Mahfouz, Naguib (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Naguib Mahfouz c. 1911-2006
(Full name Naguib Abdel Aziz Al-Sabilgi Mahfouz; also transliterated as Nagīb, Nageeb, or Najīb Mahfūz) Egyptian novelist, short story writer, playwright, autobiographer, and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of Mahfouz's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 52 and 55.
Generally regarded as modern Egypt's leading literary figure, Mahfouz is the first Arabic-language author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Best known for novels in which he creates psychological portraits of characters whose personal struggles mirror the social, political, religious, and cultural concerns confronting his homeland, Mahfouz first won respect during the mid-1940s for a series of novels set among the impoverished districts of Cairo. These works depict futility and tragedy in the lives of lower-class characters who contend with social injustices and the ineluctability of fate.
Born on an unknown date near 1911, Mahfouz was the youngest of several children in his family. His father was a merchant in the medieval section of Old Cairo, a familiar setting in much of Mahfouz's fiction. Though surrounded by intense political strife during the 1919 Egyptian Revolution and subsequent nationalist protests against British rule, Mahfouz had a happy childhood. He eventually moved with his family to a modern neighborhood in Cairo, where as an adolescent he read widely and enjoyed adventure movies at the local cinema. While in high school Mahfouz studied philosophy and Arabic literature, falling under the influence of contemporary authors Taha Hussein, Abbas al-Akkad, and Salma Musa. Mahfouz began studies at the University of Cairo in 1930, where he earned a degree in philosophy in 1934. Upon graduation he enrolled in graduate courses in philosophy, but he left after only a year to pursue a career as a full-time writer. In 1939 Mahfouz published his first two volumes of fiction—Hams al-junun, a collection of short stories, and his first novel, Abath al-aqdar. During the same year he took an administrative position with the Egyptian government's Ministry of Islamic Affairs, where he was employed until 1954. Mahfouz maintained a prolific output of novels and short stories through the 1940s and 1950s. The first volume of his “Cairo Trilogy,” Bayn al-Qasrayn (1956; Palace Walk), received enormous public and critical approval, establishing Mahfouz as one of the preeminent authors of the Arab world. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the ascension of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser as the nation's leader, Mahfouz was appointed director of censorship for the Department of Art, a post he held from 1954 to 1959. During the next decade, he served as director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema and continued to produce additional volumes of short stories and novels. His Awlad haratina (1967; Children of Gebelawi) generated considerable controversy upon its serialized publication in a newspaper in 1959. Denounced by Islamic fundamentalists as blasphemous, the work was banned in Egypt, though it eventually appeared in book form through a Lebanese publisher in 1967. Upon his retirement in 1972, Mahfouz devoted himself to his writing. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. He survived an assassination attempt by Islamic extremists in 1994, during which he was stabbed; those behind the plot were arrested and executed. Mahfouz's autobiographical writings are collected in Echoes of an Autobiography (1997).
Mahfouz secured his reputation during the 1950s with his “Cairo Trilogy,” a series of novels chronicling the lives of a middle-class Cairo family as well as Egypt's society and politics from 1917 to 1944. These three works—Palace Walk, Qasr al-shawq (1957; Palace of Desire), and Al-Sukkariya (1957; Sugar Street)—encompass such topics as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the effects of modernization on cultural and religious values, and changing social attitudes towards women, education, and science. In later works Mahfouz made extensive use of such literary devices as allegory, symbolism, and experimental narrative techniques to explore political issues, social and cultural malaise, spiritual crises, alienation, and decadence in contemporary Egypt. Children of Gebelawi, for example, is an allegory in which Egypt's present-day social concerns are linked with those of the past. Mahfouz explores broad themes, including the nature of evil and the meaning of life, by modeling his characters on such figures as Adam, Satan, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed, and he ambivalently personifies science and technology as the modern prophets of humanity. Malhamat al harafish (1977; The Harafish) traces the changing fortunes of thirteen generations of impoverished Egyptians over some seven centuries. The term “harafish” is a medieval Arabic word that refers to subversive elements among the poor. Mahfouz describes how the lives of poor inhabitants in an Old Cairo alley community are affected by the shifting beliefs and morality of their clan leaders. In addition to his fiction, Mahfouz's influence on Egyptian literature expanded to several other areas. He has written on a wide range of topics for Al-Ahram, a leading Egyptian newspaper, and as a dramatist and scriptwriter has endeavored to elevate the intellectual content of theater and film in Egypt.
Mahfouz is widely considered among the most important Arabic-language authors of the twentieth century. His “Cairo Trilogy” is regarded as a masterpiece of Middle Eastern literature. A revered literary figure among Egyptians and many Arabs, Mahfouz has also become the subject of lasting controversy for his treatment of Islamic religious themes in Children of Gebelawi. Though some critics find fault in the experimental forms of his later works, most praise the prose style and symbolism of his early works and the powerful depiction of social and political conditions in his native land throughout his oeuvre. Credited with popularizing the novel and short story in Arabic literature, traditionally overshadowed by poetry, Mahfouz is often compared to nineteenth-century novelists Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fedor Dostoevsky for the social realism that pervades much of his fiction.
Abath al-aqdar [The Absurdity of the Fates] (novel) 1939
Hams al-junun [The Whisper of Madness] (short stories) 1939
Radobis (novel) 1943
Kifah Tiba [The Struggle of Thebes] (novel) 1944
Khan al-khalili (novel) 1945
Al-Qahira al-jadida [The New Cairo] (novel) 1946
Zuqaq al-Midaqq [Midaq Alley] (novel) 1947
Al-Sarab [The Mirage] (novel) 1949
Bidaya wa-nihaya [The Beginning and the End] (novel) 1949
Bayn al-Qasrayn [Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy I] (novel) 1956
Qasr al-shawq [Palace of Desire: The Cairo Trilogy II] (novel) 1957
Al Sukkariya [Sugar Street: The Cairo Trilogy III] (novel) 1957
Al-Liss wa-al-kilab [The Thief and the Dogs] (novel) 1961
Al-Summan wa-al-kharif [Autumn Quail] (novel) 1962
Dunya Allah [God's World] (short stories) 1963
Al-Tariq [The Search] (novel) 1964
Bayt sayyi al-sum a (short stories) 1965
Al-Shahhadh [The Beggar] (novel) 1965
Tharthara fawqa al-Nil [Adrift on the...
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SOURCE: “The Shroud of Mahfouz,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, February 2, 1989, pp. 19–21.
[In the following essay, Shammas discusses Mahfouz as an Arabic novelist and considers his influence on Arabic literature.]
In the acceptance speech he sent to the Nobel Prize committee to substitute for his presence, Naguib Mahfouz asked the permission of his far-off audience to present himself as the son of two civilizations “that at a certain time in history have formed a happy marriage”—the civilization of the Pharaohs and that of Islam. Then he told an abrupt little story about each. After a victorious battle against Byzantium, he said, the Muslims gave back prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. “This was a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge,” Mahfouz said, “even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of pagan civilization.”
Jorge Luis Borges, who might have envied this Egyptian descendant of Averroës the honor that had befallen him, would also have detected in this cryptic anecdote the whimsical tricks of repetition that history often plays in his own writings. Was Aristotle's Poetics, that wonderful “fruit of pagan civilization,” among these ransomed books? That would have probably been the first...
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SOURCE: A review of Fountain and Tomb, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, p. 361.
[In the following mixed review, Allen discusses both the stories and the translation of Fountain and Tomb.]
Published by an act of providence at almost the same moment as the announcement of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, Fountain and Tomb is a translation of Hikayat haratina (1975). The title's literal meaning is “Tales of Our Quarter,” and the word quarter links the work with at least two others by Naguib Mahfouz (also frequently written Najib Mahfuz): the infamous novel Awlad haratina (“Children of Our Quarter”; 1959/1967; translated into English as Children of Gebelawi; see WLT 56:2, p. 398), and “‘Ushshaq al-hara” (“Lovers' Quarter”) from the short-story collection Hikaya bi-la bidaya wa-la nihaya (1971). As Shams al-din Musa shows in a recent article in Arabic for Afaq ‘Arabiyya (11, November 1988) on the “dimension of the quarter” in Mahfouz's fictional works, the use of the word hara in those works carries with it a strong symbolic resonance. The decision of the translators to alter the title is thus not only a substantial piece of interpretive license, but also a missed opportunity to link the present work with others in his oeuvre. The problem is somewhat compounded when the very word...
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SOURCE: “Sleep Walk,” in National Review, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 19, 1990, pp. 51–52.
[In the following negative review of Palace Walk, Morrissey unfavorably compares the novel to the work of Charles Dickens, asserting that it “lacks the verve and structure that made Dickens so readable.”]
When the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988—the first Arab writer to be so honored—it wasn't owing to his world-wide reputation. In fact, in the United States, Mahfouz had virtually no reputation at all; few critics and fewer readers had ever heard of him. The New York Times reported that when the Swedish Academy of Letters disclosed that Mahfouz had been given the Nobel, those who had gathered in Stockholm for the announcement “dispersed quietly and quickly. One said later that she and others had immediately gone searching for copies of Mr. Mahfouz's writings in local bookstores. They eventually found a copy of a work first published in 1957 that was on a sale rack in a store that specialized in used books.”
U.S. publishers of the 78-year-old writer's works no doubt hope that situation will change. At least three of Mahfouz's books recently have been published in new editions, and William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny's smooth translation of Palace Walk, the first volume of the “Cairo Trilogy,” his masterwork, was...
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SOURCE: “The Human Comedy in Cairo,” in New Republic, Vol. 202, No. 19, May 7, 1990, pp. 32–36.
[In the following essay, Ghosh provides an overview of Mahfouz's life and career as well as evaluating his contribution to modern Arabic literature.]
In Egypt, the news that the writer Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 was greeted with the kind of jubilation that Egyptians usually reserve for soccer victories. Even though the fundamentalists sounded an ominous note, most people in Cairo were overjoyed. Months later everybody was still full of it. People would tell anecdotes about how the good news had reached Mahfouz. Swedish efficiency has met its match in Cairo's telephones: the news had broken over the wires before the committee (or whatever) could get through to Mahfouz. He was asleep, taking his afternoon siesta (no, it was early in the morning, and he just hadn't woken up yet), when his wife woke him and told him matter-of-factly that somebody wanted to congratulate him for winning the Nobel (no, it was she who wanted to congratulate him, didn't you see the story in …).
The stories were on everyone's lips: tales of national pride and collective hope. Mahfouz has a large following in Egypt and is personally popular: he is everybody's slightly eccentric but successful uncle, a modest, generous, kindly man, who has spent over thirty...
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SOURCE: “Conversation with Mahfouz,” in Africa Report, Vol. 35, No. 2, May–June, 1990, pp. 65–66.
[In the following essay, Cole explores the cultural influences on Mahfouz's writing and his growing popularity as an author.]
Teenagers playing dominoes and backgammon filled the cafés as I rushed down Misr' Adimah's tired, dusty streets toward the public telephone station. The smell of garlic, fresh molokhia, and parsley hung in the air.
It was a little after 5 pm, my appointed time to contact Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. A fellah, a bundle under his arm, was using the one working telephone. Anxiety filled me. I had one day left in Egypt to see Mahfouz. Now I felt like a character in one of his novels.
Cairo had changed since my last visit seven years ago. It now has a metro system and commuter boats plying the Nile, helping the beleaguered buses and trolleys move the city's teeming masses. (Officially Cairo's population is 12–13 million; many say, however, that it's more like 15–20 million.) I heard talk of a “New Egypt.” Development was apparent downtown and in the wealthy modern suburbs—new office buildings, stores, hotels, public works, and restaurants had sprung up.
Things, though, seemed little changed in Cairo's older quarters—Misr' Adimah (Old Cairo), Shubra, El-Khalifa, Saida Zenab. They're still poor and densely...
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SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1990, p. 266.
[In the following positive review of The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song, Taylor describes several reasons why American audiences cannot fully appreciate Mahfouz's work.]
The writings of the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, are unlikely to create strong first impressions on those of us approaching his work only through translations. First of all, there is the problem of translation itself. In terms of style, Mahfouz is famous for having brilliantly resolved the linguistic dilemma facing Arab writers, namely the choice between “classical” Arabic—rooted in the Koran and the magnificent corpus of pre-Islamic literature—and the exceedingly different spoken idiom of the people. Indeed, as the critic Ahdaf Soueif pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement (21–27 October 1988), Mahfouz has fashioned a language “that combines the resonance of traditional Arabic rhetoric with the racy eloquence of Arab speech; a version of Arabic that delights the ear tuned to the classics and yet is accessible to the most basically tutored of school-leavers.” Yet how can such nuances be rendered in English, a language notorious...
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SOURCE: “Gloomy Clouds & Laughing Sun: Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate,” in Encounter, Vol. 75, No. 2, September, 1990, pp. 43–46.
[In the following review, Enright considers the strengths and weaknesses of several recent translations of Mahfouz's novels.]
I shall consider these novels by Naguib Mahfouz in the order not of their publication but of my reading of them, which, it seems to me, is also the ascending order of their interest. It needs to be emphasised that what is being discussed is the novels as they appear in English translation.
The thief of The Thief and the Dogs (1961) is Said Mahran, released after four years in prison, and determined to take revenge on those who (he believes) betrayed him, notably Ilish Sidra and Nabawiyya, his former wife, now married to Ilish. Nabawiyya prompts one of the overflowings of stream-of-consciousness which crop up throughout: “How I wish our eyes could meet, so I might behold one of the secrets of hell! Oh for the axe and the sledgehammer!” Better it might have been had Said stuck to the axe or the sledgehammer, but someone provides him with a gun. It used to be said that “he was Death Incarnate, that his shot never missed,” but twice he contrives to kill some unfortunate bystander in mistake for his targets, consoling himself ingeniously with the thought, “As for your gun, it's obvious that it will kill only the...
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SOURCE: “The Vagaries of Love,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 1991, p. 10.
[In the following review, Hussein explores how Palace of Desire serves as a bridge between Mahfouz's earlier works and his later, more cynical prose.]
The severed head of Islam's most honoured martyr, Imam Al-Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson and a symbol of resistance to oppression for many Muslims, lies buried in a sepulchre in Cairo—or so tradition tells us. Kamal, the idealistic central figure of Palace of Desire, is an ardent devotee at the shrine, until an encounter with a more sceptical companion relieves him of his faith; the shrine, he is told, is merely an empty symbol.
The memory of this early loss of faith, seen as the prelude to all his life's ensuing tragedies, echoes throughout this magnificent account of Kamal's quest for truth in love, philosophy, art and politics, and it contains within it the novel's central dilemma: how can we live without belief, in love, God, truth or change? The ambivalent answer, found at the crossroads of a circuitous narrative route that traverses the highways of history and politics, is a summing-up of Mahfouz's vision. In a world that systematically deprives us of the armour of sincere belief, we must continue to have faith. The trappings of traditional religion and ritual are discarded in the search for a more abiding divine...
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SOURCE: “A Great 20th-Century Novelist,” in Commentary, Vol. 91, No. 6, June, 1991, pp. 34–38.
[In the following essay, Milson explores the contradictions in Mahfouz's career and work and traces his development as a writer of novels and short fiction.]
Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who in 1988 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a man of contradictions. Well-versed in Western culture, he has never visited Western Europe or America. The most famous modern Arab novelist, on whom more has been written than on any other Arab writer, he is a man about whom relatively little is known. Although his works are deeply rooted in the milieu of Cairo's lower and middle classes, in his writing he has conspicuously avoided the use of the language these classes speak. And perhaps the most amazing contradiction is this: while Mahfouz is the most popular writer in the Arab world, his political views differ radically from those held by the majority of Arab intellectuals.
Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children in a middle-class Muslim family which lived in a quarter of Cairo called Gamaliyya, part of the old section of the city whose roots go back to the 10th century. This traditional neighborhood, with its mosques, minarets, and bazaars, the most famous of which is the Khan al-Khalili, figures prominently in many of Mahfouz's works. In fact, Cairo,...
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SOURCE: “Life along the Nile,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 12, June 14, 1991, pp. 410–11.
[In the following review, Castronova offers a positive assessment of Palace of Desire.]
This grand-scale novel of Cairo life in the 1920s—weighing in with the heft and detail of a nineteenth-century chronicle—is the second part of Nobel laureate Mahfouz's family trilogy about the middle classes between the wars. The books were first published in 1956–57, but are still news to most of us. They are copious reports from the Arabic world given humane depth and artistic harmony by a tolerant, witty, urbane observer of small scenes and large patterns. The first volume of the trilogy, Palace Walk, focuses on Ahmad al-Sayyid, a prosperous retail merchant whose tyrannical domestic regime, decorous business life, and late-night pleasures with cronies and lute girls provide the narrative with its tensions. A man with an infinite capacity for compartmentalizing and rationalizing, he bullies his way through life using custom, bits of the Koran, and his personal magnetism to keep things in order.
The second installment situates the rogue-patriarch against the background of deteriorating traditions, filial insubordination, and the rising tide of nationalism and resentment of British domination. While Palace Walk is principally set in the old neighborhood of narrow streets, coffee...
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SOURCE: “Fiction: In History and Out,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 491–93.
[In the following excerpt, Kearns praises Mahfouz's complex portrayal of a middle-class Muslim family in the 1920s in his “Cairo Trilogy.”]
Three and a half decades have passed since the publication in Arabic of Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece, “The Cairo Trilogy.” We owe to the 1988 Nobel Prize its appearance in English: the first volume, Palace Walk, last year; now the second, Palace of Desire; the final volume, Sugar Street, early next year. The trilogy recounts, with Tolstoyan assurance, the lives, marriages and disruptive extramarital passions of a Muslim family of the middling merchant class. Its patriarch is the extraordinary al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who leads two lives almost successfully walled off from each other. At home he's an austere tyrant, but abroad on nightly rambles through Cairo's pleasure districts a hard-drinking, witty and amorous companion. The focus is always upon one or another member of his family; ceremonial gatherings, conflicts and ritualized negotiations are minutely rendered. Politics and history accompany the family chronicle, usually as a dissonant music off in the middle distance, now louder, now almost forgotten, yet inescapable. Palace Walk is set against the British occupation of Egypt during the First World War, and ends in...
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SOURCE: “The Accidents of Life,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 24, 1992, p. 22.
[In the following review, Wood offers a positive assessment of The Search and draws attention to the Oedipal tone of the novel's plot.]
The sleazy hero of this very good novel [The Search] is placed somewhere between Double Indemnity and The Plague. The book has the well-paced plot of a film noir, and is also littered with delicately posed questions about moral, psychological and national identity. Some of its patterned contrasts—easy-going old Alexandria set against bustling Cairo, the virtuous, loving girlfriend against the rabid sexual temptress—are rather schematic, but they are not insistent, and the novel never tells us what to think.
The Search was first published in Arabic in 1964, and plainly reflects the Egypt of the Revolution and after. But there is a sense in which its real location, without ceasing to be historical, is actually any place where crime seems not only a short cut to big money, but the only route; and where big money is the only money that counts. Mahfouz's Egypt bears more than a passing resemblance to Raymond Chandler's California and Elmore Leonard's Florida, and his subject is not so much a world where crime and big money are what matter as the mentality which is unable to think otherwise. “Are you for the East or the...
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SOURCE: “Cairo's Ancient Alleys,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, No. 26, January, 1992, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following positive review, Dickey praises the political background and insights in Sugar Street.]
Beggars groped for alms outside the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo. Their feet were bandaged, their skin mottled with dirt and disease. One gestured with the leprous stumps of his fingers. It was the eve of the Prophet's birthday, and behind the mendicants, visible through the wide, ancient doorways, were double lines of bearded men swaying, praying, dancing themselves into religious ecstasy. Even in the early afternoon the lights were on. The bare bulbs shined weakly, isolated and lost in the cavernous interior.
It was 1988, a few days after Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature, and as yet few tourists were making their way into his old Cairo neighborhood. Those who did venture beyond the Khan Khalili bazaar and the mosque discovered, here, a garbage dump, flies rising from it in clouds; there a police station, its 1950s architecture dingy with dirt as old as the pharaohs, its officers leaning idly on Cold War-era Kalashnikov rifles. And when a foreigner finally arrived among the ancient alleys for which Mahfouz named each volume of the trilogy that is his masterpiece—Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street—there seemed, at first, to be...
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SOURCE: “Messages from Cairo,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 1992, p. 23.
[In the following positive review, Irwin examines the dominant themes of Sugar Street.]
Sukkariya, or Sugar Street, is situated just inside the Zuweyla Gate, built by the Fatimids to protect medieval Cairo. Sugar, almonds and dried fruit used to be sold here. In Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Sugar Street, the third in his magnificent Cairo Trilogy dealing with middle-class life in Egypt in the first half of this century, Sugar Street is also the home of sharp-tongued Khadija, her indolent husband Ibrahim Shawnat, and their two sons Abd al-Muni‘m and Ahmad. The same broad highway which begins as Sugar Street, changes its name several times as it runs towards the northernmost gate of medieval Cairo, between the great mosques and the decayed Mamluke palaces. About half way in its progress north, this highway becomes known as Bayn al-Qasrein or Palace Walk. Palace Walk, which provided the title for the first volume of Mahfouz's Trilogy, is the home of Khadija's patriarchal father, the grocer Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his submissive wife Amina, his unmarried son Kamal, his widowed daughter, Aisha, and Aisha's daughter Na‘ima. The house of Sayyid Ahmad is on the very edge of the Gamaliya, an area of narrow little streets, shaded by overhanging wooden balconies, where tobacco, soap and imported goods from Syria were...
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SOURCE: “Two Wars, Much Peace, but No Tolstoy,” in Spectator, April 25, 1992, p. 34.
[In the following review, Lively offers a positive assessment of Sugar Street, comparing Mahfouz to John Galsworthy.]
Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo trilogy, of which Sugar Street is the final volume, was completed in 1952. It reaches us 40 years late, giving an extra displacement in time to what is already in effect a sequence of historical novels. Palace Walk, the first volume, set the scene during the first world war and introduced the leading figure, the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad. At the close of Sugar Street he dies, as the Libyan campaign rages in the wings. Two wars, neither of them Egypt's wars, are dispassionately observed by the central figures of the novels, for whom the abiding concern is the domestic political scene and the continuing hated British administration. The trilogy is a political and social discussion of a crucial half-century. Appropriately, it signs off in the year of revolution.
It is also a family saga in the most traditional western sense. Proust, Tolstoy and Balzac are the names most frequently flung around in company with that of Mahfouz—all totally inappropriate to my mind. I thought of Galsworthy, reading Sugar Street. The central preoccupation is marriage—the expedient pairing of the young to the greater advantage of the families...
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SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: The Art of Fiction CXXIX,” in Paris Review, Vol. 34, No. 123, Summer, 1992, pp. 50–73.
[In the following interview, Mahfouz discusses the role of politics and religion in his life and work, his attitude toward censorship, and his reaction to winning the Nobel Prize.]
Naguib Mahfouz credits Hafiz Najib—thief, jailbird, renowned cop baiter and author of twenty-two detective novels—with being his earliest literary influence. The ten-year-old Mahfouz read Najib's Johnson's Son on the recommendation of an elementary school classmate, and the experience, Mahfouz avows, changed his life.
Mahfouz's subsequent influences have been many and various. In high school Mahfouz became preoccupied with Taha Husayn, whose revolutionary critical work. Fil-shi‘r al-Jahili, provoked a hysterical reaction from conservative Asharite circles when it was published in 1926. In college Mahfouz read Salama Musa, who as the editor of the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida later published Mahfouz's first novel, and from whom Mahfouz says he learned “to believe in science, socialism and tolerance.”
In the years following the Second World War, Mahfouz retreated from his socialist ideals to a deep pessimism. He spent much of his time engaged in gloomy discussions of life and the purposelessness of literature with fellow writers ‘Adil Kamil and...
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SOURCE: “A Journey in the Medieval Style,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 1992, p. 20.
[In the following review, Shah offers a negative assessment of The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.]
The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz is best known for the three books of his “Cairo Trilogy” (first published in Arabic in 1956–57). Those novels sensuously recall the Cairo of Mahfouz's youth. The city's streets teem with lively and argumentative characters and there is a Dickensian confidence in Mahfouz's narrative. There are mystical undertones and hints of allegory in another masterpiece, The Thief and the Dogs (1961), but the metaphysical drama is played out in the streets of a vividly evoked Cairo, and the reader is still held in the grip of old-fashioned storytelling.
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (first published in Cairo in 1983) is not like those novels, and is much less likeable. One of several allegorical and experimental fictions that Mahfouz produced in the 1970s and 1980s, this novel is a pastiche of the Rihlat, the famous travel narrative of the fourteenth-century Moroccan globe-trotter, Ibn Battuta. Mahfouz, speaking through Ibn Fattouma, apes the authentic medieval style, with its flowery metaphors and parallelisms, as in “days that brought me lessons and instruction also pushed me to the threshold of adolescence, so that the skies poured...
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SOURCE: “Mahfouz: A Great Novel and a Wanting Translation,” in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1992, pp. 187–89.
[In the following review, El-Enany discusses the various translation problems in Palace Walk.]
Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win international recognition when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. This recognition did not come all of a sudden; Western readers conversant in Arabic have long been familiar with the work of Arab authors (including Mahfouz) whose appeal extends beyond their national borders to reach the timeless core of human experience. Attempts to cross the language barrier in English go back to at least the 1930s and 1940s of this century, when works of fiction by such notable Egyptian authors as Taha Husayn and Tawfiq al-Hakim were translated (namely, An Egyptian Childhood and The Maze of Justice, respectively).
The first translation of a novel by Naguib Mahfouz (Midaq Alley) did not appear however until 1966, when he was already recognised as the leading novelist in Arabic. It was not until the 1970s when Arab affairs came to the fore of the international arena and Arab studies flourished in Western academic circles that the translations from Arabic gathered real momentum. Thus when Mahfouz became Nobel laureate there had already been 10 titles by him in English translation alone. In the...
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SOURCE: “From ‘Naguib Mahfouz's Critics,’” in Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, edited by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, Syracuse University Press, 1993, pp. 144–71.
[In the following essay, Asfour surveys the critical reaction to Mahfouz's work.]
No contemporary Arab man of letters has managed to preoccupy our literary mentality as much as Naguib Mahfouz. His multilayered fictional world, with its complex set of relations and its elusive symbols, provokes unending arguments, lays the groundwork for interminable problems, and stimulates ongoing critical efforts aimed at discovering that world's constituent elements. As long as this fictional world remains a bearer of meaning, a generator of signification, it produces seemingly inexhaustible analytical activity, commentary, and interpretation. On their performative level, these activities may be identical, or they may be in conflict—they may differ or agree in terms of their goal or perspective, yet in the end they present us with a complex posture of commentaries and interpretations. In other words, they present a posture characterized by complexity, variety, and richness as much as by discordance, opposition, and contradiction.
Luwis ‘Awad has spoken of a “chorus of critics” that rings out with hymns of praise whenever Naguib Mahfouz publishes a new work; rivers of interviews and articles...
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SOURCE: “Time and the Man: Four Egyptian Sagas,” in Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, Routledge, 1993, pp. 70–98.
[In the following essay, El-Enany explores Mahfouz's preoccupation with time and how it affects the individuals and communities in Mahfouz's “Cairo Trilogy” and Qushtumur.]
A preoccupation with time is at the centre of Mahfouz's work. A thought that has been uppermost in his writings has been how time affects the individual and the community and how human memory relates to external time. In this essay I have grouped together some novels in which time is a prime concern. The first three novels treated here are all romans fleuves in the sense that they are concerned with the examination of the changing conditions of life for individuals and society across a succession of generations in a given family. However, of the three it is only “The Cairo Trilogy” which is written on the grand scale associated with this type of novel, as established by such European masters as Balzac, Zola and Mann. The other two are romans fleuves of a lesser order, cramming too many events and characters into what are very short novels, and more inclined towards the quick reportage of change than in its detailed representation and the creation of a real sense of the passage of time. Qushtumur, the fourth and last novel dealt with in this essay, is not technically a roman...
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SOURCE: A review of Sugar Street, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 203–04.
[In the following review, Allen discusses the third book in “Cairo Trilogy,” Sugar Street, and describes how the trilogy has developed since the first book, Palace Walk.]
Those readers in the Western world who have enjoyed the process of being introduced through Naguib Mahfouz's great family saga to the life and culture of Egyptian society between the two world wars will need little incentive to follow the tale to its conclusion in the final volume of The Cairo Trilogy under review here. Al-Sukkariyyah, the third novel in the series, originally published in 1957 and now translated as Sugar Street, rounds off the narrative in a manner common to all realistic sagas such as this, neatly tying up most of the loose ends. The family patriarch, Ahmad ‘Abd al-Gawwad, dies one night during an air raid. Secular universities have now opened, and men and women attend the same classes. The patriarch's grandsons have both become involved in the politics of opposition in Egypt as it endeavors to cope with the short-term issues of war and foreign occupation and the more long-term matters of political systems and contemporary morality. As this novel and the trilogy end, both grandsons are in prison: one as a communist, the other a member of the Muslim Brethren.
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SOURCE: “Homosexuality in the Early Novels of Nageeb Mahfouz,” in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 26, No. 4, January, 1994, pp. 77–90.
[In the following essay, Matar discusses the controversy surrounding the homosexuality and homosexual issues that Mahfouz portrays in several of his novels.]
Upon the publication of Midaq Alley in 1947, Nageeb Mahfouz became the first writer in modern Arabic to present in his fiction a depiction of the homosexual protagonist. A few years later, Mahfouz completed Sukariyya in the “Trilogy” (published however in 1957), in which he again portrayed homosexual relationship. No other writer had dealt with this topic since the Renaissance of Arabic literature in the 19th century, and only a few have touched upon it since Mahfouz.1 Mahfouz's choice of homosexuality is noteworthy because the topic is deeply objectionable to the Islamic tradition in which the novels and their author are rooted. In the Koran (7: 80–81), as well as in the Hadiths of the Prophet, in the writings of the early Caliphs and of medieval jurists, there is repeated consensus that homosexuality is a sin, and that the homosexual is a deviant who will meet with divine punishment: “If you find anyone committing the deed of Lot,” the Hadith of the Prophet states, “kill him and the other upon whom the deed is done” (al-Dhahabi 55; see also Sha‘aar 119 and Yahfoofi...
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SOURCE: “A Romance of the Masses,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1994, p. 25.
[In the following mixed review, Davis argues that The Harafish's distinctly Middle Eastern qualities may make it difficult for Western readers to understand.]
The Harafish is a translation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, first published in Arabic in 1977. As the translator, Catherine Cobham, tells us in a prefatory note, “The meaning … of harafish is the rabble. … In the novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless.” In not translating the title, and so keeping it undomesticated by English, Ms. Cobham has wisely signalled to us the fact that the novel differs in many ways from what we might expect to find in a Western novel.
The book draws for its material on the ancient clan system, prevalent in many Middle-Eastern urban settings until well into the twentieth century, whereby groups of young men organized themselves into vigilante groups to protect their own neighbourhood, keeping out rivals and administering a rough justice within the area they controlled. The ethos of such groups involved, ideally, a kind of manly chivalry that inspired many folk-tales of local heroes, their struggles to become clan leader, their fights against outsiders, their munificent...
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SOURCE: “More Incident than an Egyptian Soap,” in Spectator, July 2, 1994, p. 35.
[In the following review, King offers a mixed assessment of The Harafish.]
The finest achievement of Naguib Mahfouz is his Cairo trilogy, written in the late Forties and early Fifties and in my view the greatest work of realistic fiction to be produced since the War. No doubt it was this trilogy which led one Western critic to call him ‘the Balzac of Egypt’ and another ‘the Dickens of the Cairo cafés,’ and the Committee of the Nobel Prize for Literature to make him its laureate in 1988.
Inevitably, after the award of the Prize, a novelist whom the reference books had up to then ignored became world-famous. No less inevitably some critics lost their heads—with Edward Said declaring hyperbolically in the London Review of Books: ‘He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romains.’ Had it not been for the Nobel Prize, it seems to me unlikely that The Harafish, first published in Arabic in 1977, would now be appearing in English. It is inferior not merely to The Cairo Trilogy but to at least half-a-dozen of Mahfouz's other books.
Whether the choice of the author, the translator or the publishers, the English title of this novel is unlikely to attract the prospective reader and will certainly not inform him of what to...
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SOURCE: “Troubled Tribe of Cairo,” in Chicago Tribune Books, July 10, 1994, p. 3.
[In the following negative review, Allen criticizes Mahfouz's prose style in The Harafish.]
Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz, the preeminent Arabic language novelist of his time, was born in Cairo in 1911 and remained largely unknown in cultures outside his own until receiving the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Only a few of Mahfouz's more than 40 books of fiction had previously reached us in English translation. Since the Nobel, English-speaking readers have been treated to such colorful and distinctive novels as Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, The Beggar and, most notably, his masterly Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, 1956–57), a vast and compelling portrayal of a star-crossed Muslim family that displays both Tolstoyan breadth and Flaubertian concentration and precision.
There's nothing limited or local about Mahfouz's art. He's a sophisticated analyst of the convolutions of personality and personal interrelationships, and a virtuoso storyteller with a positive genius for plotting. Many of these qualities are strikingly present in The Harafish, which was originally published in Arabic in 1977 and echoes Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy in its focus on the linked fates of a single family's several generations.
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SOURCE: “On Holiday,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 14, July 21, 1994, p. 12.
[In the following review, Chaudhuri explores the parallels between Palace Walk and The Harafish.]
Naguib Mahfouz made his name with his trilogy of Cairo life—Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street—first published in Arabic in the late Fifties. At first glance, The Harafish, which was originally published in 1977, bears little resemblance to, say, Palace Walk. The latter is a story of a family in an ‘alley’ in Cairo in the first half of the 20th century, and is told in a straightforward chronological manner that seems to owe something to the 19th-century European novel. The Harafish is more rambling, less realistic (without being ‘magical’), telling the mythic story of the descendants of the heroic Ashur-al-Nagi and covering births, weddings, murders and entire generations, sometimes in the course of a chapter. It is set in a time that for the most part appears to be medieval, given its plagues, dervishes and clan chiefs, but occasionally edges towards the modern with the appearance, for example, of a police inspector.
There are, however, superficial resemblances between the better-known earlier work and the later novel: among them, an appetite for weddings and an interest in stories that explore the interrelationships in a large...
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SOURCE: “Fabulous Fabulist,” in New York Review of Books, September 22, 1994, pp. 30–33.
[In the following positive review of The Harafish, Coetzee explores Mahfouz's use of Arabic and Western literary techniques, calling him “a great middleman” between the two traditions.]
When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the slumbers of the Arab Near East were rudely broken. First Egypt and then the whole of the region was forced to turn away from Turkey and toward Europe. A body of secular European ideas—those that had inspired the French Revolution—broke through the barrier separating Islam from the West setting off a crisis which has not to this day been resolved.
Even before 1798 the Islamic world had a place in the field of Western scholarship and myth, that Edward Said has called Orientation knowledge of Islam, true and false as an armature of power. Islam on the other hand knew land cared to know little about the West. It had nothing to show that could be called Orientalism a view of the West through the eyes of Eastern arts and sciences. In the century and a half that followed a variety of Western concepts and institutions identified as crucial to the modern outlook were taken over in Islamic countries. Much of the unsettledness of the region today results from a failure to find ways of domesticating such essentially secular...
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SOURCE: A review of The Harafish, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, p. 874.
[In the following positive review, Allen praises the English translation of The Harafish.]
The Harafish is an English translation of Malhamat al-Harāfish (literally “The Epic of the Harāfish”), which was originally published in Egypt in 1977. In 1975–76 I was on sabbatical in Egypt and had been in contact with Naguib Mahfouz several times concerning my translation of his earlier work, al-Marāyā (1972), which was eventually published in English in 1977 as Mirrors. I can vividly recall one telephone conversation in which he told me that he had just finished a work about the “harafish” and was very happy with it. Subsequent comments by Mahfouz indeed make it clear that this is his personal favorite among all his works; it has certainly been at the top of his translation desiderata following his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1988 (see WLT 63:1, pp. 5–9).
The Harafish belongs to that group of fictional works by Mahfouz that make use of the allegory of “the quarter” (in Arabic, hārah) and its inhabitants as a means of investigating many of the larger philosophical issues that have been abiding concerns of the author ever since he abandoned an academic career in philosophy for creative writing in the 1930s. Awlād...
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SOURCE: “The Historical Novels,” in The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt, University Press of Florida, 1994, pp. 21–53.
[In the following essay, Moosa evaluates Mahfouz's importance as a writer of historical novels and examines the dominant themes of his historical fiction.]
Mahfouz began his literary career when he was in high school, producing essays on different subjects together with short stories. He began to write novels while in college, but these first efforts were not publishable. Through the effort and encouragement of Salama Musa, however, he eventually had several historical novels published. Mahfouz relates how this happened. During one of his visits to the office of the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida, Musa asked him whether he thought that there was a chance for the novel to succeed in Egypt. Musa believed that since most Egyptian fiction writers were influenced by Western ideas and techniques, it would be difficult to produce a genuine Egyptian novel. Perhaps, he thought, a student from the Azhar (an Islamic religious institute, now a university) could write an authentic Egyptian novel, because Azharite students were not influenced by Western culture. Mahfouz responded that although the novel in Egypt was still in its infancy, he himself had ventured into the genre. Surprised, Musa asked him whether he really wrote novels; Mahfouz answered that he did. Had...
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SOURCE: “The Novelist and the Sheikh,” in New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 47, January 30, 1995, pp. 52–69.
[In the following essay, Weaver considers the impact of religious and political events on Mahfouz's life and career—particularly the attempt on Mahfouz's life in 1994.]
Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab world's only Nobel Laureate in Literature, leaves nothing to chance. There is a precision and an economy about him, and he measures his daily life down to the minute. Thus, on the afternoon of October 14, 1994—as he had done every Friday afternoon for seven years—the eighty-two-year-old writer left his apartment building in the Agouza section of Cairo at exactly ten minutes before five, and walked outside. It seemed to him unusually quiet that afternoon as he glanced around the street—a rather ordinary, rather characterless block, where old houses of ochre and beige are interspersed with taller, concrete buildings from the nineteen-fifties, and where there are shops of all kinds, offices and apartment buildings, and, usually, traffic jams and noise.
A small, frail figure, he walked slightly stooped, assisted by a cane; his face was half obscured by heavy dark glasses. (His eyes were failing and sensitive.) He was somewhat irritated, he later recalled, because he did not immediately spot Dr. Fathi Hashem's waiting car. Fathi, a forty-eight-year-old veterinarian, had been picking him...
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SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 224–30.
[In the following essay, Moosa outlines the development of Mahfouz's literary style and thematic concerns.]
Among the major figures in the development of modern Arabic fiction, none has received higher international acclaim than Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Before then he was—like Taha Husayn (d. 1973) and Tawfiq al-Hakim (d. 1987)—known in the West only to a very limited audience despite an output that includes over thirty novels and a number of short-story collections and plays. In fact, until the 1940's, Mahfouz was little known even in his native Egypt, where he began his literary career as an essayist. He gained some fame with the publication of three historical novels, but his undisputed literary renown came from a series of realistic contemporary novels in which he portrayed various aspects of life in Cairo. “Al-Thulathiyya” (“The Trilogy”), published in 1956–57, was immediately seen as a major achievement and brought him wide recognition in literary circles outside Egypt.
Mahfouz was born into a middle-class family, the youngest of seven children. Though he seldom discusses his early life, it appears that he grew up in a solid family environment with happily married parents...
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SOURCE: “Ancient Tales, Modern Telling,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 2, 1995, pp. 6–7.
[In the following review of Arabian Nights and Days, Mesic offers a positive assessment of Mahfouz's adaptation of The Arabian Nights.]
At the heart of Arabian Nights and Days, an enthralling novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, is the spacious courtyard of the Cafe of the Emirs. Despite some concessions to the distinctions of wealth—the cafe is furnished with couches for affluent customers and low mats for humble laborers—it is a place of true democracy. For conversation, which flourishes here, rests on an assumption of equality. Thus Nural-Din, a perfume seller of wealth and surpassing good looks, and Shamloul, the hunch-backed millionaire, gather with Ma‘rouf the cobbler and Ugr the barber and hear the lowly porter Sindbad announce his decision to become a sailor and thus quench his longing for “the unknown that brings forth islands and mountains … angels, and devils.”
But few attend to Sindbad's plan, which none can foresee will end in marvels. The men of this rich medieval town, nestled between a mountain and a river, are celebrating. The sultan Shahriyar has declared that he will marry the wise and beautiful Shahrzad, who has preserved her life by beguiling the sultan with stories. The marriage means that neither she nor any of the city's...
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SOURCE: “Tapestry of Tales,” in Chicago Tribune Books, February 11, 1996, pp. 1, 11.
[In the following positive review, Mesic praises Children of the Alley as a skillful and fresh combination of allegory, historical fiction, and myth.]
Out of a timeless oral tradition, of stories so old history and myth are braided into one, comes a rich tapestry of tales, each complete in itself, that interlock as do the stories of the Arabian Nights. Each chapter of Children of the Alley encapsulates a life, presenting the whole trajectory of a character's development, actions and their consequences. The alley of the title is peopled by petty merchants and the poor—snake charmers, jam sellers, shepherds and carpenters, murderers and the pure of heart—but all claim descent from one noble household, from which their tribe was long ago evicted.
Naguib Mahfouz is absolutely specific in showing the details of these lives. Small cucumbers roll in the dust when young hooligans upset the cart of humble Adham, the first, exiled son of the noble house to be forced to earn his living by labor. And Mahfouz catches the buttery sheen of the slippers of soft yellow leather worn by the shy bridegroom Rifaa, who marries an impure woman to save her from a vengeful crowd. But the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author is deliberately cloudy about time and place. The town, somewhere on the...
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SOURCE: “But Wisdom Lingers,” in Spectator, February 22, 1997, p. 28.
[In the following review, de Botton offers a generally favorable assessment of Echoes of an Autobiography.]
This is an autobiography only in the loosest sense. We don't hear where the author was born, what his childhood was like or, as Holden Caulfield would say, ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’ Naguib Mahfouz, the 86-year-old Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist, hasn't written directly about his past, more about what it feels like to have a past, to have a long life to look over; in essence, to be old.
Echoes of an Autobiography is a slim book, divided into short, loosely connected, aphoristic paragraphs which deal with poignant, often lyrical moments of remembering. The author returns to a street in Cairo to attend the funeral of an old woman. Towering buildings have replaced elegant villas, the street is crammed with cars, dust and turbulent waves of pedestrians. Mahfouz recalls a time when the street smelt of jasmine, and the deceased was a beautiful young woman, ‘casting her radiance on the passers-by.’ Elsewhere, the author looks at a photo of a group of childhood friends, who have all now died:
The faces were cheerfully radiant and at ease, eloquent with life. There was no hint, not the slightest, of what lay hidden in the unknown....
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SOURCE: “Even in Warm Embraces,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review of Echoes of an Autobiography, El-Enany compliments the poetic nature of Mahfouz's autobiography and finds it reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.]
If you are looking for an autobiography of Naguib Mahfouz, or even for the echoes of one, please ignore this book [Echoes of an Autobiography]. The nearest the author ever got to writing an autobiography was in some of his novels, notably “The Cairo Trilogy,” Mirrors and Fountain and Tomb. However, if what you want is the quintessential Mahfouz; the wisdom of a great mind distilled from thirty-three novels, some 200 short stories and a lifetime of contemplating the human condition, you need look no further. It is all here in this quaint book of mystical aphorisms and parables, which is reminiscent of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.
And unlike all the translations of Mahfouz which have been published in the years since 1988, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and which have been trying to ride the wave of international fame and catch up on earlier untranslated work, the present volume genuinely is a recent work by Mahfouz, since Echoes was first serialized in Arabic...
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SOURCE: “Re-Reading Women in/to Naguib Mahfouz's Al-Liss wa‘l kilab (The Thief and the Dogs),” in Research in American Literatures, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 5–16.
[In the following essay, Hartman analyzes the role of female characters in Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs.]
This article rereads women both in and into Naguib Mahfouz's short 1961 novel, al-Liss wa‘l kilab. By reading women in this novel, I mean a close reading of the two women portrayed in the novel in order to explore how they are textually constructed as characters. By reading women into the text, I mean to examine the textual function of specific female characters to comment upon their significance to this novel as well as to Mahfouz's entire oeuvre.
Why is it important to read the female characters in and into this novel? There is a small but growing number of articles concerned with women in Naguib Mahfouz's novels, corresponding to a greater interest in exploring gender in Arabic literature written by both men and women. Readings of the female characters in al-Liss wa‘l kilab provides deeper insight not only into this novel, but also into the role of stereotypes of women in Arabic literature in general. It is important to read beyond the common assumption that Arab culture is sexist and/or misogynist, and therefore Arabic literature must be as well. When the female...
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SOURCE: “The Works of Najib Mahfuz,” in Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo, St. Martin's Press, 1998, pp. 56–95.
[In the following essay, Milson traces Mahfouz's development as a writer and discusses his major thematic concerns.]
What one cannot theorize about, one must narrate.
I do not believe that a literary work can be an answer to anything. A literary work is essentially a question.
It is perhaps inevitable that the works of a writer whose literary output extends over a period of more than sixty years should invite attempts at classification by style or content.1 I have chosen to forgo any attempt at a rigid categorization of Mahfuz's works, preferring to present a more or less chronological survey.2 This chapter sketches Mahfuz's development as a writer and presents the major themes and ideas which preoccupy him. Particular attention will be paid to the early stories of the thirties and forties, which, although not remarkable for their narrative art, are nevertheless of great interest, as they help us understand the author's psychological make-up, his moral concerns and his urge to write and publish. They also anticipate themes which will reappear throughout his later work....
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SOURCE: A review of Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, in Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2000, p. L1.
[In the following review, Levi discusses the parallels between history and heroics in Mahfouz's Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth.]
In 1985, the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz published a book titled The Day the Leader Was Murdered. Mahfouz was widely known as a supporter of “The Leader,” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated four years earlier for making peace with Israel in the form of the historic Camp David treaty. Sadat, who began his term of office with a brilliant surprise attack on Israel over the Yom Kippur holy days in 1973, made a stunning volte face in 1977 with the first state visit of any Arab leader to Israel and shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year with Israeli President Menachem Begin. A hero to some, a traitor to others, an idealist and a politician, a man of compassion and a brute, Sadat became increasingly enigmatic. His assassination elicited none of the popular grief that greeted the death of his predecessor, Gamel Abdul Nasser.
In 1985, Mahfouz wrote another short book, a novel, which is just now being published in the United States. Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth tells the story of another Egyptian leader, a pharaoh of the 14th century BC. Credited by some as the first monotheist, Akhenaten ruled Egypt a generation before Moses...
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SOURCE: “The Cruelty of Memory,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVII, No. 19, November 30, 2000, pp. 42–47.
[In the following essay, Said considers the problems of English translations of Mahfouz's work, arguing that they miss the distinctive and direct nature of his narrative voice.]
Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life. But even to them he did not seem to have a style or perspective of his own, partly because the few translations available were very uneven in quality and partly because he did not (and still doesn't) have one translator (and hence one voice) who made it a life's project to keep producing Mahfouz's prose masterpieces in English versions.
In 1980 I tried to interest a New York publisher who was then looking for “third world” books to publish in putting out several of the great writer's works in first-rate translations, but after a little reflection the idea was turned down. When I inquired why, I was told (with no detectable irony) that Arabic was a controversial language. A few years later I had an amiable and, from my point of view, encouraging correspondence about him with Jacqueline Onassis, who was trying to decide whether to take him on; she then...
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SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: A Translator's View,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 2001, pp. 136–42.
[In the following essay, Stock offers an analysis of Mahfouz's works that are set in ancient times, including Children of Gebelawi and “A Voice from the Other World.”]
Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab Nobel Laureate in Literature, has published roughly sixty books, covering virtually every style and genre of fiction. His subject has always been mankind's fate, depicted (with very rare exceptions) in scenes from his native Egypt. Though his themes are modern—or more properly, universal—entombed in the mass of Mahfouz's oeuvre is a small, tragically neglected body of works set in, or using devices from, the age of the Pharaohs.
Naguib Mahfouz ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibrahim Ahmad al-Basha was born at 2:00 A.M. on December 10, 1911 (though his birth was registered—and is still celebrated—on December 11), into a middle-class family in the old Islamic quarter of Cairo. (Fifteen years earlier, at 2:00 A.M. on December 10, 1896, Alfred Nobel suffered a fatal stroke. The prizes endowed in his name are still given out each year on the anniversary of this event.) In 1957, Mahfouz's much-hailed “Trilogy,” depicting the life of a family in his home district of Gamaliya over the first half of the twentieth century, won the Egyptian State Prize. (Called...
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Beard, Michael and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993, 208 p.
Collection of critical essays on Mahfouz and his work.
Coates, Joseph. “Tyrannical Patriarch: An Egyptian Family Saga from Nobel-Prize Novelist Naguib Mahfouz.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 December 1990): 3.
Coates offers a positive assessment of Palace of Desire, noting that the novel is profoundly influenced by Western literary models.
———. “Nobel Winner Traverses a Cultural and Religious Gap.” Chicago Tribune (27 August 1992): 53.
Coates discusses Mahfouz's cultural assumptions in The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.
El-Enany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning. London: Routledge, 1993, 271 p.
Full-length critical study on Mahfouz.
Milson, Menahem. Najīb Mahfūz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, 304 p.
Milson explores Mahfouz's special interest in names and examines the personal philosophy expressed in his work and interviews.
Moosa, Matti. The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994, 322...
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