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.)