Naguib Mahfouz Mahfouz, Naguib (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Naguib Mahfouz c. 1911–-2006

(Full name Naguib Abdel Aziz Al-Sabilgi Mahfouz; also transliterated as Nagīb, Nageeb, or Najīb Maḥfūz) Egyptian novelist, short story writer, playwright, autobiographer, screenwriter, and journalist.

The following entry provides criticism on Mahfouz's short fiction from 1970 and 1998.

Generally regarded as modern Egypt's leading literary figure, Mahfouz is the first Arabic-language author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Recognized for his stories and 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. Although best-known for his novels, critics praise his prolific output of short fiction in which he explores the realities of present-day Egypt.

Biographical Information

Mahfouz is the youngest of several children raised by his mother and father, a merchant, in the medieval section of Old Cairo, a familiar setting in much of his 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 attended 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 (The Whisper of Madness), a collection of short stories, and his first novel, Abath al-aqdar (The Absurdity of the Fates). During the same year, he took a bureaucratic 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 novel in 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 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 book was banned in Egypt, though 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 contained in Echoes of an Autobiography (1997).

Major Works of Short Fiction

In his short fiction, Mahfouz strives to create realistic characters and investigate political issues, social and cultural malaise, spiritual crises, alienation, and decadence in contemporary Egypt. In “Al-Zayf” (“Falseness”), he exposes the hypocrisy and decadence of the Egyptian bourgeoisie by chronicling the seduction of a young poet by a wealthy, superficial woman. When the poet is revealed to be a fraud, the woman is ridiculed and shunned. By exploring the everyday concerns and dreams of lower-level government workers in “Dunya Allah” (“God's World)”, critics assert that Mahfouz touches on themes universal to all cultures and time periods. In “Bayt sayi’ al-Sum‘a” (“House of Ill Repute”) a middle-aged man tries in vain to reestablish contact with a woman he loved in his youth, but was forced to reject because of her liberal, open-minded family. He now regrets his earlier actions and encourages permissiveness in his own family. In “Zabalawi,” the unnamed narrator, who suffers from a mysterious malady, goes on an exhausting and frustrating search for a saintly healer named Zabalawi. Along the way, he encounters several village elders, among them a Muslim court lawyer, a bookseller, a calligrapher, a composer, and a landowner. Finally, the narrator gets drunk and passes out—only to wake up and realize that Zabalawi had been there while he was sleeping. He resolves to continue his search despite many obstacles.

Critical Reception

Mahfouz is widely considered among the most important Arabic-language authors of the twentieth century. Some commentators bemoan the fact that his short fiction is often subjugated to his novels and urge greater attention to his shorter works. They trace his increasing artistic sophistication, contending that while his early stories were superficial, clichéd, and stylistically weak, his later stories are noted for their thematic complexity and extensive use of such literary devices as allegory, symbolism, and experimental narrative techniques. The influence of Mahmud Taymur on Mahfouz's stories and literary development has also been a topic of critical discussion. Credited with popularizing the novel and short story form in Arabic literature, traditionally overshadowed by poetry, Mahfouz is often compared to nineteenth-century novelists Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky for the social realism that pervades much of his fiction.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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

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

Bayt sayyi al-sum a [A House of Ill-Repute] (short stories) 1965

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

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

Hikaya bi-la bidaya wa-la nihaya [A Story without Beginning or End] (short stories) 1971

Shahr al-asal [Honeymoon] (short stories) 1971

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

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

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

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

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

Asr al-hubb [Age of Love] (novella) 1980

Ra‘aytu fima yara al-na‘im [I Have Seen What a Sleeper Sees] (short stories) 1982

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

Al-Tanzim al-sirri [The Secret Organization] (short stories)...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

S. Somekh (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Somekh, S. “Za‘balāwī—Author, Theme, and Technique.” Journal of Arabic Literature 1 (1970): 24-35.

[In the following essay, Somekh maintains that “Zabalawi” foreshadows themes and narrative techniques that recur in Mahfouz's later writing.]

“Za‘balāwī,” a short story by Najīb Maḥfūz, was first published in 1961, and in 1963 it was incorporated with other stories in Maḥfūz's book Dunyā’ Allāh (The World of God)1. Because it is a short story it is hardly representative of the author's work as a whole, since Maḥfūz is essentially a novelist (up to 1967 he published some twenty novels as opposed to only...

(The entire section is 4551 words.)

Ahmad Muhammad ‘Atiyya (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: ‘Atiyya, Ahmad Muhammad. “Naguib Mahfouz and the Short Story.” In Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz, edited by Trevor Le Gassick, pp. 9-25. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1971, ‘Atiyya traces Mahfouz's development as a short story writer.]

Naguib Mahfouz is a novelist, yet his literary activity began with short story writing and this is a form to which he has since occasionally returned. I once asked him why he wrote short stories at the initial stage of his literary life, and enquired about that intellectual restiveness evident in his first collection entitled The...

(The entire section is 9370 words.)

Mona N. Mikhail (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mikhail, Mona N. “Broken Idols: The Death of Religion as Reflected in Two Short Stories by Idris and Mahfuz.” In Critical Perspectives on Modern Arabic Literature, edited by Issa J. Boullata, pp. 83-93. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1974, Mikhail examines the portrayal of religion in Yusuf Idris's “Tabliyya min al-Samā’” and Mahfouz's Hikāya bilā bidāya wa lā nihāya.]

It is with the “death of God” … that most modern literature is concerned: not so much with the denial of a metaphysical assertion as with the dismissal of certain values and...

(The entire section is 4815 words.)

Hamdi Sakkout (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sakkout, Hamdi. “Najib Mahfuz's Short Stories.” In Studies in Modern Arabic Literature, edited by R. C. Ostle, pp. 114-25. Warminster, Wilts, England: Aris & Phillips Ltd., 1975.

[In the following essay, Sakkout offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Mahfouz's short fiction.]

Although Najīb Maḥfūz is known above all as a novelist, he began his literary career by writing short stories and articles while in his first year at university, in 1930. At this time, the popularity of the short story as a genre was at its height, and it is not surprising therefore that the young writer should make his first efforts in this form, especially...

(The entire section is 5686 words.)

Sasson Somekh (essay date fall 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Somekh, Sasson. “The Essence of Naguib Mahfouz.” The Tel Aviv Review 2 (fall 1989): 244-57.

[In the following essay, Somekh explicates Mahfouz's vision of Egypt and the human condition as evinced in his short fiction.]


The Swedish Academy of Letters described the fiction of Naguib Mahfouz, the 1989 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as “rich in nuance, now clearsightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous.” To this fairly informed characterization, the Egyptian novelist (according to the New York Times) reacted in his typically ambiguous, tongue-in-cheek fashion. “Clarity,” he said, “is valuable, but...

(The entire section is 5220 words.)

Haim Gordon (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gordon, Haim. “Flight from Freedom.” In Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt: Existential Themes in His Writings, pp. pp. 21-7. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Gordon explores the struggle of Mahfouz's Egyptian characters to live an authentic and spiritual life.]

I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgement, it takes place every day.

—Albert Camus

Like Saul Bellow's Albert Corde, Albert Camus's Bernard Rieux, and William Faulkner's Gavin Stevens,1 Naguib Mahfouz's characters are not exceptional, yet many strive to live...

(The entire section is 2822 words.)

Mona N. Mikhail (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mikhail, Mona N. “Eros and the Quest for Happiness.” In Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris, pp. 94-142. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Mikhail considers the role of love in the short fiction of Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris.]


As the relation of the Hero to his World changes, so does the form of fiction. The Hero, who once figured as Initiate, ends as Rebel or Victim. The change in his condition implies destruction—and presages rebirth.1

The short...

(The entire section is 4981 words.)

Rasheed El-Enany (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: El-Enany, Rasheed. “Images of God, Death and Society: The Short Stories and the Plays.” In Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, pp. 195-212. London: Routledge, 1993.

[In the following essay, El-Enany asserts that Mahfouz's short stories are “immensely valuable in highlighting particular aspects of his vision and reassuring the critic on the soundness of his interpretation of the novels” and urges an assessment of his short fiction independent of his novels.]

If Mahfouz had not written any of his novels, he would still have merited a place of high prominence in the history of modern Arabic letters on account of his short stories alone, of which he has...

(The entire section is 9195 words.)

Mona N. Mikhail (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mikhail, Mona N. “Existential Themes in a Traditional Cairo Setting.” In Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, edited by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, pp. 81-94. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Mikhail delineates the relationship between existentialism and Arab thought in Mahfouz's short fiction.]

The relationship between existentialism and Arab thought has been investigated by several Western and Arab philosophers. A summary of the findings of one of the foremost spokespersons of Arab existentialism, ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, will help us to understand its manifestation in contemporary...

(The entire section is 5974 words.)

Ami Elad (essay date November 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Elad, Ami. “Mahfuz's ‘Za‘balāwī’: Six Stations of a Quest.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, no. 4 (November 1994): 631-44.

[In the following essay, Elad contends that Mahfouz utilizes mythic themes, Egyptian cultural elements, motifs from the work of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, and Islamic ideology to illustrate the “dilemma modernity poses for Egyptian society” in “Zabalawi.”]

The writings of the Egyptian novelist Najib Mahfuz1 (b. 1911) in the 1960s illustrate the new literary trends that were then emerging in Arabic fiction. Among his works, the volume of short stories, Dunyā Allāh (God's...

(The entire section is 8737 words.)

Roger Allen (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Roger. “Introduction to “Lovers' Quarter,” by Najib Mahfuz.” Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 1, no. 1 (1998): 47-9.

[In the following essay, Allen explores the dominant themes of “Lovers' Quarter” and provides historical context for the story.]

The steady stream of English translations that has been published in the wake of the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Najīb Maḥfūz (Naguib Mahfouz) in 1988 has served to introduce the Arab world's most illustrious novelist to a new readership. Mixed in with this western acknowledgement of Maḥfūz's novelistic eminence is The Time and the Place, an anthology of short...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Fayed, Shaimaa. Review of Voices from the Other World, by Naguib Mahfouz. Egypt Today (online magazine) (26 March 2003).

Provides a laudatory assessment of Voices from the Other World.

Michalak, Barbara. “The Magic Everyday World in ‘The Delusive Dawn’ Short Stories of Nagib Mahfuz.” Folia Orientalia 30 (1994): 113-17.

Discusses the major thematic concerns of Mahfouz's “The Delusive Dawn” stories.

Additional coverage of Mahfouz's life and career is contained in the...

(The entire section is 134 words.)