Naguib Mahfouz

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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...

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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. Al-Thulāthiyya (trilogy) was a bold work in terms of both the social themes it dared to address and its complex literary construction. Tracing the fortunes of a wealthy merchant clan from the Jamaliyya quarter over three generations from 1917 to 1944, the trilogy examines in painstaking detail and remarkable authenticity the disruptions wrought by large-scale political and social changes upon all the clan’s members. In addition to focusing national attention upon his earlier novels, many of which were subsequently republished several times, the work won lavish praise by Egyptian critics; it also brought Mahfouz a state prize (the jaizat al-dawla lil-adab) in 1957.

As the various parts of the trilogy first appeared in serialized form, momentous transformations shook Egyptian society; these had an impact upon Mahfouz’s personal life as well as upon his professional development. In July of 1952, the Free Officers Revolution, led by Muhammad Nagib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, toppled the ancien régime: Egypt was declared a republic the next year. Because of his growing literary fame, Mahfouz was transferred to the newly created Ministry of Culture, in which he joined the higher ranks of the arts administration. Nevertheless, Mahfouz did not write for seven years following the 1952 Revolution, perhaps because of disenchantment with the growing excesses of Nasser’s rule. Moreover, Mahfouz’s social vision was experiencing significant shifts as were his writing techniques. When he did publish again, in 1957, he had clearly abandoned the naturalism of his earlier novels for more experimental forms.

Awlād hāratinā (1959; Children of Gebelawi, 1981), published serially in the leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahrām, was his most controversial work and aroused the opprobrium of Muslim clerics of the Azhar Mosque-University in Cairo. Allegorical and rather pessimistic in its view of humanity’s unending struggle to regain paradise lost, the construction of Children of Gebelawi resembles the Koran, having the same number of chapters—114—as the Muslim Book of Revelations. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad are portrayed as the leaders of the dispossessed in conflict with the oppressors, some of whom might be interpreted as part of the traditionalist religious establishment. Equally distressing to the Egyptian ʿulamā (Muslim scholars) was the fact that the novel dealt in a thinly disguised manner with the modern dilemma of the “death of God.” Because representations of the Prophets are not permitted in works of fiction, cinema, or drama, Children of Gebelawi remained unpublished in book format in Egypt. Nevertheless, a Lebanese edition eventually appeared in 1967. The work’s reception appears to have disheartened Mahfouz to the point that he ceased writing for several years.

When he did publish again in 1961, coming out with Al-Liss wa al-kilāb (A Thief in Search of His Identity, 1979), he chose to deal with less religiously sensitive topics, although by this time his literary technique had changed fundamentally to include “stream of consciousness” and impressionism, perhaps to avoid censure. A Thief in Search of His Identity was followed by five other short novels, which, taken as a group, are regarded by many as his finest work. Now the psychological dimensions of his characters—their thoughts and subliminal motivations—were probed in richly suggestive and at times hallucinatory language. Most of the novels in this series courageously paint a frankly distressing picture of the intellectual’s benighted situation under the repressive Nasserist regime, in which hopes for true political and social reforms had been dashed by the late 1960’s. By this period, Mahfouz had achieved such national and international acclaim that he was largely immune to attacks from political authorities. Moreover, many of his works had been adapted for television, film, and theater presentations not only in Egypt, the cultural and media center of the Middle East, but also in much of the Arabic-speaking world.

Nasser’s sudden death in 1970, while provoking a great outpouring of grief in Egypt, subsequently brought a more liberal intellectual climate for the country’s writers and artists, at least for a while. In 1970, Mahfouz was awarded Egypt’s National Prize for Letters; two years later, in 1972, he received his nation’s most coveted decoration, the Collar of the Republic. In this period, Mahfouz, then adviser to the Minister of Culture, retired from the civil service at age sixty; he was subsequently appointed to the honorary post of resident writer at the semiofficial Al-Ahrām newspaper. He continued to publish a short novel or collection of stories as an almost annual event, and in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s he began experimenting with one-act plays, for him a literary departure. These plays were published collectively under the title of Taht al-mazalla (1969; the bus shelter). Mahfouz has stated repeatedly that writing for him represents life itself and only death will put an end to his literary endeavors.

His most recent works are set once more in the now mythical hāra, or small, partly enclosed urban neighborhood, where his earliest novels and most memorable characters were conceived, born, and grew to maturity. Note should be made of his Hikāyāt hāratinā, which appeared in 1975 in Arabic and was translated into English as Fountain and Tomb (1988). The stories, some seventy-eight in number, are related by a young boy whose social universe is circumscribed by an alley, the favored locus for so many of Mahfouz’s works.

Mahfouz has always shunned the limelight, preferring a private existence that allowed him to produce so prodigiously while haunting popular spots in old Cairo to observe daily life amid the “swirling hem of change.” The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature in October of 1988 was the first time that he had achieved international recognition of this magnitude and represents long overdue worldwide appreciation of the mature state of modern Arabic literature in general. Because of his frail health and distaste for celebrity, Mahfouz did not attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, but rather sent his two daughters, Umm Kalthoum and Fatima, to accept the medal and diploma on his behalf. In addition, he requested that Mohammad Salmawi from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture deliver for him the Nobel lecture—in Arabic—to the Swedish Academy in December of 1988.

In 1994 Mahfouz, diabetic and nearly blind, was attacked in a Cairo street. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but police blamed Muslim militants seeking to destabalize the government and install Islamic rule. Mahfouz said the attack provided an opportunity for prayers for the defeat of Islamic extremism.


More than any other single Arab writer of the present century, Naguib Mahfouz has profoundly influenced the field of Arabic literature in general and that of fiction in particular. While he belongs to the second generation of Egyptian novelists rather than to the pioneering school of the 1930’s, Mahfouz’s works, taken collectively, display the various stages in the evolution of the novel as a literary form in Egypt and the Arab world. An imported European genre, the novel in Mahfouz’s hands went through three identifiable “moments”: historical romanticism; social realism; and postrealism, with its multiplicity of forms and voices and emphasis upon the surreal or the psychological. During his half-century of literary production, Mahfouz has not only achieved a maturity and sophistication in the conventions of novel-writing comparable to the best European novelists but also transformed a borrowed genre into a new, yet characteristically indigenous, art form. His decisive impact upon intellectuals and writers in the Arab world can, in part, be measured by the large number of dissertations and literary studies devoted to Mahfouz’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, this impact reaches far beyond the educated, middle classes of Egyptian or Arab society. Because of film and televison productions of his novels and stories, many of Mahfouz’s memorable characters, whether heroes or antiheroes, have been introduced to all strata of society, becoming part of popular lore. Because of his finely calibrated depictions of the humble and the highborn and his moral commitment to social justice, Mahfouz has changed the way that Egyptians look at themselves. Therein lies his greatest contribution.


Allen, Roger. The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982. This is an in-depth analysis of eight Arabic novels, beginning with Mahfouz’s Tharthara fawq al-Nīl (1966; chatter on the Nile), by one of the leading scholars of modern Arabic literature in general and Mahfouz’s oeuvre in particular.

Allen, Roger. “Mirrors by Nagib Mahfuz.” Muslim World 62 (April, 1972): 115-125. A descriptive analysis of Mahfouz’s Al-Marāyā (1972; Mirrors, 1977) that points out the autobiographical nature of the work since the story’s narrator resembles the author in many ways.

Allen, Roger, ed. Modern Arabic Literature. New York: Ungar, 1987. This is an exhaustive compilation of literary criticism by leading Arab and non-Arab critics, some thirteen pages of which are devoted to evaluations of Mahfouz’s works.

Altoma, Salih J. Modern Arabic Literature: A Bibliography of Articles, Books, Dissertations, and Translations in English. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. For those wanting additional information on Mahfouz, this seventy-three-page bibliography is indispensable. Many entries are devoted to Mahfouz.

Kilpatrick, Hilary. The Modern Egyptian Novel: A Study in Social Criticism. London: Ithaca Press for the Middle East Centre, St. Anthony’s College, 1974. This study surveys the Egyptian novel from 1914 until 1968, mainly from the perspective of social criticism, yet provides a solid, detailed discussion of the historical context in which the novel as a genre developed.

Moussa-Mahmoud, Fatma. “Depth of Vision: The Fiction of Naguib Mahfouz.” Third World Quarterly 11 (April, 1989): 154-166. This is a first-rate, comprehensive study of Mahfouz’s life and work by a professor of English at the Universities of Cairo and Riyadh.

Sakkut, Hamdi. The Egyptian Novel and Its Main Trends from 1913 to 1952. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1971. The author surveys the romantic, historical, and realistic evolution of the novel in Egypt from 1913 until 1952, devoting a large section to Mahfouz’s output of the 1940’s and early 1950’s.


Critical Essays