Article abstract: Mahfouz is Egypt’s foremost writer and the premier man of letters for the entire Arabic-speaking world. He began publishing in 1939, and his literary output since then can only be described as astounding. In recognition of his contribution to world literature, Mahfouz was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Arab writer to be so honored.
Naguib Mahfouz was born in the traditional Cairene quarter of Jamaliyya, a densely populated neighborhood composed of mazelike alleys and cul-de-sacs that was home to the popular classes then as it is today. Many of his best works are set within the confines of this quarter, which has provided Mahfouz with a rich, variegated human landscape made up of petty artisans, tradesmen, street vendors, and social marginals. His family, however, enjoyed a more elevated social status than most of their neighbors, since Mahfouz’s father held a minor bureaucratic post within the British-dominated government. The period from the eve of World War I until the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, convened by the European victors to determine, among other things, the political fate of the Middle East, was a tumultuous era for Egypt. The country had suffered British occupation since 1882, and in 1914 Egypt was officially declared a British protectorate. The occupation had been opposed by Egyptian nationalists from its inception; after the war, increasingly militant demands for independence were voiced by all strata of Egyptian society. Because his family resided in Jamaliyya, the center of political unrest, Mahfouz as a young boy witnessed bloody street clashes between the British police and protestors demonstrating against Egypt’s continued protectorate status. Moreover, Mahfouz’s father was himself a dedicated nationalist, and these experiences naturally had a profound impact upon Mahfouz. The Egyptian National Revolution of March, 1919, figures in several of his novels and short stories.
When Mahfouz was twelve, his family left the crowds and noise of Jamaliyya for the newer, more Europeanized suburb of Abbassia. Despite the move to a very different social environment, Mahfouz never lost his deep attachment for the neighborhood of his birth. Mahfouz continues to frequent the cafés and Islamic monuments of Jamaliyya, which he has always regarded as his real home. Both of Mahfouz’s parents were devout Muslims. Thus, at an early age, he was sent for education to the mosque school, where he developed an interest in religion, especially in Sufism or Muslim mysticism. After completing high school, he was sent to the University of Cairo in 1930. Although his parents encouraged him to specialize in medicine or engineering because of his aptitude for science, Mahfouz chose rather to study philosophy in order to “solve the mystery of existence.”
Graduating second in his class at the Faculty of Arts in 1934, Mahfouz began work on a master’s thesis in aesthetics only to renounce this enterprise two years later to devote his energies fully to literature. While studying at the University of Cairo, he had begun writing articles devoted to philosophical topics, publishing them in journals such as al-Majalla al-Jadīda (the new review). In order to support himself and pursue his beloved writing, he joined the civil service in 1939, accepting first a modest administrative position at the University of Cairo and later an appointment at the Ministry of Waqf (religious endowments). The experience of working for years in humble, often dismal, bureaucratic posts furnished Mahfouz with ample material about another dimension of Egyptian life—the daily servitude suffered by thousands of civil servants, most of them holding university degrees yet condemned to a stifling existence because suitable employment was lacking elsewhere. The dreary life of the lower-level...
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