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Mahfuz, Nagib (Abdel Aziz al-Sabilgi)

MAHFŪZ, Nagīb (Abdel Azīz al-Sabilgi)

Nationality: Egyptian. Born: Naguib Mahfouz, Gamaliya, Cairo, 11 December 1911. Education: The University of Cairo, 1930-34, degree in philosophy 1934, post-graduate study 1935-36. Family: Married Aṫjyya 'Alla' in 1954; two daughters. Career: Secretary, University of Cairo, 1936-38; journalist: staff member, Ar-Risāla, and contributor to Al-Hilāl and Al-Ahrām; civil servant, Ministry of Islamic Affairs, 1939-54; director of censorship, Department of Art; director of Foundation for Support of the Cinema for the State Cinema Organization, 1959-69; consultant for cinema affairs to the Ministry of Culture, 1969-71; retired from civil service, 1971. Member of board, Dār Al-Maāref publishing house. Lives in Cairo. Awards: Egyptian state prize, 1956; National prize for letters, 1970; Collar of the Republic (Egypt), 1972; Nobel prize for literature, 1988. Named to Egyptian Order of Independence and Order of the Republic.

Publications

Short Stories

Hams al-junū n [The Whispers of Madness]. 1939.

Dunya Allah [The World of God]. 1963.

Bayt sayyi' al-sum'a [A House of Ill-Repute]. 1965.

Khammarat al-qiṫṫ al-aswad [The Black Cat Tavern]. 1968.

Taḣt al-miḋhalla [Under the Awning]. 1969.

Ḣ ikāya bi-la bidāya wa-la nihāya [A Story Without Beginning or End]. 1971.

Shahr al-asal [Honeymoon]. 1971.

God's World: An Anthology of Short Stories, edited by AkefAbadir and Roger Allen. 1973.

Al-jarīma [The Crime]. 1973.

Hikā yāt hāratina [Stories of Our District]. 1975.

Modern Egyptian Short Stories, with Yusuf Idris and Sa'd al-Khādim. 1977.

Al-ḣubb fawqa Haḋabat al-Haram [Love on Pyramid Mount]. 1979.

Al-shayṫān ya'iḋ [Satan Preaches]. 1979.

Ra'aytu fīma yara al-nā'im [I Have Seen What a Sleeper Sees]. 1982.

Al-tanḋhīm al-sirri [The Secret Organization]. 1984.

Ṡabāh al-ward [Good Morning]. 1987.

Novels

'Abā th al aqdār [The Mockery of Fate]. 1939.

Radubis. 1943.

Kifāḣ Ṫība [Thebes's Struggle]. 1944.

Al-Qāhira al-jadīda [New Cairo]. 1945.

Khān al-Khalīli. 1946.

Zuqā q al-Midaqq. 1947; as Midaq Alley, 1966; revised edition, 1975.

Al-Sarāb [Mirage]. 1948.

Bidāya wa-nihāya. 1949; as The Beginning and the End, 1985.

Al-thulāthiya [The Cairo Trilogy]:

Bayn al-Qasrayn. 1956; as Palace Walk, 1990.

Qasr al-shawq. 1957; as Palace of Desire, 1991.

Al-sukkariya. 1957; translated as Sugar Street, 1992.

Al-liṡ wa-l-kilāb. 1961; revised edition, as The Thief and the Dogs, 1984.

Al-sammān wa-l-kharīf. 1962; as Autumn Quail, 1985.

Al-Ṫarīq [The Way]. 1964; as The Search, 1987.

Al-shaḣḣaż. 1965; as The Beggar, 1986.

Tharthara fawq al-Nīl [Chit-Chat on the Nile]. 1966.

Awlād hāratina. 1967; as Children of Gebelawi, 1981.

Miramār. 1967; translated as Miramar, 1978.

Al-marāya. 1972; as Mirrors, 1977.

Al-ḣubb taḣta al-maṫar [Love in the Rain]. 1973.

Al-karnak [Karnak]. 1974; translated as Al-karnak, in Three Contemporary Egyptian Novels, edited by Saad El-Gabalawy, 1979.

Ḣikāyāt ḣāratina. 1975; as Fountain and Tomb, 1988.

Qalb al-layl [In the Heart of the Night]. 1975.

Ḣaḋrat al-muḣtaram. 1975; as Respected Sir, 1986.

Malḣamat al ḣarāfīsh. 1977.

'Asr al-ḣubb [Age of Love]. 1980.

Layāli alf laylah [A Thousand and One Nights]. 1981.

Afrāḣ al-qubbah. 1981; as Wedding Song, revised and edited by Mursi Saad El Dīn and John Rodenbeck, 1984.

Bāqi min al-zaman sā'ah [One Hour Left]. 1982.

Amāma al'arsh [In Front of the Throne]. 1982.

Riḣlat Ibn Faṫṫūmah. 1983; as The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, 1992.

Al-ā'ish fī al-ḣaqī qah [Living with the Truth]. 1985.

Yawm qutila al-za'īm. 1985; as The Day the Leader Was Killed, 1989.

Ḣadīth al ṡabāh wa-al-masā' [Morning and Evening Talk]. 1987.

Qushtumor. 1989.

Play

One-Act Plays. 1989

Other

Maḣfuz-yatażakkar [Mahfouz Remembers], edited by Gamal al-Gaytani. 1980.

*

Critical Studies:

The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Mahfuz's Novels by Sasson Somekh, 1973; "Mahfuz's Short Stories" by Hamdī Sakkout, in Studies in Modern Arabic Literature, edited by R. C. Ostle, 1975; "Reality, Allegory and Myth in the Work of Mahfuz" by Mehahern Milson, in African and Asian Studies, 11, 1976; "Mahfuz's Al-karnak: The Quiet Conscience of Nassir's Egypt Revealed" by T. Le Gassick, in Middle Eastern Journal, 31(3), 1977; Religion, My Own: The Literary Works of Mahfuz by Matityahu Peled, 1983; Critical Perspectives on Mahfū z edited by Trevor Le Gassick, 1989; Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Maher Shafiq Farid, 1989; Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris by Mona N. Mikhail, 1992; "The Magic Everyday World in The Delusive Dawn: Short Stories by Nagib Mahfuz by Barbara Michalak, in Folia Orientalia, 1994, pp. 113-17.

* * *

Though generally recognized as a writer of novels, Nagīb Mahfūz made his literary debut in 1934 with the publication of a short story and has returned to this genre sporadically throughout his lengthy career. Most of his short stories, however, cluster into two distinct periods of political crisis: when he started to write in the 1930s, and from 1967 to 1971, in the wake of Egypt's defeat by Israel.

The stories of his first collection, Hams al-junū n (The Whispers of Madness), show raw, unsophisticated attempts at presenting Egyptian social reality. Here, against a background in which rapacious middle-class Egyptians were seeking to accommodate British imperialism and betraying their Revolution of 1919, Mahfūz treats a variety of themes, notably poverty, marital infidelity, and outmoded social conventions—and their deleterious effects on tormented people. These initial stories demonstrated a propensity to sermonizing and moralistic platitudes and a lack of conciseness and art.

In subsequent collections, however, Mahfūz achieves a sophistication of theme and a mastery of the genre, especially in terms of economy of expression. Many of these works explore the daily lives of Egyptian civil servants, which Mahfūz, himself a civil servant, knew intimately. Through these characters and many others from various strata of society, he comments on the basically tragic nature of the human condition, due most often to poverty but sometimes to wealth, and the ultimate insignificance of humans as they struggle against forces greater than they. Many of these stories reveal symbolic, metaphorical, and metaphysical meanings, often mixing dreams and visions with reality, the distinction between the two frequently left undefined.

In "Zaabalawi" the first-person narrator is ill with an undis-closed disease and searches out a local mystic, Zaabalawi, from whom he expects a cure. In his lengthy search for the peripatetic mystic the narrator meets a sheikh, a musician, and a drunkard. Because the latter has had the most recent experience with the mystic but will not disclose anything unless the narrator gets drunk with him, the narrator reluctantly does so. Coming out of his stupor, during which he has an ineffable experience of sorts, he learns that Zaabalawi had visited the cafe while he was passed out. The narrator hastily returns to his search. This story has overtones of an ongoing quest for the divine, here the elusive mystic Zaabalawi. Wine, forbidden in Islam, functions in this story as it does traditionally in Islamic mysticism: an immediate means to transcendence, even though drinking it breaks the formal rules of the religion.

Much-anthologized in the West, "The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish," one of Mahfūz's many works with a child as the protagonist, features an unnamed boy who is sent off with a dish and money to buy cooked beans. He must return home twice to learn which kind to purchase. A conjurer, demanding payment for the performance the lad stops to watch, steals the dish. The boy then spends the bean money on a children's peep show about chivalry, love, and daring deeds, during which he stands next to a girl towards whom he has "new, strange and obscure" feelings. After the performance they go for a walk, then kiss. He returns home a third time, takes money from his savings and another dish, and goes to buy beans, only to learn that they are sold out. Angered, he throws the dish at the bean seller and runs off to the place where he kissed the girl. There he watches a tramp and a gypsy woman make love, after which they argue about money and the tramp chokes the woman to death. Horrified, the youth runs off but finds that he is lost. He prays for a miracle to save him from the "mysterious darkness" that is about to descend. A story about growing up and taking responsibilities for one's actions in the unpredictable adult world motivated by greed and brutality, it is also a tale of the awakening to love in both its ecstatic and destructive forms.

One of Mahfūz's notable political stories is "The Time and the Place," about a law student living in an old home who has a vision in which he and another unknown person bury a box under the palm tree in the courtyard. The law student is told to wait a year before digging the box up, which he does. It contains a note instructing him to go to a religious master in another part of the city for a secret password. There he encounters security agents, who treat him as a criminal. Unable to make sense out of their charges, he refuses to believe that his earlier vision was false and laughs nervously while everyone else remains silent. In this story Mahfūz succeeds in combining the fairy-tale ambience of the 1001 Nights with modern-day, Kafkaesque overtones of disillusionment, political repression, and psychological intimidation.

One of the most notable features of Mahfūz's novels is his virtuosic treatment of time, which is sometimes found in his short stories as well. In "Half a Day" a diffident boy is taken to his first day of school by his father, who promises to meet him afterwards to take him home. Initially afraid, the child gradually enjoys school, where he is fascinated by his many new experiences. His father does not show up at the end of the school day, so the youngster decides to make his own way home. He is astounded how the neighborhood has changed in just a few hours. As he is about to cross a busy street, a young boy comes up to him and says: "Grandpa, let me take you across." An emotional and technical tour de force, the four-page story telescopes nearly an entire lifetime into a single half day.

Many of the themes Mahfūz explores in depth in his novels are treated in miniature in his short stories. On this smaller canvas these themes are reduced to their essence, which, in turn, produces an immediacy of impact that is unattainable in the novel.

—Carlo Coppola

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