Mahfouz, Naguib (1911–2006)

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Mahfouz, Naguib

An Egyptian novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, Naguib Mahfouz (Najib Mahfuz) became the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize for achievements in literature in 1988. During the seventy years of his professional career, Mahfouz published 34 novels, more than 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and 5 plays. Mahfouz was the author of the script of several famous movies produced in Egypt, such as Saladdin (1964) and Adrift on the Nile (1971). Mahfouz also pursued a career as a civil servant, holding different positions in the Ministry for Islamic Affairs (1939–1954), working at the State Cinema Organization (1954–1969), and serving as consultant for cinema affairs in the Ministry of Culture (1969–1971) and director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema.


Mahfouz was born into the family of a Muslim civil servant in the Gamaliyya district of Cairo, Egypt, on 11 December 1911. He was the youngest of seven children in the family and was named after the doctor who delivered him, Naguib Pasha Mahfouz, professor of medicine, who is credited as the father of Egyptian obstetrics and gynecology. Mahfouz remembered his father as a conservative civil servant, who prepared his son to follow his footsteps in career. Naguib's mother often took him to museums and this may have had an influence on him as Egyptian history, especially the history of ancient Egypt, became one of the dominant themes in his prose.


Name: Naguib Mahfouz (Najib Mahfuz)

Birth: 1911, Gamaliyya district of Cairo, Egypt

Death: 2006, Cairo, Egypt

Family: Wife, Atiyyatullah; two daughters, Fatima and Umm Kulthum

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: B.A. (philosophy), Cairo University 1934


  • 1930s: Against his father's will, rejects getting a medical education and chooses instead to study philosophy
  • 1930: Publishes article "The Dying of Old Beliefs and the Birth of New Beliefs"
  • 1936: Decides to pursue career in literature and abandons study of philosophy
  • 1939: Publishes first novel, Abath al-Qadr (Irony of Fate)
  • 1939–1954: Civil servant at Ministry of Islamic Affairs
  • 1954–1969: Director of Foundation for Support of the Cinema
  • 1956–1957: Publication of al-Thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy)
  • 1969–1971: Consultant for cinema affairs in Ministry of Culture
  • 1988: Becomes first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature
  • 1994: Attacked by Islamic fundamentalists, who stab him several times in the neck intending to kill him for the alleged heresy in his books; survives attack, but is left with permanent injuries to nervous system

Having finished his secondary education, Mahfouz rejected his father's suggestion to study medicine and entered Cairo University where he studied philosophy and obtained his bachelor's degree in 1934. Having spent a year toward his master's degree in philosophy, Mahfouz chose to pursue a career as a professional writer.

In 1936 he started working at the newspaper al-Risala and contributed to the newspapers al-Hilal and al-Ahram. Mahfouz started his writing career by publishing short stories and essays. During these years the ideas of Musa Salama, an Egyptian intellectual of Coptic Orthodox Christian origins, had a fundamental influence over Mahfouz's thoughts. Salama was introduced to the ideas of socialism and social-democratic values while he was studying in France and Britain, where he got to know and was influenced by George Bernard Shaw and Herbert George Wells, the prominent members of the Fabian Society, which gave birth to the Labour Party in the U.K.

Mahfouz's first published book was a translation of James Baikie's work on ancient Egypt titled Misr al-Qadima (History of Ancient Egypt). It was published in the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida in 1932. In the meantime Mahfouz continued publishing series of short stories in different literary newspapers and magazines.

In 1939 Mahfouz accepted the position of civil servant at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs where he worked until 1954. In 1939 Mahfouz published his first novel, Abath al-Qadr (Irony of fate). Initially, the novel was titled Hikmat Khufu (Wisdom of Cheops). The plot was based on the ideas of fatalism. The pharaoh, who lived about 2680 BCE, was told by an oracle that his son would not be able to inherit the throne, and that it would fall into the hands of Dedef, the son of the high priest of the temple Ra. Despite all the efforts of the pharaoh, nothing stops the realization of the oracle's prophesy.

Two other novels, Radubis (1943) and Kifah Tibah (1944; Struggle of Thebes), were also based on historical events that took place in ancient Egypt. The main character of Radubis is a courtesan named Radubis, who was the lover of the pharaoh Mernere, the last king of the ancient Sixth dynasty in Egypt. Mahfouz used the love story between these two characters to describe the complex human, emotional, and social relations in ancient Egypt.

Kifah Tibah describes the Hyksos wars, the decline and fall of the Middle Kingdom in 1785–1575 BCE. The novel portrays the struggle of Egypt as it strove to keep control against a foreign Asian power. With the fall of Hyksos, Egypt gained its independence and started flourishing. This book resonated with the decline of colonialism and the rise of independent statehood in Egypt in the twentieth century.

These books were part of a large and incomplete project of thirty historical novels. Inspired by Sir Walter Scott, a British writer of the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, Mahfouz intended to cover the whole history of Egypt in a series of historical novels. The project remained unfinished, because Mahfouz shifted his interest toward writing about the lives of ordinary people in rural Egypt and in Cairo, where he grew up.

In 1948 Mahfouz wrote al-Sarab (Mirage), which became a turning point in his development as an author. Mahfouz based the plot of this novel on Sigmund Freud's method of psychoanalysis. He used the same writing style in another novel he wrote one year later, Bidaya wa Nahaya (The Beginning and the End).

In 1950s Naguib Mahfouz wrote al-Thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy), which earned him fame as a writer in Egypt and other Arab countries. The trilogy of fifteen hundred pages included three novels: Bayn al-Qasrayn (1956; Palace Walk), Qasr al-Shawq (1957; Palace of Desire), and al-Sukkariyya (1957; Sugar Street). The plots of the novels unfolded in Cairo.

The trilogy covered the life of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawwad and his family across three generations, from World War I to the overthrow of King Faruq in 1952. Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawwad is a tyrannical head of a family who demands unconditional obedience from his wife Amina, his sons Yasin, Fahmi, and Kamal, and his daughters Khadija and A'isha. Bayn al-Qasrayn describes the influences of the nationalist ideas on Fahmi, the middle son of the al-Jawwad family. A law student, Fahmi starts participating in anti-British nationalist demonstrations, growing increasingly hostile toward the British military forces, located directly in front of the place where the al-Jawwad family lives. The youngest brother of the family, Kamal, is not into any political struggle, and has even befriended some of the British soldiers. Fahmi continues his political activities despite orders from his father to stop. The oldest brother, Yasin, is described as a hedonist, who, similar to his father, enjoys spending his time with courtesans and wine. The daughters of the family, Khadija and A'isha, have different personalities; Khadija is rude and opinionated, whereas A'isha is quiet and conciliatory. These different characters and their attitudes toward the changes unfolding in their society depicts the spread of different sociopolitical ideas in Egypt during this period, including the ideas of nationalism, socialism, and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as the intellectual environment and the moral code of the traditional Egyptian society in a period of three generations.

In 1954 Mahfouz was appointed director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema, the State Cinema Organization. Mahfouz worked in this capacity for the next fifteen years.

In 1959 Mahfouz published the novel Awlad Haratina (Children of Gebelawi). It was published in a serialized version by the al-Ahram newspaper. The novel's plot was closely related to religious themes, with an allegorical family representing God (Gebelawi) and his children Moses (Gabal), Jesus (Rifa'a), and Muhammad (Qasim), who settle in different quarters of the valley after their father Gebelawi banishes them from the house. The symbol of modern science, Arafa, comes after all prophets while they all claim him to be one of their own. The person representing each religion claims a closer affiliation with science than any of the other religions.

As the events in the novel unfold, Mahfouz freely interprets the stories reflected in the Qur'an, the Bible, and the Torah. The leading figures in the Islamic al-Azhar University vehemently protested against what they called a blasphemy and heresy against religion and God. Crowds demonstrated in front of the al-Ahram office and demanded that the the novel be banned. Although it was never officially outlawed, it was not published in Egypt. The novel Awlad Haratina was first published in Lebanon in 1961. Although it was translated into several foreign languages and brought fame to Mahfouz abroad, in Egypt he was haunted by the controversy surrounding the novel long after having written it.

Mahfouz wrote Tharthara Fawq al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile) in 1966. In 1971 this novel was made into a film and immediately created controversy in Egypt for its depiction of decadence in Egyptian society under the rule of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. According to the novel's plot, Anis, who hates the hypocrisy in the Egyptian government, the illiteracy of the Egyptian public, and the many unsolved problems of society, decides to escape from reality by smoking a shisha (also called a hookah, nargila or argila; a waterpipe used for consuming tobacco and sometimes drugs). Soon Anis finds out that he is not alone; the majority of the people in the government elite, middle, and even lower classes do the same thing themselves to escape. Anis stops smoking drugs, but immediately transforms into a lone madman in a society of drugged individuals who do not see, and do not want to see, the realities surrounding them. The government of Anwar Sadat, fearful of being associated with this novel and movie, banned it under the protests of still-strong Nasser supporters in Egypt.

In 1966, Mahfouz's novel Midaq Alley (1947) became the first of his works to be translated into English. After his introduction to foreign audiences, he has been widely read abroad ever since, and many of his novels and short stories have been translated into different foreign languages. In 1969 Mahfouz brought out a collection of short stories titled Taht al-Mizalla (Under the shelter), the central themes of which were violence and public indifference toward the fate of others. In the 1970s Mahfouz published several novels, including Al Hubbu Tahta-al-Matar (1973; Love under the Rain), Al Jarima (1973; Crime), and al-Karnak (1974). While all of these works were well-received, the novel Harafish (1977) gained the most popularity. Despite his popularity, however, Mahfouz continued to court controversy. After the Framework for Peace in the Middle East (Camp David Accord) was adopted by Egypt and Israel in 1978, Mahfouz defended Sadat's stance, which led to restrictions being imposed on the publication of his novels in a majority of Arab countries beyond Egypt. The constraints on his publications continued throughout the 1980s.

Mahfouz published in 1983 a fundamental novel titled Amam al-Arsh (In front of the throne). The plot developed around the gathering of all Egyptian leaders from the ancient pharaohs to President Sadat. All the presidents, kings, and pharaohs had to justify their policies before the court of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility. Aside from tackling the interesting political and social issues from different periods of the Egyptian history, the work gained significance in that it looked at Egypt not just as a modern Arab country with Islamic heritage, but also as a region with a profound and unique ancient history. The last point was conveyed through the accusations of the pharaoh Rameses II on Nasser. Ramses blames Nasser for reducing Egypt to an insignificant state, having let the features of majestic Egypt dissolve into the vague outlines of Arabism. Nasser in his turn blames Sadat for not being tough enough against the foreign influence. Sadat gets support from the pharaoh Akhenaten, who was dethroned because of his unsuccessful attempts to bring monotheism into ancient Egypt. Akhenaten's support for Sadat allowed Mahfouz to show the similarities in the fates of reformer-rulers in ancient and modern Egypt. He further developed the theme of Akhenaten in a separate novel titled al-A'ish fi'l-Haqiqa (1985; The dweller of the truth). That same year Mahfouz wrote another novel titled The Day the Leader Was Killed, this time about Sadat.

In 1988 Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mahfouz, who never traveled abroad, sent his daughters to collect the prize. Yet, at the peak of his career as a writer, Mahfouz had to live though yet another controversy related to Awlad Haratina (Children of Gebelawi). In 1988, the religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) calling for the execution of British author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses and its controversial statements about the Islamic religion. This in turn caused Egyptian theologian Umar Abd al-Rahman to publicly state that if Mahfouz had been punished for writing Awlad Haratina, Rushdie would not have dared publish The Satanic Verses. In 1994 a religious radical acted on those thoughts and stabbed the eighty-two-year-old writer in the neck, leaving him with permanent injuries to his nervous system.

Despite this attack, Mahfouz continued writing, creating new novels and short stories until his death in 2006. In 2005, he wrote the novel The Seventh Heaven. Mahfouz later died in a Cairo hospital on 30 August 2006.


Mahfouz spent his childhood and youth in the period when Egypt first struggled for independence from the British, then searched for national identity and the optimal sociopolitical system, all of which were accompanied by intense political and occasionally military struggles. Mahfouz stated that the events of the anti-British revolution of 1919, which took place when he was only eight years old, influenced his life in a tremendous way. That was the year when the British military used force in an attempt to suppress the independence movement in Egypt. During the early period of his activity as a writer, Mahfouz became interested in different political theories. Nationalism, socialism, as well as liberal democratic values were in the scope of his interest and were reflected in his stories and novels. Mahfouz used different characters in his writings as mediators between issues of local and wider scope, describing history and politics with human life in its center.

The early stages of Mahfouz's writing were heavily influenced by the themes of ancient history of Egypt. He was looking for a link between the civilization of ancient Egypt, its Islamic heritage, and the modern nationalist ideas. Mahfouz opposed pan-Arabism in the sense that he did not want to have ancient Egyptian heritage be deluded with and limited to the period of history when Egypt got acquainted with the Arabic and Islamic civilization.


Mahfouz permanently drew parallels between the developments in ancient Egypt and the developments of his time. His novels Abath al-Qadr, Radubis, and Kifah Tibah, at the early stages of his writing career, as well as Amam al-Arsh and al-A'ish fi'-l-Haqiqa, reflecting the later stage of his development, and many other novels and short stories written in the interim period addressed the issue of communication between these two civilizations of Egypt.

In the late 1940s, Mahfouz introduced another technique into his writing style, focusing on the daily life of ordinary people, with the interpretation of huge sociopolitical processes developing in Egypt from their viewpoints. The culmination of this style was the Cairo Trilogy, after which a number of literary critiques called him the "Arab Balzac" (after French writer Honoré de Balzac). A portion of his novels and stories written in this style were sharply critical of the political situation in his country, which put him under significant pressure.

Another turning point in Mahfouz's prose was Awlad Haratina. The mystic forces of the world affecting human life, the attempts to understand God, and experimenting with free interpretations of religious books constituted the new direction in his writing. This path of his prose with some shifts in focus reflected itself in his Leyali Alf Leyla (1981; The Arabian nights), The Thief and the Dogs (1982; Al-Lyssu va al-Kilabi), Amam al-Arsh (1983; In front of the throne) and many other novels and stories he wrote in his late stage of literary development.

Mahfouz continued experimenting with the new themes, topics, and techniques until the latest days of his prose.


Taha Husayn (1889–1973; also Hussein) was one of the most influential Egyptian writers and intellectuals. He was a figurehead for the modernist movement in Egypt. He earned the title of Amid al-Adab al-Arabi (Dean of Arabic Literature). Having contracted an eye disease in childhood, Husayn became blind for the rest of his life. Despite his physical disability, Husayn graduated from al-Azhar University, entered the secular Cairo University upon its establishment and earned a Ph.D. in literature. Husayn earned his second Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in France. Husayn became the founding rector of the University of Alexandria.

Husayn was a proponent of the idea of pharaonism, which maintained that Egypt comprised in itself the diametrically opposite civilizations of the ancient Egypt and the Arab/Eastern culture, and that Egypt's progress depended upon returning the country to its ancient roots. He published a number of novels, stories, criticisms, and social and political essays, some of which were translated into foreign languages.


Beard, Michael, and Adnan Haydar. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

Ghitani, Gamal al-, and Britta Le Va. The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999.

Gordon, Hayim. Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt: Existential Themes in His Writings. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

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


Palace Walk, Book 1 of The Cairo Trilogy (published in Arabic, 1956)

Palace of Desire (Book 2 of The Cairo Trilogy; originally published in Arabic, 1957)

Sugar Street (Book 3 of The Cairo Trilogy; originally published in Arabic, 1957)

Children of Gebelawi (originally published in Arabic, 1959)

The Beginning and the End (originally published in Arabic, 1956)

Adrift on the Nile (originally published in Arabic, 1966)

The Journey of Ibn Fattuma (originally published in Arabic, 1983)

Midaq Alley (originally published in Arabic, 1947)

The Harafish (originally published in Arabic, 1977)

The Beggar (originally published in Arabic, 1965)

The Thief and the Dogs (originally published in Arabic, 1961)

Autumn Quail (originally published in Arabic, 1962)

                                            Adil M. Asgarov