Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Nobel Laureate dies

Naguib Mahfouz, the only Egyptian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, died today at age 94. His contributions to literature have been widely remarked upon; his contributions to civil society, and as a result to human rights, have been less so.

Mahfouz wrote about the ordinary Egyptian, creating characters who went through the troubled times of the modern world with dignity, even as they made mistakes. Many other writers followed in his wake; indeed he himself created no new ground.

What does this mean for a country caught between authoritarian rule and an opposition marked in part by a extremist ideology too often given to violence? A country where Naguib Mahfouz can thrive is a place where a third option can take root. A country that can celebrate his celebration of ordinary Egyptians is a place where the experiences of others can affect individuals and broaden their own experiences. It is a country where human rights can be given a place of honor.

Mahfouz of course embodied this in his own life. Cautious about making political statements, he nevertheless believed in remaining true to his literature, and that inevitably drew him into the conflict that Egypt now faces. He didn't turn away from that conflict, and nearly paid for it with his life. Others, such as Faraq Foda, weren't as lucky. He received criticism for not being more political or, from some, for getting too close to the Mubarak regime. But in times such as these, a literature of the ordinary is a political act. He refused to submit to narrow and prefabricated ideas of life. Mahfouz sought to express truths that come out of actual experience, to create a social space where people are allowed and encouraged to follow their imagination. That is one important definition of freedom. Inevitably in times such as these, that becomes not just a political act, but a revolutionary one.

Here is the Washington Post story on his death.


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