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Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)


Egyptian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the first Arabic writer to be so honored. In his work, Naguib Mahfouz described the development of his country in the 20th-century. In spite of millions readers in the Arab world, his books were unavailable in many Middle Eastern countries due to his political and religious views. Mahfouz wrote some 40 novels and short story collections, 30 screenplays, and many plays.

"It was a view that had grown on her over a quarter of a century. She never tired of it. Perhaps boredom was an irrelevant concept for a life as monotonous as hers. The view had been a companion for her in her solitude and a friend in her loneliness during a long period when she was deprived of friends and companions before her children were born, when for most of the day and night she had been the sole occupant of this large house with its two stories of spacious rooms with high ceilings, its dusty courtyard and deep well."
(from Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy 1, translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny, Anchor Books, 2011, pp. 6-7)

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Gamaliya, Cairo. The family lived in two popular districts of the town, in al-Jamaliyyah, from where they moved in 1924 to al-Abbasiya, then a new Cairo suburb; both have provided the backdrop for many of the author's writings. His father, whom Mahfouz described as having been "old-fashioned", was a civil servant, and Mahfouz eventually followed in his footsteps. His mother often took him to museums and Egyptian history later became a major theme in many of his books.

Mahfouz had a happy, normal childhood. Every Friday he used to go to the Olympia Cinema to see adventure films. "I was utterly unlike those children  . . . who rebel against fathers and mothers, or who feel the need to defy their families." ('Mahfuz (Abdel Aziz Al-Sabilgi), Naguib', in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985, p. 478) The 1919 Egyptian Revolution had a strong affect on Mahfouz, although he was at the time only seven years old – it shook the security of his childhood. From the window he witnessed English soldiers firing at the demostrators, men and women.

From an early age, Mahfouz was a voracious reader. During his secondary school years he went through Clarity and Rhetoric by al-Jahiz, The Unique Necklace by Ibd Abd Rabbihi, and other classics of Arabic literature. In 1930 Mahfouz entered the University of Cairo, where he studied philosophy, graduating in 1934. By 1936, having spent a year working on an M.A., he decided to become a professional writer.

Mahfouz worked as a journalist at Ar-Risala, and contributed to Al-Hilal and Al-Ahram. The major Egyptian influence on Mahfouz's thoughts of science and socialism in the 1930s was Salama Musa, a Fabian intellectual.

Before turning to the novel, Mahfouz wrote articles and short stories, 80 of which appeared in magazines. His first published book was a translation of James Baikie's work on ancient Egypt. Mahfouz's first collection of stories came out in 1938. Next year he entered government bureaucracy. From 1939 until 1954, he was a civil servant at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and was then appointed director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema, the State Cinema Organization. He left the post following the furor surrounding Children of Gebelawi (1959). Mahfouz worked then as Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema. 

After marrying Atiyyatallah Ibrahim in 1954, he moved from the family house in al-Abbasiya to an apartment overlooking the Nile in Jiza.  In 1969-71 Mahfouz was a consultant for cinema affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

Most of Mahfouz's early works were set in al-Jamaliyyah. Abath al-Aqdar (1939), Radubis (1943), and Kifah Tibah (1944), were historical novels, 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 volume, Mahfouz shifted his interest to the present, the psychological impact of the social change on ordinary people.

Mahfouz's central work in the 1950s was The Cairo Trilogy, a monumental work of 1,500 pages, 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.

At the time of writing Children of Gebelawi (also know as Children of the Alley) Mahfouz was still an agnostic. This historical roman ŕ clef portrayed the patriarch Gebelaawi and his children and grandsons, average Egyptians living the lives of Moses (Gebel, Gebelawi's grandson and a snake-charmer), Jesus (Rifaa, the son of a carpenter) "an attractive young man, with an air of gentleness and friendliness" (p. 140), and Muhammad (Kassem, a businessman), who declares: "To hell with terror and blood" (p. 279).

According to Mahfouz, Gebelawi represents "a certain idea of God that men have made". ('Translator's Introduction', in Children of Gebelawi, translated by Philip Stewart, Three Continents Press, 1988, p. vii) There is also a magician named Arafa, the voice of knowledge and science. "He said to me one day: You are one of the few who can write. Why not set down the story of the alley? Until now it has been told in any old order and each storyteller twists it his own way." (Ibid, p. 2) Noteworthy, the novel is divided into 114 chapters to match the same number of Surahs in the Qur'an. The first section, which adheres to the Genesis account, is entitled "Adham."

Gebelawi 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. In the preface of the 1996 English translation of the book Mahfouz said: "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?"" (Children of the Alley, translated by Peter Theroux, Anchor Books, 1996, p. 3)

Having no intention to provoke orthodox Muslims, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, personally requested Mahfouz not to publish the novel. Banned throughout the Arab world (angry sermons were held against the book by the clergy of al-Azhar mosque), it was passed from hand to hand in the newspaper version, published in Al-Ahram in installments. Financially, Mahfouz had nothing to worry about. For this particular story he had been paid the largest sum in the history of the Arabic press. At the time of its appearance he was writing the screenplay for Ihna al-talamza (We the Students), starring Omar Sharif and Shukri Sirhan, and the storyline for Bayna al-sama' wa-l-ard (Between Heaven and Earth), a commercial failure. (The Story of the Banned Book: Naguib Mahfouz's Children of the Alley by Mohamed Shoair; translated by Humphrey Davies, AUC Press, 2022, pp. 5-6)  It was not until 1967, when the novel was published in book form, slightly expurgated, by Dar-al-Adab in Beirut.

Until 1959, Mahfousz had supported Nasser, but then turned his back on the president's regime. Nevertheless, Mahfouz acknowledged Nasser's achievement in economic and social development: "Nasser was the fairest to the poor. He gave them so much. What he could not concretely realize, he transformed into a hope – hence people will never forget him, because hope never dies." (Nasser in the Egyptian Imaginary by Omar Khalifah, 2017, p. 106)

In the 1960s, Mahfouz further developed its theme that humanity is moving further away from God. 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 was a contributing editor for the leading newspaper Al-Ahram and in addition, he served as a board member of Dar al Ma'aref publishing house. Many of his novels were serialized in Al-Ahram, and his writings also appeared in his weekly column, 'Point of View'. 

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing in the 1970s, Mahfouz started to construct his novels more freely and use interior monologue. In Miramar, published on the eve of the Six Day War of 1967, he developed a form of multiple first-person narration, similar to that of Rashomon. The novel is set in a pension in Alexandria. In the center of the story is an attractive servant girl, Zahra, a very symbolic figure. Miramar was made into a succesful film by Kamal al-Sheik, starring Shadia (Zahra), Imad Hamdi, Abdel Moneim Ibrahim, Youssef Wahbi, and Youssef Shabaan. It was Kamal al-Sheik's second adaptation of a Mahfouz novel – the first was The Thief and the Dogs

After President Nasser's death in 1970, Mahfouz wrote the novel Al-Karnak (1974, Karnak Café), in which one of the characters says: "Our entire world had gone through the trauma of the June war; now it was emerging from the initial daze of defeat. . . . The general consensus was that we had been living through the biggest lie in our entire lives." (Karnak Café, translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen, 2008, p. 61) In Arabian Nights and Days (1981) and in The Journey of Ibn Fatouma (1983) Mahfouz drew on traditional Arabic narratives as subtexts. Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985) is about conflict between old and new religious truths, a theme which the Finnish writer Mika Waltari had also dealt in his historical novel Sinuhe (1945, trans. The Egyptian) on Akhenaten.

"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)

Before the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mahfouz, some of his works had been translated into Swedish: Midaqq-gränden (Zuqaqu 'l-Midaqq) in 1981 and Sorl över Nilen (T̲art̲ara fāuq an-Nīl) in 1987. Respektable herrn (Hadrāt-ul-muṇtaram) and Miramar (Mīrāmār) came out in the award year of 1988. Mahfouz was not a surprise winner, although no one on the Prize committee could read Arabic. Mahfouz received the news, reported on the afternoon of Thursday, 13 October, in his pajamas – he had just gone for a nap.

Mahfouz combined intellectual and cultural influences from East and West - his own exposure to the literarature of non-Arabic culture began in his youth with the enthusiastic consumption of Western detective stories, Russian classics, and such modernist writers as Proust, Kafka and Joyce. Mahfouz's stories, written in the florid classical Arabic, are almost always set in the heavily populated urban quarters of Cairo, where his characters, mostly ordinary people, try cope with the modernization of society and the temptations of Western values.

Among those people, who brought early translations of his work to the English-speaking readers was Jacqueline Onassis. In Egypt he was widely considered a spokesperson not only for Egypt but also for a number of non-Western cultures. Mahfouz himself almost never traveled outside of Egypt (he had a fear of flying), and sent his daughters to accept the Nobel Prize on his behalf.

Like many Egyptian writers and intellectuals, Mahfouz was on a "death list" by Islamic fundamentalists. He defended Salman Rushdie after the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death. Joining eighty other Arab intellectuals he declared that "no blashphemy harms Islam and the Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer." (The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah and the West by Daniel Pipes, 2003, p. 148) However, he also said that he had not been able to read the book but had "heard that it is not rooted in scientific criticism of Islam, but is insolent in its treatment of these things." (A Mirror For Our Times: 'The Rushdie Affair' and the Future of Multiculturalism by Paul Weller, 2009, p. 17) In 1992, after the writer, thinker and human rights activist Farag Fouda was assassiated, Mahfouz was offered police protection but he turned it down.

When his comments were taken out of their context and comparisons were made between Children of Gebelawi and Rushdie's book, Mahfouz clarified his position in a statement issued in Al-Ahram: "I have condemned Khomeini's fatwa to kill [Salman Rushdie] as a breach of international relations and as an assault on Islam as we know it in the era of apostasy. I believe that the wrong done by Khomeini toward Islam and the Muslims is no less than that done by the author himself. . . . During the debate, I supported the boycott of the book as a means of maintaining social peace on condition that such a decision not be used as a pretext to constrain thought." ('Respected Sir' by Samia Mehrez, in Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, edited by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, 1993, pp. 66-67)

On his way to a café in October 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife. Shortly thereafter, against his wish, Children of Gebelawi was published in an Egyptian newspaper. The special issue immediately sold out. "The issue is diverting attention from a crime against my life to whether this novel is, or is not, against religion,"Mahfouz had said before the publication. (Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds by Margaret Bald, 2006, rev. ed.p. 35) Two Egyptian Islamic militants were sentenced to death for attempting to kill him. 

Mahfouz's texts written after the assassination attempt for a weekly women's magazine were collected in Dreams (2000-2003). "Al Ustaz" (The Professor"), as his friend, the journalist Mohamed Salmawy called him, recorded his dreams on a tape recorder or Mahfouz dictated them to a friend, after which they were sent to the magazine Nisf al-dunya for publication.

In his old age Mahfouz became nearly blind, and he though he continued to write, had difficulties in holding a pen or a pencil – the attempt on his life had left his writing had injured. He also had to abandon his daily habit of meeting his friends at coffeehouses. In his last dream Mahfouz saw himself preparing the table and listening to the voices of his mother, brothers and sisters in the next room, then falling asleep and awakening: "I found the room completely empty, totally silent, and for a minute I was frightened before I gradually remembered that they'd all passed away and that I'd attended their funerals, one after the other." (The Last Station: Naguib Mahfouz Looking Back by Mohamed Salmawy, translated by Andy Smart anD Nadia Fouda.Smart, 2007, p. 6) Mahfouz died in Cairo on August 30, 2006.

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, edited by Rado Pribic (1990); Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt by Hayim Gordon (1990); Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz, edited by Trevor Le Gassick (1991); Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, edited by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar (1993); Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning by Rasheed el-Enany (1993); The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt by Matti Moosa (1994); The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz by Gamal al-Ghitani (2000); 'Meeting Mahfouz' by Milton Viorst, in The Princeton Anthology of Writing: Favorite Pieces by the Ferris/McGraw Writers art Princeton University, edited by John McPhee and Carol Rigolot (2001); Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds by Margaret Bald (2006); 'Introduction,' in The Essential Naguib Mahfouz, edited and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (2011); The Aesthetic of Revolution in the Film and Literature of Naguib Mahfouz (1952-1967) by Nathaniel Greenberg (2014); Artists, Writers and The Arab Spring by Riad Ismat (2019); The Story of the Banned Book: Naguib Mahfouz's Children of the Alley by Mohamed Shoair; translated by Humphrey Davies (2021); Ways of Seeking: The Arabic Novel and the Poetics of Investigation by Emily Drumsta (2024)

Selected works:

  • Abath Al-Aqdar, 1939 - Khufu’s Wisdom (translated by Raymond Stock, 2004)
  • Radubis, 1943 - Rhadopis of Nubia (translated by Anthony Calderbank, 2005)
  • Kifah Tiba, 1944 - Thebes at War (translated by Humphrey Davies, 2004)
  • Khan Al-Khalili, 1944 - Khan Al-Khalili: A Novel (translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen, 2011)
  • Al-Qahirah Al-Jadidah, 1946 - Cairo Modern (translated by William M. Hutchins, 2008)
  • Zuqaq Al-midaqq, 1947 - Midaq Alley (translated by Trevor le Gassick, 1975) - Midaqq-kuja (suom. Pekka Suni, Mustafa Shikeben, 1990) - El Callejón de los milagros / Midaq Alley (1995), directed by Jorge Fons, starring Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Delia Casanova, Salma Hayek, Maria Rojo, Bruno Bichir, Margarita Sanz. Based on Mahfouz's novel but set in Mexico City.
  • Ignis Fatuus, 1948
  • Al-Sarab, 1949 - The Mirage: A Novel (translated from the Arabic by Nancy Roberts, 2011)
  • Bidayah Wa-Nihayah, 1949 - The Beginning and the End (translated by Ramses Hanna Awad, 1985)
  • Al-Thulatiya, 1956-57 (The Cairo Trilogy): Bayn Al-Qasrayn, 1956 (Palace Walk, translated by W. Hutchins and Olive Kenny, 1989);  Qasr Al-Chawq, 1957 (Palace of Desire, translated by W. Hutchins, Lorne Kenny and Olive Kenny, 1991);  Al-Sukkareya, 1957 (Sugar Street, translated by W. Hutchins and Angele Botros Semaan, 1992) - Palatsikatu (suom. Pekka Suni, 1992); Intohimon palatsi (suom. Pekka Suni, 1995); Sokerikuja (suom. Pekka Suni, 1996)
  • Awlad haretna, 1959 - Children of Gebelawi (translated by Philip Stewart, 1981) / Childred of the Alley (translated by Peter Theroux, 1996)
  • El-lis’s wa el-kilab, 1961 - The Thief and the Dogs (translated by Trevor Le Gassic and Mustafa Badawi, 1984)
  • Al-Summan Wa-Al-Kharif, 1962 - Autumn Quail (trans. Roger Allen, 1985)
  • Al-Tariq, 1964 - The Search (translated by Muhammed Islam, 1987)
  • Al-Shahhadh, 1965 - The Beggar (translated by Kristin Walker Henry and Nariman Khales Naili al Warrah, 1986)
  • Tharthara fawq al-Nil, 1966 - Adrift on the Nile (translated by Frances Liardet, 1993)
  • Awlad Haratina, 1967 (serialized in 1959) - Children of Gebelawi (translated by Philip Stewart, 1981) / Children of the Alley (trans. Peter Theroux, 1996)
  • Miramar, 1967 - Miramar (translated by Maged el-Komos and John Rodenbeck, 1978) - Miramar (suom. Pekka Suni, Mustafa Shikeben, 1989)
  • Al Maraya, 1971 - Mirrors (translated by Roger Allen, 1977)
  • Al-Hubb Taht Al-Matar, 1973 - Love in the Rain (translated by Nancy Roberts, 2011)
  • Al-Karnak, 1974 - Three Contemporary Egyptian Novels (translated with a critical introduction by Saad El-Gabalawy) / Karnak Cafe´ (translated by Roger Allen, 2008)
  • Qalb Al-Layl, 1975 - Heart of the Night (translated by Aida A. Bamia, 2011)
  • Hadrat Al-Muhtaram, 1975 - Respected Sir (translated by Rasheed El-Enany)
  • Hikayat haritna, 1975 - Fountain and Tomb (translated by Soad Sobhy, Essam Fattouh, and James Kenneson, 1988)
  • Hadrat al-Muhtaram, 1975 - Respected Sir (translated by Rasheed el-Enany, 1986)
  • Malhamat Al-Harafish, 1977 - The Harafish (translated by Catherine Cobham, 1994)
  • Asr Al-Hubb, 1980
  • Afrah Al-Qubbah, 1981 - Wedding Song (translated by Olive Kenny, 1984)
  • Layali alf layla, 1981 - Arabian Nights and Days (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1995)
  • Al-Baqi Min Al-Zaman Sa'ah, 1982
  • Rihlat Ibn Fattumah, 1983 - The Journey of Ibn Fatouma (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1992)
  • Amam Al’arsh, 1983
  • Al-’A’ish fi-l-haqiqa, 1985 - Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (translated from the Arabic by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo)
  • Yawm Maqtal al-Zaim, 1985 - The Day Leader Was Killed (translated by Malak Hashem, 1989)
  • Hadith Al-Sabah Wa-Al-Masa, 1987 - Morning and Evening Talk: A Novel  (translated from the Arabic by Christina Phillips, 2009)
  • Qushtumur, 1988 -The Coffeehouse (translated by Raymond Stock, 2010)
  • Ḥawla I-Adab wa-I-Falsafa, 1990 - On Art, Literature and History: the Non-fiction Writing of Naguib Mahfouz  (translated by Aran Byrne, 2016-)
  • Thartharah Ala Al-Bahr, 1993
  • Asdaa al-sira al-dhatiyya, 1994 - Echoes from an Autobiography (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 1997)
  • Respecter Sir, Wedding Song, The Search, 2001
  • Ḥawla I-Adab wa-I-Falsafa, 2003 - On Literature and Philosophy (edited and translated by Aran Byrne, 2016)
  • Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha, 2000-2003 - The Dreams (translated by Raymond Stock, 2005)
  • Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales, 2004 (translated by Raymond Stock)
  • The Seventh Heaven: Stories of the Supernatural, 2006 (selected, introduced, and translated from the Arabic by Raymond Stock)
  • Najib Mahfuz: liqa'at wa-hiwarat, 2006
  • Najib Mahfuz: rasa'iluhu bayna falsafat al-wujud wa-drama al-shakhsiyah, 2006
  • Three Novels of Ancient Egypt: Khufu’s Wisdom; Rhadopis of Nubia; Thebes at War, 2007 (translated from the Arabic by Raymond Stock, Anthony Calderbank and Humphrey Davies, with an introduction by Nadine Gordimer)
  • The Wisdom of Naguib Mahfouz: From the Works of the Nobel Laureate, 2011 (edited by Aleya Serour)
  • The Wisdom of Naguib Mahfouz: from the Works of the Nobel Laureate, 22011 (edited by Aleya Serour)
  • The Essential Naguib Mahfouz, 2011 (edited and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies)
  • The Naguib Mahfouz Reader, 2016 (edited by Denys Johnson-Davies; First paperback edition)
  • Essays of the Sadat Era (1974-1981), 2017 (contains On Culture and Education, 1990; On Religion and Democracy, 1990; and On Youth and Freedom, 1990; introduction by Rasheed El-Enany; translated by Aran Byrne and Russell Harris)
  • The Quarter, 2019 (translated from Arabic by Roger Allen)
  • Hams al-nujūm: qiṣaṣ, 2019

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