Naguib Mahfouz Mahfouz, Naguib (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Abath al-aqdar [The Absurdity of the Fates] (novel) 1939

Hams al-junun [The Whisper of Madness] (short stories) 1939

Radobis (novel) 1943

Kifah Tiba [The Struggle of Thebes] (novel) 1944

Khan al-khalili (novel) 1945

Al-Qahira al-jadida [The New Cairo] (novel) 1946

Zuqaq al-Midaqq [Midaq Alley] (novel) 1947

Al-Sarab [The Mirage] (novel) 1949

Bidaya wa-nihaya [The Beginning and the End] (novel) 1949

Bayn al-Qasrayn [Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy I] (novel) 1956

Qasr al-shawq [Palace of Desire: The Cairo Trilogy II] (novel) 1957

Al Sukkariya [Sugar Street: The Cairo Trilogy III] (novel) 1957

Al-Liss wa-al-kilab [The Thief and the Dogs] (novel) 1961

Al-Summan wa-al-kharif [Autumn Quail] (novel) 1962

Dunya Allah [God's World] (short stories) 1963

Al-Tariq [The Search] (novel) 1964

Bayt sayyi al-sum a (short stories) 1965

Al-Shahhadh [The Beggar] (novel) 1965

Tharthara fawqa al-Nil [Adrift on the Nile] (novel) 1966

Awlad haratina [Children of Gebelawi; also translated as Children of the Alley] (novel) 1967

Miramar (novel) 1967

Khammarat al-qitt al-aswad [The Tavern of the Black Cat] (short stories) 1968

Taht al-Mazalla [Under the Shelter] (short stories and plays) 1969

Hikaya bi-la bidaya wa-la nihaya (short stories) 1971

Al-Maraya [Mirrors] (novel) 1972

God's World: An Anthology of Short Stories (short stories) 1973

Al-Hubb tahta al-matar (novel) 1973

Al-Jarima [The Crime] (short stories and plays) 1973

Al-Karnak [Karnak Cafe] (novel) 1974

Hadrat al-muhtaram [Respected Sir] (novel) 1975

Hikayat haratina [Fountain and Tomb] (novel) 1975

Qalb al-layl [Heart of the Night] (novel) 1975

Malhamat al harafish [The Harafish] (novel) 1977

Hubb fawqa hadabat al-haram [Love on Pyramid Hill] (short stories) 1979

Shaytan ya iz [Satan Preaches] (short stories and plays) 1979

Asr al-hubb (novel) 1980

Nagib Mahfuz Yatadhakkar (memoirs) 1980

Afrah al-qubbah [Wedding Song] (novel) 1981

Al-Baqi min al-zaman sa ah [There Only Remains an Hour] (novel) 1982

Layali alf laylah [Arabian Nights and Days; also translated as The Night of a Thousand Nights] (novel) 1982

Ra‘aytu fima yara al-na‘im (short stories) 1982

Amam al-arsh [Before the Throne] (novel) 1983

Rihlat ibn Fattumah [The Journey of Ibn Fattouma] (novel) 1983

Al-Tanzim al-sirri (short stories) 1984

Al-A‘ish fi al-haqiqa [He Who Lives in the Truth; also translated as Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth] (novel) 1985

Yawm qutila al-za im [The Day the Leader Was Killed; also translated as The Day the President Was Killed] (novel) 1985

Hadith al sabah wa-al-masa (novel) 1987

Sabah al-ward (short stories) 1987

Qushtumur (novel) 1989

The Time and the Place and Other Stories (short stories) 1991

Echoes of an Autobiography (autobiography) 1997

Anton Shammas (essay date 2 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Shroud of Mahfouz,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, February 2, 1989, pp. 19–21.

[In the following essay, Shammas discusses Mahfouz as an Arabic novelist and considers his influence on Arabic literature.]

In the acceptance speech he sent to the Nobel Prize committee to substitute for his presence, Naguib Mahfouz asked the permission of his far-off audience to present himself as the son of two civilizations “that at a certain time in history have formed a happy marriage”—the civilization of the Pharaohs and that of Islam. Then he told an abrupt little story about each. After a victorious battle against Byzantium, he said, the...

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Roger Allen (review date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Fountain and Tomb, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, p. 361.

[In the following mixed review, Allen discusses both the stories and the translation of Fountain and Tomb.]

Published by an act of providence at almost the same moment as the announcement of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, Fountain and Tomb is a translation of Hikayat haratina (1975). The title's literal meaning is “Tales of Our Quarter,” and the word quarter links the work with at least two others by Naguib Mahfouz (also frequently written Najib Mahfuz): the infamous novel Awlad haratina (“Children of Our Quarter”;...

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Jake Morrissey (review date 19 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sleep Walk,” in National Review, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 19, 1990, pp. 51–52.

[In the following negative review of Palace Walk, Morrissey unfavorably compares the novel to the work of Charles Dickens, asserting that it “lacks the verve and structure that made Dickens so readable.”]

When the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988—the first Arab writer to be so honored—it wasn't owing to his world-wide reputation. In fact, in the United States, Mahfouz had virtually no reputation at all; few critics and fewer readers had ever heard of him. The New York Times reported that when the Swedish Academy...

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Amitav Ghosh (essay date 7 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Human Comedy in Cairo,” in New Republic, Vol. 202, No. 19, May 7, 1990, pp. 32–36.

[In the following essay, Ghosh provides an overview of Mahfouz's life and career as well as evaluating his contribution to modern Arabic literature.]


In Egypt, the news that the writer Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 was greeted with the kind of jubilation that Egyptians usually reserve for soccer victories. Even though the fundamentalists sounded an ominous note, most people in Cairo were overjoyed. Months later everybody was still full of it. People would tell anecdotes about how the good news had reached Mahfouz....

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Gregory Cole (essay date May–June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Conversation with Mahfouz,” in Africa Report, Vol. 35, No. 2, May–June, 1990, pp. 65–66.

[In the following essay, Cole explores the cultural influences on Mahfouz's writing and his growing popularity as an author.]

Teenagers playing dominoes and backgammon filled the cafés as I rushed down Misr' Adimah's tired, dusty streets toward the public telephone station. The smell of garlic, fresh molokhia, and parsley hung in the air.

It was a little after 5 pm, my appointed time to contact Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. A fellah, a bundle under his arm, was using the one working telephone. Anxiety filled me. I had one day left in Egypt to...

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John Taylor (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1990, p. 266.

[In the following positive review of The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song, Taylor describes several reasons why American audiences cannot fully appreciate Mahfouz's work.]

The writings of the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, are unlikely to create strong first impressions on those of us approaching his work only through translations. First of all, there is the problem of translation itself. In...

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D. J. Enright (review date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gloomy Clouds & Laughing Sun: Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate,” in Encounter, Vol. 75, No. 2, September, 1990, pp. 43–46.

[In the following review, Enright considers the strengths and weaknesses of several recent translations of Mahfouz's novels.]

I shall consider these novels by Naguib Mahfouz in the order not of their publication but of my reading of them, which, it seems to me, is also the ascending order of their interest. It needs to be emphasised that what is being discussed is the novels as they appear in English translation.

The thief of The Thief and the Dogs (1961) is Said Mahran, released after four years in prison,...

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Aamer Hussein (review date 15 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Vagaries of Love,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 1991, p. 10.

[In the following review, Hussein explores how Palace of Desire serves as a bridge between Mahfouz's earlier works and his later, more cynical prose.]

The severed head of Islam's most honoured martyr, Imam Al-Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson and a symbol of resistance to oppression for many Muslims, lies buried in a sepulchre in Cairo—or so tradition tells us. Kamal, the idealistic central figure of Palace of Desire, is an ardent devotee at the shrine, until an encounter with a more sceptical companion relieves him of his faith; the shrine, he is told, is...

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Menahem Milson (essay date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Great 20th-Century Novelist,” in Commentary, Vol. 91, No. 6, June, 1991, pp. 34–38.

[In the following essay, Milson explores the contradictions in Mahfouz's career and work and traces his development as a writer of novels and short fiction.]

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who in 1988 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a man of contradictions. Well-versed in Western culture, he has never visited Western Europe or America. The most famous modern Arab novelist, on whom more has been written than on any other Arab writer, he is a man about whom relatively little is known. Although his works are deeply rooted in the milieu of Cairo's lower and...

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David Castronova (review date 14 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Life along the Nile,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 12, June 14, 1991, pp. 410–11.

[In the following review, Castronova offers a positive assessment of Palace of Desire.]

This grand-scale novel of Cairo life in the 1920s—weighing in with the heft and detail of a nineteenth-century chronicle—is the second part of Nobel laureate Mahfouz's family trilogy about the middle classes between the wars. The books were first published in 1956–57, but are still news to most of us. They are copious reports from the Arabic world given humane depth and artistic harmony by a tolerant, witty, urbane observer of small scenes and large patterns. The first volume of...

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George Kearns (review date Autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction: In History and Out,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 491–93.

[In the following excerpt, Kearns praises Mahfouz's complex portrayal of a middle-class Muslim family in the 1920s in his “Cairo Trilogy.”]

Three and a half decades have passed since the publication in Arabic of Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece, “The Cairo Trilogy.” We owe to the 1988 Nobel Prize its appearance in English: the first volume, Palace Walk, last year; now the second, Palace of Desire; the final volume, Sugar Street, early next year. The trilogy recounts, with Tolstoyan assurance, the lives, marriages and disruptive extramarital...

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Michael Wood (review date 24 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Accidents of Life,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 24, 1992, p. 22.

[In the following review, Wood offers a positive assessment of The Search and draws attention to the Oedipal tone of the novel's plot.]

The sleazy hero of this very good novel [The Search] is placed somewhere between Double Indemnity and The Plague. The book has the well-paced plot of a film noir, and is also littered with delicately posed questions about moral, psychological and national identity. Some of its patterned contrasts—easy-going old Alexandria set against bustling Cairo, the virtuous, loving girlfriend against the rabid sexual...

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Christopher Dickey (review date 26 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Cairo's Ancient Alleys,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, No. 26, January, 1992, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following positive review, Dickey praises the political background and insights in Sugar Street.]

Beggars groped for alms outside the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo. Their feet were bandaged, their skin mottled with dirt and disease. One gestured with the leprous stumps of his fingers. It was the eve of the Prophet's birthday, and behind the mendicants, visible through the wide, ancient doorways, were double lines of bearded men swaying, praying, dancing themselves into religious ecstasy. Even in the early afternoon the lights were on. The bare bulbs shined...

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Robert Irwin (review date 13 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Messages from Cairo,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 1992, p. 23.

[In the following positive review, Irwin examines the dominant themes of Sugar Street.]

Sukkariya, or Sugar Street, is situated just inside the Zuweyla Gate, built by the Fatimids to protect medieval Cairo. Sugar, almonds and dried fruit used to be sold here. In Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Sugar Street, the third in his magnificent Cairo Trilogy dealing with middle-class life in Egypt in the first half of this century, Sugar Street is also the home of sharp-tongued Khadija, her indolent husband Ibrahim Shawnat, and their two sons Abd al-Muni‘m and Ahmad. The same broad highway...

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Penelope Lively (review date 25 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Wars, Much Peace, but No Tolstoy,” in Spectator, April 25, 1992, p. 34.

[In the following review, Lively offers a positive assessment of Sugar Street, comparing Mahfouz to John Galsworthy.]

Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo trilogy, of which Sugar Street is the final volume, was completed in 1952. It reaches us 40 years late, giving an extra displacement in time to what is already in effect a sequence of historical novels. Palace Walk, the first volume, set the scene during the first world war and introduced the leading figure, the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad. At the close of Sugar Street he dies, as the Libyan campaign rages in the...

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Naguib Mahfouz with Charlotte El Shabrawy (interview date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: The Art of Fiction CXXIX,” in Paris Review, Vol. 34, No. 123, Summer, 1992, pp. 50–73.

[In the following interview, Mahfouz discusses the role of politics and religion in his life and work, his attitude toward censorship, and his reaction to winning the Nobel Prize.]

Naguib Mahfouz credits Hafiz Najib—thief, jailbird, renowned cop baiter and author of twenty-two detective novels—with being his earliest literary influence. The ten-year-old Mahfouz read Najib's Johnson's Son on the recommendation of an elementary school classmate, and the experience, Mahfouz avows, changed his life.

Mahfouz's subsequent...

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Robert Irwin (review date 13 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Journey in the Medieval Style,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Shah offers a negative assessment of The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.]

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz is best known for the three books of his “Cairo Trilogy” (first published in Arabic in 1956–57). Those novels sensuously recall the Cairo of Mahfouz's youth. The city's streets teem with lively and argumentative characters and there is a Dickensian confidence in Mahfouz's narrative. There are mystical undertones and hints of allegory in another masterpiece, The Thief and the Dogs (1961), but the metaphysical drama is...

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Rasheed El-Enany (review date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mahfouz: A Great Novel and a Wanting Translation,” in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1992, pp. 187–89.

[In the following review, El-Enany discusses the various translation problems in Palace Walk.]

Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win international recognition when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. This recognition did not come all of a sudden; Western readers conversant in Arabic have long been familiar with the work of Arab authors (including Mahfouz) whose appeal extends beyond their national borders to reach the timeless core of human experience. Attempts to cross the language barrier in English go back to...

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Gaber Asfour (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “From ‘Naguib Mahfouz's Critics,’” in Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, edited by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, Syracuse University Press, 1993, pp. 144–71.

[In the following essay, Asfour surveys the critical reaction to Mahfouz's work.]

No contemporary Arab man of letters has managed to preoccupy our literary mentality as much as Naguib Mahfouz. His multilayered fictional world, with its complex set of relations and its elusive symbols, provokes unending arguments, lays the groundwork for interminable problems, and stimulates ongoing critical efforts aimed at discovering that world's constituent elements. As long as this...

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Rasheed El-Enany (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time and the Man: Four Egyptian Sagas,” in Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, Routledge, 1993, pp. 70–98.

[In the following essay, El-Enany explores Mahfouz's preoccupation with time and how it affects the individuals and communities in Mahfouz's “Cairo Trilogy” and Qushtumur.]

A preoccupation with time is at the centre of Mahfouz's work. A thought that has been uppermost in his writings has been how time affects the individual and the community and how human memory relates to external time. In this essay I have grouped together some novels in which time is a prime concern. The first three novels treated here are all romans fleuves in the...

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Roger Allen (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Sugar Street, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 203–04.

[In the following review, Allen discusses the third book in “Cairo Trilogy,” Sugar Street, and describes how the trilogy has developed since the first book, Palace Walk.]

Those readers in the Western world who have enjoyed the process of being introduced through Naguib Mahfouz's great family saga to the life and culture of Egyptian society between the two world wars will need little incentive to follow the tale to its conclusion in the final volume of The Cairo Trilogy under review here. Al-Sukkariyyah, the third novel in the series,...

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Nabil I. Matar (essay date January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Homosexuality in the Early Novels of Nageeb Mahfouz,” in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 26, No. 4, January, 1994, pp. 77–90.

[In the following essay, Matar discusses the controversy surrounding the homosexuality and homosexual issues that Mahfouz portrays in several of his novels.]

Upon the publication of Midaq Alley in 1947, Nageeb Mahfouz became the first writer in modern Arabic to present in his fiction a depiction of the homosexual protagonist. A few years later, Mahfouz completed Sukariyya in the “Trilogy” (published however in 1957), in which he again portrayed homosexual relationship. No other writer had dealt with this topic...

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Dick Davis (review date 24 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Romance of the Masses,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1994, p. 25.

[In the following mixed review, Davis argues that The Harafish's distinctly Middle Eastern qualities may make it difficult for Western readers to understand.]

The Harafish is a translation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, first published in Arabic in 1977. As the translator, Catherine Cobham, tells us in a prefatory note, “The meaning … of harafish is the rabble. … In the novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless.” In not translating the...

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Francis King (review date 2 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “More Incident than an Egyptian Soap,” in Spectator, July 2, 1994, p. 35.

[In the following review, King offers a mixed assessment of The Harafish.]

The finest achievement of Naguib Mahfouz is his Cairo trilogy, written in the late Forties and early Fifties and in my view the greatest work of realistic fiction to be produced since the War. No doubt it was this trilogy which led one Western critic to call him ‘the Balzac of Egypt’ and another ‘the Dickens of the Cairo cafés,’ and the Committee of the Nobel Prize for Literature to make him its laureate in 1988.

Inevitably, after the award of the Prize, a novelist whom the reference...

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Bruce Allen (review date 10 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Troubled Tribe of Cairo,” in Chicago Tribune Books, July 10, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following negative review, Allen criticizes Mahfouz's prose style in The Harafish.]

Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz, the preeminent Arabic language novelist of his time, was born in Cairo in 1911 and remained largely unknown in cultures outside his own until receiving the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Only a few of Mahfouz's more than 40 books of fiction had previously reached us in English translation. Since the Nobel, English-speaking readers have been treated to such colorful and distinctive novels as Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, The Beggar and, most...

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Amit Chaudhuri (review date 21 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Holiday,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 14, July 21, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following review, Chaudhuri explores the parallels between Palace Walk and The Harafish.]

Naguib Mahfouz made his name with his trilogy of Cairo life—Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street—first published in Arabic in the late Fifties. At first glance, The Harafish, which was originally published in 1977, bears little resemblance to, say, Palace Walk. The latter is a story of a family in an ‘alley’ in Cairo in the first half of the 20th century, and is told in a straightforward chronological manner that seems to...

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J. M. Coetzee (review date 22 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fabulous Fabulist,” in New York Review of Books, September 22, 1994, pp. 30–33.

[In the following positive review of The Harafish, Coetzee explores Mahfouz's use of Arabic and Western literary techniques, calling him “a great middleman” between the two traditions.]


When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the slumbers of the Arab Near East were rudely broken. First Egypt and then the whole of the region was forced to turn away from Turkey and toward Europe. A body of secular European ideas—those that had inspired the French Revolution—broke through the barrier separating Islam from the West setting off a...

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Roger Allen (review date Autumn 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Harafish, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, p. 874.

[In the following positive review, Allen praises the English translation of The Harafish.]

The Harafish is an English translation of Malhamat al-Harāfish (literally “The Epic of the Harāfish”), which was originally published in Egypt in 1977. In 1975–76 I was on sabbatical in Egypt and had been in contact with Naguib Mahfouz several times concerning my translation of his earlier work, al-Marāyā (1972), which was eventually published in English in 1977 as Mirrors. I can vividly recall one telephone conversation in which he told...

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Matti Moosa (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Historical Novels,” in The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt, University Press of Florida, 1994, pp. 21–53.

[In the following essay, Moosa evaluates Mahfouz's importance as a writer of historical novels and examines the dominant themes of his historical fiction.]

Mahfouz began his literary career when he was in high school, producing essays on different subjects together with short stories. He began to write novels while in college, but these first efforts were not publishable. Through the effort and encouragement of Salama Musa, however, he eventually had several historical novels published. Mahfouz relates how this happened....

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Mary Ann Weaver (essay date 30 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Novelist and the Sheikh,” in New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 47, January 30, 1995, pp. 52–69.

[In the following essay, Weaver considers the impact of religious and political events on Mahfouz's life and career—particularly the attempt on Mahfouz's life in 1994.]

Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab world's only Nobel Laureate in Literature, leaves nothing to chance. There is a precision and an economy about him, and he measures his daily life down to the minute. Thus, on the afternoon of October 14, 1994—as he had done every Friday afternoon for seven years—the eighty-two-year-old writer left his apartment building in the Agouza section of Cairo at exactly ten...

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Matti Moosa (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 224–30.

[In the following essay, Moosa outlines the development of Mahfouz's literary style and thematic concerns.]

Among the major figures in the development of modern Arabic fiction, none has received higher international acclaim than Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Before then he was—like Taha Husayn (d. 1973) and Tawfiq al-Hakim (d. 1987)—known in the West only to a very limited audience despite an output that includes over thirty novels and a number of short-story collections and...

(The entire section is 2721 words.)

Penelope Mesic (review date 2 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ancient Tales, Modern Telling,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 2, 1995, pp. 6–7.

[In the following review of Arabian Nights and Days, Mesic offers a positive assessment of Mahfouz's adaptation of The Arabian Nights.]

At the heart of Arabian Nights and Days, an enthralling novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, is the spacious courtyard of the Cafe of the Emirs. Despite some concessions to the distinctions of wealth—the cafe is furnished with couches for affluent customers and low mats for humble laborers—it is a place of true democracy. For conversation, which flourishes here, rests on an assumption of equality. Thus...

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Penelope Mesic (review date 11 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tapestry of Tales,” in Chicago Tribune Books, February 11, 1996, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following positive review, Mesic praises Children of the Alley as a skillful and fresh combination of allegory, historical fiction, and myth.]

Out of a timeless oral tradition, of stories so old history and myth are braided into one, comes a rich tapestry of tales, each complete in itself, that interlock as do the stories of the Arabian Nights. Each chapter of Children of the Alley encapsulates a life, presenting the whole trajectory of a character's development, actions and their consequences. The alley of the title is peopled by petty merchants and...

(The entire section is 1295 words.)

Alain de Botton (review date 22 February 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “But Wisdom Lingers,” in Spectator, February 22, 1997, p. 28.

[In the following review, de Botton offers a generally favorable assessment of Echoes of an Autobiography.]

This is an autobiography only in the loosest sense. We don't hear where the author was born, what his childhood was like or, as Holden Caulfield would say, ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’ Naguib Mahfouz, the 86-year-old Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist, hasn't written directly about his past, more about what it feels like to have a past, to have a long life to look over; in essence, to be old.

Echoes of an Autobiography is a slim book, divided...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Rasheed El-Enany (review date 25 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Even in Warm Embraces,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 4.

[In the following review of Echoes of an Autobiography, El-Enany compliments the poetic nature of Mahfouz's autobiography and finds it reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.]

If you are looking for an autobiography of Naguib Mahfouz, or even for the echoes of one, please ignore this book [Echoes of an Autobiography]. The nearest the author ever got to writing an autobiography was in some of his novels, notably “The Cairo Trilogy,” Mirrors and Fountain and Tomb. However, if what you want is...

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Michelle Hartman (essay date Fall 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Re-Reading Women in/to Naguib Mahfouz's Al-Liss wa‘l kilab (The Thief and the Dogs),” in Research in American Literatures, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 5–16.

[In the following essay, Hartman analyzes the role of female characters in Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs.]

This article rereads women both in and into Naguib Mahfouz's short 1961 novel, al-Liss wa‘l kilab. By reading women in this novel, I mean a close reading of the two women portrayed in the novel in order to explore how they are textually constructed as characters. By reading women into the text, I mean to examine the textual function of specific female characters...

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Menahem Milson (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Works of Najib Mahfuz,” in Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo, St. Martin's Press, 1998, pp. 56–95.

[In the following essay, Milson traces Mahfouz's development as a writer and discusses his major thematic concerns.]

What one cannot theorize about, one must narrate.

—Umberto Eco

I do not believe that a literary work can be an answer to anything. A literary work is essentially a question.

—Najib Mahfuz

It is perhaps inevitable that the works of a writer whose literary output extends over a...

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Jonathan Levi (review date 2 April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, in Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2000, p. L1.

[In the following review, Levi discusses the parallels between history and heroics in Mahfouz's Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth.]

In 1985, the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz published a book titled The Day the Leader Was Murdered. Mahfouz was widely known as a supporter of “The Leader,” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated four years earlier for making peace with Israel in the form of the historic Camp David treaty. Sadat, who began his term of office with a brilliant surprise attack on Israel over the Yom Kippur holy days in 1973, made a...

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Edward W. Said (review date 30 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Cruelty of Memory,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVII, No. 19, November 30, 2000, pp. 42–47.

[In the following essay, Said considers the problems of English translations of Mahfouz's work, arguing that they miss the distinctive and direct nature of his narrative voice.]


Before he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was known outside the Arab world to students of Arab or Middle Eastern studies largely as the author of picturesque stories about lower-middle-class Cairo life. But even to them he did not seem to have a style or perspective of his own, partly because the few translations available were very uneven...

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Raymond Stock (essay date Spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: A Translator's View,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 2001, pp. 136–42.

[In the following essay, Stock offers an analysis of Mahfouz's works that are set in ancient times, including Children of Gebelawi and “A Voice from the Other World.”]

Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab Nobel Laureate in Literature, has published roughly sixty books, covering virtually every style and genre of fiction. His subject has always been mankind's fate, depicted (with very rare exceptions) in scenes from his native Egypt. Though his themes are modern—or more properly, universal—entombed in the mass of Mahfouz's oeuvre...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Beard, Michael and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993, 208 p.

Collection of critical essays on Mahfouz and his work.

Coates, Joseph. “Tyrannical Patriarch: An Egyptian Family Saga from Nobel-Prize Novelist Naguib Mahfouz.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 December 1990): 3.

Coates offers a positive assessment of Palace of Desire, noting that the novel is profoundly influenced by Western literary models.

———. “Nobel Winner Traverses a Cultural and Religious Gap.” Chicago...

(The entire section is 309 words.)