The Swedish Academy of Letters did more than just make history Thursday when it awarded the 1988 Nobel prize for literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

With his selection as the first Arabic-language writer ever to receive this prestigious prize in its 87-year history, the academy also called international attention to a class of literature that is far too neglected by the western world.Yet the Arabic language is one of the world's most widely used, spoken by 120 million people. Even in Israel and elsewhere, Arabic is an important second language. And it has a rich body of literature.

In honoring Mahfouz with the $390,000 cash prize, the academy took pains to note that his writings cover a wide range and speak to all mankind. Within Egypt, he ranks among that country's most popular writers. Yet his realistic, almost Dickensian portrayals of the wretched conditions under which his country's poor live have made his popularity less than unanimous.

Many of his works have been translated into English. Among them are: Midaq Alley, The Beginning and the End, Children of Gebelawi, The Thief and the Dogs, The Search, The Beggar, Miramar, Mirrors, God's World: An Anthology of Short Stories, Respected Sir, and Wedding Song.

These writings give westerners a chance to see the world through different eyes. Read them and you just might develop a taste for other literature from the Middle East - and a broader outlook.