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||Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)|
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 wrote 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?"
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. In his childhood Mahfouz read extensively. His mother often took him to museums and Egyptian history later became a major theme in many of his books.
The 1919 revolution in Egypt had a strong affect on Mahfouz, although he was at the time only seven years old. From the window he often saw English soldiers firing at the demostrators, men and women. "You could say," he later noted, "that the one thing which most shook the security of my childhood was the 1919 revolution." After competing his secondary education, 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 then 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, the Fabian intellectual.
Before turning to the novel, Mahfouz wrote articles and short stories, 80 of which were published in magazines. His first published book was a translation of James Baikie's work on ancient Egypt. Mahfouz's 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 was appointed 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. After marrying Atiyyatallah Ibrahim in 1954, he moved from the family house in al-Abbasiya to an apartment overlooking the Nile in Jiza.
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 The Children of Gebelawi (1959) 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," and Muhammad (Kassem, a businessman), who declares: "To
hell with terror and blood". There is also a magician named Arafa, who
represents knowledge and science.
Notoworthy, 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 (representing God) 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?' "
Having no intention to provoke orthodox Muslims, Gamal
Abdel Nasser, the Egyption president at the time, personally requested
Mahfouz not to publish the work. It was banned throughout the Arab
world, except in
the Lebanon, where it was published, slightly expurgated, in 1967.
Angry sermons were held against the book by the clergy of al-Azhar
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 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. 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'. Before the Nobel Prize only a few of his novels had appeared in the West.
Beginning in the 1960s and continuing in the 1970s, Mahfouz started to construct his novels more freely and use interior monologue. In Miramar (1967) he developed 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. After President Nasser's death in 1970, he 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 with which Mika Waltari dealt in Finland in his historical novel Sinuhe (1945, trans. The Egyptian).
"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", described the development of his country in the 20th-century. He 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. However, Mahfouz himself almost never traveled outside of Egypt, 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) When his comments were taken out of their context and comparisons were made between The 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 1944, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife, and two Egyptian Islamic militants were sentenced to death for attempting to kill him. 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." 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, 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: 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)