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Egypt Buries Nobel Laureate Mahfouz


With President Hosni Mubarak and leading Islamic clerics in attendance, Egypt Thursday buried Nobel Prize writer Naguib Mahfouz who died at the age of 94. The prolific writer, who was both admired and reviled at home, is the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

It was the author's wish to have the funeral services at the Hussein mosque in the heart of Gabaliya district, the neighborhood where he grew up, and the setting for many of his novels. His casket, draped in a green shroud, was accompanied by friends and admirers chanting "to eternal Heaven, Naguib".

Later in the day, another funeral service with full military honors was held for Naguib Mahfouz. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, cabinet ministers and ambassadors followed the cortege through the streets of Nassr City.

Egypt's highest religious figure, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of Al Azhar mosque, led the prayer. Egypt's grand mufti Ali Gomaa also attended. He said that Mahfouz's books had reached the hearts of the whole world, not only Arabs and Muslims. The country's two leading clerics spoke highly of Mahfouz's Muslim faith and his work, which often stirred controversy with its appeal for tolerance.

Mahfouz's works were repeatedly banned in Egypt, both by religious and political authorities, including Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. Children of the Alley, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, is still officially banned by Egypt's Al Azhar University, the leading Islamic institute of the Arab world.

The author, best known for his Cairo trilogy, has had a writing career that spans more than 70 years. Mahfouz daringly depicted the struggle of Egyptians caught between tradition and the modern world throughout Egypt's history of colonialism and autocracy.

Mohamed Selwany is a long time friend of Mahfouz who interviewed the writer for his weekly column in Egypt's national newspaper. He describes Mahfouz's contribution to Arab literature as enormous.

"His significance in Egypt and in Arabic literature has been immense, especially in the novel, where the novel has been almost transformed in his hands into a new literary form," said Mohamed Selwany. "The novel before Mahfouz was one thing, after him it's a completely different thing. He has opened new vistas for the Arabic novel. There is hardly any writer writing the novel after Mahouz in the Arab world who has not been influenced in one way or another."

In the early 90's, militant Islamists called for the death of Mahfouz because of his portrayal of God in his novels. In 1994, at the age of 82, Mahfouz survived an assassination attempt by an Islamist extremist who saw his works blasphemous. The attack left Mahfouz unable to use his right hand.

Mahfouz was known as the voice of moderation and tolerance in a turbulent region. His American biographer Raymond Stock says Mahfouz's works span the East-West cultures.

"I think this blending in literature of East and West that he represented perfectly represents what he was himself," said Raymond Stock. "He was always neither completely Western or completely Eastern. He was irreducibly both. So that, for example, he would see people like an Egyptian, with a great simplicity, welcoming attitude, and time, like a German. They called him the human watch. He was an incredibly punctual person to the point where people thought he was obsessive. It was that obsessive punctuality that allowed him to produce so much work in the chaos that prevails in this society."

Mahfouz's life changed dramatically after the assassination attempt. The man who took long daily walks in his beloved Cairo to his favorite cafes, spent the last years of his life accompanied by an entourage of security. Mahfouz kept a full schedule well into his 90's, socializing with friends six nights a week. Friends described him as a man of high principle, who held friendship in the highest regard. Gamal Ghittani, a writer and long time friend of Mafhouz, says the writer embodied the values that Egyptians aspire to.

"Naguib Mahfouz was a true son of Egypt. He was all the things that we as Egyptians hold dear - noble and, faithful," said Gamal Ghittani. "He always treated people with utmost respect. And he was a champion of our traditions that are not written in books - like the respect of the elderly, compassion for the weak, gallantry, nobility. And yet he was always humble."

Friends also speak of his great sense of humor, and his wonderful laugh. "Life is wise to deceive us, " he once wrote, "for had it told us from the start what it had in store for us, we would refuse to be born".

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