Mahfuz, NajIb (Naguib Mahfouz) (10 December 1911 - 30 August 2006)

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NajĪb Mahfūz (Naguib Mahfouz) (10 December 1911 - 30 August 2006)

Roger Allen
University of Pennsylvania




1988 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1988

Mahfūz: Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1988

This entry was expanded by Allen from his Mahfūz entry in DLB Yearbook: 1988.

BOOKS: Hams al-Junūn (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1939);

‘Abath al-Aqdār (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1939); translated by Raymond Stock as Khufu’s Wisdom (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2003);

Radūbīs (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1943); translated by Anthony Calderbank as Rhadopis of Nubia (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2003);

Kifāh Tība (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1944); translated by Humphrey T. Davies as Thebes at war (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2003);

Al-Qāhira al Jadīda (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, circa 1945);

Khān al-Khalīlī (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, circa 1946);

Zuqāq al-Midaqq (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1947); translated by Trevor Le Gassick as Midaq Alley (Beirut: Khayat, 1966; Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1966; corrected edition, London: Heinemann Educational, 1975; Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1989);

Al-Sarāb (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, circa 1948);

Bidāya wa-Nihāya (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, circa 1949); translated by Ramses Awad as The Beginning and the End (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1985);

Bayn al-Qasrayn (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1956); translated by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny as Palace walk (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989; New York: Doubleday, 1990);

Qasr al-Shawq (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1957); translation by Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, and Olive E. Kenny as Palace of Desire (New York: Doubleday, 1991);

Al-Sukkariyya (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1957); translated by Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan as Sugar Street (New York: Doubleday, 1992);

Al Liss wa-al-Kilāb (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1961); translated by Le Gassick and Mustafa Badawi as The Thief and the Dogs (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1984);

Al-Summān wa-al-Kharīf (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1962); translated by Roger Allen as Autumn Quail (Cairo American University in Cairo Press, 1985);

Dunyā Allāh (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1962);

Al-Tarīq (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1964); translated by Mohamed Islam as The Search (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1987);

Bayt Sayyi’ al-Sum‘a (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1965);

Al-Shahhādh (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1965); translated by Kristin Walker Henry as The Beggar (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1986);

Tharthara Fawq al-Nīl (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1966); translated by Frances Liardet as Adrift on the Nile (New York: Doubleday, 1993; Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1993);

Awlād Hāratinā, abridged version (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1967); translated by Philip Stewart as Children of Gebelawi (London: Heinemann / Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1981); translation revised as Children of Gebelaawi (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1990; expanded, Pueblo, Colo.: Passeggiata Press, 1997);

Mīr āmār (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1967); translated by Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud, edited by Maged el Kommos and John Rodenbeck (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1978; London: Heinemann, 1978; augmented, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1990);

Khamārat al-Qitt al-Aswad (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1969);

Tahta al-Mizalla (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1969);

Hikāya bi-lā Bidāya wa-lā-Nihāya (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1971);

Shahr al-‘Asal (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1971);

Al-Marāyā (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1972); translated by Allen as Mirrors (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1977);

Al-Hubb Tahta al Matar (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1973);

Al-Jarīma (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1973);

Al-Karnak (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1974); translated by Saad al-Gabalawy in Three Contemporary Egyptian Novels, edited by al-Gabalawy (Fredericton, New Brunswick: York Press, 1984);

Hikāyāt Haratinā (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1975); translated by Soad Sobhy, Essam Fattouh, and James Kenneson as Fountain and Tomb (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1988);

Qalb al-Layl (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1975);

Hadrat al-Muhtaram (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1975); translated by Rasheed El-Enany as Respected Sir (London: Quartet Books, 1986);

Malhamat al-Harāfīsh (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1977); translated by Catherine Cobham as The Harafish (New York: Doubleday, 1994);

Al-Hubb Fawqa Hadbat al-Haram (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1979);

Al-Shaytān ya ‘iz (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1979);

‘Asr al-Hubb (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1980);

Afrāh al-Qubba (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1981); translated by Olive E. Kenny as Wedding Song (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1984);

Layālī Alf Layla (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1982); translated by Denys Johnson-Davies as Arabian Nights and Days (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995);

Ra’aytu fī-mā yarā al-Nā’im (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1982);

Al-Bāqī min al-Zaman Sā’a (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1982);

Amām al-’Arsh (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1983);

Rihlat ibn Fatīma (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1983); translated by Johnson-Davies as The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1992);

Al-Tanzīm al-Sirrī (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1984);

Al-’A’sh fī al-Hagīga (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1985); translated by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo as Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998);

Yawm Qutila al-Za ‘īm (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1985); translated by Malak Hashem as The Day the Leader was Killed (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organi zation, 1989);

Hadīth al-Sabāh wa-al-Masā’ (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1987);

Sabāh al-Ward (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1987);

Qushtumur (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1988);

Ahl al-Hawā: Majmu ’at qisas akhtaraha bi-nafsih ‘aqba fawzih bi-Nubal (Cairo: Dār a1-Hilāl, 1988);

Al-Fair al-Kādhib (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1989);

Asdā’ al-Sīrah al Dhātiyah (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1995); translated by Johnson-Davies as Echoes of an Autobiography (Cairo: American University in CairoPress, 1997; New York & London: Doubleday, 1997);

Hawla al-‘Arad wa-al-‘Urūbah, edited by Fathi al-’Ashri (Cairo: Dar al-Misriyah al-Lubnāniyah, 1996);

Hawla al-tadayyun wa-al-tatarruf, edited by al-‘Ashri (Cairo: Dar al-Misriyah al-Lubnániyah, 1996);

Hawla al-‘adl wa-al-‘adālah, edited by al-‘Ashri (Cairo: Dar al-Misriyah al-Lubnāniyah, 1996);

Hawla al-taharrur wa-al-taqaddum, edited by al-‘Ashri (Cairo: Dar al-Misriyah al-Lubnāniyah, 1996);

Hawla al-‘im zoa-al-‘amal, edited by al-‘Ashri (Cairo: Daral-Misriyah al-Lubnāniyah, 1996);

Al-Qarar al-Akhīr (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1996);

Najīb Mahfūz: Safahāt min mudhakkirātihi zoa-adzoā jadīdah ‘alā adabihi wa-hayātih (Cairo: Markaz al-Ahrám lilTarjamah wa-al-Nashr, 1998);

Futūwat al- ‘Utūf (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 2001);

Asātidhati, edited by Ibrahim ‘Abd al-’Aziz (Cairo: Mint lil-Nashr wa-al-Ma‘lūmát, 2002);

Hawla al-adab wa-al falsafah (Cairo: Dar al-Misriyah al Lubnāniyah, 2003);

The Dreams, translated by Stock (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2004); original Arabic published as Asdām fatrat al-nagāhah (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2005).

Editions in English: God’s World, translated by Akef Abadir and Roger Allen (Minneapolis: Bibiiotheca Islamica, 1973);

Naguib Mahfouz, One-Act Plays, translated by Nehad Selaiha (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989);

The Time and the Place and Other Stories, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies (New York: Doubleday, 1991);

Children of the Alley, translated by Peter Theroux (New York: Doubleday, 1996);

The Cairo Tiloy, translated by William M. Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, Olive E. Kenny, and Angele Botros Samaan (New York: Knopf, 2001)–com prises Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street;

Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales, translated by Raymond Stock (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002);

The Seventh Heaven: Stories of the Supernatural, translated by Stock (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2005).

TRANSLATION: James Baikie, Misr al-qadīma (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1932).

Najīb Mahfūz (sometimes transliterated as Naguib Mahfouz) was the Egyptian writer who brought the genre of the novel to a state of genuine maturity in the Arab world. With an educational background in philosophy, an intimate knowledge of the major cities of his homeland, a ready wit, and a carefully developed craft, he devoted himself to providing readers of fiction with a succession of novels and short stories that reflect the concerns and aspirations of the Egyptian people and, through them, of the emerging nations of the Arab region in general. If the vicissitudes of politics, both international and regional, occasionally brought with them campaigns of orchestrated opprobrium against Mahfūz and his writings, they were quite incapable of diminishing either the nature of his literary achievement or the regard in which he has been held by students of Arabic fiction throughout the world. In this regard he was the great pioneer. He took risks, both literary and political; he worked with a concentration and consistency that no other Arab writer of fiction could match. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Mahfūz in 1988 recognized his single-minded dedication to the fostering and expansion of a tradition of modern fiction in Arabic. In rewarding him, the Nobel Committee also to a certain extent acknowledged modern Arabic literature in general. However, the award also brought with it consequences: in the context of the infamous fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses (1988) that same year, an Egyptian popular preacher issued a death sentence against Mahfūz for his controversial novel Awlād Hāratinā (Children of Our Quarter; translated as Children of Gebelawi, 1981, and as Children of the Alley, 1996), which had first appeared in a newspaper in 1959. On 13 October 1994, the anniversary of the announcement of his Nobel award, Mahfūz was stabbed in the neck outside his apartment in Cairo by a religious fanatic. He recovered, but thereafter his published writings were for the most part actually dictations.

Within the context of his native Egypt, Mahfūz was a superb illustration of Lionel Trilling’s phrase concerning the novel, that it is “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination.” He set out to describe the urban Egyptian society in which he himself grew up and lived and to reflect the many crises and concerns that characterized the era of massive social upheaval and change contemporaneous with his own writing career. Political freedom, religious and humanistic values, oppression and injustice, routine and alienation, and the search for consolation from the pressures of life were the recurring themes in his works, whether in the form of novels or short stories (and, more rarely, short plays).

Najīb Abdel Aziz Al-Sabilgi Mahfūz was born on 10 December 1911 (an event registered officially on the following day, which is why most sources give his birth date as 11 December) in Gamaliya, one of the older quarters of Cairo, near the famous mosque of Al- Husayn. His parents were Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, a merchant, and Fatma Mostapha Mahfūz. His siblings were all many years older than he, and so he grew up as essentially the only child in the house. The narrator of Al-Marāyā (1972; translated as Mirrors, 1977) describes a childhood similar to that of Mahfūz himself: the family’s move from the Husayn quarter to the more suburban ‘Abbāsiyya neighborhood, school days, and then a university degree in philosophy. Mahfūz earned his degree from the University of Cairo in 1934 and did postgraduate work in philosophy for the next two years. He acknowledges that during this period he was greatly influenced by the writings of prominent Egyptian authors such as Tāhā Husayn, ‘Abbās Mahmūd al ‘Aqqād, Tawf iq al-Hakim, Yahyā Haggi, and Mahmūd Taymūr. Mahfūz began writing short stories while he was a university student, and he was much encouraged in this endeavor by Sala Mūsā, a Coptic socialist intellectual and editor of the magazine Al-Majalla al- Jadīda. Many, but not all, of these stories were assembled in the 1939 collection Hams al-Junon (Whisper of Madness). However, Mahfūz’s first published book was actually a translation of a 1912 English history of ancient Egypt by James Baikie under the title Misr al qadīlma (1932, Ancient Egypt).

It may have been this interest in the earliest history of his homeland that led Mahfūz to plan a whole series of novels set in that period. However, such were the political and social circumstances of Egypt during World War II, when the European powers considered all agreements made with the nations of the Arab world before and during World War I to be essentially on hold, that Mahfūz turned his attention to the present state of Egypt and Egyptians. In the period between 1944 and the Egyptian revolution of 1952, Mahfūz laid the foundations for a social-realist fiction in Arabic that provided novel-writers in the postrevolutionary 1950s and 1960s with ready models for the genre. Beginning with Al-Qāhira al-Jadīda (circa 1945, Modern Cairo) and culminating in the three volumes known collectively as Al-Thulathiyya (Trilogy)—Bayn al-Qasrayn (1956, translated as Palace Walk, 1989), Qāsr al-Shawq (1957, trans lated as Palace of Desire, 1991), and Al-Sukkariyya (1957, translated as Sugar Street, 1992)—Mahfūz created a series of portraits of families and communities from the middle and lower classes of Egyptian society struggling to climb the social ladder and even to survive while the country, domestically and internationally, witnesses a period of struggle and turmoil.

Of this series of novels, Zuqāq al-Midaqq (1947; translated as Midaq [sic] Alley, 1966) is probably the best known. It is set in an alley in the old quarter of Cairo where Mahfūz spent his earliest years. The novel presents an unforgettable portrait of the inhabitants of the alley, male and female, as they struggle against the odds of poverty, tradition, and foreign occupation.

Mahfūz was an extremely private and humble person. On 27 September 1954 he married ‘Inayat Allah; the couple had two daughters. Pictures taken in the wake of the Nobel Prize award show clearly that the family is a close-knit one. Mahfūz lived in a relatively small apartment in ’Aguza, a suburb on the West Bank of the Nile. From 1939 to 1971 he held various positions in the Egyptian civil service while maintaining his literary career.

Throughout Mahfūz’s works his intense love for his homeland is obvious. In spite of his wide repute in the Arab World, he never traveled outside his homeland (apart from short official visits to Yugoslavia and Yemen). When he used to travel, it was to his beloved Alexandria (depicted in detail in some of his novels), where he used to spend the summer months. There, as in Cairo, he maintained a clearly defined schedule. In his writing, as in his civil-service career, he always was a meticulous planner. Such a methodology was also forced on him to some degree not only by the conflicting demands of a bureaucratic position but also by an eye condition that made it difficult for him to function in bright light. He preferred to write at certain hours of the day when the sunlight was not at its strongest. This condition also explains the darkened lenses of his spectacles, which are a hallmark of pictures and cartoons of him.

It was the publication of Al-Thulathiyya in 1956 and 1957 that brought Mahfūz to the attention of a broad reading public in the Arab World. This huge work of more than 1,500 pages traces the dramatic changes in Egyptian life in the period between the two World Wars as seen through the life and trials of the ‘Abd a1-Jawwād family. Each of the three novels is set in a different quarter of the city, which gives the volume its title. Bayn al-Qasrayn begins shortly before the end of World War I and introduces the reader to the members of the family. The father emerges as a complex and somewhat tyrannical personality, willing to confine his wife to the home while he philanders with a woman of low virtue. At the conclusion of the first volume, the eldest son of the family is killed in the popular revolt that broke out in Egypt in 1919. This event brings to the fore the second son, Kamāl. In Qāsr al-Shawq, Kamāl goes to Teachers’ College, where he is introduced to Darwinism and other aspects of the modern scientific approach. There is a bitter clash with his father over the question of traditional beliefs and modern education. By the third volume, Al Sukkariyya, secular university education is available for members of the younger generation, and indeed the two sexes mingle freely within that context (a theme also referred to later in Al-Marāyā). Two grandsons of the family reflect some of the divisions within the society at large that surfaced again in the wake of the 1952 revolution. One grandson joins the Muslim Brethren, a funda mentalist religious group, while the other becomes a member of the Communist Party. As the work concludes, both are in prison, a more than apt reflection of the political and social divisions that culminated in the Egyptian revolution itself.

It is impossible to do justice in a brief summarization to the detailed and intricate narrative web that Mahfūz creates in this work. He apparently spent some five years researching the topic and in the process of writing. When the volumes were published in the early years of the revolution, the Egyptian people saw, probably for the first time in a work of Arabic fiction, a minutely detailed reflection of their recent political and social life, authentic not only in its portrayal of place and time but also in its reflection of trends and attitudes as reflected in the various members and generations of the ’Abd al Jawwād family. And, since the 1950s was a period of revolutions and processes of political and social change in other Arab countries as well, it is hardly surprising that Al-Thulathiyya was read throughout the Arab World and acknowledged as a masterpiece of Arabic fiction. Following its publication, the award of the Egyptian State Prize for Literature to Mahfūz in 1957 gave a tremendous boost to his reputation, and he has been regarded as the doyen of Arabic fiction since then.

The writing of Al-Thulathiyya had actually been completed in April 1952, but following the Egyptian revolution that year, Mahfūz did not publish any fiction for several years. Many critics have attributed this “silence” to a sense of unfamiliarity with the new political and societal situation resulting from such a profound change. While that may be at least partially the case, it is important to note that, until his retirement in 1971, Mahfūz combined a writing career with the demands of a position within the Ministry of Culture; in a somewhat curious twist, he served as a censor of cinema scripts. In fact, the years from 1952 until 1959 were particularly full of activity involving the composition of scenarios for the burgeoning Egyptian motion-picture industry. When he did resume the writing of fiction, it was with a work, Awlād Hāratinā, that immediately became the subject of considerable notoriety when it was first published in the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahrām in 1959. Tracing mankind’s religious heritage and the frequent recourse of violence, the novel strongly suggests that science has superseded religion.

In allegorical form, Mahfūz traces the history of mankind through five chapters, each one named after a leader who endeavors to create a community of values and to curb a proclivity to violence. The entire quarter where they live is “overseen” by a warden named Gebelawi, who lives in a mansion outside the quarter. Proceeding through the events in the time of Adham (Adam), Jabal (Moses), Rifā‘a (Jesus), and Qdsim (Muhammad), the tale reaches the era of ‘Arafa (Science). As if readers of these episodes were not already aware of the implications of what Mahfūz was doing and saying in this work, ‘Arafa goes to Gebelawi’s house and kills him. The work appeared in Al-Ahrām in spite of rigorous protests, but Mahfūz afterward agreed that it would not be published in book form in Cairo. It was published in book form in Lebanon in 1967 and is still banned in Egypt and several other Arab nations.

If Awlād Hāratinā gave the impression that Mahfūz might be shifting away from some of the more traditional dictates of “realistic” fiction, that impression was confirmed by his next work, Al-Liss wa-al-Kilāb (1961; translated as The Thief and the Dogs, 1984), arguably his greatest work. The idea for the plot of this novel seems to have come from an actual series of events that occupied the newspaper columns for several weeks. Sa‘id Mahran, the main character, emerges from prison bent on vengeance upon his wife and her lover. By mistake he kills the wrong man and is hunted down by the police. In the process he becomes something of a popular hero, until he is finally captured. Mahfūz, with his usual skill, manages to incorporate within the framework of the narrative far more than a mere cops-and-robbers adventure. There are several interesting characters: the aged mystic sheikh who had been a good friend of Sa‘id’s father and whose comments provide a telling religious commentary on the events of the novel and, by implication, on what lies behind them; the prostitute, Nur, who provides Sa‘id with his only refuge in his hour of greatest need and whose home looks out on the cemetery; and Ra’ūf ‘Ilwan, the prominent journalist and former helper of Sa‘id whose sudden rise to wealth and prominence stimulates Sa‘id’s wrath against society and those who have tricked him. The theme of exploitation and opportunism implicit in Mahfūz’s portrayal of Ra’ūf ‘Ilwan recurs in several of the novels he wrote in the 1960s. A noteworthy feature of Al-Liss wa al-Kilāb (and other novels that followed it) is an extreme economy in the depiction of place, at least by contrast with Al-Thulathiyya, and a copious use of symbolism to convey atmosphere. Within such an environment there is a greater focus on the psychology of the principal character, a process that involves an increased use of interior monologue.

Al-Liss wa-al-Kilāb appeared during the beginning of an unhappy period in modern Egyptian history: in 1961 Syria seceded from the United Arab Republic, and a series of draconian laws regarding personal rights and freedoms were introduced. Mahfūz’s novel caught the uncertain mood of the times with both accuracy and artistry. Because it demonstrates his control of all the narrative techniques at the modern novelist’s disposal, this book clearly ranks among his most distinguished contributions.

In the 1960s Mahfūz published a series of novels in which he portrays attitudes to the Egyptian revolution in what emerges as a crescendo of disillusion and dissatisfaction. A group of individuals within Egyptian society are shown to be lost, alienated, and often oppressed personally and politically. These feelings are expressed through a minimal sketching of background and a close penetration into the consciousness of the character which make use of all the narrative techniques available to modern novelists, and most particularly the interior monologue and stream of consciousness. In Al-Summān wa-al-Kharīf (1962; translated as Autumn Quail, 1985) the character in question is a former civil servant fired for corruption whose rejectionist attitudes to new political and social realities are finally jolted by the Tripartite (British, French, and Israeli) Invasion of his homeland in 1956.

The narrative techniques so evident in Al-Liss wa-al Kilāb are employed to equal effect in Tharthara Fawq al-Nīl (1966, Chatter on the Nile; translated as Adrjft on the Nile, 1993). Readers are introduced to a particular microcosm of Egypt: a group of members of the cultural and intellectual elite who meet regularly on a houseboat. These men and women have given up all hope of working within the system. As a means of expressing their sense of alienation and in search of consolation, they resort to the houseboat of Anīs Zakī, an indolent civil servant given to druginduced reveries and excursions into ancient history. Under the tutelage of Anīs’s servant, an apparently timeless individual named ‘Abduh who serves not only as imam at the local mosque but also as procurer for the group, they meet to talk about contemporary issues, to smoke hashish, and to engage in sex. Even the arrival of a new participant, Sammāra Bahjat, a woman journalist who announces her intention of embarking on a study of the group, fails to stir them from their apathy. She, too, is co-opted to the group. When they are all involved in a fatal traffic accident, it appears that Anīs Zakī has at last been shaken into action and a sense of responsibility; but, as ‘Abduh brings him a cup of “laced” coffee, the final conversation between Sammdrā and Anīs is once again a model of failed communication.

The sense of disillusion in this novel is almost complete. Indeed, such was official anger at its negativity that Mahfūz narrowly escaped being imprisoned; it was the then Minister of Culture, Tharwat ‘Ukāsha, who pointed out that it was a work of fiction. Bringing a large cast of characters together into a restricted space full of personal tensions, Mahfūz manages to create a fictional world that, together with the work that followed it, M rāmār (1967; translated, 1978), is a disarmingly accurate mirror of attitudes among Egyptian intellectuals immediately before the June War (or Six-Day War) between Arabs and Israelis in 1967, known in Arabic as al-naksa (the setback). In Mīrāmār, the suicide of Sirhān, the rising star in the Arab Socialist Union, points up the corruption and atmosphere of terror that characterized this era in modern Egyptian political life, one that was brought to an abrupt end by the June war. While the two novels differ in both setting and narrative technique, each can reveal to the careful analyst Mahfūz’s anxieties about the course of development of the socialist revolution in his country, feelings that soon became more explicit.

Arab authors reacted to the June war in a variety of ways, including anger, silence, and exile. Mahfūz chose to express himself in a series of short stories that made their way into collections published in 1969 and 1971. These stories were extremely symbolic and often cyclical in nature. All of them reflect the sense of questioning, challenge, and recrimination that were so characteristic of this period.

The short story “Tahta al-Mazalla” (Under the Shelter), first published in Al Ahrām in 1967, was one of a set of shorter works composed in the wake of the June war. This surreal tale depicts a group of people waiting in a bus shelter in the pouring rain. They watch in amazement as a whole series of illogical and inexplicable events take place: an insane car chase, people dancing naked and making love in the middle of the street, another group apparently making a movie with a strange character serving as director—or is he? The group under the shelter keep wondering, asking each other what is going on and who is in charge. But their sense of initiative stops there; no one goes beyond asking questions to the process of actually finding out. Eventually, a policeman comes over and asks for their identity cards; why, he wonders, are they holding a meeting? When they fail to respond, he shoots them all dead. Such apparently is the penalty for those who prefer merely to “stand and stare.”

This highly symbolic and often cryptic mode of story writing was used by Mahfūz in many similar works, some of considerable length, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the death of President Gamāl ’Abd al-Nāsir (Nasser) in 1970, many aspects of Egyptian society underwent considerable change during the presidency of Anwar al-Sādāt. The events of 1967 were also topics for debate and discussion for many years. Along with them came a reconsideration of the events of ’Abd al-Nāsir’s period in power and a fair amount of recrimination, both socially and politically. Al-Marāyā, along with Al-Hubb Thta al-Matar (1973, Love in the Rain), with its concern with the “phony war” at the Suez Canal preceding the 1973 conflict, and Al-Karnak (1974; translated, 1984), with its frank treatment of secret police violence, were all part of Mahfūz’s contribution to these debates.

In Al-Marāyā, the narrator surveys through a retrospect on his own life and career the recent history of Egypt and its people in all walks of life. Many of the subjects of these vignettes comment with extreme frankness about politics, including the Egyptian revolution itself, international relations, and the continuing dilemma regarding the fate of the Palestinian people in their struggle with Israel. Mahfūz continued his retrospective mode in an even more direct manner in another of his most notorious works (made into a highly successful and exploitative movie in 1975), Al-Karnak, in which the major topic is the brutal way in which the secret police suppressed political debate during the dark days of the 1960s.

During this phase of his career (the early 1970s), Mahfūz was not shy about expressing his extreme disquiet over the ever-widening economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in his homeland. At one point, his views on the subject prompted the regime to remove Mahfūz from the rolls of the Writers’ Union, thus officially preventing him from publication. Al-Hakim, the world famous Egyptian dramatist; Yūsuf Idris, one of the best short-story writers in the Arab World; and Louis ‘Awad, the literary critic, were dealt with in the same way; the order, however, was rescinded shortly afterward.

Mahfūz’s social-realist works of the 1940s and 1950s had demanded a descriptive style that was both evocative and precise. In later novels he resorted to a greater use of symbolism, something that may be seen as not only an artistic choice but also a means of conveying unpalatable messages in a way that may escape excessive scrutiny from the censors. He moved away from “telling” and toward “showing.” Description became more terse, economical, and symbolic. Dialogue in turn became more prolific, laconic, and colorful. Many of his works from the 1970s and 1980s in particular include a host of “oneliners” that not only reflect Mahfūz’s wit but also display a willingness to lend local color through the incorporation of words from the colloquial dialect into a narrative fabric that is otherwise a model of clear and precise modern Arabic literary style.

Mahfūz continued to publish works that show his abiding interest in the reflection of broad philosophical and sociopolitical issues, all within the context of the Egyptian society that he knew and described with such sympathy and accuracy. Thus, Hadrat al-Muhtaram (1975; translated as Respected Sir, 1986) traces the cynical rise to authority of a civil servant whose whole life is spent on that very quest. Afrāh al-Qubba (1981, Al-Qubba Celebrations; translated as Wedding Song, 1984) deals with the graft and corruption of the cinema industry through a multinarrator technique encountered (with greater sophistication) in the earlier Mīrāmār.

During the 1970s and 1980s many of Mahfūz’s fictional works concentrated on issues particular to Egypt. Indeed, in the wake of the Camp David accords with Israel and Mahfūz’s guarded support of the direction in which they appeared to lead, some government officials and critics in other Arab World countries initiated or advocated a ban on his works. However, such gestures seemed too readily prepared to ignore the major contribution that Mahfūz had made to the entire tradition of modern Arabic fiction, and thus they did not engender wide support. Furthermore, such has been and remains the amorphous and generally chaotic situation regarding the distribution of books throughout the region that any such attempts would have been essentially futile in any case. During these years Mahfūz revived some of his former interests, as in Malhamat al-Harāfīsh (1977, The Epic of the Gutter-Snipes; translated as the Harafīsh, 1994), which offers in more elongated form another saga about generations within a popular quarter and the succession of violence by which some semblance of “order” is maintained, an echo of not only Awlād Hāratinā but also the later Hikāyāt Haratinā (1975, Stories of Our Quarter; translated as Fountain and Tomb, 1988). At the same time, Mahfūz (along with a younger generation of writers who, for the most part, freely acknowledge the enormous debt that they owe to “the master”) participated in the process of taking the novel genre in new directions. Turning away from the more obvious linkages to the various traditions of Western fiction, these writers have begun to look into the great narrative heritage of the pre-modern era in quest of texts, themes, and styles. This trend is most visible in works such as Layāll Alf Layla (1982, translated as Arabian Nights and Days, 1995), which devotes sections to characters from the famous medieval collection Shāhrayār, Qūt al-Qulūb (the beloved slave-girl of Hārūn al-Rashid), the Porter, and Ma‘rūf the Cobbler–and Rihlat ibn Fatūma (1983; translated as The journey of Ibn Fattouma, 1992), which inevitably brings to the mind of an Arabic reader the famous fourteenth-century travel narrative of Ibn Battūta.

Following his retirement from government service Mahfūz used to walk to a favorite café in the center of Cairo every morning, where he perused the newspapers. On Thursdays he walked to the building of the famous Cairo newspaper Al-Ahrām, to which he contributed columns on a wide variety of subjects. This walk and his daily routine in general were, of course, disrupted when he was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. To begin with, he disliked travel and sent his two daughters to collect the prize in Stockholm in December of that year. Beyond that, he found himself bombarded with requests for interviews, television specials, and the like, all of which led to a profound alteration to the lifestyle of this modest man who much preferred the quiet life to one of world fame.

While he ruefully observed that this international spotlight turned his attention away from his preferred mode of expression (that of fiction), one positive consequence of the award was a palpable increase in the publication of his works in translation and their incorporation into completely new media in the Western world: school reading curricula, anthologies of world literature, and biographical dictionaries. The first of his works to appear in English after the award was the “Cairo Trilogy”; it had been unavailable in English previously, but the French translation of the first two volumes had played a major role in bringing his work to the attention of the Nobel Prize Committee. Among the negative results of this major event in Egyptian and Arab cultural life was that the award coincided exactly with the uproar created in the Muslim world by the publication in England of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the subsequent fatwa issued in Iran by Imam Khomeini condemning Rushdie to death. In Egypt it was suggested by certain key figures in popular religious groups that Rushdie would never have written his novel if not for the earlier publication of Mahfūz’s Azolād Hāratinā. One of those figures, ‘Umar ’Abd al-Rahmān, issued a similar fatwa condemning Mahfūz. Even though ’Abd al-Rahmān was jailed and then exiled (later moving to New York and participating in the planning of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center), the sentence on Mahfūz was almost carried out by a knife-wielding assailant in October 1994. If the award of the Nobel Prize had disrupted his routine to a certain extent, the attack did so even more, since he was no longer able to manipulate a pen with his writing hand. And yet, following his recovery, he insisted on maintaining his regular schedule of nightly gatherings with friends and literary figures—every night of the week in a different location. The only exception to this pattern was Saturday, when his longtime friend, the renowned playwright Mohamed Salmawy, used to come to his apartment, converse with him about a wide variety of topics, and then transcribe Mahfūz’s thoughts of the week, which were then published in Al-Ahrām. An English translation of a sampling of these “pensees, “selected by Salmawy, has been published as Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber (2001).

The assassination attempt impacted Mahfūz’s writing career in a major way. In that context, it is interesting to note that a work published in article form in the years immediately before the incident, namely Asdā’ al-Sīrah al-Dhātīyah (translated as Echoes of an Autobiography, 1997), published in book form in 1995, is perhaps the most remarkably different of his many exercises in the writing of fiction (and it is fiction, despite its title). It consists of a series of more than two hundred aphorisms, evocations of the past, and reflections, some of them only a single sentence in length. Indeed, at a midway point in the sequence, a Sufi sheikh named ’Abd Rabbihi al T ’ih (”the servant of his Lord, the wanderer in the wilderness”) appears and utters a whole series of pious statements that are redolent of the collections of such thoughts to be found in the repertoire of pre-modern pietistic literature. This strongly Sufi overlay is blended with nostalgic reminiscences to create a work that, for all its originality, has distinct ties to those earlier works in which Mahfūz has addressed himself through a variety of formats and genres to the dilemma facing the contemporary believer who in this increasingly complex world seeks some kind of reconciliation between the sacred and the secular.

Mahfūz died on 30 August 2006 at the age of ninety-four. In the years preceding his death several of his fictional works appeared in English translation, including the three novels set in the Pharaonic period that were his first essays in novel form (‘Abath al-Agdār, Radūbls, and Kifāh Tība). His own “writing” consisted of shorter pieces that he dictated for publication, including the weekly columns that Salmawy collected. Most recently he had been publishing sets of his own dreams in a Cairo periodical; these pieces appeared in book form under the title Ahlām fatrat al-naqāha (2005, Dreams of Convalescence; published first in English as The Dreams, 2004).

Najīb Mahfūz had developed his narrative craft at a particular point in the history of modern Arabic fiction, poised to reflect in his writings the aspirations and frustrations of the Arab World during one of the most crucial and exciting periods in that troubled region’s modern history. In an outpouring of painstakingly crafted creativity roughly coterminous with the second half of the twentieth century, he reflected on the segment of the society that he knew best: the Egyptian bureaucratic middle class, in its encounter with crushing forces, both internal and external. He insisted on acquainting himself with fictional trends throughout the world and on adjusting his own techniques accordingly. He addressed himself, often at some personal risk, to the controversies of the day and to many larger philosophical questions that beset modern man. Mahfūz did indeed earn the title of the first genuine master of the modern Arabic novel. Political maneuvering aside, that is a verdict on which Arab and Western scholars are overwhelmingly in accord.


Mohamed Salmawy, Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflecting of a Nobel Laureate, 1994–2001 (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001).


Naguib Mahfouz in the Mirror: Bibliography about the Nobel Prize Laureate (Cairo: National Library and Archives Press, 2003).


Roger Allen, The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982; revised, 1995);

Allen, Modern Arabic Literature (New York: Ungar, 1987), pp. 192–204;

Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, eds., Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993);

J. Brugman, An Introduction to the History of Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), pp.


M. M. Enani, ed., Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives: A Collection of Critical Essays (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989);

Rasheed El-Enany, Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning (London: Routledge, 1993);

Haim Gordon, Naguib Mahfouz s Egypt: Existential Themes in His writing (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990);

Denys Johnson-Davies, Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature (Cairo & New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2006);

Trevor Le Gassick, ed., Critical Perspectives on Nagjib Mahfouz (Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991);

Menahem Milson, Najīb Mahfouz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998);

Matti Moosa, The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1994);

Moosa, “Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History, “Georgia Review, 49 (Spring 1995): 224–230;

Mattityahu Peled, Religion My Own: The Literary Works of Najīb Mahfuz (New Brunswick, N. J. & London: Transaction Books, 1984);

Sasson Somekh, The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Najīb Mahfuz’s. Novels (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973).