From the opening pages of "Palace Walk," the first volume of "The Cairo Trilogy" by Naguib Mahfouz, you are drawn into the story of early 20th century Egypt as lived by a lower-middle-class Muslim merchant family in the heart of Cairo -- a family very much like his own. That was Mahfouz's greatest strength: an ability to write intensely of the world he knew firsthand, and indeed the volumes of the trilogy take their titles from three streets of the Gamaliya quarter of Cairo where, in 1911, he was born.
Mahfouz, who died Wednesday, imbued his novels with a strong sense of atmosphere. He also consciously wrote as a historian, one standing back from his text to allow the characters, with their many voices, to re-create a collective memory of their society. What one finds, and appreciates, in these books is Mahfouz's particular gift for observation.
That rich gift, however, was hidden in the first novels Mahfouz wrote in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Even a Nobel laureate, one supposes, must struggle through an apprenticeship. He voraciously read works by Tolstoy, Flaubert, Sir Walter Scott and many other masters of the European novel (though not Dickens, which is interesting because Mahfouz's concerns seem so similar to his).
Though "Khufu's Wisdom," "Rhadopis of Nubia" and "Thebes at War" are sometimes referred to with the gilded title of "the pharaonic trilogy," they are deeply dull. He planned to extend the trilogy into a long series, possibly an indefinite one, but fortunately for his literary development -- and for us -- the books didn't sell. After World War II, Mahfouz rejected the romanticizing nationalism then in vogue and abandoned writing novels about what he called "the grand avenues and boulevards" of history.
Instead, he turned his attention to what we cherish most about his great works: life in the small alleyways, homes, cafes and mosques of Cairo's old quarter. It was a fateful decision: Writing a literature of everyday city life in the vernacular was a decisive step toward an Arab recognition of modernity and its challenges. The first of these was "Midaq Alley," published in 1947, and perhaps Mahfouz's best-loved book in Egypt. The real hero of the novel -- named after a tiny byway on the edge of Khan el Khalili, Cairo's vast bazaar -- is the Midaq Alley itself, a place where the public intimacy of its denizens, with their excitements and their dramas, are a microcosm of traditional Cairo life.
Following this with "The Cairo Trilogy," Mahfouz provided a fascinating insight into the personal and social dimension of Egyptian history during the first half of the 20th century. He showed how the marriage relationship evolved from one of almost absolute subservience of the wife to one of near-equality while reviewing political issues such as the rise of the communists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Though written before Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup d'etat in July 1952, the trilogy was not published until 1956 and 1957. And when the books appeared, they made Mahfouz famous throughout the Arab world.
Anyone who has read Mahfouz's works may notice how, in the books published in the 1960s, he increasingly advertised his disenchantment with Nasser's revolution -- an attitude not shared by many at the time. One only has to look at the novel "Miramar," published early in 1967 before the Six Day War and set in Alexandria, a cosmopolitan, outward-looking society in its death throes. Zohra, the peasant girl working at the Miramar pension, earns the admiration (or resentment) of the men around her because of her desire to learn and emancipate herself.
Under various names this eternally striving female figure -- who seems to represent Egypt itself -- appears in Mahfouz's novels. At the end of "Miramar," as Zohra leaves the pension for what she hopes will be a better job, a longtime resident of the pension tells her, as Mahfouz in his most optimistic mood would have wanted to tell Egypt: "Remember that you haven't wasted your time here. If you've come to know what is not good for you, you may also think of it all as having been a sort of magical way of finding out what is truly good for you."
Due to his support for President Anwar Sadat's 1978 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, Mahfouz's books were banned in many Arab countries, though this changed after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.
The 1990s became notable for their wave of Islamist terror and for a society that became increasingly fearful of any expression that could be interpreted as anti-Islamic. Many of Egypt's public figures were targeted, among them Mahfouz, who in 1994 at age 82 almost lost his life when he was stabbed in the neck by a Muslim fanatic for the alleged apostasy of "The Children of Gebelawi."
Though he lost the use of his right arm and could only dictate his later publications, Mahfouz remained prolific to the end. The first installment of "The Dreams," a two-volume collection of startling prose images, was published last year and the second volume is due out later this year.
The dreams are lyrical, haunting, nightmarish and utterly real; they are the richly condensed sum of more than nine decades of the encounter between everyday experience and the artistic genius of Naguib Mahfouz.
With consummate skill, he threw into relief the oppressive nature of Egyptian life, drawing attention to the need for struggle so that dignity and liberation can be achieved.
Michael Haag is the author of several books, including "Alexandria: City of Memory."