In his novels and short stories, Mahfouz interwove autobiographical and historical facts, the background ranging from rebellions opposing the Hyksos occupation of 1500 b.c.e. to conflicts with Israel in the twentieth century. His works reflected developments in the aesthetic, philosophic, and political thinking in Cairo.
Mahfouz identified his Egyptian masters. One, Taha Husayn, academic and novelist, advocated the primacy of reason over tradition. His adherents campaigned for and were successful in obtaining changes in social structures, creating opportunities in education and employment for men and women. Likewise, Mustafa al-Manfaluti’s sketches of daily life instigated social reform. Third, Salama Mousa fostered Mahfouz’s acceptance of scientific socialism, with the works of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx shaping his form of literary realism. Lastly, in seeking stylistic accomplishment in Arabic literature, Mahfouz turned to the prose narratives of the Koran and The Thousand and One Nights.
When he abandoned his coursework in philosophy, Mahfouz pursued a self-study program for reading masterpieces of world literature. The Nobel laureate’s works reveal the strong influence of Western writers, especially that of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, Gustave Flaubert,Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Henry James, and William Faulkner.
In the late 1930’s, Mahfouz wrote three historical novels in the romantic style, using Sir Walter Scott’s works as models. Fascinated by such archeological discoveries as the tomb of Tutankhamen, he set the action in ancient Egypt, criticizing covertly the Egyptian government of his time. Two of the novels describe despotic pharaohs, who reflect the behavior of King Farouk I. The third describes the Egyptians’ triumphant insurrection against the Hyksos rulers, paralleling endeavors in his own times to oust the British occupiers.
Having sanctioned the conventions of literary realism and naturalism, Mahfouz focuses on people from the lower-class quarters of contemporary Cairo. He highlights Muslim religious practices and social customs. Mahfouz’s dynamic and unforgettable characters are products of their neighborhood.
In addition to offering veiled criticism of his era, Mahfouz used stylistic techniques in his early period that inform his later works as well. For example, he uses dualistic oppositions, such as old/new, good/evil, light/dark, and chaos/order.
At the opening of Zuqq al-Midaqq (1947; Midaq Alley, 1966), an old bard arrives at the café to intone his tales. The men ignore him and listen, instead, to the new radio. He is the first of the numerous people in Mahfouz’s fiction who are displaced, rejected, fired, or jilted because of social and political changes. The modern is more interesting than the old; people forgo tradition and disregard ancestors. Good luck and money or material possessions, rather than religious or ethical values, guarantee moral standing.
While Mahfouz did not espouse Zola’s theories of the novel as scientific experiment, the Frenchman’s twenty-volume saga on the Rougon-Macquart family informs Mahfouz’s masterpiece, the Cairo trilogy, a milestone in the history of the Arabic novel for which he gained honors in Egypt and abroad. Like most of his later works, the trilogy was serialized in the newspaper Al-Ahram and then published in book form. Each of the three books of the trilogy takes its title from the name of a street in the quarter of the al-Husayn mosque. The characters live within a rich context of time, place, and heredity. Cultural, intellectual, and political events provide motivations for their actions.
Mahfouz paints with epic grandeur the dilemmas and aspirations of three generations of the family of Ahmad Abd al Jawad, from 1917 to 1944. The first volume, Bayn al-qaṣrayn (1956; Palace Walk, 1990), focuses on the patriarch’s interactions with his wives, mistresses, children, and business associates. The second, Qaṣr al-shawq (1957; Palace of Desire, 1991), takes place between 1924 and 1927. Named for the street where a character lives, it focuses on the rebellious sons and especially on the emotional and intellectual struggles of Kamal, a university student. The third, Al-Sukkariya (1957; Sugar Street, 1992), which takes place from 1935 to 1944, offers a stage for the political roles played by the sons of the patriarch’s two daughters.
Following the revolution of July 23, 1952, Mahfouz endorsed a Sufi-oriented, democratic view of life. In 1959, he serialized Awld Ḥratin (book, 1967; Children of Gebelawi, 1981, also known as Children of the Alley, 1996). An allegorical novel advancing a negative view of religions not providing solutions to the problems of existence, it caused much controversy among fundamentalists, who had it banned in Egypt. Mahfouz returned to this topic. In his short stories especially, he examines the estrangement and the loneliness of humanity without God.
In the 1960’s, Mahfouz published six novels and two collections of short stories. Most of these works tell about the crisis of intellectuals, who are suffering from disillusionment and despair caused by civil strife, wars with Israel, and other forms of cruelty. Written in an impressionistic style (a few details evoke environment and situations), the novels indict the Egyptian government for failing to assist leaders of the revolutions. These books include Al-Liṣṣ wa-al-kilb (1961; The Thief and the Dogs, 1984), Al-Summn wa-al-kharf (1962; Autumn Quail, 1985), Al-Ṭarq (1964; The Search, 1987), Al-Shaḥḥdh (1965; The Beggar, 1986), Mirmr (1967; Miramar, 1978), and Tharthara fawq al-Nl (1966; Adrift on the Nile, 1993). The Nobel committee praised the structure of Adrift on the Nile, in which members of Cairo’s intelligentsia assemble on a houseboat on the Nile and, in drug-induced stupor, ridicule bureaucracy and Nasser’s regime.
Mahfouz adapts psychoanalytical methods to disclose the inner lives of his alienated characters, who seek self-justification. Mahfouz uses the stream-of-consciousness technique. A character’s ruminations unveil his inner world. Mahfouz also subscribes to Proust’s use of interior monologue, which discloses a character’s associative reactions to a sensory stimulus.
The works produced during the 1970’s and the 1980’s also reflect on political issues. They also deal with quests; characters search for the father, for honor, or for political identity. Malḥamat al-ḥarfsh (1977; The Harafish, 1994)...
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