Remembering Naguib Mahfouz: The best known Egyptian writer


On December 11, 1911, in the old Gamaliya District in Cairo, the youngest of seven children, Naguib Mahfouz was born to be one of the greatest among Egyptian, Arab and world writers. Naguib spent his youth in Gamaliya district, which shaped his life and played a significant role in his realistic novels such as ‘’Midaq Alley ‘’ (Zokak Al-Midaq), ‘’The Trilogy’’ (Al-Tholatheya), ‘’Children of the Alley’’ (Awlad Haretna) and ‘’The Harafish’’.

Mahfouz’s love for literature began early while he was still in primary school, as he was a fan of historic and adventure novels. In secondary school he became inspired by the innovators of Arabic fiction—Taha Hussein, Muhammed Hussain Haykal andI brahim Al-Mazini, whom later served as his role models for writing short stories.

Naguib considered the alley of his childhood as a microscopic image of Egyptian society. His first novel, ‘’Khufu’s Wisdom’’, was published in 1939 though he later went on to write 35 novels and 15 collections of short stories.

In 1919, Naguib witnessed the first patriotic moments of Saad Zaghloul’s revolution, which greatly influenced his literary work. Around 1920, his family moved to the new suburban Abbasiya district.

Mahfouz was disillusioned with the 1952 revolution’s practices, though he believed in its principles. He voiced these criticisms clearly in some of his writings such as the novel Miramar published in 1960.

From 1934 until his retirement in 1971 at the age of sixty, he worked in a variety of government departments and held a secretarial post at Cairo University until 1938, then he moved to the Ministry of Religious Endowments to work as a parliamentary secretary for the ministry.

During the 1950s, he worked as secretary to the Minister of National Guidance, director of the Film Censorship Office, director-general of the Film Support Organization, advisor to the General Organization for Film Industry, and finally as an advisor for the Minister of Culture.

A failed attempt to end Mahfouz’s life in 1994 left him unable to write save for half an hour a day, as he was stabbed in the neck outside his home by a religious fanatic.

Naguib Mahfouz hospitalized after assassination attempt (photo: Raymond Stock)

During this period he produced his short fictions based on dreams that he dubbed “Dreams of Rehabilitation,” two editions of which were published in English translation by the AUC Press in 2004 and 2006.

From the late 1940s to the early 1980s he worked on 25 screenplays, an activity that seems to have influenced the use of such devices as montage and flashback in his prose writings.

Over 30 Egyptian films have been based on Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, however he was never interested in adapting his own books for the screen.

Mahfouz received the Egyptian State Prize twice for his writings. In 1988 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy noted that ‘’Mahfouz through works rich in nuance—now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous—has formed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind.”

Naguib Mahfouz awarded by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (photo: Blogspot)

He received the Presidential Medal from the American University in Cairo, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate in June 1995.

In 1992, he was elected as an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and in 2002, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Naguib Mahfouz died in Cairo on 30 August 2006 at the age of 94, and received a state funeral that was attended by top Egyptian officials.

Naguib’s Prolific Works

The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street

Spanning over the years of 1917-1944, the three books cover the life of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a typical Patriarch who enjoyed a secret self-indulgent life with his oppressed wife Amina, his children, and grandchildren.

The three books talk about Jawad’s family, as they try to escape his tight grip, in light of the political and economic situation of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.


Midaq Alley

The story is centred around the lives of the residents of Cairo’s small side streets. The story is recognized for its vivid details and timelessness.

The Harafish

The novel tells the story of Ashur al-Nagi, a man who grew up in a humble family and grew up to become a great leader and legend. The story goes on to show that his decadence drifted away from his legacy by his fortunes, marrying prostitutes and making enemies.

His Legacy in quotes

“As a citizen Naguib Mahfouz sees civility and the continuity of a transnational, abiding, Egyptian personality in his work as perhaps surviving the debilitating processes of conflict and historical degeneration which he, more than anyone else I have read, has so powerfully depicted.” 
Edward Said

“Mahfouz was of massively important influence on Arabic literature; he was our greatest living novelist for a very long time . . . . Mahfouz was an innovator in the use of the Arabic language; he also embodied the whole development of the Arabic novel starting with historical novels in the late 1940s through realism, through experimentalism and so on.” 
Ahdaf Souief

“He is the founder of the new Arab novel, and he opened doors for five generations of Arab novelists. He is our father.”
Alaa Al Aswany

“Naguib Mahfouz is the greatest writer in one of the most widely understood languages in the world, a storyteller of the first order in any idiom.”
Vanity Fair

“Throughout Naguib Mahfouz’s fiction there is a pervasive sense of metaphor, of a literary artist who is using his fiction to speak directly and unequivocally to the condition of his country. His work is imbued with love for Egypt and its people, but it is also utterly honest and unsentimental.”
Washington Post

“Mr. Mahfouz embodied the essence of what makes the bruising, raucous, chaotic human anthill of Cairo possible.”
The Economist

“Mahfouz presents us with a different concept of the world and makes it real. His genius is not just that he shows us Egyptian colonial society in all its complexity; it is that he makes us look through the vision of his vivid characters and see people and ideas that no longer seem so alien.”
Philadelphia Inquirer