Obama should listen to Egypt's Nobel laureate

mahfouzEgypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, died three years ago, but his books are circulating more widely than ever, and that includes a collection that features his thoughts on America. In “Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001,” the heralded novelist has this to say about the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington:

The story of the attacks on the United States has a moral, but sadly nobody seems to be heeding it. The moral . . . is that power alone is no guarantee of security. . . . All the terrorists needed were sharp blades. . . . The only guarantee of security is justice. Had the United States been more just as the world’s leader, nobody would have plotted to destroy it. . . . America’s power may indeed liquidate terrorist organizations and crush this or that dissident, but until the injustice ceases, violence and evil will not. . . . The U.S. needs to remove not only the evil perpetrators of such crimes but the causes of injustice in the world.”

Mahfouz was not saying the United States deserved to be attacked. He was simply reiterating what other Middle East experts have said for years: Washington has to do more diplomatically to resolve — as one example — the Palestinian question. Mahfouz didn’t advocate giving in to fundamentalists. In fact, Mahfouz was targeted by them in 1994, suffering a serious neck stabbing that marred his ability to write with his hand. Extremists hated Mahfouz because his characters didn’t blankly extol religion. In “Midaq Alley,” a defiant prostitute is a central figure, as are young men who reject Egypt’s past for the sake of modern trappings.

In 1990, I interviewed Mahfouz in Cairo. He was a humble man despite his acclaim and accomplishments. He told me (and many other interviewers) that the Nobel didn’t change his life that much. He still had his routines of writing and going every Friday to the same Cairo cafe. If anything, he said, more people sought out his advice and his writings. Mahfouz never got a chance to meet Barack Obama, who is headed to Egypt to make a major address at the University of Cairo. Were Mahfouz still alive, he would marvel at Obama’s ascendancy. In his short story “Cup of Tea,” Mahfouz has a black character who goes to the United States and is discriminated against because of his skin color. Mahfouz’s characters suffered through many indignities, but they often held out hope that a better world was just around the corner.

Mahfouz himself was hopeful that peace would come to the Middle East sooner rather than later, though he foresaw that religious tensions could undermine any chance at a comprehensive diplomacy. In a 1999 interview that’s in “Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber,” here’s what the prescient Mahfouz said about future conflicts around the world:

Will the twenty-first century be marked by more world wars like those that wreaked devastation on an unprecedented scale during our time? I do not think so; indeed, I very much doubt wars of that sort, in which two global superpowers confront each other, will have any place in the new millennium. What we will see instead are many regional wars, fought over religion and ethnicity.”

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