STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The only writer to win a Nobel Prize for his stories in Arabic has died. Naguib Mahfouz was 94 years old. He'd gone to the hospital last month after he fell in his home. As we're going to hear, Naguib Nahfouz wrote novels that painted the streets of Cairo, Egypt so you could almost see them. Mona Iskander begins her report on those streets.
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MONA ISKANDER reporting:
In this bustling Cairo square, a statue of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz stands above the traffic with one foot poised forward as if in motion, and one on clutching his signature walking cane. He wears tinted glasses he sported for most of his life. It seems natural that a statue of Mahfouz stands here amid the ordinary activities of Cairoian life.
The inspirations for his narratives were right here in the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of his stories bring these places to life through eloquent descriptions. This is a passage from his novel Palace Walk, when one of the characters, Yasin, returns to the neighborhood of his birth.
Unidentified Man: (Reading) The street was still so narrow, a handcart will almost block it when passing by. The protruding balconies of the houses almost touched each other overhead. The small shops resembled the cells of a beehive; they were so close together and crowded with patrons, so noisy and humming. The street was unpaved, with gaping holes full of mud. The boys who swarmed along the sides of the streets made footprints in the dirt with their bare feet. There is the same never-ending stream of pedestrian traffic. Uncle Hassan's snack shop and Uncle Soliman's restaurant, too, remain just as he'd known them.
ISKANDER: Mahfouz grew up in a very similar setting. He was born in 1911 in the Gamala district of Cairo to a modest, middleclass family. He later served as a government employee until he began writing professionally in his 40s. Mahfouz is often referred to as the father of the Arabic novel. Some of his books are Midaq Alley, The Cairo Trilogy, and The Beginning and the End.
Egyptian writers like Mahfouz had attempted novel writing, but it was he who mastered it and brought it to maturity in the Arabic language. Raymond Stock, a writer and translator, is writing a biography on Mahfouz.
Mr. RAYMOND STOCK (Writer and Translator): Well, he sort of invented the modern literary prose style in Arabic. He has found a way to - and he was the first, I think, to really do this - capture the feeling and the spirit of colloquial Egyptian, in classical Arabic. So when he writes his dialogue it sounds like natural speech. He's quite a genius in that respect.
ISKANDER: controversy entered Mahfouz' life for the publication of his novel, Children of the Alley. Islamic clerks issued a Fatua against him for his alleged use of religious characters in the book. In 1994, Islamic militants stabbed him in the neck. The incident left Mahfouz' right arm crippled. After five years of physical therapy, he was able to write again.
His work took on a more autobiographical tone. Despite the attack, Mahfouz continues to frequent his favorite cafes for those closest to him. Ali Salam, a playwright, is one of the many who sat for hours, drinking tea and discussing politics and current events with Mahfouz. Salam believes that Mahfouz' greatest talent was transforming the ordinary into the evocative.
Mr. ALI SALAM (Playwright): The words themselves, in his works are dancing, and they are decisive, expressive. You feel that you are listening to a piece of good music. So I think people will read him forever because of this music, because his musical style makes you feel that the Arabic language is beautiful.
ISKANDER: For NPR News, I'm Mona Iskander.
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