CAIRO — At a restaurant near the Nile River on a hot August afternoon, Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz, short of sight and hearing, sits at a table surrounded by writers and intellectuals.
Like novices before their master, they hang onto the every word of the delicate old man.
"Art is a gift and a study," Mahfouz tells his audience as he cools himself with a Japanese paper fan and stretches to listen across the long table piled with coffee cups and ashtrays.
"If you have a gift, it will show in your writing."
Mahfouz, awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in literature, turns 81 in December. Despite his frailty, he presides over his weekly salons with the same vigor that helped him produce more than 50 novels and collections of short stories. He is the only Arab Nobelist in literature.
Late last year, he underwent heart surgery in London. Already plagued by poor eyesight and diabetes, Mahfouz since has scaled down much of his activity.
Even a year before the operation, he had limited his writing and reading time to two hours a day. He now prefers cafes nearer his home to one in downtown Cairo, two bridges away from his home, that he used to visit every morning before going to his office at the Al-Ahram newspaper.
During Cairo's stifling summers, Mahfouz escapes to the seaside at Alexandria. He spends weekends in Cairo, so as not to miss his noisy riverside gatherings.
"I think talent also needs a knowledge of the language and its aesthetics," Mahfouz tells a wide-eyed young man seated in front of him who traveled from a faraway village with a manuscript and hope for fame.
There's much loud relaying of questions and answers to and from Mahfouz, necessitated by the novelist's near-deafness. And as the discussion grows louder, Gulf Arabs glide by in flowing robes, children screech and a few Egyptian couples stop to see what the excitement is about.
Revered by Arabic readers for decades, and international ones since the Nobel jury selected him, Mahfouz is appreciated for a lively detailing of Cairo street life and family traditions. His stories usually convey political or spiritual messages.
Born in Cairo to a lower-middle-class family, the man who was to become known as the father of the Arab novel showed no interest in foreign literature before entering King Fuad University in 1930. But he found it there and was greatly influenced by it. His best work has been compared to that of the 19th-Century novelists Honore de Balzac of France and England's Charles Dickens.
"Earlier, I could read and give my opinion, so I had a role," Mahfouz said in an interview, speaking briefly about his interest in helping shape writers. "But since I've stopped reading, it's an indirect role. I can't read the material, but I can join in discussions."
Raymond Stock, an American researching Mahfouz's biography, who joined the gathering one Friday, said the novelist is tormented by the toll on his reading that his failing eyesight is taking.
"I would say it's a point of great sadness for him," Stock said. "He can't communicate as easily and experience joy as he once did."
But he said the novelist won't give in to isolation and tackles his physical ailments with good humor. Mahfouz once told Stock his hearing was so bad that, "I was listening to Mohammed Abdel-Wahab, and his voice was horrible." The late Abdel-Wahab was an Egyptian singer adored among Arabs for a voice of unexcelled quality.
Mahfouz also is disturbed by growing Islamic extremism in Egypt. Increasingly violent militants are said to have compiled assassination lists of intellectuals, editors and movie stars whom they consider "un-Islamic."
Mahfouz himself is a target but has rejected government-offered security. He says he is too old to worry about being killed.
Three years ago, six months after Mahfouz's two daughters accepted their father's Nobel Prize from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, the spiritual leader of a radical Islamic group declared Mahfouz an apostate who must repent or die. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, now living in the United States, said the writer rejected his faith by depicting God and the prophets in an insulting way in his book "Children of Gebelawi."
Stock said that to Mahfouz, the edict tarnished his Nobel recognition.
"Mahfouz was never a political activist," Stock said. "He is a writer with a philosophical bent, with interest in Islam and aesthetics. He reads the Koran."