Mahfouz’s pen finally stilled

Naguib Mahfouz is one of the few contemporary novelists I’ve actually read, so when I saw the New York Times headline — Naguib Mahfouz, First Writer in Arabic to Win Nobel Prize, Dies at 94 — I clicked on the link.

Mahfouz’s politics and brand of Islam (heavily influenced by Sufism) made him many enemies, and in 1994, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

Though he continued to write in his later years, Mr. Mahfouz was in failing health. He was diabetic and nearly blind, and lived quietly in an apartment overlooking the Nile. After the 1994 attack he largely abandoned his old habit of walking daily to a coffeehouse to meet friends, and to the offices of Al Ahram, the newspaper for which he had written occasional columns. And the injuries he suffered in 1994 made it difficult for him to hold a pen or pencil.

Still, he said, every day a writer must write something, anything. In a 2002 interview, he said he could still manage to write vignettes of his dreams. “They are very, very short stories, like this,” he said, indicating the tip of his index finger.

Though 94 certainly fits most people’s definition of a ripe old age, with a writer like that, it’s hard not to feel that he must’ve left a lot unfinished at his death, just as he left a lot unsaid in what he did write. Here’s how Mahfouz ended his book-length parable The Journey of Ibn Fattouma:

With these words ends the manuscript of the voyage of Qindil Muhammed al-Innabi, known as Ibn Fattouma.

No history book makes any further mention of this traveler.

Did he complete his journey or did he perish on the way?

Did he enter the land of Gebel? How did he fare there?

Did he stay there till the end of his life, or did he return to his homeland as he intended?

Will one day a futher manuscript be found describing his last journey?

Knowledge of all this lies with the Knower of what is unseen and of what is seen.

Rest in peace.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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