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.