Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Recognition of the literary importance of Naguib Mahfouz’s fifty-year career marked the first time a Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to an author writing in Arabic.

Summary of Event

The announcement on October 13, 1988, that the Nobel Prize in Literature was being awarded to the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz appeared to be a turning point in the history of the Nobel Prize program, as very few literature laureates during the previous decades had come from non-Western countries. The earliest, in 1913, had been awarded to the Indian Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, Rabindranath In the period from 1918 to 1945, all of the Nobel literature prizes had gone either to Europeans or to Americans. The next quarter of a century saw awards to authors from South America, Israel, and Japan, but it was not until 1986 that the first African, Wole Soyinka, Soyinka, Wole was so honored. Two years later, Naguib Mahfouz became the first author from the African continent writing in Arabic to become a Nobel laureate in literature. Nobel Prize in Literature;Naguib Mahfouz[Mahfouz]
[kw]Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1988)
[kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Mahfouz Receives the (Dec. 10, 1988)
[kw]Prize in Literature, Mahfouz Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1988)
[kw]Literature, Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1988)
Nobel Prize in Literature;Naguib Mahfouz[Mahfouz]
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1988: Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[07050]
[g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1988: Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[07050]
[c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1988: Mahfouz Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[07050]
Mahfouz, Naguib
Husayn, Taha
Musa, Salamah
Nasser, Gamal Abdel
Sadat, Anwar el-

For Mahfouz himself, however, international recognition of his work represented more than the culmination of several decades of personal literary application. It encouraged him and others in many different parts of the world to believe that recognition of the universality of human values and emotions had made intercontinental strides.

Mahfouz’s own elaboration of the way in which his career developed, recorded in an interview on his fiftieth birthday, was a testimony of the interconnectedness of intellectual and cultural influences, from both the East and the West, that contributed to his writing career. Mahfouz noted in his experience as a youth something that was a key characteristic of how members of different cultures and nationalities learn about other cultures’ existence: dependence on translated works. His own exposure to the literature of non-Arabic culture, and therefore a “window” on its values, began with enthusiastic consumption of Western detective stories as a youth.

Naguib Mahfouz.

(Reuters/Aladin/Archive Photos)

Once he was past the impressionistic phase of youth, there was a dual interplay of influences. One set of influences came from his rising interest in literary models of Europe; the other came from his reading of classical Arabic literature and early twentieth century writers in Arabic. In the latter field, he readily acknowledged the early importance of Egyptian authors such as Taha Husayn as well as later influences stemming from his exposure to Tawfiq al-Hakim Hakim, Tawfiq al- and Muhammad Haykal. Haykal, Muhammad It was the latter writer who, with the publication of his work Zeinab
Zeinab (Haykal) in 1914, was the earliest to win recognition for pioneering the literary form that would be most attractive to Mahfouz, the fictional novel. Others inspired Mahfouz through their perfection of the short story as a literary art form. It was the Egyptian Fabian socialist Salamah Musa, however, who extended practical encouragement to Mahfouz by inviting him to publish his earliest short stories in Al Majalla al Jadida, the journal Musa edited.

By the time Mahfouz had reached university age, he realized that, even though his field of academic specialization would be philosophy, he was interested in combining literature and philosophy. His decision to write a master’s thesis at Cairo University on aesthetics was intended to allow him to develop this connection. There is no doubt that Mahfouz’s penchant toward philosophy left its mark on his literary career. What became most notable in his work was his concern for the deep philosophical significance of life experiences of quite ordinary individuals. His fictional stories were almost always set in the heavily populated urban quarters of his own native Cairo, and his stories portrayed the lives of either the popular underprivileged classes or, in a number of cases, members of the modest bureaucratic milieu. The latter was a grouping he came to know at first hand during his years of service (during the 1950’s and 1960’s) in the Ministry of Culture.

In several of his works, beginning with the novel Zuqāq al-Midaqq (1947; Midaq Alley, 1966), Midaq Alley (Mahfouz) Mahfouz combined his version of stark realism (something he cultivated after studying European writers, including Franz Kafka) with an almost mystical aura that was magnified by a style inspired in some ways by James Joyce, in others by Marcel Proust. His focus on “the little man” in a society clearly beginning to experience tensions between traditional and modern forms of expression and action provided a way to portray images of the internal workings of minds that, because they were somewhat stereotypical of traditional societal types, could strike familiar notes with Egyptian readers. Juxtaposed with the familiar and presumably easily understood were the forces of “new” society that menaced the very existence—material as well as psychological and philosophical—of Mahfouz’s simple characters.

This phenomenon is seen most clearly in Mahfouz’s famous Al-Thulāthiya (the trilogy), published in 1956 and 1957 (republished as Al-Sukkariya, 1957; Sugar Street, 1992), Sugar Street (Mahfouz) just at the beginning swing of Egypt’s new military regime under Gamal Abdel Nasser toward radical, and then revolutionary, politics. Here again, using an entire family as the focus for his three novels, Mahfouz developed his reputation for delving deep into the psychological subconsciousness of ordinary people. In the trilogy, emphasis is laid on the frustrations of a father figure confronting rising clashes between traditional views of religion in society and alternative choices being made by a younger generation tempted by the “new truths” of science. The last volume, treating the third generation, portrays similar tensions in clashes in family values when grandchildren on one side enter the ultraconservative Muslim Brotherhood while others adhere to the Communist Party.

Mahfouz continued in the 1960’s to build similar sociopsychological themes, some of them quite tragic. It became clear that he had become a spokesperson not only for Egypt but also for a number of other non-Western cultures that demanded recognition of their need and capacity to express the frustrations of Third World “marginality” through the medium of fictional literature.


Coming in the late 1980’s, following a decade and a half of rapid, almost uncontrollable change in the Middle East and the rest of the developing world, recognition of Mahfouz’s accomplishments suggested a number of indirectly related possibilities for wider impact. In some respects, for example, the culmination of so many years of persistence by an Egyptian writer who had lived through the effects of his own and neighboring countries’ political instability, regional warfare on four separate occasions, and locally oppressive propagandistic mechanisms was something of a victory. Both locally in Egypt and elsewhere in the world, Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize represented a spark of hope that freedom of cultural expression could survive despite overwhelming obstacles that seemed to divorce the creative intellectual mind from the massive realities of struggling, uncertain democracies, regional political conflict (specifically the Arab-Israeli dilemma), and widespread poverty.

Part of this spark of hope, but at the same time a lingering fear, was represented in the “new Egypt” of the post-Nasser years. Following some twenty years of inconclusive and quasi-revolutionary upheaval, Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat, had begun in the mid-1970’s to move Egypt in the direction of “opening,” by which Sadat implied a reversal of controls that had stifled the country’s political, economic, and intellectual aspirations. Sadat’s accomplishments, as well as several notable failures (particularly in the political domain), ended in 1981 when he was cut down by assassins’ bullets. This precipitous event forced the immediate question of political succession (to the new president, Hosnī Mubārak), but, just as critically, it raised the question of the future social and intellectual climate of the country.

In the wake of Sadat’s reopening of Egypt’s windows to the West, with a concurrent escalation of the country’s dependence on the West for military and economic assistance, there were conflicting pressures: on one hand, to continue Sadat’s liberalizing changes or, on the other, to revert not to the pre-Sadat years of Nasserism but to an idealized conception of a “true” and timeless Egypt dedicated to traditional values. Clearly a quandary was posed for writers such as Mahfouz, who had tried to posit a literary and philosophical framework containing elements of both and now found themselves asked either to reconsider or to demonstrate the relevance of what they had written to a society that was again not at all clear which way it should turn.

According to Hayim Gordon, Gordon, Hayim a non-Egyptian author who dedicated an entire monographic study to Mahfouz’s Egypt in 1990, the widely recognized significance of Mahfouz’s literary career, and in particular certain of the themes he incorporated into his writings, cannot be separated from this quandary. In many ways, the rush of external events, whether these are seen as the events that occurred during the main period of Mahfouz’s writing career or as the events affecting Egypt’s destiny as the country entered the 1990’s, can be seen as a tide of blind forces that overwhelms that external world without actually penetrating and affecting the internal conciousness of the writer’s otherwise inconsequential subjects. Because Mahfouz seemed to be most interested in that domain of internal consciousness, the inconclusiveness of the sense of contact between events (the external) and psychological impressions (the internal) may have led some of Mahfouz’s readers to attribute to him, through his subjects, an incapacity or unwillingness to confront and struggle to overcome “reality.”

The full impact of Mahfouz’s literary contribution, therefore, can be said to depend on two factors. One is the extent to which what he wrote will be read and understood outside the culture zone that was the focus of its microanalysis. A second, equally important, factor will be the receptivity of that same culture zone to the forms of introspection that Mahfouz offered to several generations who, although they understood the dilemmas represented by introspection, assumed that externally induced changes must necessarily “modernize” in terms that can benefit the old and the new alike.

The tensions exposed in Mahfouz’s writings and introspections were not warmly received by all Muslims, especially those of a more fundamentalist bent. After various fatwas issued against Salman Rushdie Rushdie, Salman in 1989 for the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988), Satanic Verses, The (Rushdie) the blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman Rahman, Omar Abdel implied that the official denunciation of Rushdie and his work might have been unnecessary if Mahfouz had been appropriately punished. In 1994, Mahfouz survived an assassination attempt by Islamic extremists who perhaps had misinterpreted Rahman’s comments as a fatwa. Nobel Prize in Literature;Naguib Mahfouz[Mahfouz]

Further Reading

  • Allen, Roger. “Najib Mahfuz.” In Nobel Laureates in Literature, edited by Rado Pribic. New York: Garland, 1990. Presents a concise and objectively balanced review of Mahfouz’s career. Discusses the literary and philosophical themes of his writings in terms that, although more descriptive than analytic, give a comprehensive impression of the evolution of his work.
  • _______. “Some Recent Works of Najib Mahfuz: A Critical Analysis.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 14 (1974): 101-110. Contribution to criticism of works appearing in the era of Nasser’s presidency and of Mahfouz’s service in the Ministry of Culture had particularly timely significance because it appeared only shortly after Sadat’s public declaration of the “opening” of Egyptian politics and society following twenty years of close control.
  • Enani, M. M., ed. Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989. Collection of essays on Mahfouz by Egyptians ranges widely across topics, from the symbolism of his literary themes (the significance of the alley, the tragedy of rebellion) to his personal political convictions.
  • Gordon, Hayim. Naguib Mahfouz’s Egypt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Combines analysis of Mahfouz’s written works with insights into his psychological and philosophical characteristics. Written by an Israeli scholar who benefited from long-term personal contacts with Mahfouz during the 1980’s.
  • Le Gassick, Trevor, ed. Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991. Collection of essays focuses primarily on analysis of the symbolism in Mahfouz’s works. The majority of the volume’s contributors are Egyptian specialists; two are Western scholars.
  • Mahfouz, Naguib. Echoes of an Autobiography. Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. New York: American University in Cairo Press, 1997. Collection of brief autobiographical pieces is the first of the author’s nonfiction books to be published in English.
  • _______. Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001. New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2001. Collection of very short personal reflections comes from conversations between Mahfouz and Egyptian author Mohamed Salmawy over a period of seven years. Offers insights into Mahfouz’s view of the human condition.

Singer Is Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature

Soyinka Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Ōe Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Heaney Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

Szymborska Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature