Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz has died at the age of 94. Literature will be the poorer without him. His best-known work is the Cairo Trilogy, recounting three generations of life in a middle-class Cairo family as the social and political changes of the early twentieth century swirl around them. The final volume's humanist Marxist message seems outdated now - and, indeed, Mahfouz would move towards mysticism in later works, ironically attracting much more hostility. However, the Cairo Trilogy tells a more timeless story as well, portraying the slow development of the characters' very different personalities as they all move away from the cheerful but self-serving hypocrisy of the first generation, taking risks and making sacrifices for national independence or personal fulfillment, for Marxism or the Muslim Brotherhood, for idealism or stupid desires, that would have been unthinkable to their (grand)father Sayyid Ahmad Abd-el-Jawad, secure in his status and unworried by the contradiction between the strict religiosity he imposed on his house and the relaxed hedonism he indulged in outside of it.
And what has this to do with linguistics, you may well ask? Well, Edward Said's efforts to persuade a New York publishing house to risk translating the Cairo Trilogy back before Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize prompted the memorably stupid response "that Arabic was a controversial language".
What? Still not linguisticky enough? Then I'll throw in the etymology of his name, نجيب محفوظ. najiib (nagiib in Egyptian dialect) literally means "noble, learned", from the root نجب njb "be noble, be excellent". maHfuuZ is a passive participle meaning "protected", from the root حفظ HfZ "guard, protect, keep, memorise", from which the word HaafiZ "a person who has memorised the Qur'an" derives.
Now go and read some Arabic literature :)
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