It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Naguib Mahfouz to the Arabic language and to the people of Egypt, where he lived and wrote into his 90s. He produced dozens of novels and frequent journalism for the Cairo newspapers, he was once stabbed by an impassioned believer for the lusty "blasphemies" of his work, and in 1988 he won the Nobel Prize for literature. So famous is he that I have never met an Arab in the United States—from street vendor to cabbie to university professor—who was not intimately familiar with his work.
The superb Everyman's Library series, which publishes valuable titles in beautifully designed hardcover editions, has already reprinted Mahfouz's famous The Cairo Trilogy, which stands as a 20th-century masterwork equal to those of Joyce and Proust. Now Everyman has issued Mahfouz's Three Novels of Ancient Egypt: Khufu's Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia, Thebes at War. In the rest of his work, Mahfouz is justly admired for his nuanced rendering of modern Egypt, its post-colonial tumult, its complex and often brittle divisions of social class, the perennial tug of Islamic devotion against a vivid and passionate national character. The three novels of ancient Egypt are similarly supple, but distinctly more mythic: rich, colorful, charming, classical in their scope. The first is a tragedy along the lines of Sophocles: A pharaoh, on hearing a seer predict that his son would not inherit his throne, tries to circumvent fate and ends up only fulfilling it. The second is a love story: A fearsome falcon steals the golden sandal of a stunning courtesan as she bathes, then drops it into the lap of the pharaoh on his porch across the Nile, stirring in him a passion, and a downfall, so steamy it could move right onto HBO. The courtesan, Rhadopis, is "a young woman of ravishing beauty...in her eyes...a sleepy, dreamlike look shimmered, fit to pierce all creatures to the quick." The story quivers with erotic desire, yet Mahfouz remains elegant, evocative, never explicit. The last of the novels is analogous politically to modern Egypt, the story of lighter-skinned northerners trying to dominate darker-skinned southerners. Mahfouz is like a present-day Homer, weaving into existence a people's deepest understanding of themselves. These novels are among his regal gifts to the world, akin to the sumptuous robes and heaven-touched light of the ancients.