988, when Mahfouz became the first Arab to win a Nobel prize for literature.

Rasheed El-Enany himself published a biography of Mahfouz, in 1993. Mahfouz was already a frail 81-year-old and, as El-Enany admits at the start of his latest book, Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt's Nobel Laureate, at the time he presumed the key events of Mahfouz's life to be over.

A year later, Mahfouz was nearly murdered when a Muslim religious fanatic stabbed him in the neck on his doorstep. He survived the attack and went on to live another 12 years, writing dozens more inventive short stories along the way. El-Enany could hardly have been more wrong, but embarking on this new biography of the great writer's life, we quickly forgive him for the oversight and start to enjoy his handy contribution to the Mahfouz canon.

El-Enany focuses on Mahfouz's literary oeuvre. Minor novels get just a passing mention; The Cairo Trilogy and The Harafish each get several pages. Disappointingly, there is little about Mahfouz's personal life. We learn much about his literary influences, but nothing about his well-known penchant for cafe life, his friends or his writing habits.

Mahfouz's masterpieces are nostalgic accounts of middle- and lower-class life in Cairo. His writing engages with politics and current events and makes a wonderful chronicle of Egyptian life during the greater part of the 20th century. In the dusty backstreets of the city that Egyptians call the Mother of the World, his characters muddle through the years, suffering the trials of war, the tribulations of a brutal colonial occupation and the bitter disappointment of a long-awaited revolution that leads only to a cruel dictatorship. Although he depicts a society only a couple of generations ago, the intricate tales of family relationships seem so dated and Dickensian to today's reader that it is as if they occurred in a bygone age.

Much of Mahfouz is timeless - the reflections on free will, on the relationship between east and west, and on Egypt's cultural identity. The so-called Egyptian Balzac grapples with life's most difficult questions in an effort to understand why a man is unjust towards another man, or what the role of fate is in our lives. Some themes in his writing remain highly topical: the role of Islam in Arab society, the nature of Egypt's relationship with the west and the role of men and women in families are all still burning, unresolved issues in modern Egypt.

A petit bourgeois secular socialist, Mahfouz was a bureaucrat both by nature and in his working life. As an adult he bravely rejected religion, despite the ascendance of political Islamism in Egypt during the 1930s and 1940s. He staunchly opposed the Muslim Brotherhood all his life and was scathingly critical of the Qaeda ideologue Sayyid Qutb, whom he knew personally. The fanatic who stabbed him in 1994 explained afterwards that he did it because Children of the Alley - what Mahfouz referred to as "my big novel" - was a blasphemous allegory of the Prophet Muhammad. It later emerged that the would-be killer had not even read the book.

Moderate and cautious, Mahfouz believed in political evolution, not revolution, just as he believed in the evolution of mankind. Mahfouz's own writing style, as El-Enany explains, progressed in step with Egypt's development, from the clunky and historical to the Romantic, and then to the naturalist and realist - and, by the end of his life, as Mahfouz retreated into happy recollections of his childhood in colonial Egypt so as not to face the unrecognisable monster that contemporary Cairo had become, his work became modernist and experimental. Yet even these final works, El-Enany emphasises, are of the finest quality.

Ironically for a man who once worked as a film censor, the screen adaptations of Mahfouz's novels are today more familiar to modern Arabs than his writings. Usually at any given time at least one Arab television channel is running a series based on his work, and the most famous film adaptations are better known than the books themselves.

El-Enany's biography would have been improved with a little more personal information about Mahfouz himself, even if information about the writer's life is so richly available in his own works. The book is informative and brief and makes a good primer for Arabic literature. And if you need to bluff your way through the works of Naguib Mahfouz at short notice, this should be your first port of call.

Hugh Miles is the author of "Playing Cards in Cairo" (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!