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Despite his lifelong dedication to the short story, Naguib Mahfouz’s reputation stems chiefly from the many novels he has produced over his lengthy career, notably the Cairo Trilogy (1956-1957). He has also been an important influence in the Egyptian cinema, having written the screenplays for many films drawn from Arabic novels, including some of his own works. He is the author of several short plays, some of which have been performed on stage. He has also written the nonfiction work Asda’ al-sirah al-dhatiyah (1995; Echoes of an Autobiography, 1997).

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By the late 1950’s, Naguib Mahfouz had earned recognition throughout the Arab world as one of the most sophisticated authors of the Arabic novel. While earlier Arab novelists had initiated this literary form, Mahfouz demonstrated a gift for presenting characters and situations that intimately captured the spirit of his native Egypt. His generally tragic works often center their interest on individuals in crisis and examine issues relating to class, ambition, and morality in government. They illustrate the personal faults or the incidents of fate that can bring tragedy to humankind; though didactic, they are usually nonjudgmental. Contemporary political and social issues, both of the Middle East and of the world at large, are central to his writing. The recipient of many honorary doctoral degrees from foreign universities and prestigious awards from the Egyptian government, Mahfouz received in 1988 the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Other literary forms

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Naguib Mahfouz (mahkh-FEWS) is known primarily for his long fiction, although he wrote many short stories and some one-act plays, five of which he published with collections of his short stories in Taḥta al-miẓalla (1969). His first publication was a translation into Arabic from English, Miṣr al-Qadmah (1931), of James Baikie’s Ancient Egypt (1912). Mahfouz also published numerous pieces of popular journalism and his memoirs, including Asda’ al-sirah al-dhatiyah in 1995 (Echoes of an Autobiography, 1997).


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In 1988, Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature; he was cited by the Swedish Academy for works that are richly realistic. In his Nobel speech, he described himself as the son of two civilizations: Pharaonic and Islamic. He expressed his passion to transcend traditional barriers for a universal vision informed by a heightened sense of responsibility toward humanity. In 1989, Mahfouz received the Presidential Medal from the American University in Cairo. He was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992, and he was presented with an honorary doctorate by the American University in Cairo in 1995, which established the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature as an annual award for outstanding contributions to Arabic writing.

Mahfouz advanced the art of long fiction in Arabic through major works that are varied in their experimental approaches tonarrative, and he captured the attention of many for his courageous defense of freedom from religious persecution. He brought to Arabic writing a new dedication to artistic integrity in a form that is recent and rare.

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The reputation of Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt is puzzling. Was he a trimmer (someone who expediently changed his opinions)? What principles governed his social conscience?

What do Mahfouz’s literary techniques suggest about his literary training and influences?

How does Amina’s situation in Palace Walk parallel Egypt’s in its dependence on Great Britain?

What psychological perspective does Mahfouz employ in The Thief and the Dogs?

How does Mahfouz use his knowledge of civil service in his novels?


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Abadir, Akef, and Roger Allen. Introduction to God’s World. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1973. This introduction by Abadir and Allen is followed by twenty translations selected from Mahfouz’s short stories.

Beard, Michael, and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993. A collection of essays derived from a symposium recognizing Naguib Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize. Includes essays on Mahfouz’s image of woman, on dreams, on the sublime, and on his critics. An essay on existential themes focuses specifically on Mahfouz’s short stories.

Coetzee, J. M. “Fabulous Fabulist.” The New York Review of Books 41 (September 22, 1994): 30-33. Argues that it was Mahfouz’s example that spurred interest in the novel in Arabic in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Briefly discusses Mahfouz’s fiction, describing the world of Cairo as he depicts it.

El-Enany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning. London: Routledge, 1993. Groups Mahfouz’s novels according to their treatment of history, idealism, and episodic structural designs, with a detailed analysis of Respected Sir and one chapter dealing with short stories and plays.

Gordon, Haim. Naguib Mahfouz’s Egypt: Existential Themes in His Writings. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Examines the impressionistic view of Egyptian society in the writings of Mahfouz.

Hesse, Reinhard. “Egypt’s Intelligentsia Fights Back.” World Press Review 42 (February, 1995): 50. Argues that the galvanizing moment of the culture wars being waged to deny Egypt its rich heritage occurred when Mahfouz was stabbed. Notes that Mahfouz’s novel Children of Gebelaawi had been banned by fundamentalists as a disrespectful allegory of the life of the Prophet.

Jad, Ali B. Form and Technique in the Egyptian Novel, 1912-1971. London: Ithaca Press, 1983. A comprehensive survey of the fiction of the period, with a brief study of Mahfouz in that context.

Johnson-Davies, Denys. Introduction to The Time and the Place and Other Stories. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1991. Consists of twenty of Mahfouz’s short stories selected and translated, following an introduction by Denys Johnson- Davies.

Kilpatrick, Hilary. The Modern Egyptian Novel: A Study in Social Criticism. London: Ithaca Press, 1974. This academic study examines Mahfouz’s novels in the context of contemporary Egyptian fiction. Contains appropriate literary and critical evaluations, notes, and bibliographies.

Le Gassick, Trevor, ed. Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991. Eleven articles by authorities on Mahfouz, following an introduction by the editor. The articles, four of which are in translation from Arabic, range widely over Mahfouz’s contributions to the short story, the novel, and the Egyptian cinema. Complemented by bibliographies of materials in English.

Milson, Menahem. Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Good for the beginning student of Mahfouz, this study offers insight into the works and life.

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.

Somekh, Sasson. The Changing Rhythm. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1973. A careful, comprehensive study of Mahfouz’s major novels. Academically sound and with good bibliographies, it addresses the general reader as well as the student of Near Eastern literatures.

Viorst, Milton. “Man of Gamaliya.” The New Yorker 66 (July 2, 1990): 32-38. In this brief biographical sketch, Viorst discusses Mahfouz’s denunciation by Muslim authorities and the death threats made against him for defending Salman Rushdie; also comments on his later view that Rushdie should stand trial for slander.

Weaver, Mary Anne. “The Novelist and the Sheikh.” The New Yorker 70 (January 30, 1995): 52-58. In this brief biographical sketch, the author notes that the stabbing of Mahfouz underscores the battle between the Egyptian government and Islamic militants. Discusses how Mahfouz’s characters debate issues of justice and injustice, expectation and disillusionment, and belief in God.

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Critical Essays