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.
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.
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.