Naguib Mahfouz

(1911- 2006)

Naguib Mahfouz is the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was born in the al-Jamaliyya district of Cairo,
Egypt, on December 11, 1911. The family moved to al-Abbasiya in 1924, then a new Cairo suburb. Both were popular districts and provided the backdrop for many of Mahfouz’s books. His father was a civil servant, and Mahfouz’s main career followed in his father’s footsteps. His mother often took him to museums and Egyptian history was an interest in his earlier books. He was an avid reader. As a young man he read many of the European and Russian classic writers, such as Balzac, Camus, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, and Tolstoy.

Mahfouz considered engineering or medicine but studied philosophy at the University of Cairo, graduating in 1935. From 1939 -1972, he was a civil servant first in the Ministry of Mortmain Endowments, then as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art, then as Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema, finally as consultant on Cultural Affairs to the Ministry of Culture. During his 34 years in government bureaucracy he dedicated a lot of time to writing.

His early works were historical novels, written as part of a series of books in which he planned to cover the whole history of Egypt in a series. But by the third volume, Mahfouz became more interested in the psychological impact of the social change on ordinary people.

His central work was “The Cairo Trilogy”. The novels are titled Palace Walk (Bayn al Qasrayn), Palace of Desire (Qasr al-Shawq), and Sugar Street (al-Sukkariya). The stories depict the life of the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over three generations in Cairo, from WW I unti 1952, when King Farouk I was overthrown. After completing the trilogy he stopped writing until 1959, after which he began again turning out novels, short stories, journalism, memoirs, essays, and screenplays.

Children of Gebelawi (Awlad haritna) (1959) was his most controversial work. Like the trilogy, it is told over several generations, here in an isolated alley. It is considered an “…allegorical tale. The heroes of the first four episodes relive the lives of the prophets Adam, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, and the protagonist of the fifth represents modern man who relies on science and technology to destroy the alley’s oppressor.” It was first serialized in the leading newspaper al-Ahram. Before the serialization was complete, members of the al-Azhar Mosque and university accused the author of blasphemy and the book was banned throughout the Arab world, except in the

Mahfouz was a contributing editor to al-Ahram. Throughout his career there, he led a very structured life. He walked to work, a distance of 5km. Halfway along, he rested at Ali Baba"s Cafe near Midan al-Tahrir. There he had coffee, then continued on his way, to arrive precisely at 9am at the newspaper. At 2pm, he would leave work and return home, where he ate lunch and rested. At 4pm he would begin to write, and continued for three hours, till supper. He continued to write, or read, until midnight. He wrote his novels at his desk at home, but he wrote his screenplays at the cafe. His colleagues joked that you can set your watch by his schedule. An Egyptian poet said of Mahfouz"s dedication to his profession that he embodies the Egyptian spirit: the Egyptian who knows the value of work and can build pyramids, citadels and palaces and novels.

Mahfouz has written more than 40 novels and short story collections, screenplays, and theatrical plays. The setting for his narratives is often in the heavily populated urban quarters of Cairo, where ordinary people try cope with the confusing changes and modernization of society. He sometimes wrote in the colloquial Egyptian dialect to clearly express the conditions and circumstances of the poorer populations of his country.

Works that are have been translated to English include: The Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street; Children of Gebelawi; The Beginning and the End; Adrift on the Nile; The Journey of Ibn Fattouma; Midaq Alley; Arabian Nights and Days.

Mahfouz almost never traveled outside of Egypt, and sent his daughters to accept the Nobel Prize on his behalf. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 for “works rich in nuance---now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous-- [that] formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.” Many of his novels were serialized in al-Ahram, and his writings also appeared in his weekly column, "Point of View". Before the Nobel Prize only a few of his novels had appeared in the West. His Noble acceptance speech was read at the Swedish Academy by Mohamed Salmawy (first in Arabic, then in English).

Mahfouz was on a "death list" by Islamic extremist after he defended Salman Rushdie whom the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had condemned him to death. Later, he criticized Rushdie"s Satanic Verses as "insulting" to Islam. In 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife near his home, and two Egyptian Islamic militants were sentenced to death for attempted murder. The texts he wrote after the assassination attempt for a weekly women"s magazine were collected in Dreams (2000-2003). In his old age Mahfouz became nearly blind, and he though he continued to write, had difficulties in holding a pen, and had to abandon his daily habit of meeting his friends at coffeehouses. Mahfouz died in Cairo on August 30, 2006.

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Reference: an-Nahar newspaper, October 2.2006;