Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Weird World: cut-outs of Dads and Moms in Iraq comfort families back home

Guard families cope in two dimensions
‘Flat Daddy’ cutouts ease longing -- by Brian MacQuarrie (from Boston Globe, via

Maine National Guard members in Iraq and Afghanistan are never far from the thoughts of their loved ones.

But now, thanks to a popular family-support program, they're even closer.

Welcome to the “Flat Daddy" and “Flat Mommy" phenomenon, in which life-size cutouts of deployed service members are given by the Maine National Guard to spouses, children, and relatives back home.

The Flat Daddies ride in cars, sit at the dinner table, visit the dentist, and even are brought to confession, according to their significant others on the home front.

“I prop him up in a chair, or sometimes put him on the couch and cover him up with a blanket," said Kay Judkins of Caribou, whose husband, Jim, is a minesweeper mechanic in Afghanistan. “The cat will curl up on the blanket, and it looks kind of weird. I've tricked several people by that. They think he's home again."

At the request of relatives, about 200 Flat Daddy and Flat Mommy photos have been enlarged and printed at the state National Guard headquarters in Augusta. The families cut out the photos, which show the Guard members from the waist up, and glue them to a $2 piece of foam board.

Sergeant First Class Barbara Claudel, the state family-support director who began the program, said the response from Guard families has been giddily enthusiastic.

“If there's something we can do to make it a little easier on the families, then that's our job and our responsibility. It brings them a little bit closer and might help them somewhere down the line," Claudel said yesterday.

“You know, this is my motto: ‘Deployment isn't a big thing, it's a million little things.' These families go through a lot."

While most families stay in touch with their guardsmen by e-mail, snapshots, and videophone, the cutouts are unusual.

“It's a novel approach," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a Washington-based lobbying group. “It's to remind the kids that this guy and this woman is still part of your life, that this is what they look like, and this is how big they are."

Claudel said she heard about the Flat Daddy idea while attending a national conference for the Guard. In Maine, the initiative began about eight months ago when Flat Daddies were offered as part of the deployment of B Company, Third Battalion, 172d Mountain Infantry, which is based in Brewer.

Now, when units are mobilized, the Guard organizes Flat Daddy parties, in which families can meet one another while receiving instructions on assembling the photos.

Judkins said the cutout has been a comfort since her husband was deployed in January.

“He goes everywhere with me. Every day he comes to work with me," said Judkins, who works in a dentist's office. “I just bought a new table from the Amish community, and he sits at the head of the table. Yes, he does."

In the car, her husband's image sits behind the driver's seat so Judkins can keep an eye on him. A third-grade class writes to him as their “adopted" guardsman. And Judkins even brought her husband's cutout -- which she calls Slim Jim, because he's not -- to confession at the local church.

When asked what her husband had to confess, Judkins laughed. “That's private," she said.

Jim Judkins had at least one precarious moment as a cutout. When cousins tried to stuff him into a suitcase to take on a cruise, they broke his neck. But instead of expensive surgery, all the cutout needed was a little duct tape, Judkins said.

Cindy Branscom of Hallowell, whose husband, Colonel John Branscom, is in Afghanistan, said spouses of service members in the 240th Engineer Group often bring their Flat Daddies to monthly support meetings and group barbecues. She said one spouse, Mary Holbrook of Hermon, has been seen in the company of her cutout husband, Lieutenant Colonel Randall Holbrook.

“Mary has taken Randy to different events," Branscom said.

But then again, that's almost expected.

“I think it's wonderful," Branscom said. “My Flat Daddy sits in my dining room all the time. He even went to Easter dinner with us at my family's house."

(Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at

Israel on self-examination kick - let's hope it leads to peace overtures (hey, white South Africans changed, it's possible for Israelis, too)

1. Can you really not see? -- by Amira Hass (from Israel’s Haaretz Daily)

Let us leave aside those Israelis whose ideology supports the dispossession of the Palestinian people because "God chose us." Leave aside the judges who whitewash every military policy of killing and destruction. Leave aside the military commanders who knowingly jail an entire nation in pens surrounded by walls, fortified observation towers, machine guns, barbed wire and blinding projectors. Leave aside the ministers. All of these are not counted among the collaborators. These are the architects, the planners, the designers, the executioners.

But there are others. Historians and mathematicians, senior editors, media stars, psychologists and family doctors, lawyers who do not support Gush Emunim and Kadima, teachers and educators, lovers of hiking trails and sing-alongs, high-tech wizards. Where are you? And what about you, researchers of Nazism, the Holocaust and Soviet gulags? Could you all be in favor of systematic discriminating laws? Laws stating that the Arabs of the Galilee will not even be compensated for the damages of the war by the same sums their Jewish neighbors are entitled to (Aryeh Dayan, Haaretz , August 21).

Could it be that you are all in favor of a racist Citizenship Law that forbids an Israeli Arab from living with his family in his own home? That you side with further expropriation of lands and the demolishing of additional orchards, for another settler neighborhood and another exclusively Jewish road? That you all back the shelling and missile fire killing the old and the young in the Gaza Strip?

Could it be that you all agree that a third of the West Bank (the Jordan Valley) should be off limits to Palestinians? That you all side with an Israeli policy that prevents tens of thousands of Palestinians who have obtained foreign citizenship from returning to their families in the occupied territories?

Could your mind really be so washed with the security excuse, used to forbid Gaza students from studying occupational therapy at Bethlehem and medicine at Abu Dis, and preventing sick people from Rafah from receiving medical treatment in Ramallah? Will also you find it easy to hide behind the explanation "we had no idea": we had no idea that the discrimination practiced in the distribution of water - which is solely controlled by Israel - leaves thousands of Palestinian households without water during the hot summer months; we had no idea that when the IDF blocks the entrance to villages, it also blocks their access to springs or water tanks.

But it cannot be that you don't see the iron gates along route 344 in the West Bank, blocking access to it from the Palestinian villages it passes by. It cannot be that you support preventing the access of thousands of farmers to their land and plantations, that you support the quarantine on Gaza which prevents the entry of medicine for hospitals, the disruption of electricity and water supply to 1.4 million human beings, closing their only outlet to the world for months.

Could it be that you do not know what is happening 15 minutes from your faculties and offices? Is it plausible that you support the system in which Hebrew soldiers, at checkpoints in the heart of the West Bank, are letting tens of thousands of people wait everyday for hours upon hours under the blazing sun, while selecting: residents of Nablus and Tul Karm are not allowed through, 35-year-olds and under - yallah, back to Jenin, residents of the Salem village are not even allowed to be here, a sick woman who skipped the line must learn a lesson and will be purposefully detained for hours. Machsom Watch's site is available for all; in it are countless such testimonies and worse, a day by day routine. But it cannot be that those who are appalled over every swastika painted on a Jewish grave in France and over every anti-Semitic headline in a Spanish local newspaper will not know how to reach this information, and will not be appalled and outraged.

As Jews we all enjoy the privilege Israel gives us, what makes us all collaborators. The question is what does every one of us do in an active and direct daily manner to minimize cooperation with a dispossessing, suppressing regime that never has its fill. Signing a petition and tutting will not do. Israel is a democracy for its Jews. We are not in danger of our lives, we will not be jailed in concentration camps, our livelihood will not be damaged and recreation in the countryside or abroad will not be denied to us. Therefore, the burden of collaboration and direct responsibility is immeasurably heavy.

2. Diversionary Strike On a Rights Group -- by Kathleen Peratis

In early August Human Rights Watch issued a 49-page report, "Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon," charging Israel with war crimes in its conduct of the war in Lebanon. Many of the Lebanese civilian casualties could not be explained by Hezbollah soldiers' hiding among civilians, Human Rights Watch charged. Although Hezbollah fighters did hide among civilians, the rights group discovered that in about two dozen instances, involving about a third of the civilian deaths, there had been no Hezbollah presence at the time of the attacks and the targets had little or no military value.

The report was based on the same methodology that Human Rights Watch has used for more than 20 years in situations in which many witnesses have an incentive to lie: face-to-face probing and on-site inspections -- in this case in Beirut and southern Lebanon.

The critics of reports on this subject -- Amnesty International made similar charges -- have been ferocious. They have not merely deployed the common defense of accusing the accusers of getting the facts wrong. They have gone much further and accused the accusers of bad intent. For example: NGO Monitor, echoing other critics, claims that "central in the strategy" of Amnesty International is "to delegitimize Israel."

But the real vitriol has been reserved for Human Rights Watch and its executive director, Kenneth Roth. Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel has called Roth "loathsome." An editorial in the New York Sun accused Roth of "de-legitimization of Judaism" because his group condemned Israel's strategy as "an eye for an eye." Rabbi Aryeh Spero in Human Events Online referred to Roth as a "human rights impostor," and likened him to "Nazis and Communists." On Sunday, the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed by NGO Monitor's Gerald Steinberg titled "Ken Roth's Blood Libel."

Is it possible that some of the witnesses lied? Sure it is. It's even possible, though it's something of a stretch, that many of the witnesses deliberately misled Human Rights Watch researchers. But it simply will not do to "rebut" a detailed report such as the group produced by accusing Human Rights Watch or its executive director, whose father fled Nazi Germany, of anti-Semitism (or other bad motives) and let it go at that. Indeed, the critics barely mention, much less discuss, the 24 incidents described in the report. Generally they merely assert the undisputed fact that Hezbollah did often hide among civilians. Steinberg broadly asserts, without citing any actual evidence: "When the details were examined by NGO Monitor's research staff, or Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University, the claims have often been shown to be false or unverifiable." Often? Where? When? He does not say.

No one expected the Anti-Defamation League and others to applaud the Human Rights Watch report, but one is entitled to expect something more serious by way of a response. "You're biased" is not a rebuttal.

At least some of the report's critics seem to believe that Israel should be exempted from the rules of war. Thus, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who has accused Human Rights Watch of "immorality at the highest level," says: "The moral issue, the human rights issue that overrides everything else in this conflict is that if Hezbollah, Syria and Iran don't understand that they will pay an overwhelming price for these rocket attacks on Israel, then eventually these rockets will be armed with chemical weapons and the warheads with nuclear weapons. In other words, the Holocaust would be in the works."

In other words, if the "overwhelming price" Israel causes the enemy to pay is indiscriminate under the rules of war, Israel must do it anyway. And Human Rights Watch is worse than naive to expect otherwise.

I don't think Foxman and NGO Monitor and others who want selective exemption of Israel from the rules of war have faced the implications of getting what they wish for, such as: Who will decide when the law can be ignored? And: If the law is mowed down, where will we find refuge when the devil turns on us?

America's security has not been enhanced by its violation of human rights principles, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay. Israel's strength lies not only in its might but in its moral principle, which it should not abandon, even in a time of war.

(The writer, a lawyer in New York, is a member of the board of Human Rights Watch and a regular columnist for the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper.)

3. The Worst Kind of Terror
Murder on Rucarb Street
Ramallah. August 29, Pre-dawn.

It is only now that the gun-fire saluting the killed young man has become sporadic and no longer constant, and that the verses of the Koran, chanted in farewell to him, has ceased. But the streets are full; and full too are the hearts of all who had to witness an attack that should only have been imaginable in the darkest back alleys of some underworld city.

At 9 pm, the 28th, undercover Israeli Special Forces walked down the main street of Ramallah. They wore civilian clothes and Palestinian police-caps. They carried M-16s as all the police force does. No one looked at them twice. They walked straight past us where we stood at Al-Minara discussing work with a third colleague.

They walked straight passed the Palestinian Police Force as well who is always stationed there.

They continued walking straight down Rucarb Street until they were opposite the famous Rucarb Ice-cream shop where families gather every evening in the summertime.

Then they opened fire.

They opened fire after they failed to catch two 'wanted' men who were also in Rucarb Street along with half the population of Ramallah. The two men wouldn't come when called and so the undercover Israeli Officers opened fire.

It is not easy to explain the horror of seeing the cold-blooded murder of the young man who had turned to escape on realizing the situation.

It is not easy to explain the horror of hearing the name of the killed youth spreading from mouth to mouth until the whole of Ramallah knows that the young man killed was A. from the village of Deir Ghassan. Nor is it easy to explain the horror of rushing with everybody else who knows an A. from that village or a nearby one to the hospital.

The relief if the body pulled from the fridge is not your A.

The anguish if it is.

Grown men falling on the ground to beat at the dirt and cry.

The parents of the killed man stumbled into the hospital at midnight. The father could not even see his son because he was temporarily blinded by the shock and the screams of the mother could be heard from the street.

Young men were also in shock, wandering around and wondering why they had not even had a chance to fight back. There was an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.

Palestine has been so reduced and so humiliated that it is now a country where the Occupying force can walk into a main city on nightfall, can walk down the main street of that city and kill a man and then walk away again as if that is a damn right of theirs and no one is going to blink an eye at it.

It is not their damn right to come and terrorize the people of a city night after night after night on some hyped up 'security' reason! This is no human being's right.

I have been accused of not understanding how people are feeling on the other side of the Wall. People have written to me 'You don't know what it is like to be driving behind a bus when it explodes' and I say this is true. But I do know what it is like to see fifteen thugs walk down a main street of a city at nightfall and murder in cold-blood outside a family restaurant and then walk away again.

I call that the worst kind of terror.

The boy they killed was just a village boy, and the children who witnessed this killing were just children. As in all parts of the world, children who had begged their parents for an ice-cream before going to bed.

Nhow they must live with this violation of their sensitivity forever.

And the thugs could just walk away! They did not even need jeeps to perform their action of terror.

These men were not desperate. Not one of them would tie an explosive belt around his waist.What I am most afraid of is that they enjoy what they do. To them and to too many others, the lives of Palestinians are, at most, only countable.

There was a three-second coverage of this news item on BBC. 'Three militants killed in the West Bank. One in Ramallah and two in Nablus; all were from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.'

One second for each man killed.

I won't begin a discussion on why, by naming the Martyrs Brigade, the West is somehow justifying the deaths, because the purpose of this article is only to register horror at the nighttime terror that came in so particularly a disgusting way to the streets of Ramallah four hours ago.And also to say that now the city is angry.

The young men who have been gathering for hours in groups on street corners are angry. Some have been crying, and all have been voicing their disbelief at how on earth Israel can continue to get away with their inhuman actions; not only nightly midnight raids and arrests but also this gangster plot that has left the main street of their city stained with blood again.

In the past two weeks Israeli forces have come to Ramallah every single night. There is now a vigil in the dark hours of these nights; from 2am till 5am half the city is awake watching and wondering where Israel's eyes are turned and what neighborhood they are targeting.

In the past week Israel has made daily incursions into Nablus and has destroyed houses and killed 16-year old boys in broad daylight, and has raided the city every night. For the past month the whole village district of Ramallah and Nablus have been enduring invasions and raids, house-searches and arrests.

While Olmert is taking a few blows about his conduct of the war in Lebanon, the Palestinians are having to endure being his 'dog-under-the-table'.

How on earth is he and Israel getting away with it?

(Eliza Ernshire can be reached at

4. Lebanon, Lebanon – by John Le Carré
The attacks on Lebanon's infrastructure and civilians will rebound on Israel for years to come, says John Le Carré.

So answer me this one, please. If you kill a hundred innocent civilians and one terrorist, are you winning or losing the war on terror? "Ah", you may reply, "but that one terrorist could kill two hundred people, a thousand, more!" But then comes another question: if, by killing a hundred innocent people, you are creating five new terrorists in the future, and a popular base clamouring to give them aid and comfort, have you achieved a net gain for future generations of your countrymen, or created the enemy you deserve?

On 12 July 2006 the Israeli chief-of-staff granted us an insight into the subtleties of his nation's military thinking. The military operations being planned for the Lebanon, he told us, would "turn back the clock by twenty years". Well, I was there twenty years ago, and it wasn't a pretty picture. Since then, the lieutenant-general has been as good as his word. I am writing this just twenty-eight days after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, a common enough military practice not unknown to the Israelis themselves.

In that time, 932 Lebanese have been killed and more than 3,000 wounded. 913,000 have become refugees. Israel's dead number ninety-four, with 867 wounded. In the first week of this conflict, Hizbollah fired some ninety rockets a day into Israel. Last week – despite 8,700 unopposed bombing sorties flown by the Israeli air force, resulting in the crippling of Beirut's international airport, and the destruction of power-plants, fuel-dumps, fishing-fleets, 147 bridges and seventy-two roads – Hizbollah upped its daily average of rockets to 169. And those two Israeli prisoners who were the purported cause of all the fuss have still not come home.

So yes. Exactly as we were warned, Israel has indeed done to the Lebanon what it did to it twenty years ago: laid waste its infrastructure and visited collective punishment on a delicate, multicultural, resilient democracy that was struggling to reconcile its sectarian differences and live in profitable harmony with its neighbours.

Until four weeks ago, Lebanon was being heralded by the United States as a model of what other middle-eastern countries might become. Hizbollah, it was widely and perhaps optimistically believed by the international community, was loosening its ties with Syria and Iran and on the way to becoming a political rather than a purely military force, yet today this very force is the toast of all Arabia, Israel's reputation for military supremacy is in tatters and its cherished deterrent image no longer deters. And the people of Lebanon have become the latest victims of a global catastrophe that is the work of deluded zealots and has no end in sight.

(This piece was written in support of Lebanon, Lebanon, to be published by Saqi on 28 September 2006; all proceeds will go to children's charities working in Lebanon)

Boomers: a force for good or bad?

Baby boom... and bust
Baby boomers like to trumpet their generation's achievements. But their fondness for conspicuous consumption and foreign travel has led to many a modern-day ill, from rising debt to environmental woes.
By Brendan O'Neill

This week, former US President Bill Clinton - perhaps the archetypal baby boomer - turns 60.

With his penchant for playing sax, feeling everyone's pain, and his admission that he flirted with marijuana (without inhaling), Clinton has come to symbolise the generation born between 1946 and 1964 who shook up Western society.

Now, as the boomers become "ageing hipsters", we're constantly being reminded of their achievements.

They gave us rock 'n' roll (which might explain the recent book, Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss), mod cons, the space race, computer science, and a rebellious disregard for the stiff-upper-lipped attitudes of earlier generations.

But did the baby boomers also leave behind a negative, even destructive legacy?

With their thirst for "stuff" - bigger houses, better cars, tastier grub - did they give rise to a culture of selfish consumption?

And by challenging old-fashioned moralism, did they inadvertently nurture a climate of promiscuity - even fuelling the spread of STDs?

Children of the revolution

The term "baby boomer" refers to those born during the period of increased birth rates when economic prosperity rose in many Western countries following World War II - during the relative peace and prosperity that followed the ravages of conflict and preceded the economic downturn of the 1970s.

They're probably best known for opposing the Vietnam War, having a relaxed attitude to sex 'n' drugs, and trying out less authoritarian methods of parenting.

But they're also, says US newspaper columnist Lewis W Diuguid, the "greediest generation".

"I am a baby boomer, born in 1955. My generation typifies today's excessive consumption," he says.

"We live in oversized homes in the suburbs, drive an excessive number of miles to our jobs in the cities, and we go on extravagant vacations. My generation wants it all, whatever the cost."

Diuguid says his generation has a worrying "sense of entitlement".

"My parents' generation lived in the Depression; they ate sparsely and recreated spartanly. But the Boomers think they should be given everything on a platter."

This uber-consumerism has contributed to today's environmental degradation, he says, where over-use of fossil fuels and over-production of carbon seems to be heating the planet.

"In the United States, we consume a grossly disproportionate amount of the world's energy, and the planet can't sustain it. We've become dependent on fossil fuel-generated amenities. We're too busy digging our own graves to reassess our lifestyles."


Others argue that the boomers caused social breakdown, by challenging traditional roles and relationships and championing personal experimentation and sexual liberation. This, they argue, has undermined the "culture of respect" necessary to run society.

A report published earlier this year, Difficult Times Ahead for Baby Boomers?, said they bear some responsibility for "social and moral decline". On their watch, "divorce rates have more than doubled, AIDS has overshadowed the joys of sexual liberation... and many boomers have had to battle drug and drink addiction."

Californian academic Mike Males says it's a generation facing "boomergeddon". His book of that name says Californian Boomers suffer high levels of drug abuse, imprisonment and family instability.

The British newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips says there has been a similar decline in the UK thanks to our own boomer generation (which includes Tony Blair, born 1953, and Phillips herself, born 1951).

She blames "the onslaught on the family, the dismantling of national identity and the promotion of 'victim culture'" on the fact that "the baby boomers are now in control".

Environmental degradation, social breakdown, rampant consumerism, even disease... is it any wonder that US commentator Joe Queenan (born 1950) once wrote: "If you want the God's honest truth, baby boomers are the most obnoxious people in the history of the human race."

Material world

But is this fair? Not at all, says Leonard Steinhorn, US author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. Those who criticise boomers - "usually snarky journalists", he says - forget that they helped to make equality a reality.

"Before boomers, women were told to stay at home and wear aprons; blacks were told to stay separate and not get uppity; Jews and other minorities were told to stay inconspicuous; gays were told to stay in denial and in the closet.

"That has all changed, and these changes didn't happen on their own. They didn't happen because Samantha on Bewitched wiggled her nose. They happened because people made them happen - in their homes, communities, schools, workplaces, institutions, media."

Steinhorn doesn't buy the idea that boomers are uniquely consumerist. He points out that the "Greatest Generation" - those born between 1911 and 1924, who went on to fight in WWII and later gave birth to the boomers - were also criticised for trying to keep up with the Joneses.

"Success in the West has long been defined by material prosperity. It was that way under the Greatest Generation, and even under the great leaders of the Enlightenment."

For Frank Furedi - the British-based sociologist born in Hungary who studied in the US in the 60s - the backlash is a product of our cautious political culture.

"At times, especially in the 60s, it seemed that anything was possible. This was no doubt an illusion, but it was the kind of illusion that stimulated many of us to try to find new ways of living.

"Yes, many boomers were self-indulgent and self-obsessed, and some still refuse to accept middle-age. But this generation left very little untouched. We could learn from that climate of daring and experimentation."

Some loony web ideas that have made dopes like you rich

How slackers with one dopey idea are getting rich -- by MIKE MILIARD

One of the first big stories I ever reported, in the gloaming of the dot-com boom, was a 1999 piece for Forbes ASAP ranking the tech sector’s 100 richest executives. For six months, my co-workers and I plugged numbers from SEC filings into a vast spreadsheet, charting Web entrepreneurs’ holdings. All the while, we marveled. Even with the market’s wild undulations — eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, for instance, had $4 billion worth of stock on March 1, which then shot up to $8 billion (April 29) then all the way down to $2.8 billion (August 4), and up again to $4.7 billion (August 31) — the sheer numbers were hard to wrap our heads around.

For all its practical uses, the Web looked like nothing so much as a vast generator of wealth — money that had a pretty tenuous connection to reality, if it had any at all.

Of course, that vaunted bubble burst, spectacularly, a couple years later. (The intro to the Forbes piece notes that, by the end of its IPO, in ’99, eToys had a $7.7 billion market cap. eToys !)’s Jeff Bezos is still a very wealthy man. So (of course) are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But as the Web has evolved, becoming more and more democratized, capable of being customized and used in ever more ways, a funny thing is happening. Regular folk are coming up with one simple idea, posting it online, and making millions. No IPO necessary.

A paper clip and a dream

Montrealer Kyle MacDonald, 26, is not a wealthy man. His primary career is preventing restaurant tables from wobbling. (Yes, really. Check out .) Buying a house seemed hopeless, far beyond his means. Then one day last July he started thinking about a game he used to play as a kid called Bigger and Better, in which, he says, you’d “start with something small, form teams, go around the neighborhood trading that something small for something bigger and better with each door you knock on.” He had a revelation: “Instead of working, what if I start playing Bigger and Better professionally?” He looked at a red paper clip on his desk. Eureka.

MacDonald logged on and registered a URL: . “I want to trade this paper clip with you for something bigger or better,” he wrote on July 12, 2005. “If you promise to make the trade I will come and visit you, wherever you are, to trade.… I’m going to make a continuous chain of ‘up trades’ until I get a house. Or an Island. Or a house on an island. You get the idea.”

Two days later, he traded the paper clip for a pen shaped like a fish. Then, not long after, he traded the pen for a door knob that looks sort of like E.T. after he’s smoked a joint. Then he traveled to Amherst to trade the door knob for an old Coleman camping stove. Then to San Clemente, California, to trade the stove for a 1000-watt Honda EX Generator. And on and on.

Along the way, MacDonald took pictures and videos, and wrote stories about the people he traded with. There was the guy in Maspeth, Queens, who traded a neon Budweiser sign and an IOU for a keg full of beer in exchange for the generator. The woman in Phoenix who owned a half-vacant duplex and traded a year’s free rent for 30 hours of studio recording time and 50 of post-production.

With all the publicity MacDonald got along the way, his quest snowballed. “I’ve had a million people come to the site since last summer,” he said when I first spoke with him last May. “In a month since then, I’ve had a million and a half more.”

MacDonald wanted a house, but he wasn’t just looking for a place on easy street. “I’ve been offered houses by online casinos,” he said then. “I’m not interested in getting a house for free. I’m interested in making trades with people that benefit myself as well as them.” All the same, he was in this till the end. “I don’t have a Plan B. This is all I’m doing. I’m not overconfident, but it’s to the point where, if I don’t trade a red paper clip for a house, I’m a total schmuck.”

He needn’t have worried. On July 12, a year to the day since he started the project, Kyle MacDonald signed the deed for a modest two-story in Kipling, Saskatchewan. He and his girlfriend, Dominique, will be moving out to the prairie province at the end of this month.

The way his quest reached its climax and denouement is even cooler. The first time I spoke to MacDonald, in May, his latest trading chip was an afternoon with Alice Cooper. Yes, Vincent Furnier himself. Clearly, this was his best bet yet. Hell, someone might even trade a house full up for it!

Then Kyle traded it for a snow globe.

His public, the people who’d been attracted to his site in droves by this time and were following his every move, were incensed. “You jumped the shark,” wrote one. “That’s the worst trade anyone has ever made,” griped another.

What they did not know was that MacDonald had a trick up his sleeve. Somewhere along the line, Corbin Bernsen, the actor, had learned of MacDonald’s quest. He was intrigued. And somewhere along the line, MacDonald had learned that Corbin Bernsen has one of the largest snow-globe collections in the world. (“Something like 60,000 of them,” says MacDonald.)

The dude who wanted to hang with Alice Cooper was told that the guitar he’d proposed as a trade was not gonna cut it. Other arrangements would have to be made. “A light bulb went off in my head,” says MacDonald. “I said, ‘This is gonna sound nuts, but do you have any snow globes?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What’s your best one?”

His best was a KISS snow globe.

And when Corbin Bernsen learned of this, he spake thusly: “Not only do I want that snow globe. I need it.”

So MacDonald flew to Tinseltown, where he traded with Bernsen for a speaking role in an “extremely-low-budget” movie called Donna on Demand .

And then, finally, the mayor of Kipling traded the house on Main Street in exchange for open auditions, which will be held there on Labor Day weekend. Media will descend from around the world.

When he flew to Saskatchewan to sign the deed, he was met at the house by Kipling’s mayor, members of Parliament, and, of course, a red-coated Mountie. (“A mountie ,” MacDonald chuckles, still marveling at the utter Canadian-ness of it all.) He’s become Saskatchewan’s biggest celebrity since Dick Assman, the Regina petrol-station owner who rocketed to fame in 1995, thanks to David Letterman.

And that, much more than the monetary value of a modest house in the middle of nowhere, is why MacDonald did this. Not to be the new Dick Assman, but to create a great story. “The amount of time I put into this” — about 3500 hours, he guesses — “is totally disproportionate to the monetary value of the house. But it’s the story that’s the real reward. I got to meet a lot of people.”

He also scored a book deal with Random House. And the one-red-paper-clip story has been optioned by DreamWorks. If both projects work out, the money they generate will make those hours well worth it.

(By the way: Kyle’s throwing a housewarming party in Kipling the same weekend of the auditions. Dick Assman is invited. You are too. BYOP.)

A buck a pixel

Alex Tew needed money for university. The 22-year-old from Cricklade, Wiltshire, England, was barely a month away from starting his degree program and already £4000 in debt. “I was not too happy about my financial situation,” he says over the phone from London.

So instead of just accepting it as a necessary evil, he sat up late one night, jotting some fundraising ideas in a notebook. “One of the things I wrote down was, ‘How can I become a millionaire?’ I sat there thinking for a while, and about 20 minutes later this crazy idea popped into my head. In order to become a millionaire I would sell a million pixels on the screen, and I’d sell them for a dollar each.”

Shazam. The Million Dollar Homepage was born. It was a crazy idea, with ostensibly little chance of actually working. But Tew “knew that things that were completely crazy would often get attention. And I knew that if I could generate some attention, then the pixels I was selling would have value.”

Still, he was far from convinced the site would live up to its name. “My original thinking was that if I aim high … If I aim for a million dollars but only get one or two percent, then that would still be ten or twenty thousand dollars, that would be a huge amount of money for me. So I kind of went into it thinking I had nothing to lose.”

He had no idea. Between the site’s going live and the auctioning off of the final 1000 pixels for $38,100, more than 3000 entities — from online casinos to novelty shops to free iPod gimmicks to absinthe vendors to political blogs to mp3 download sites to Jewish dating services to the London Times to a site selling pixels for 20 cents — rushed to snatch up online real estate. It took just four and a half months. “It took off so quickly. It’s still kind of surreal,” says Tew. “A year on, it still hasn’t sunk in.” (He says he “could have probably created a whole page just of adult sites” that contacted him, but, knowing the publicity the page would generate — and depended on — he opted to keep it clean.)

f it seems a little like gold prospectors flocking to Sutter’s Mill in 1848, it was. Sort of. Few who purchased pixels actually expected to get torrents of lucrative traffic suddenly directed to their sites. They paid simply to be part of one of those rare phenomena, those online events that, for a little while, at least, everyone is talking about.

Aided and abetted by the chattering legions of the blogosphere ( he kept a blog chronicling his adventures), Tew’s novelty page ended up doing just what he thought it might, becoming a “self-fulfilling sort of thing” that made him rich.

Not that it was easy. “A lot of people think I made this million dollars for nothing,” he says. “But I worked full time, really hard, for four and a half months. To suddenly go from nothing to having 3000 customers, over a short period of time.… I had no employees; it was just me, initially. And then the whole thing was happening while I was at university, so I was supposed to be doing lectures during the day, socializing at night, and running a full-time business.”

Besides being a business, the page is also something of a work of art: a day-glo mosaic of “contained spam,” a riot of word and image that almost hurts your eyes if you stare too long. What’s more, Tew says, it’s a time capsule. “I think it is quite a good reflection of the Internet at this point in time. It’s going to be the same image in ten years’ time, in twenty years’ time. This is permanent. But other than aesthetic and commemorative value, Tew has a confession: “it’s not that particularly useful, let’s be honest about it.” Except, of course, to make Tew a very wealthy man.

Meanwhile, there are reportedly more than 10,000 copycat sites, everything from the Zero Dollar Homepage (it’s free!) and the Million Pixel Gallery (it’s art!) to the Million Australian Dollar Homepage (it’s Aussie!). Few of them are more than half bought up.

To be sure, this is the kind of idea you kick yourself for not thinking of first. I know I did. And that’s just the point. Alex Tew thought of it. And now Alex Tew is a millionaire and you and I are not. Now he’s working on a “top secret” project. “[A]ll i can say is i aim to launch prior to the year’s end,” he writes, “and it could be really big.” I’m inclined to believe him.

The lizard king

Julian Dibbell is a successful freelance writer. His work has appeared everywhere from Harper’s and Le Monde to Wired . But for a while, about three years ago, he didn’t feel much like writing at all. He just wanted to kill lizard men.

In his new book, Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot (Basic) Dibbell introduces us to the people who make money playing massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like EverQuest or World of Warcraft .

They do it by working for months to create a character in these fantasy worlds, assiduously building their faux-reality bona fides through hours upon hours of game play, until they’re specialized and accomplished, with high-level skills and hefty coffers filled with millions of gold pieces. Or they do it by selling imaginary iron ingots or virtual real estate on eBay for real American dollars. One man even farmed out the labor, paying Mexicans in Tijuana real money — more than they would have made tilling fields — to play Ultima Online for hours every day while he profited from their “work.”

Dibbell has been spelunking these parallel worlds since before many of us even heard of the Internet. His Village Voice essay “ A Rape in Cyberspace ,” written in 1993 and describing a text-based online world called LamdaMOO, was a seminal work in exploring virtual reality. But all this is amazing even to him. It all represents something entirely new, he writes, “the traditional economics of the intangible being stretched to the point of surreality.”

Dibbell created a character and got down to it. At first, his interest was merely reportorial. That changed quickly. “The real motor online is the incessant involvement of players in these games,” he says. “It’s just very hard to get close to them without getting sucked into the addictive treadmill of achievement and acquisition. And I did. There I was, hunting lizard men and really obsessively trying to raise my level and acquire a little gold here and there. And it just struck me that this is ridiculous. I’m spending all my time on this career, which is an imaginary one. I’ve gotta cut this out, cold turkey, or I’ve gotta make this part of my career.”

So he did that too. He found it wasn’t just that he could score 30,000 gold pieces for every thousand sheets he harvested of leathery lizard-man skin. And not just that those gold pieces could be traded up in the virtual bureau de change that is eBay for cold, hard American greenback. (At press time, 100 million gold pieces are being auctioned for $119 on the site.) What he found was that, while one red paper clip and the Million Dollar Homepage are “brilliant examples of the sort of one-off stunts that people can pull off to make money,” this is something more: “a solid, robust economy that is not going away.”

By the end of the year or so that he played Ultima Online “professionally,” he pulled down about $11,000. A paltry salary for most jobs to be sure. But not bad for a video game.

In a way, it’s not all that hard to believe that this sort of thing, a replacement — or at least a supplementation — of the Protestant work ethic with an economy of online play, could actually happen on a large scale. “Go back to Mesopotamia, the early days of human civilization,” Dibbell says. “The whole economy is about growing wheat and turning it into bread, and everything else is just sort of frills. Go to a peasant working on the field and say, ‘This is the center of your economic world, but see those guys over there learning how to write and scribble? Y’know, that looks really silly, but that’s gonna be the center of gravity in the economy in 10,000 years.’ Imagine how crazy that would have sounded? I don’t think it’s too much more ridiculous to say this game economy, once it’s developed its own momentum, could be as big as any sector out there.”

Especially, he says, “because the agricultural economy, the industrial economy, those things are all limited by hard physical resources. There’s sort of an untetheredness to this. These economies just sort of feed on themselves. Who needs a frickin’ orc-slaying sword that they can’t hold in their hands? Nobody. But once enough people really want it, that’s something you can need. [In] the first wave of blather and hype about the Internet, what was totally missed was that the Internet would create its own needs, its own kind of desirable goods that were completely unpredictable.”

In other words, as wooden as he sometimes seems, when Al Gore invented the Internet he might have been spearheading something even more revolutionary than he could have known. For countless generations, Dibbell writes, that Protestant work ethic “managed to convince us all, even the defenders of play, that play was pure waste. But now there are virtual economies, and virtual economies present the single counterexample necessary to destroy the Puritan hypothesis: an example of productive play.”

Bookplanet: Naguib Mahfouz, greatest Arab novelist, dies

1. Naguib Mahfouz, 94, Nobel Laureate in Literature, Dies -- by ROBERT D. McFADDEN

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist, playwright and screenwriter who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature and was widely regarded as the Arab world’s foremost novelist, died yesterday in Cairo. He was 94.

Mr. Mahfouz had been hospitalized and in declining health since suffering a head injury in a fall at his home in July, Reuters and The Associated Press reported, citing Dr. Hossam Mowafi, who supervised Mr. Mahfouz’s treatment and who announced his death.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Mahfouz survived a stabbing attack near his home after Islamic fundamentalists had accused him of blasphemy.

Mr. Mahfouz’s city was teeming Cairo, and his characters were its most ordinary people: civil servants and bureaucrats, grocers, shopkeepers, poor retirees, petty thieves and prostitutes, peasants and women brutalized by tradition, a people caught in the upheavals of a nation struggling through the 20th century.

Around their tangled lives, Mr. Mahfouz chronicled the development of modern Egypt over five decades in 33 novels, 13 anthologies of short stories, several plays and 30 screenplays. The Swedish Academy of Letters hailed his work as “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”

Mr. Mahfouz, a slim, shy and modest man — he once described himself as “a fourth- or fifth-class writer” — was admired for his vivid depictions of modern Egypt and the social, political and religious dilemmas of its people. Critics compared his richly detailed Cairo with the London of Dickens, the Paris of Zola and the St. Petersburg of Dostoyevsky.

He has been the only Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize. At the time of his selection, in 1988, he was widely read in Egypt and other Arab countries but largely unknown in the United States and Europe. While many of his works had been translated into French, Swedish and German, only about a dozen had been rendered into English, and many were out of print. Since then, his best-known novels have been published in the United States and other English-speaking countries by Doubleday and sister companies. They include “The Cairo Trilogy,” widely regarded as his masterwork.

Arabic has a rich tradition in poetry, but the novel was not a strong art form until Mr. Mahfouz made it accessible. For English-language translators and readers, Arabic presents special difficulties: the dialogue sounds overwrought, the descriptions stilted. As Brad Kessler wrote in a 1990 article for The New York Times Magazine: “Mahfouz writes in the florid classical Arabic, which is roughly the equivalent of Shakespearean English.”

Until winning his $390,000 Nobel Prize, much of which he said he gave to charities, Mr. Mahfouz had struggled financially despite the popularity of his books. For many years he supported himself and his wife, Attiyat-Allah, and two daughters by working for government ministries. He almost never left Egypt and did not go to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize but sent his daughters, Om Kolthoum and Fatima, to accept it on his behalf. They and his wife survive him. During the 1960’s and 70’s, he was the head of the State Cinema Organization, which is responsible for raising money, censorship and decisions on which movies should be made. About 30 of his own novels and short stories were adapted, including one that won a national film prize in 1962. For his censorship work, he was often criticized by Cairo intellectuals.

Mr. Mahfouz had many enemies. Islamic fundamentalists considered some of his work blasphemous, and political opponents resented his support for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and his earlier criticisms of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized power after a 1952 coup.

Many of Mr. Mahfouz’s books were banned in Arab countries, and a 1959 novel, “Children of the Alley,” whose theme is man’s search for spiritual values, has always been blacklisted in Egypt at the behest of the Islamic theological authorities because it portrays Muhammad as a simple, all-too-human womanizer. It also has characters based on Adam and Eve, Moses, and Jesus.

Like many Egyptian intellectuals, some of whose works have been denounced as disrespectful to Islam, Mr. Mahfouz in recent years had been put on a “death list” by Islamic fundamentalists who were said to be responsible for hundreds of terrorist killings in Egypt and abroad.

In 1989 Mr. Mahfouz joined scores of literary figures in defending Salman Rushdie after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned one of his books, “The Satanic Verses,” as blasphemous and offered a reward for his being killed. But in 1992, Mr. Mahfouz distanced himself from Mr. Rushdie and criticized his book as “insulting” to Islam, though he also said that the death threats against him were wrong.

Mr. Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside his apartment building in 1994. The assailant fled in a car. The authorities said the attack might have been carried out by the Islamic militants who had declared him an infidel. The police had offered him protection, but Mr. Mahfouz, who condemned “cultural terrorism” by Islamic fundamentalists, refused it.

After the stabbing, however, armed guards were posted outside his apartment building, which overlooks the Nile. And though he continued to write in his later years, he did so in failing health; he was diabetic and nearly blind, and the attack impaired his ability to hold a pen.

It also led to a more restricted life, forcing him to curtail his almost daily walks to a coffeehouse to meet friends or to an office at Al Ahram, the newspaper for which he wrote occasional columns. After the attack, friends had him driven to their homes for weekly salons.

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo on Dec. 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children of a civil servant. His early childhood was spent in the old city’s Gamaliya quarter, the setting of many of his books, and he came of age in an era of intense nationalist activity against British rule.

He studied Arabic literature in high school and cultivated a wide range of literary interests while studying philosophy at the University of Cairo, from which he graduated in 1932. He read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Mann, Kafka and Joyce and the playwrights O’Neill, Shaw, Ibsen and Strindberg.

He began writing short stories, 80 of which were published in magazines, and in 1938 he published his first collection, “ The Whisper of Madness.” A year later, his first novel, “The Games of Fate,” appeared. It was a thinly veiled allegory about the struggle against British occupation but was set in ancient Egypt to get around the censors.

After several such “historical” novels, he turned to a new genre, the realistic novels of the 1940’s and 50’s for which he is best known. “The Cairo Trilogy,” whose three volumes took 12 years to complete, appeared in the late 1950’s and is regarded as a masterpiece of the Arabic language.

It tells the story of Egypt through the eyes of three generations of a middle-class Cairo family from World War I through the 1952 coup that overthrew King Farouk. Each of the volumes — “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — is named for a Cairo street, and the tragedies and fortunes of the family parallel the nation’s struggle for political independence.

Later works by Mr. Mahfouz — “The Thief and the Dogs” (1961), “Chatting on the Nile” (1966) and “Miramar” (1967) — were experimental, sometimes given to stream-of-consciousness, and critical of either the coup that eventually made Nasser the ruler or of his dictatorial rule. Mr. Mahfouz was never jailed for these or other writings, though other writers were.

Women play important roles in many Mahfouz stories and often illuminate their inferior status in Egypt and the wrenching social changes under way. In one story, a girl exploited as a prostitute fights back; another tells of a home where women are not even allowed to look out a window for fear of being seen, until a modern woman marries into the family and begins to demand equal rights.

Mr. Mahfouz supported President Anwar el-Sadat and the Camp David accords that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and he was denounced by many of his countrymen. But he also supported the Palestinian cause, giving a portion of his Nobel money to Palestinian charities, and his works remained popular; his Nobel Prize was welcomed throughout the Arab world.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2002, Mr. Mahfouz said he no longer feared death and no longer fretted that it would come before he had the chance to finish his work. But he sounded melancholy when enumerating the pastimes that old age had denied him. “That is the way of life,” he said. “You give up your pleasures one by one until there is nothing left, then you know it is time to go.”

2. Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz Dies -- by LEE KEATH and NADIA ABOU EL-MAGD

CAIRO, Egypt -- Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, died Wednesday at the age of 94, bringing tributes from literary figures and world leaders for an author who became a symbol of liberalism in the face of Islamic extremism.

Mahfouz's novels depicted modern life in his beloved neighborhood of Islamic Cairo, a teeming district of millennium-old mosques and winding alleyways. He brought to life his city's traditional families as they faced the 20th century's upheavals, including the changing role of women.

But he raised controversy among conservatives with his calls for religious tolerance. In 1994, an Islamic militant stabbed the then-82-year-old Mahfouz, accusing him of blasphemy because of one his novels, "Children of Gebelaya," a religious allegory that depicted Islam's main prophet, Muhammad.

Still, Mahfouz continued to write, often dictating stories. He was hospitalized last month after falling in his home and injuring his head, then died Wednesday morning after a sharp decline, Dr. Hossam Mowafi said.

"His wife last night was whispering in his ears and he was smiling and nodding," Mowafi said.

The Nobel prize, which he won in 1988, introduced to the world a man seen by many as the Middle East's greatest writer, with 34 novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, dozens of movie scripts and five plays over a 70-year career.

In a condolence statement, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised Mahfouz as "a cultural light" who expressed "the values shared by all, the values of enlightenment and tolerance that reject extremism."

President Bush was saddened at Mahfouz's death, calling him "an extraordinary artist who conveyed the richness of Egyptian history and society to the world," the White House said.

An unlikely condolence came from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamic group. A statement on the group's Web site Wednesday said "Children of Gebelawi" was seen as a "violation" of Islamic tenets.

Still, Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said two senior figures of the group intend to attend Mahfouz's funeral on Thursday.

"We are not gods to punish and reward people. It's not time to judge him or history, we're asking for (God's) mercy for him. He is a great writer," he told the Associated Press.

Mahfouz's literary prominence, modesty and irrepressible sense of humor enabled him to unite Arabs from across the political spectrum -- even those who differed with his backing for normalization of ties with Israel after Egypt signed the 1979 Camp David peace accords.

In his final years, he kept up his evenings in Cairo's literary cafes, meeting his anti-Israel friends in one and his pro-normalization ones in another.

"I differed with him a lot, on his stance from Camp David, Egypt's 1952 revolution, Egypt's Arabism ... He was a liberal man and always asked us to judge him by his writings," novelist Youssef al-Qaeed, a friend of Mahfouz, told Al-Jazeera TV.

The state has ordered a military funeral for Mahfouz at a mosque in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood.

But first -- in keeping with a request in his will -- private prayers for family and friends will be held at Hussein Mosque, a major shrine in Islamic Cairo, where his mother took him to pray as a child.

Islamic Cairo was for Mahfouz what St. Petersburg was for Fyodor Dostoevsky or London for Charles Dickens -- a canvas on which to depict with startling realism the travails of an Everyman.

The scene of some novels rarely stretched beyond a few familiar blocks of Gamaliya, the corner of the district where he was born on Dec. 11, 1911.

The crowded neighborhood is the setting for his 1956-1957 masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy -- "Palace Walk," "Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street," which depict a Muslim merchant family not unlike Mahfouz's own.

It introduced a character who became an icon in Egyptian culture: Si-Sayed, the domineering father, who lords his authority over his wives and daughters but holds the family together -- a character Mahfouz drew from his own father.

Mahfouz's Cairo was a place of traditional families, but also prostitutes, drug dealers and political dissidents. Promising young men die fighting British colonial rule, revolutions inspire and then bitterly disappoint, women strain against religious and traditional restrictions, gracious old manners surrender to modern ways.

"It has to do with the plight of humanity as a whole," said Fatma Moussa, a renowned Egyptian critic and writer. "It's kind of a microcosm of the whole world, a little image of the fate of man."

He moved easily between genres, from social realism to religious or political allegories.

The 1959 "Children of Gebelawi" -- or "Children of Our Alley" by its Arabic title -- told the story of a family patriarch and his sons, who represent the series of prophets that Islam believes includes Jesus and Moses and culminates in Muhammad.

Islam frowns on any literary depiction of Muhammad, except for a straightforward biography. But even more rankling to conservatives was that Mahfouz added a final son who represented science, suggesting he was a prophet after Muhammad.

First serialized in Egyptian newspapers in 1959, Egyptian religious authorities banned it from being published in book form -- though it was published in Lebanon.

The controversy was resurrected when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of British writer Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses" in a 1989 fatwa, or religious edict.

In a copycat fatwa the same year, Egyptian radical Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman -- later convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks -- said Mahfouz deserved to die for "Children of Gebelawi."

The militant who stabbed Mahfouz said at his trial he had never read the book but was inspired by the fatwa.

"Children of Gebelawi" will be republished along with all Mahfouz's other works next year, his publisher said.

The attack damaged nerves leading to Mahfouz's right arm, seriously impairing his ability to write. A man who had once worked for hours at a time -- writing in longhand -- found it a struggle to "form legible words running in more or less straight lines," he wrote in the aftermath.

Still, he continued to produce short-short stories, sometimes only a few paragraphs long. His final published major work came in 2005, a collection of stories about the afterlife titled "The Seventh Heaven."

"I wrote 'The Seventh Heaven' because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death," the wispy-bearded writer told the AP with a grin during a small gathering for his 94th birthday in December. "Spirituality for me is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration for me."

3. From

MaguibMahfouz: Egyptian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, and was the first Arabic writer to be so honored. Many in the Arab world saw the prize as somewhat ironic, not least because the work for which Mahfouz received the prize had been published at least three decades earlier. In spite of millions readers in the Arab world, the author's books are still unavailable in many Middle Eastern countries on account of his support for President Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Mahfouz has written some 40 novels and short story collections, 30 screenplays, and many plays.

"Zaabalawi!" he said, frowning in concentration, "You need him? God be with you, for who knows, I Zaabalawi, where you are?"
"Doesn't he visit you?" I asked eagerly.
"He visited me some time ago. He might well come now; on the other hand I mightn't see him till death!"
I gave an audible sigh and asked:
"What made him like that?"
He took up his lute. "Such are saints or they would not be saints," he said laughing.
"Do those who need him suffer as I do?"
"Such suffering is part of the cure!"
(from 'Zaabalawi,' 1965)

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Gamaliya, Cairo. The family lived in two popular districts of the town, al-Jamaliya and al-Abbasiya, which have provided the backdrop for most of his writings. His father was a civil servant, and Mahfouz eventually followed in his footsteps. In his childhood his mother often took him to museums and Egyptian history later became a major theme is many of his books. He graduated from Cairo University in 1934. By 1936, having spent a year working on an M.A., he decided to become a professional writer. He worked as a journalist at Ar-Risala , and contributed to Al-Hilal and Al-Ahram .

Before turning to the novel, Mahfouz wrote articles and short stories. His first published book was a translation of James Baikie's work on ancient Egypt. His first collection of stories appeared in 1938. In 1939 he entered government bureaucracy, where he was employed for the next 35 years. From 1939 until 1954 he was a civil servant at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and then worked as director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema, the State Cinema Organization. In 1969-71 he was a consultant for cinema affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

Mahfouz's early works, ABATH AL-AQDAR (1939), RADUBIS (1943), and KIFAH TIBAH (1944), were historical novels, that were written as part of a larger unfulfilled project of 30 novels. Inspired by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) Mahfouz planned to cover the whole history of Egypt in a series of books. However, following the third novel, Mahfouz shifted his interest to the present, the psychological impact of the social change on ordinary people.

Mahfouz's major work in the 1950s was The Cairo Trilogy, which the author completed before the July Revolution. The novels were titled with the street names Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. Mahfouz set the story in the parts of Cairo where he grew up. They depict the life of the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over three generations in Cairo from WW I to the 1950s, when King Farouk I was overthrown. With its rich variety of characters and psychological understanding the work connected Mahfouz to such authors as Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Galsworthy. Mahfouz ceased to write for some years after finishing the trilogy. Disappointed in the Nasser régime, which had overthrown the monarchy in 1952, he started publishing again in 1959, now prolifically pouring out novels, short stories, journalism, memoirs, essays, and screenplays.

The Children of Gebelaawi (1959) portrayed the patriarch Gebelaawi and his children, average Egyptians living the lives of Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. Gebelaawi has built a mansion in an oasis in the middle of a barren desert; his estate becomes the scene of a family feud which continues for generations. "Whenever someone is depressed, suffering or humiliated, he points to the mansion at the top of the alley at the end opening out to the desert, and says sadly, 'That is our ancestor's house, we are all his children, and we have a right to his property. Why are we starving? What have we done?' " The book was banned throughout the Arab world, except in the Lebanon. In the 1960s Mahfouz further developed its theme that humanity is moving further away from God in his existentialist novels. In The Thief and the Dogs (1961) he depicted the fate a Marxist thief, who has been released from prison and plans revenge. Ultimately he is murdered in a cemetery.

Mahfouz left his post as the Director of Censorship and was appointed Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema. He was a contributing editor for the leading newspaper Al-Ahram and in 1969 he became a consultant to the Ministry of Culture, retiring in 1972. He has been a board member of Dar al Ma'aref publishing house. Most of his novels have been serialized in Al-Ahram , and his writings also appeared in his weekly column, 'Point of View'.

In the 1960s and 1970s Mahfouz started to construct his novels more freely and use interior monologue. In Miramar (1967) he used a form of multiple first-person narration. Four narrators, among them a Socialist and a Nasserite opportunist, represent different political views. In the center of the story is an attractive servant girl. In Arabian Nights and Days (1981) and in The Journey of Ibn Fatouma (1983) he used traditional Arabic narratives as subtexts. Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985) is about conflict between old and new religious truths, a theme with which Mika Waltari dealt in Finland in his historical novel Sinuhe (1945, trans. The Egyptian). Waltari's book inspired the Hollywood film The Egyptian (1954), directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Michael Wilding as Akhenaten, Gene Tierney as Nefertiti, and Victor Mature as Akhenaten's childhood friend Horemhab.

"As a geographical place and as history, Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz's Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity." (Edward W. Said in New York Review of Books , November 30, 2000)

Mahfouz, called the "Balzac of Egypt", has written some 40 novels and short story collections, screenplays, and several stage plays. In his work Mahfouz has described the development of his country in the 20th-century. He has combined intellectual and cultural influences from East and West - his own exposure to the literature of non-Arabic culture began in his youth with the enthusiastic consumption of Western detective stories. Mahfouz's stories are almost always set in the heavily populated urban quarters of Cairo. He had focused on 'the little man', who has to deal with the modernization of society and the temptations of Western values. In his own country his characters have become household words, and he is widely considered a spokesperson not only for Egypt but also for a number of non-Western cultures. Before the Nobel Prize only a few of Mahfouz's novels had appeared in the West. Jacqueline Onassis was among those people, who brought early translations to the English-speaking readers. In 1994 Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife. Two Egyptian Islamic militants were sentenced to death in 1995 for attempting to kill him. In his old age Mahfouz has become nearly blind.

For further reading: The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Najib Mahfu's Novels by Sasson Somekh (1973); The Modern Egyptian Novel by Hilary Kilpatrick (1974); The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1982); Naguig Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives (1989) Nobel Laureates in Literature , ed. by Rado Pribic (1990); Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt by Hayim Gordon (1990); Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz , ed. by Trevor Le Gassick (1991); Naguib Mahfouz , ed. by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar (1993); Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning by Rasheed el-Enany (1993) - NOTE :In his works Mahfouz has offered critical views of British colonialism and contemporary Egypt, social issues, and political prisoners. The major Egyptian influence on Mahfouz's thoughts of science and socialism in the 1930s was Salama Musa, the Fabian intellectual. Fundamentalist Muslims have threatened Mahfouz, especially due to his moderate position on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses .

Selected works:
ABATH AL-AGDAR, 1939 - Mockery of the Fates
ZUQAQ AL-MIDAQQ, 1947 - Midaq Alley - Midaqq-kuja - film El Callejón de los milagros / Midaq Alley , dir. by Jorge Fons and starring Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Salma Hayek, and Maria Rojo, was based on Mahfouz's novel but set in Mexico City.
AL-SARAB, 1949
BIDAYAH WA-NIHAYAH, 1949 - The Beginning and the End
AL-THULATIYA, 1956-57 - The Cairo Trilogy; BAYN AL-QUASRAYN (1956) - Palace Walk - QUAST AL-SHAWQ (1957) - Palace of Desire - AL-SUKKARIYAH (1957) - Sugar Street - suom. Palatsikatu, Intohimon palatsi, Sokerikuja
Children of Gebelaawi, 1959 - Children of the Alley (trans. by Peter Theroux)
AL-LISS WA-AL-KILAB, 1961 - The Thief and the Dogs
AL-SUMMAN WA-AL-KHARIF, 1962 - Autumn Quail
AL-TARIQ, 1964 - The Search
AL-SHAHHADH, 1965 - The Beggar
THARTHARAH FAWQ AL NIL, 1966 - Adrift on the Nile
AWLAD HARITNA, 1967 - Children of Gebelawi / Children of the Alley
MIRAMAR, 1967 - trans.
AL MARAYA, 1971 - Mirrors
AL-KARNAK, 1974 - Three Contemporary Egyptian Novels
HADRAT AL-MUHTARAM, 1975 - Respected Sir
MALHAMAT AL-HARAFISH, 1977 - The Harafish
AFRAH AL-QUBBAH, 1981 - Wedding Song
LAYALI ALF LAYLAH, 1981 - Arabian Nights and Days
RIHLAT IBN FATTUMAH, 1983 - The Journey of Ibn Fatouma
Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, 1985 (translated from the Arabic by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo)
YAWM MAQTAL AL ZA'IM, 1985 - The Day Leader Was Killed

4. Paris Review Interview: Echoes from an Autobiography, 1994

Naguib Mahfouz credits Hafiz Najib—thief, jailbird, renowned cop
baiter, and author of twenty-two detective novels—with being his
earliest literary influence. The ten-year-old Mahfouz read Najib’s
Johnson’s Son on the recommendation of an elementary school
classmate, and the experience, Mahfouz avows, changed his life.
Mahfouz’s subsequent influences have been many and various.
In high school Mahfouz became preoccupied with Taha Husayn,
whose revolutionary critical work Fil-shi’r al-Jahili provoked a
hysterical reaction from conservative Asharite circles when it was
published in 1926. In college Mahfouz read Salama Musa, who as
the editor of the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida later published
Mahfouz’s first novel, and from whom Mahfouz says he learned
“to believe in science, socialism, and tolerance.”

In the years following the Second World War, Mahfouz retreated
from his socialist ideals to a deep pessimism. He spent much of
his time engaged in gloomy discussions of life and the purposelessness
of literature with fellow writers Adil Kamil and Ahmad Zaki
Makhluf, on the lawn area by Cairo’s Jala’ Bridge, which they
dubbed “the ominous circle.” In the fifties he experimented with
Sufi mysticism, seeking in it answers to the metaphysical questions
not addressed by science. These days Mahfouz appears to have settled
on a philosophy that combines scientific socialism with a concern
for the spiritual—a combination anticipated by the definition
of fiction he advanced in 1945: Fiction is art for the industrial age.
It represents a synthesis of man’s passion for fact and his age-old
love affair with the imagination.

Born in Cairo in 1911, Mahfouz started writing at the age of
seventeen and has since written more than thirty novels. Until he
retired from the civil service at sixty, he wrote at night, in his spare
time—unable, despite his critical successes, to depend on writing
for a living. His first published work, Abath al-Aqdar, appeared in
1939, the first in a series of three historical tales set in the time of
the pharaohs. Mahfouz originally intended to expand this series
into a thirty- or forty-novel history of Egypt in the style of Sir
Walter Scott, but he abandoned the project to work on his contemporary
Cairo novels, the first of which, Khan al-Khalili,
appeared in 1945.

Although much acclaimed in other parts of the Arab world,
Mahfouz did not acquire a significant reputation in Egypt until the
publication of The Cairo Trilogy in 1957. This three-thousand page
epic portrays life in middle-class Cairo between the world
wars, and was immediately hailed as the novel of its generation.

Mahfouz became known abroad in the late sixties, when a number
of his works were translated into English, French, Russian, and
German. In 1988 Mahfouz achieved worldwide recognition when
he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now eighty, Mahfouz lives in the Cairo suburb of Agouza
with his wife and two daughters. He avoids public exposure, especially
inquiries into his private life, which might become, as he puts
it, “a silly topic in journals and radio programs.” The series of
meetings that made up this interview were held on a succession of
Thursdays, each time at precisely eleven o’clock. The interviewer
sat on a chair to Mahfouz’s left, next to his good ear.

Mahfouz in person is somewhat reserved, but always candid
and direct. He laughs frequently and wears an old-fashioned dark
blue suit, which he buttons to the top. He smokes, and he likes his
coffee bitter.
—Charlotte El Shabrawy, 1992

When did you start writing?
In 1929. All my stories were rejected. Salama Musa—the editor
of Majalla—used to say to me: You have potential, but you’re
not there yet. September 1939 I remember well because it was the
beginning of World War II, Hitler’s attack on Poland. My story,
“Abath al-Aqdar,” was published, a sort of surprise gift from the
Majalla publishers. It was an immensely important event in my
Did writing and publication then follow easily?
No . . . though after that first publication a friend of mine, a
writer, came to me and told me about his brother who owned a
printing press. He formed a publication committee with some colleagues
who had had a little success. We began publishing in 1943
with some regularity. We published a story of mine every year.
But you never depended on your writing for a living?
No. I was always a government employee. On the contrary, I
spent on literature—on books and paper. I didn’t make any money
from my writing until much later. I published about eighty stories
for nothing. Even my first novels I published for nothing, all to
help the committee.
When did you begin to make money from your writing?
When my short stories were translated into English, French,
and German. “Zabalawi” in particular was extremely successful
and made me more money than any other story.
The first novel of mine to be translated was Midaq Alley. The
translation was first published by a Lebanese named Khayyat. Neither
I nor the translator made any money because Khayyat cheated
us. Heinemann published it again around 1970. After that it
was translated into French, and other translations of my work
soon followed.
Could you tell us about the notorious Kharafish group? Who
belongs to it, and how was it formed?
We first became acquainted in 1943: Mustafa Mahmud,
Ahmad Baha al-Din, Salah Jahin, Muhammad Afifi. We would
hold discussions on art and on current political issues. Kharafish
means “hoodlum”—those types found on the fringes of demonstrations
and who start looting at the first opportunity, they are the
kharafish. Ahmed Mazhar [one of Egypt’s leading actors] gave us
the name. At first we used to meet at Muhammad Afifi’s house.
Sometimes we would go to a place called Sahara City, near the pyramids.
Now we go to the film director Tewfiq Saleh’s place because
he has a balcony on the tenth floor, facing the Nile. There are four
or five of us left.
Do you have much contact with the younger generation of
Egyptian writers?
Every Friday evening I attend a session at the Casino Kasr el-
Nil, to which new writers are invited. Many come: poets, writers,
literary types . . . Since I stopped working for the government in
1971 I have had more time for friends.
What role did the political situation prior to 1952 play in your
I was about seven when the 1919 revolution took place. I
became more and more affected by it and more and more enthusiastic
about the cause. Everyone I knew was for the Wafd Party and
freedom from colonization. Later I became much more involved in
political life as an outspoken follower of Zaghlul Pasha Saad. I still
consider that involvement one of the most important things I have
done in my life. But I’ve never worked in politics, never been a
member of an official committee or a political party. Although I
was a Wafdist, I never wanted to be known as a party member; as
a writer I wanted the total freedom that a party member can never
And 1952?
I was happy with that revolution. But unfortunately it did not
bring about democracy.
Do you think progress has been made toward democracy and
freedom since the time of Nasser and Sadat?
Oh yes, there’s no doubt about that. In Nasser’s time one
feared the walls. Everyone was afraid. We would sit in the cafés,
too afraid to talk. We would stay at home, too afraid to talk. I was
afraid to talk to my children about anything that happened before
the revolution—I was worried they would go to school and say
something that would be misinterpreted. Sadat made us feel more
secure. Hosni Mubarak? His constitution is not democratic, but he
is democratic. We can voice our opinions now. The press is free.
We can sit in our homes and speak loudly as though we were in
England. But the constitution does need revising.
Do you think the Egyptian people are ready for full democracy?
Do they really understand how it works?
In Egypt today most people are concerned with getting bread
to eat. Only some of the educated really understand how democracy
works. No one with a family has a free moment even to discuss
Have you had much trouble with censorship? Have you had to
rewrite any of your manuscripts?
Not recently, but during World War II Al-Qawra al-Jadida and
Radibus were censored. I was called a leftist. Censors called
Radibus inflamatory because in it the people kill a king, and our
king was still alive. I explained to them that it was simply a historical
tale, but they claimed that it was false history, that the king
in question had not been killed by the people but had died under
“mysterious circumstances.”
Didn’t the censors also object to The Children of Gabelawi?
They did. Even though I was at the time in charge of all artistic
censorship, the head of literary censorship advised me not to
publish the book in Egypt in order to prevent conflict with the Al-
Azhar—the main seat of Islam in Cairo. It was published in Beirut
but not allowed into Egypt. This was in 1959, in Nasser’s time.
The book still can’t be bought here. People smuggle it in.
What did you intend with Children of Gabelawi? Did you
intend it to be provocative?
I wanted the book to show that science has a place in society,
just as a new religion does, and that science does not necessarily
conflict with religious values. I wanted it to persuade readers that
if we reject science, we reject the common man. Unfortunately, it
has been misinterpreted by those who don’t know how to read a
story. Although the book is about ghettos and those who run them,
it was interpreted as being about the prophets themselves. Because
of this interpretation, the story was, naturally, considered shocking,
supposedly showing the prophets walking barefoot, acting
cruelly . . . But of course it’s an allegory. It’s not as though allegories
are unknown in our tradition. In the story of “Kalila and
Dimnah,” for example, a lion represents the Sultan. But no one
claims that the author turned the Sultan into an animal! Something
is meant by the story . . . an allegory is not meant to be taken literally.
There is a great lack of comprehension on the part of some
What do you think about the Salman Rushdie case? Do you
think a writer should have absolute freedom?
I’ll tell you exactly what I think: Every society has its traditions,
laws, and religious beliefs, which it tries to preserve. From
time to time individuals appear who demand changes. I believe
that society has the right to defend itself, just as the individual has
the right to attack that with which he disagrees. If a writer comes
to the conclusion that his society’s laws or beliefs are no longer
valid or even harmful, it is his duty to speak up. But he must be
ready to pay the price for his outspokenness. If he is not ready to
pay that price, he can choose to remain silent. History is full of
people who went to prison or were burned at the stake for proclaiming
their ideas. Society has always defended itself. Nowadays
it does so with its police and its courts. I defend both the freedom
of expression and society’s right to counter it. I must pay the price
for differing. It is the natural way of things.
Did you read The Satanic Verses?
I didn’t. By the time it appeared, I could no longer read very
well—my eyesight has deteriorated a lot recently. But the American
cultural attaché in Alexandria explained the book to me chapter by
chapter. I found the insults in it unacceptable. Rushdie insults even
the women of the Prophet! Now, I can argue with ideas, but what
should I do with insults? Insults are the business of the court. At the
same time, I consider Khomeini’s position equally dangerous. He
does not have the right to pass judgment—that is not the Islamic
way. According to Islamic principles, when a man is accused of
heresy he is given the choice between repentance and punishment.
Rushdie was not given that choice. I have always defended
Rushdie’s right to write and say what he wants in terms of ideas.
But he does not have the right to insult anything, especially a
prophet or anything considered holy. Don’t you agree?
I see your point . . . Does the Koran discuss insults or blasphemy?
Of course. The Koran and the laws of all civilized nations legislate
against the vilification of religions.
Were you religious as a child? Did you go to the mosque with
your father every Friday?
I was especially religious when I was young. But my father
put no pressure on me to go to Friday prayers, even though he
went every week. Later on I began to feel strongly that religion
should be open; a closed-minded religion is a curse. Excessive
concern with religion seems to me a last resort for people who
have been exhausted by life. I consider religion very important
but also potentially dangerous. If you want to move people,
you look for a point of sensitivity, and in Egypt nothing moves
people as much as religion. What makes the peasant work?
Religion. Because of this, religion should be interpreted in an
open manner. It should speak of love and humanity. Religion
is related to progress and civilization, not just emotions.
Unfortunately today’s interpretations of religion are often
backward and contradict the needs of civilization.
What about women who cover their heads, or even their faces
and hands? Is this an example of religion contradicting the needs
of civilization?
Head covering has become a style, a fashion. It has no more
meaning than that for most. But I do fear religious fanaticism . . .
a pernicious development, totally opposed to mankind.
Do you pray these days?
Sometimes. But age prevents me at present. Between you and
me, I consider religion an essential human behavior. Still, it’s clearly
more important to treat one’s fellow man well than to be always
praying and fasting and touching one’s head to a prayer mat. God
did not intend religion to be an exercise club.
Have you been to Mecca?
Do you want to go?
No. I hate crowds.
How old were you when you married?
Thirty-seven or thirty-eight.
Why so late?
I was busy with my job and with writing. I was a government
employee in the morning and a writer in the evening. My
day was completely filled. I was afraid of marriage . . . especially
when I saw how busy my brothers and sisters were with
social events because of it. This one went to visit people, that
one invited people. I had the impression that married life would
take up all my time. I saw myself drowning in visits and parties.
No freedom.
Even now, don’t you refuse to attend dinners and receptions?
I never attend such events. I never even visit my friends. I meet
them at the Casino Kasr el-Nil or at one or two other coffee houses.
Is that why you didn’t go to Sweden to receive your Nobel
Prize? Too many visits, dinners, parties . . .?
No, not exactly. As much as I would have loved to travel when
I was young, nowadays I no longer have the desire. Even a twoweek
trip would disrupt my lifestyle.
You must have been asked many times about your reaction to
receiving the Nobel. Did you have any inkling beforehand that you
would win?
None at all. My wife thought I deserved it, but I had always
suspected the Nobel was a Western prize; I thought they would
never select an Eastern writer. There was a rumor, though, that two
Arab writers had been nominated: Yusef Idris and Adonis.
Did you know you were being considered?
No. I was at Al-Ahram that morning. Had I stayed half an
hour longer I would have found out immediately. But I went home
and had lunch instead. The news came across the tickers at Al-
Ahram and they called my house. My wife woke me up to tell me,
but I thought she was joking and wanted to go back to sleep. Then
she told me Al-Ahram was on the phone. I picked up to hear someone
saying, Congratulations! It was Mr. Basha. Now Mr. Basha
sometimes plays jokes on me, so I didn’t take him seriously. I went
into the living room in my pajamas and was just sitting down
when the doorbell rang. Someone came in whom I assumed was a
journalist, but he turned out to be the Swedish ambassador! So I
excused myself to change . . . and that’s how it happened.
Turning once more to your writing: do you work according to
a regular schedule?
I have always been compelled to. From eight till two I was at
work. From four until seven I wrote. Then from seven until ten I read.
This was my schedule every day except Friday. I have never had time
to do as I please. But I stopped writing about three years ago.
How do you come up with the characters and ideas for your
Let me put it this way. When you spend time with your friends,
what do you talk about? Those things which made an impression
on you that day, that week . . . I write stories the same way. Events
at home, in school, at work, in the street, these are the bases for a
story. Some experiences leave such a deep impression that instead
of talking about them at the club I work them into a novel.
Take, for instance, the case of a criminal who killed three people
here recently. Beginning with that basic story, I would go on to
make a number of decisions as to how to write it. I would choose,
for example, whether to write the story from the point of view of
the husband, the wife, the servant, or the criminal. Maybe my sympathies
lie with the criminal. These are the sorts of choices that
make stories differ from one another.
When you begin writing, do you allow the words to flow or
do you prepare notes first? Do you start with a specific theme in
My short stories come straight from the heart. For other
works I do research first. Before beginning The Cairo Trilogy, for
example, I did extensive research. I compiled a file on each character.
If I hadn’t done that I would have gotten lost and forgotten
something. Sometimes a theme arises naturally out of the events in
a story, and sometimes I will have one in mind before I begin. If I
know beforehand that I want to portray a human being’s ability to
surmount whatever evil may befall him, I will create a hero capable
of demonstrating that idea. But I also begin stories by writing
about a character’s behavior at length, allowing the theme to
emerge later on.
How much do you revise and rewrite before you consider a
story finished?
I make frequent revisions, I cross out a lot, I write all over the
pages, even on the backs. Often my revisions are major. After I
revise, I rewrite the story and send it to the publisher. Then I tear
up all the old reworkings and throw them away.
You never keep any of your notes? Many writers keep every
word they have written! Don’t you think it’s interesting to study a
writer’s process by examining his revisions?
It may well be, but it is simply not part of my culture to preserve
notes. I have never heard of a writer preserving his early
drafts. I have to discard my revisions—otherwise my house would
overflow with useless paper! Besides, I have terrible handwriting.
Neither the short story nor the novel is part of the Arab literary
heritage. How do you explain your success with these forms?
We Arab writers did borrow the modern concept of the short
story and the novel from the West, but by now they have been
internalized in our own literature. Many translations came our
way during the forties and fifties; we took their style to be simply
the way stories were written. We used the Western style to express
our own themes and stories. But don’t forget that our heritage
includes such works as Ayyam al-Arab, which contains many stories
—among them “Antar” and “Qays and Leila”—and of course
The Thousand and One Nights.
Do you identify with any of your characters?
Kamal from the trilogy represents my own generation—our
ideas, our choices, our dilemmas and psychological crises—and so
his character is in that sense autobiographical. But he is universal
at the same time. I also feel close to Abdul Gawad, the father . . .
open to life in all its aspects, he loves his friends and he never wittingly
hurts anyone. The two together represent both halves of my
personality. Abdel Gawad is very gregarious, loves art and music;
Kamal is inhibited and shy, serious and idealistic.
Let’s talk about a specific example of your writing: The Thief
and the Dogs. How did you begin?
The story was inspired by a thief who terrorized Cairo for a
while. His name was Mahmoud Suleiman. When he got out of
prison he tried to kill his wife and his lawyer. They managed to
escape unharmed, but he was killed in the process.
Had his wife betrayed him, as in the novel?
No . . . I created the story from his character. At the time I was
suffering from a persistent and peculiar sense that I was being pursued,
and also the conviction that under the political order of the
time our lives had no meaning. So when I wrote the criminal’s
story, I wrote my own story along with it. A simple crime tale
became a philosophical meditation on the times! I subjected the
main character, Sayyid Mahran, to all my confusion, my perplexities.
I put him through the experience of looking for answers in the
sheikh, in the “fallen woman,” in the idealist who has betrayed his
ideas for money and fame. The writer, you see, is not simply a journalist.
He interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions, and
values. That is art.
What about the role of religion in the story? Is faith in God the
path to true happiness, as the sheikh suggests? Is Sufism the answer
the criminal is looking for?
The sheikh rejects life as we know it. The criminal, on the
other hand, is trying to solve his immediate problems. They are in
two different worlds. I love Sufism as I love beautiful poetry, but it
is not the answer. Sufism is like a mirage in the desert. It says to
you, come and sit, relax and enjoy yourself for a while. I reject any
path that rejects life, but I can’t help loving Sufism because it
sounds so beautiful . . . It gives relief in the midst of battle . . .
I have several Egyptian friends who consult Sufi sheikhs regularly
looking for solutions . . .
I wish them well. The real solution to their problems is in the
National Bank.
What of Nur, the woman in the story? And women such as
Nefisa in The Beginning and the End and Zohra in Miramar?
These characters, although “fallen,” are clearly good-hearted, and
appear to embody the only hope for the future.
That is correct, although I intended Nefisa also to demonstrate
the consequences of dishonorable conduct in a typical Egyptian
Do you condone that type of punishment?
I, with most Egyptians, feel that punishment on that level is
too severe. On the other hand an Egyptian man who does not
respond the way Nefisa’s brother did cannot continue to live in this
society. Whether or not he wants to, he is obliged to kill the dishonored
girl. He cannot escape it. And it will be a long time before
this tradition changes, although its force has lessened somewhat
recently, especially in the cities.
Abdul Gawad in the trilogy personifies the typical Egyptian
male of the time. Is his type still common today?
Oh yes. Particularly in upper Egypt, in the countryside . . .
though an Abdul Gawad today would probably be less extreme.
Isn’t there a shade of him in every man?
Every Egyptian man, or every man?
I can’t speak for other countries, but it is certainly true of
Egyptian men.
Things seem to be changing, though, wouldn’t you say?
Things are beginning to change. The position of the woman in
the household has become much stronger, mainly due to education,
although there are other factors.
Who do you think should have the upper hand in the household?
Who should make the decisions?
A marriage is like a company with equal partners. No one
rules. If there is a disagreement, the more intelligent of the two
should override. But each family is different. Often the power
depends on money; whoever makes the most money has the most
strength. There are no fixed rules.
In very conservative, traditional societies such as Egypt, don’t
women often have great power over men?
Certainly, and recent history proves it. Men with considerable
political or military power will fall into the hands of strong women
who influence their decisions. These women rule from behind the
curtain, from behind the veil.
Why are the majority of your heroines women from the lower
strata of society? Do you intend them to symbolize anything larger?
Egypt, for example?
No. By writing about lower-class women I simply intended to
show that during the period in which these novels are set women
had no rights. If a woman couldn’t find a good husband or divorce
a bad one, she had no hope. Sometimes her only recourse was,
unfortunately, illicit behavior. Until very recently, women have
been a deprived lot with very few rights . . . even basic rights such
as freedom of choice in marriage, divorce, and education. Now
that women are being educated, this situation is changing, because
a women who is educated has a weapon. Some critics see Egypt
symbolized by Hamida in Midaq Alley, but I never intended anything
of the sort.
What do you think of such critics, who interpret your work in
terms of symbols?
When I first heard that Hamida symbolized Egypt, I was taken
by surprise, even a little shocked. I suspected that the critics had
simply decided to turn everything and everyone into symbols. But
then I began to see resemblances between aspects of Hamida’s
behavior and aspects of the political situation. And by the time I
had finished reading the article, I realized that the critic was
right—that while I was writing about Hamida I was also subconsciously
writing about Egypt. I think such symbolic parallels probably
always come from the subconscious. Although I may not
intend a story to convey a certain meaning that a reader sees in it,
that meaning may nevertheless be a legitimate part of the story. A
writer writes both consciously and subconsciously.
What is the subject closest to your heart? The subject you most
love to write about?
Freedom. Freedom from colonization, freedom from the
absolute rule of a king, and basic human freedom in the context of
society and the family. These types of freedom follow from one to
the other. In the trilogy, for example, after the revolution brought
about political freedom, Abdul Gawad’s family demanded more
freedom from him.
What is the most difficult situation you have had to face in
your life?
Most certainly it was the decision to dedicate myself to writing,
thereby accepting the lowest standard of living for myself and
my family. It was especially difficult since the prospect of money
was dangled before me . . . Around 1947 I was given the chance to
work as a scriptwriter with the best in the field. I began working
with Salah Abu Seif, but I gave it up. I refused to continue. I didn’t
work with him again until after the war when everything
became expensive. Before that, I wouldn’t think of it. And my family
accepted these sacrifices.
Many prominent writers, especially in the West, are known for
their decadent private lives—their excessive drinking, drug use,
unusual sexual habits, suicidal tendencies . . . but you appear to be
Well . . .
Perhaps that is your greatest flaw?
It is certainly a defect. But you are judging me in my dotage.
In my younger days I did all those things—I drank, I pursued the
gentler sex, and so forth.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Middle East, particularly
in view of the Gulf War and continued violence?
At my age it is unseemly to be pessimistic. When you are
young you can declare that there is no hope for mankind, but
when you are older, you learn to avoid encouraging people to hate
the world.
But what about a conception of the hero? Heroes don’t seem
to exist in your stories, nor indeed in the stories of any contemporary
Egyptian writer.
It’s true that there are no heroes in most of my stories—only
characters. Why? Because I look at our society with a critical eye
and find nothing extraordinary in the people I see. The generation
before mine, influenced by the 1919 uprisings, saw heroic behavior
—the worker able to overcome unusual obstacles, that kind of
hero. Other writers—Tawfiq al-Hakim, Muhammed Husayn
Haykal, Ibrahim Abd al-Quadir al-Mazini—write about heroic
types. But on the whole, our generation is very apathetic and a
hero is a rare thing; you can’t put a hero in a novel unless it is a
work of fantasy.
How would you describe a hero?
There are many heroes in ancient Arabic literature, all of them
horsemen, knights. But a hero today would for me be one who
adheres to a certain set of principles and stands by them in the face
of opposition. He fights corruption, is not an opportunist, and has
a strong moral foundation.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
Aren’t you a model, for your children and your public, of one
who stands by his principles in the face of adversity?
Yes, certainly. But I don’t think of myself as a hero.
How, then, would you describe yourself?
Someone who loves literature. Someone who believes in and is
sincere about his work. Someone who loves his work more than
money or fame. Of course, if money and fame come, they are welcome!
But they have never been my goal. Why? Because I love
writing more than anything else. It may be unhealthy, but I feel
that without literature my life would have no meaning. I might
have good friends, travel, luxuries, but without literature my life
would be miserable. It’s a strange thing, but not really, because
most writers are the same way. This is not to say I have done nothing
but write in my life. I am married, I have children. Then, since
1935, I have had a sensitivity in my eyes that prevents me from
reading or writing during the summer, so this has imposed a balance
on my life—a balance sent down by God! Each year I must
live for three months as a man who is not a writer. Those three
months I meet my friends and stay out until morning.
And I haven’t lived?