The death on 29 August of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz generated a quarrel between historians, literary critics and Egyptians on one side, and Arab journalists on the other. It was a re-run of the 1988 controversy, when Mafouz won the world's most prestigious award--the Nobel Prize for literature--to the outrage of Arab nationalists who had condemned the author for his support of the late President Anwar Sadat's peace initiative with Israel.
Last month Egyptian literary circles were outraged again by Arab journalists attempting to claim Mahfouz as their own, describing him in their obituaries as an 'Arab writer', while a few years earlier they spared no opportunity to condemn his backing for peace with the Jewish state; support which in 1979 caused Mahfouz's works to be banned from all Arab countries.
Millions of words have been written about Mahfouz and his works. The late British author and essayist John Fowles (1926-2005) wrote in 1978: "Mahfouz allows us the privilege of entering a national psychology, in a way thousands of journalistic articles or television documentaries could not achieve." Fowles' words were among the shortest, yet the most descriptive of the unique craftsmanship of Naguib Mahfouz.
Historically, any phenomenon which emerges in Egypt dominates the area between the Atlas Mountains and the Gulf and, true to form, it is almost impossible to find a single contemporary writer in that area who has not been influenced by Mahfouz.
The author of 43 novels, 11 short stories, 30 screenplays and numerous literary articles, Mahfouz was probably the only original novelist who captured the imaginations of all Arabic speaking peoples; yet at heart and soul he remained Egyptian--rather than Arab or Middle Eastern.
When Arabs banned his work from their countries in 1979, the 'Scribe of Egypt' barely noticed; he continued his writing in the mornings, reading in the afternoon, and influencing the many young writers who congregated daily before the master at the ancient cafe in central Cairo that was his 'local'.
Mahfouz was never a political activist. And, despite a high level preoccupation with social injustice and oppression, he remained aloof from politics at a time when the vast majority of Egyptian writers joined Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser's 'Socialist Union', the backbone of his Stalinist style, one-party dictatorship; instead Mahfouz let his works speak volumes, reflecting the national spirit of Egypt.