One way to remember Naguib Mahfouz, I thought, would be to resurrect this 2001 piece about him by another much-missed Arab intellectual, Edward W. Said. This is from The Nation:
Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life. In 1980 I tried to interest a New York publisher, who was then looking for “Third World” books to publish, in putting out several of the great writer’s works in first-rate translations, but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language.
A few years later I had an amiable and, from my point of view, encouraging correspondence about him with Jacqueline Onassis, who was trying to decide whether to take him on; she then became one of the people responsible for bringing Mahfouz to Doubleday, which is where he now resides, albeit still in rather spotty versions that dribble out without much fanfare or notice. Rights to his English translations are held by the American University in Cairo Press, so poor Mahfouz, who seems to have sold them off without expecting that he would someday be a world- famous author, has no say in what has obviously been an unliterary, largely commercial enterprise without much artistic or linguistic coherence.