Saturday, September 9, 2006

There are times and places in life that seem cut off from the rest, and those may be the ones you remember when all the rest is forgotten. I don’t remember all the details of that most unpleasant day, though there was a time when I could not forget them even though I had tried.

It was one of those interminable, needlessly complex legal disputes that are almost inevitable after a death in the family. It was all the worse because it took me by surprise, and soon my bewilderment turned to anger, and my anger to sadness.

We were expected for dinner that evening at an old friend of my older sister’s. On the way there, I turned to her and observed, sighing, complaining: “People are just no damned good.” Depression would be too mild a word for my mood; I was down.

Then we walked into our hostess’s house, and there were the girls — now all middle-aged matrons — that my sister had grown up with on Shreveport’s polyglot Texas Avenue in the 1940s, when its Jewish and Lebanese merchants lived above their shops. My sister had kept in touch with the Lebanese (they were called Syrians then), but I hadn’t seen some of them in years, in decades.

There was Tillie, and Rashi, and Madeleine and Bea, and then Margaret entered the room with a wide, wide smile on her face, greeted me with a childhood nickname, and spread her arms wide for a hug.

The light of that smile illuminated the whole room, the whole world. I realized I had forgotten how good people really were. Even now, so many years later, long after I’ve forgotten just what all the legal-eagle business was about, I remember the unquestioning, welcoming smile that erased and still erases everything else.

All that counted in that moment was the shared memories of the old neighborhood. How could one street have been so full of life? Maybe because it was just one street, a universe of its own only vaguely connected to a wider world of war and peace.

Naguib Mahfouz wrote about his Cairo not as an abstraction but as one long street of shopkeepers, government employees, pensioners, quiet decent people and the other kind, the small-time thieves and phonies, the smiling men beckoning to customers in front of the stores and the stoic women in the back. The way Naguib Mahfouz described it, his Madiq Alley wasn’t that different from Texas Avenue.

It took him 12 years to write his signature Cairo Trilogy, each volume named after one of Cairo’s streets: “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street.” It was precisely because they were so local that his books had a universal appeal; he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

Naguib Mahfouz may have taken a number of heroic stands in his long life, but he never struck heroic poses. He defended Salman Rushdie’s right to publish “The Satanic Verses” without pretending it was a great book or that it didn’t insult the Prophet, peace be upon him. He was critical of the great Gamal Abdel Nasser’s not-so-great revolution, and supported Anwar Sadat’s peace with Israel, which earned him the enmity of Egypt’s haters. At the same time, he contributed much of his Nobel Prize money to Palestinian charities. He raised funds for Egypt’s film industry while serving as its chief censor. He was as punctual a civil servant in the morning as he was a disciplined writer in the evening.

In short, he was a good citizen and man of principle. So of course he was sentenced to death by the same bunch that inspired both attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. What must have offended them most was his tolerance for others, his ordinary decency.

An Islamist fanatic attempted to assassinate him in 1994. The knife that plunged into his throat just missed the carotid artery but did damage some nerves. His right hand, the one he wrote with, was never the same. Later, you could tell the apartment building where he lived by the armed guards the police posted outside.

That a Naguib Mahfouz could accomplish what he did and be struck down for it indicates the violence in the Middle East doesn’t represent a clash of civilizations at all but a clash between civilization and barbarism. He was no subversive Westerner but as Egyptian as his own city, his own street and favorite cafe.

Naguib Mahfouz enjoyed the small pleasures of life, like good coffee and good conversation, and could not bear to leave his country; he would send his two daughters, Oum Kolthoum and Fatima, to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize.

By the time he died last week at 94, it was his ordinary qualities — his good will, his humor, his sense of place and attachment to his own — that reflected the best in a part of the world that teems with much worse.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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