Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 144 pages

Published December 19, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Naguib Mahfouz, the 85-year-old Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner best known for his Cairo Trilogy, packs a lifetime of wisdom and reverence into this slim new book. This is not a dry, academic "I was born here, studied there" recounting, but a series of half-page meditations which capture the essence of a writer deeply tuned in to the spirituality of the everyday.

Fellow Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer writes in her introduction that "For Mahfouz life is a search in which one must find one's own sign-posts." Throughout his remembrances, anecdotes, allegorical and mystical tales, Mahfouz concludes that rapture is found in being constantly open to the world, and that the most perfect moment in one's life may well be in "the fleeting look of contentment under the date palm" which is "the secret of life and its light." The entries are filled with a constant struggle between polarized ways of living: between the need for order and the freedom of anarchy, between the pureness of abstinence and the humanity of sensuality, between the urge to examine everything and the contentment of letting life flow. The latter part of the book is taken up with the musings of a mythical Sheikh abd-Rabbih al-Ta'ih, a mystical figure who dwells in a desert cave that he refers to as a "tavern" because friends gathered there get drunk on the joy of communing with like-minded spirits. The Sheikh acts as a medium for Mahfouz to distill his Sufi-infused philosophy, a vision of acceptance, tolerance and a constant striving for the spiritual.

"The nearest man comes to his Lord is when he is exercising his freedom correctly," the Sheikh tells his followers. As the end of the book approaches, the entries get smaller and the pronouncements more precise, until they finally take on a Confucian simplicity. "As you love, so will you be," reads one entry called "The Secret." With "Echoes of an Autobiography," Mahfouz has produced a fascinating and thought-provoking meditation on memory, love, spirituality and the eventuality of death. As the Sheikh says of Mahfouz, "O God, bestow upon him a good conclusion, which is love."

By Robert Spillman

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