CAIRO, (Reuters) – Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, the only writer in Arabic to win the Nobel Prize for literature, died on Wednesday in Cairo aged 94, doctors said.
Mahfouz, whose writing on taboo topics often rankled conservatives in Egypt, survived an assassination attempt 12 years ago. He was hospitalised last month after he fell in the street, and died after suffering from a bleeding ulcer.
“He came to this world only to write,” Egyptian writer Youssef al-Quaid told Egyptian television. “He was the most famous writer in Egypt … He had an incredible ability to create and create all his life.”
Mahfouz, a prolific writer best known for his Cairo Trilogy, became a literary force when he moved beyond traditional novels to realistic descriptions of Egypt’s 20th century experience of colonialism and autocracy.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988 for works which “formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind”.
Declared an infidel by Muslim militants because of his portrayal of God, Mahfouz survived a knife attack in 1994 that damaged a nerve and seriously impaired his ability to use his writing hand.
“They are trying to extinguish the light of reason and thought. Beware,” Mahfouz said after the attack.
Al-Azhar, the highest Islamic authority in Egypt, banned his 1959 novel “Children of Gabalawi” on the grounds that it violated Islamic rules by including characters who clearly represented God and the prophets.
Born on December 11, 1911 in Cairo, the son of a merchant, Mahfouz was the youngest son in a family of four sisters and two brothers.
He obtained his philosophy degree from Cairo University at the age of 23, at a time when many Egyptians had only a primary education. He worked in the government’s cultural section until retiring in 1971.
Mahfouz, who rose to prominence following his portrayal of Egypt under British occupation and the autocratic rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser that followed, influenced writers across the Arab world.
But his fame rested on views that have attracted the anger of military and religious officials in Egypt and Arab countries.
Dignitaries from around the world paid tribute to the author, including U.S. President George W. Bush. Mahfouz’s family had declined a U.S. offer for hospital treatment, Egyptian television reported.
“On behalf of the American people, the President and Mrs. Bush extend their deepest sympathies to Mr. Mahfouz’s family and friends and to the Egyptian people for the loss of an extraordinary artist who conveyed the richness of Egyptian history and society to the world,” a White House statement said.
Mahfouz’s 1945 book “New Cairo” combined social criticism and psychological insight to portray living characters in popular quarters of Cairo. It adopted a realistic style that critics say started a new school of Arab writing. Another four realistic works followed.
Mahfouz stopped writing between 1949 and 1956 while he observed the changes that saw the fall of the monarchy, the end of British rule and the rise of the military under Nasser.
But he came back full force with a trilogy that covertly attacked the new army rulers. In the three works, Mahfouz narrated developments in Egypt through the eyes of a middle class family over three generations.
In the 1960s, when no Egyptians dared voice dissent, he indirectly criticised Nasser’s rule in “Small talk on the Nile” and “Miramar”.
Mahfouz’s support of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel brought him the wrath of many Arab countries, who banned his novels. But many of his works have been made into Arabic films and his books have been widely sold across the Arab world.
Mahfouz publicly opposed Islamic militancy, but before the 1994 assassination bid he had declined police protection. Two men were hanged in 1995 for the attack.
Mahfouz’s funeral is set for Thursday.