Naguib Mahfouz Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.”

Life’s Work

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 Egyptian bureaucrat has been a theme of many of Mahfouz’s works.

The year that Mahfouz entered the labyrinth of the Egyptian bureaucracy saw the publication of his first novel, ʿAbath al-aqdār (1939; play of fate), which appeared in a special number of the monthly al-Majalla al-Jadīda; the year before, he published his first collection of short stories. ʿAbath al-aqdār and its two successor novels, Radūbīs (1943) and Kifāh Tībā (1944; Theban struggle), were historical romances set in the Egypt of the Pharaohs, but inspired by historical works of fiction by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Sir Walter Scott. The backdrop for these three novels was the ancient Nile Valley, yet the underlying message and plots were directly tied to Egypt’s modern political woes of the 1940’s. While the formal British Protectorate had ended by then, foreign domination was very much in evidence, particularly in the Suez Canal Zone, still under joint Franco-British occupation, much to the distress of the nationalists. Worse still was the irresponsible rule of Egypt’s last king, Farouq, a weak, pleasure-loving monarch, who increasingly alienated his countrymen, thus leading to the Revolution of 1952.

Egyptian society of the 1930’s and the World War II era had undergone immense, rapid social changes: inflation, rural-to-urban migration, high unemployment, corruption in government, and unrest among both the peasantry and the urban poor. The five novels that Mahfouz wrote between 1945 and 1949 signal another stage in his writing. Realistic rather than romantic, they ruthlessly exposed the misery of the lower middle classes in Cairo during the late 1930’s and the war years. Social conflict, upheaval, and tragedy in the lives of relatively powerless members of society are portrayed with such sensitivity and realism that these early novels have won for their author the sobriquet “Balzac of the Arabs.” One in particular, Zuqāq al-Midaq q (1947; Midaq Alley, 1966), brought him national recognition and has remained one of his best-loved works. Furthermore, Mahfouz’s own social philosophy regarding the nature and function of literature emerged clearly in this period. The novel was not only a form of entertainment but also a potent vehicle for achieving moral reform and enlightenment.

In the late 1940’s, Mahfouz undertook a more ambitious project—a massive fifteen-hundred-page trilogy published in 1956-1957....

(The entire section is 2625 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Until the 1960’s Naguib Mahfouz was considered a talented but uncontroversial author and public servant. He was a member of Egypt’s ruling elite whose initial enthusiasm for Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolutionary government led to his 1954 appointment as director of censorship in the Egyptian government’s department of art. His reputation as a loyalist was enhanced by his publication of the “Cairo Trilogy”—Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957). These works (which later brought him a Nobel Prize in Literature) celebrated Egyptian modernization, winning Mahfouz widespread acclaim throughout the Arab world and further promotion in the civil service.

Meanwhile, however, Mahfouz was becoming disillusioned by the failure of Nasser’s government to improve the lives of the common people. In a series of sharply critical works that included The Thief and the Dogs (1961), Conversations on the Nile (1966), and Miramir (1967), he traced the demoralizing effects of authoritarian government and stressed the negative consequences of modernization. In 1967 he overstepped the boundaries of governmental tolerance with Children of Gebelawi, a pessimistic religious allegory satirizing self- proclaimed prophets—and, by implication, Nasser. It was first printed in Lebanon and did not appear in Egypt until 1969, when it was serialized by the Cairo daily newspaper Al...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though gregarious and accessible, Naguib Mahfouz has disclosed little about his personal life or background. His father was apparently a shopkeeper (or perhaps a minor civil servant), and Mahfouz was the youngest of seven children. At the time of his birth, the family resided in Gamaliya, an area named after a street traversing an ancient quarter of Cairo. It is this colorful, conservative environment that provides the locale for many of his works. In his preteens, the family moved to the wealthier and more European neighborhood of Abbasiya. His early education was in public schools, and he earned a B.A. in philosophy from Cairo University in 1934. He continued studies there for an M.A. in philosophy but withdrew for undisclosed...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Naguib Mahfouz was the youngest of seven children born to his parents in the old Gamaliya quarter of Cairo, Egypt. When he was nine years old, his family moved to a suburban district called Abbasiya, where he had his first experience with love and where he began to write in imitation of Arabic fiction writers. The 1919 Revolution made a deep impression on the youth. The Revolution of 1952, which brought Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser to power and ended the Egyptian monarchy, proved disillusioning to Mahfouz.

He studied philosophy at Fuad I (now Cairo) University from 1930 to 1934, concentrating on the French philosopher Henri Bergson. After graduating in 1934, he found employment as a civil servant, which he continued until...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

No authoritative biography has been written about Naguib Mahfouz (MAHK-fewz). Egyptian culture respects privacy. The celebrated writer, though accessible, assumed an impersonal role. After accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, Mahfouz offered only glimpses of his experiences.

Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, in Gamaliya, a middle-class quarter of Cairo. His grandparents were merchants; his father was a government clerk. When he was six years old, his father became business manager for a copper merchant, and the family moved to a fashionable suburb of Cairo.

The youngest of seven children (four girls and three boys), who was born ten years after the next-youngest child, he developed a close...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Naguib Mahfouz was a masterful storyteller. He used his literature to comment on social injustices and current events. His fiction projected a human dimension to history by showing how government decisions affect the people. In depicting alienated people confronted with existential problems, the Nobel laureate transcended the boundaries of his country and expressed issues of universal concern.

(The entire section is 57 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Naguib Mahfouz (mahkh-FEWS) was the perfecter of the novel in Arabic literature and was its first Nobel laureate. The youngest of seven children, Mahfouz was born in the Gamaliya district of Cairo, the hub of Islamic activism. His father was a minor civil servant; his mother, a homemaker. As a boy, Mahfouz was interested in science; he even considered studying to become a doctor or an engineer. However, during his senior year, science gave way to philosophy, the only subject he thought would help him “unravel the mysteries of existence.” After getting his B.A. in philosophy in 1934 from King Fuad I (now Cairo) University, Mahfouz immediately entered an M.A. program. Two years into the program, however, his interest shifted to...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Naguib Mahfouz Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

In 1911 Mahfouz was born in Cairo, Egypt, the youngest of seven children in a lower middle-class family. His father was a strict Muslim and...

(The entire section is 432 words.)