BORN: 1911, Cairo, Egypt
DIED: 2006, Cairo, Egypt
Palace Walk (1956)
Palace of Desire (1957)
Sugar Street (1957)
Considered modern Egypt's foremost literary figure, Naguib Mahfouz is credited with popularizing the novel and short story as viable genres in Arab literature. He is best known for novels in which he creates psychological portraits of characters whose personal struggles mirror the social, political, religious, and cultural concerns confronting Mahfouz's Egyptian homeland. Mahfouz was the first Arabic-language author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, winning in 1998.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Began Writing Career at University Born Najib Abdel Aziz al-Sabilgi Mahfouz on December 10, 1911, in Cairo, Egypt, he was the son of Abdel Aziz Ibrahim Mahfouz, a merchant, and his wife, Fatma Mostapha. Because his siblings were many years older, he grew up essentially an only child. In 1934, Mahfouz received a degree in philosophy from the University of Cairo and did postgraduate study in philosophy for the next two years. At the time, Egypt was a protectorate of the United Kingdom but was also a nominally sovereign country ruled by a king although it also had a growing nationalist movement. While the United Kingdom controlled foreign affairs, defense, security of communications, and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the situation changed in 1936. That year, King Faruk ascended to the throne and the
Anglo-Egyptian Treaty limited British control to only armed forces in specified areas, primarily along the vital Suez Canal.
Encouraged by Salama Musa, an Egyptian socialist and editor of an intellectual journal, Mahfouz began writing short stories while he was a university student. Many of these stories were collected in Whisper of Madness (1939). Mahfouz's first published book was Ancient Egypt (1932), a translation of a history text written in English by James Baikie. Mahfouz's first three novels—Abath al-aqdar (1939), Radubis (1943), and Kiftah Tiba (1944)—are historical narratives set in ancient Egypt that contain allusions to modern society.
The Cairo Trilogy In response to the political and social conditions in Egypt during World War II, Mahfouz turned his attention from ancient history to the contemporary situation of Egypt. During World War II, a massive conflict launched in Europe because of the aggressive territorial ambitions of Nazi Germany, Egypt served as a base of operations for the Allies (Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States). While the war was being fought, the Egyptian nationalist movement continued to grow. After World War II ended, the government in Cairo abrogated the 1936 treaty in 1951. Because of royal extravagance, government corruption, and delays in social and political reforms, King Faruk was removed from power in a coup. He was first replaced by his seven-month-old son, but in 1953, a republic was proclaimed, with General Muhammad Naguib serving as Egypt's first president. In 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the revolution, forced Naguib out of power and took control of Egypt himself. Egypt sought international support for key internal projects, and also unified with the Syria in the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958–1961).
In what is known as the Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz created a series of portraits of several Cairo families. Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire: Cairo Trilogy II (1957), and Sugar Street: The Cairo Trilogy III (1957) depict families and communities from the middle and lower classes of Egyptian society, some struggling to climb the social ladder, others trying to survive, while the country witnesses a period of turmoil both domestically and internationally. The novels cover such topics as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 (in which nationalist Egyptians attempted to gain independence from Great Britain), the effects of modernization on cultural and religious values, and changing social attitudes toward women, education, and science.
Disillusionment Although Mahfouz had supported the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which successfully overthrew the monarchy and eventually established Egypt as a republic, he became disillusioned with the resulting social, educational, and land reforms. After seven years of silence, Mahfouz wrote the pessimistic and allegorical novel Children of Gebelawi in 1959. In thinly veiled allusions to the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the narrative relates humanity's quest for religion, beginning with Adam and Eve and ending with the last prophet—represented as the modern man of science—who is inadvertently responsible for the death of Gebelawi (God). Although it was published in Lebanon in 1967, the novel has not yet been published in Egypt. A 1969 serialization of the novel inflamed Islamic fundamentalists and led to the banning of the manuscript's publication in book form. A new English translation of the book appeared in 1995 under the title Children of the Alley.
Social Commentary Fiction Drawing on his education in philosophy and his familiarity with the cities of his country, Mahfouz was committed to writing fiction that revealed the hopes and concerns of the Egyptian people. The portraits he drew were not always flattering. One such novel is Miramar (1967), one of Mahfouz's most acclaimed later works, which examines the behavior of several male residents in an Alexandrian boardinghouse when a beautiful and naive young rural woman is hired as a maid. The novel expands from this situation to become a general critique of Egyptian society.
Al-Hubb tahta al-matar (1973) and Al-Karnak (1974) contrast the repressive actions of authorities during the postrevolutionary regime of Nasser with the idealism of young people hoping for political and social reform. Reflecting the content of much of Mahfouz's later work, these novels also examine the disillusionment and malaise that affected Egypt following the country's military defeat in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel. (The Six Day War pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. During the six-day conflict, Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, and Golan Heights, which became the so-called Occupied Territories.)
Turned to Fables Many of Mahfouz's later works were extended fables. Taking its inspiration and form directly from A Thousand and One Nights, Arabian Nights and Days (1981) is more a loosely connected set of tales than a novel. A later novel, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, (1983) is loosely based on a classic of Western literature, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Mahfouz's famous contemporaries include:
Menachem Begin (1913–1992): Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel and cowinner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, began the 1982 Lebanon War as a retaliatory gesture against the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.
Jimmy Carter (1924–): After a term marred by inflation, fuel shortages, and U.S. hostages held in Iran, Carter, the thirty-ninth president of the United States, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for the humanitarian work he did in the years after his presidency.
Tawfiq el-Hakim (1898–1987): This Egyptian dramatist and novelist established serious drama as an Egyptian art form. His plays include The People of the Cave (1993).
Anwar el Sadat (1918–1981): Sadat, the third president of Egypt and cowinner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace with Israeli prime minister Begin, was assassinated by radicals opposed to his position on Israel.
Yusuf Idris (1927–1991): Many of the realistic short stories by this Egyptian writer are in the vernacular. His short-story collections include Akrhas Layali (1954).
Salman Rushdie (1947–): Rushdie is an Indian writer and novelist who uses magical realism in his novels. The Satanic Verses (1988) led to protests and death threats over his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad.
Mahfouz's influence on Egyptian literature expanded to several other areas. He contributed columns on a wide range of topics to Al-Ahram, a leading Egyptian newspaper. As a dramatist and scriptwriter, Mahfouz endeavored to elevate the intellectual content of theater and film in Egypt. He also published several collections of short stories. God's World: An Anthology of Short Stories (1973) offers English translations of stories from several phases of Mahfouz's career.
Nobel Laureate In 1988, Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his dedication to developing a tradition of modern fiction in Arabic. Along with worldwide acclaim, the award also brought Mahfouz a death sentence. The same year Salman Rushdie was denounced for his Satanic Verses (1988), an influential Egyptian Muslim cleric issued a death sentence against Mahfouz for his notorious novel Children of Gebelawi. On October 13, 1994, the anniversary of the announcement of his Nobel Prize, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a religious fanatic. Although Mahfouz recovered, the attack left him unable to write with a pen, forcing him to dictate his later works, which included his 1997 autobiography Echoes of an Autobiography.
In the years preceding his death, several of his fictional works appeared in English translation, including his first three novels. His last “writing” consisted of short pieces that he dictated for publication, including weekly newspaper columns. Up until his death, Mahfouz published accounts of his own dreams in a Cairo periodical. These pieces appeared in book form under the title The Dreams in 2005. Mahfouz died on August 30, 2006, at the age of ninety-four.
Works in Literary Context
Influences Mahfouz's prose works—which have been compared in spirit, tone, and ambience with the raw social realism of nineteenth-century novelists Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens—reflect Egypt's volatile political history and illustrate the distressing conditions under which the Arab poor live. Mahfouz himself cited Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as inspirations.
Oppressed Characters From the very beginning, Mahfouz's interest in characters who strive to endure societal oppression has been evident. Early stories in Hams al junun, for instance, explore themes of conformity and deviance from the norm. In works such as Midaq Alley (1947) and The Beginning and the End (1951), Mahfouz blends formal language with colloquialisms. At the same time, he depicts the struggle and turmoil of individuals in repressive environments.
Literary Techniques In his later works, Mahfouz uses literary devices such as allegory, symbolism, and experimental narrative techniques to explore social and cultural disillusionment, spiritual crisis, alienation, political issues, and corruption in contemporary Egypt. The Children of Gebelawi, for instance, is an allegory in which Egypt's contemporary social concerns are linked with those of the past. Modeling his characters on religious figures including Jesus, Adam, Satan, Moses, and Muhammad, Mahfouz explores such broad themes as the nature of evil and the meaning of life. Furthermore, he proclaims science and technology to be humanity's modern prophets.
In the 1960s, Mafouz abandoned the traditional realism that characterized his previous works. He produced shorter novels that employed many of the experimental techniques—including stream of consciousness and scriptlike dialogue—of modern Western literature. For example, The Thief and the Dogs (1961) demonstrates Mahfouz's experiments with unconventional techniques as he uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative to create a psychological portrait of a wrongly imprisoned man who upon his release seeks revenge. This is one of several works in which Mahfouz depicts an outlaw who is rebelling against repressive values, often embodied by unscrupulous officials.
Works in Critical Context
Mahfouz pioneered the development of the modern Arabic novel and became its first genuine master. Edward Said wrote, “Naguib Mahfouz's achievement as the greatest living Arab novelist and first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize has in small but significant measure now retrospectively vindicated his unmatched regional reputation, and belatedly given him recognition in the West.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Social realism is a style of literature that gives an uncensored view of society. Here are some other works of social realism:
The Doll (1890), a novel by Boleslaw Prus. This novel examines the lives of two men living in Warsaw, Poland, under Russian rule.
Middlemarch (1871–1872), a novel by George Eliot. Subtitled “A Story of Provincial Life,” this novel examines the life and moral code of a small English town.
Les Misérables (1862), a novel by Victor Hugo. This novel, later turned into a Broadway musical, follows a group of poor French citizens and criminals during and after the Napoleonic period.
Oliver Twist (1837–1839), a novel by Charles Dickens. This novel follows an orphan through the gritty underworld of Victorian London.
The Red and the Black (1830), a novel by Stendhal. This coming-of-age novel tells of a young man's struggle to make a future for himself in France.
Khan al-khalili Most critics agree that Mahfouz's talent matured with Khan al-khalili (1945), his first novel set in contemporary Cairo. M. M. Badawi commented, “Khan al-khalili began a series of eight novels in which [Mahfouz] emerged as the master par excellence of the Egyptian realistic novel, the chronicler of twentieth-century Egypt, and its most vocal social and political conscience. … [Mahfouz's Cairo] is a recognizable physical presence; its powerful impact upon the lives of characters is as memorable as that of Dickens's London, Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg or Zola's Paris.”
The Cairo Trilogy; Roger Allen called the Cairo Trilogy “a monumental work,” and Sasson Somekh added that the author's masterpiece is also “symbolic … because through the development of its characters you can see the development of modern Egypt. … No future student of Egyptian politics, society or folklore will be able to overlook the material embodied in Mahfouz's Trilogy.”
Responses to Literature
- When you read, do you read to escape or to learn about the world? Do you think realistic fiction has a place for today's readers? Why or why not? Write a paper that outlines your opinions.
- Hip-hop artists often defend the language and topics of their lyrics by saying that they are just reflecting their society. Why do their lyrics not change once they become successful and move to wealthy neighborhoods? Are they genuinely concerned about their roots, or are they capitalizing on what made them successful? Create a presentation, using musical examples, to illustrate your points.
- Some well-known artists, such as Bono, U2's lead singer, actively work for social justice. Do artists—singers, writers, filmmakers, and others—have a responsibility to promote solutions to the social issues they bring up? Write a paper in which you explain your arguments.
- Books are banned in the United States today, not just in Arab countries. Are there ever cases where banning books is justified, such as books about terrorism or ones that promote violence against a particular group? Research book banning in the United States. Write an essay arguing for or against the practice of banning books. Use specific examples in your argument.
Allen, Roger. Modern Arabic Literature. New York: Ungar, 1987.
Beard, Michael and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993.
Brugman, J. An Introduction to the History of Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984.
Enani, M. M., ed. Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives; A Collection of Critical Essays. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989.
Legassick, Trevor, ed. Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1991.
Salmawy, Mohamed. Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994–2001. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.
Moosa, Matti. “Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History.” Georgia Review 49 (Spring 1995): 224–30.
Said, Edward. “Goodbye to Mahfouz.” London Review of Books (December 8, 1988): 10–11.
Born Naguib Mahfouz Abdelaziz, December 11, 1911, in Cairo, Egypt; died August 30, 2006, in Cairo, Egypt. Author. All his life, Naguib Mahfouz knew he wanted to be a writer. He began writing in earnest at age eleven, and published his first work at age 17. He released his first novel in 1939 at the age of 21. His Cairo Trilogy was completed in 1952, but he could not find a publisher until the end of the decade. Once it was released, Mahfouz emerged as one of the top Arabic authors, but had little exposure to the rest of the world until his trilogy won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He is credited with providing never-before-seen glimpses into the everyday lives of Egyptians. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, quoted in the Washington Post, said Mahfouz was "a cultural light who brought Arab literature to the world."
Mahfouz was born in 1911 in Cairo, Egypt, to middle-class parents. He was raised in the Gamaliya district that provided the background for his Cairo Trilogy. His family later moved to the more upscale Abbasiya suburb. Mahfouz knew he wanted to become a writer during his childhood after reading several British detective novels. He attended Islamic elementary schools, and then entered a secular high school. At 17 years old, Mahfouz published his first article. Upon graduation, he entered King Fouad I University.
Shortly before his 21st birthday, Mahfouz published his first novel. He graduated with a degree in philosophy. Though he wrote throughout his life, he also worked in several government positions, including university secretary and assistant to the minister of religious endowments. He also became a director in the Ministry of Culture, and ended his governmental career as the head of the State Cinema Organization, which, among other things, had the power to censor the movies that could be shown in Egypt.
Mahfouz's first novels were historical novels that reflected the current conditions of Egypt. By having the novels based in ancient Egypt, he was able to get around the censors. In 1952 Mahfouz began writing Palace Walk, the first in his Cairo Trilogy. Soon after, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street were written. Unfortunately, he could not find a publisher. Saddened by this turn of events, Mahfouz switched his focus and concentrated on writing short stories and screenplays. A monthly journal agreed to publish his trilogy.
Mahfouz began writing novels again and soon completed his most controversial one, The Children of Gebelawi. The novel was released in Egypt's newspaper, Al Ahram, and its religious overtones brought the ire of Islamic conservatives. The novel was never released in book form in Egypt. While many threats were made against him, Mahfouz carried on until 1994. After Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (a legal decree that usually called for the death of the agitator), against Indian author Salman Rushdie in 1989, Egyptian extremists pointed to Mahfouz and his Gebelawi novel and also issued a fatwa. He was stabbed in the neck outside of his apartment building. Though the wound missed a vital organ, it caused major nerve damage to his writing hand. Mahfouz, who wrote all of his work in longhand, could no longer write. He entered rehabilitation to regain use of his writing hand, but could not write for periods longer than 30 minutes.
This attack, however, did not slow him down. Though very shy, Mahfouz maintained an active social life, meeting with friends daily at various cafés and restaurants throughout Cairo. Quoted in the Los Angeles Times, he said, "I don't like a week to pass without having gone to the movies, and to the theater, and to have worked and to have met my friends."
In 1988 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Arab author to be honored. Known for rarely leaving Cairo, he sent his two daughters to accept the prize on his behalf. While he had gained acclaim and popularity throughout Egypt and the Middle East, he was a literal unknown to the rest of the world. But with this award, his works began to be published in a variety of languages. According to the New York Times, Mahfouz was "admired for his vivid depictions of modern Egypt and the social, political, and religious dilemmas of its people."
In all, Mahfouz published more than 50 novels, and countless short stories and screenplays. In addition to his trilogy and The Children of Gebelawi, he also gained recognition for The Thieves and the Dogs, Miramar, and The Day the Leader Was Killed. Several of his screenplays were also turned into films.
Mahfouz was still active well into his nineties. He continued to meet with his friends at cafés and held weekly salons to discuss current events. He was in failing health and suffered a fall in July of 2006. He died on August 30, 2006, from a bleeding ulcer at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife, Attiyatullah, and his two daughters, Fatima and Umm Kulthoum.
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/08/30/egypt.mahfouz/index.html (August 30, 2006); Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2006, p. A1, pp. A6-7; New York Times, August 31, 2006, p. A21; Times (London), August 31, 2006, p. 55; Washington Post, August 31, 2006, p. A1, p. A15.