Last reviewed: June 2017
Egyptian author and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.
December 11, 1911
August 30, 2006
Naguib Mahfouz was the perfecter of the Arabic-language novel and was its first Nobel laureate. The youngest of seven children, Mahfouz was born in the Gamaliya district of Cairo, the hub of Islamic activism. His father was a minor civil servant; his mother, a homemaker. As a boy, Mahfouz was interested in science and considered studying to become a doctor or an engineer. However, during his senior year, science gave way to philosophy, the only subject he thought would help him “unravel the mysteries of existence.” After getting his BA in philosophy in 1934 from King Fuad I University (now Cairo University), Mahfouz immediately entered an MA program. Two years into the program, however, his interest shifted to writing. He wrote mostly at night, for by day he had to work. He worked as a clerk, secretary, and librarian, and then, after the 1952 revolution (which he briefly supported), as adviser on the arts and official film censor. He did not become a full-time writer until his retirement at the age of sixty. Still, his output has been tremendous: thirty-five novels, fourteen collections of short stories and plays, screenplays for some twenty-five films—among the finest in Egyptian cinema—and, beginning in 1975, a weekly column for the influential daily Al-Ahram newspaper. He married at forty-three and has two daughters.
Under the influence of the late Egyptian editor and philosopher Salama Musa, Mahfouz came to “believe in science, socialism, and tolerance.” Musa also published Mahfouz’s first novel, ‘Abath al-aqdār (The game of fate), in his literary journal al-Majalla al-jadīda (The new magazine) in 1939. It was the Irish playwright and political thinker George Bernard Shaw, however, who made a faithful socialist out of Mahfouz; he was attracted to Shaw’s Fabian socialism, which, unlike Karl Marx’s communism, called for the gradual and peaceful transformation of society. Among literary influences, Mahfouz credits the playwrights William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, and Eugene O’Neill, and the novelists Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka, whose works he read mainly in translation. Naguib Mahfouz
Though Mahfouz lived in Gamaliya only until he was twelve, the place in his imagination became his “true refuge.” His early novels—Khān al-Khalīli (1945), Zuqāq al-Midaqq (1947; Midaq Alley, 1966), and the novels of al-Thulāthiya al-Qāhirah (1956–57; the Cairo Trilogy, 1990–92)—are all set there, as are to a lesser extent many of his later works, including Awlād ḥāratinā (1959; Children of Gebelawi, 1981), the highly autobiographical Ḥikāyāt ḥaratinā (1975; The Fountain and the Tomb, 1988), and the epic Malḥamat al-ḥarāfīsh (1977; The Harafish, 1994). Mahfouz’s Egypt in these novels is not anything like what Western writers (T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell, and E. M. Forster) have imagined it to be, bawdy, exotic, and full of sexual possibilities; his is a land of destitution, unpaved and crowded alleyways, open sewers, tottering houses, and above all despair.
Mahfouz never joined any political party, but politics for him has been “the very axis of . . . [his] thinking.” He strongly supported the 1952 revolution that brought Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser to power; he believed that Nasser would create “true socialism and true democracy.” As Nasser became increasingly authoritarian and oppressive, however, Mahfouz turned against him and the revolution. Children of Gebelawi is an allegorical indictment of both, as are more directly al-Liss wa-al-kilāb (1961; The Thief and the Dogs, 1984), al-Shaḥḥādh (1965; The Beggar, 1986), and al-Karnak (1974; Karnak, 1979).
Children of Gebelawi was banned in Egypt in 1960 after Islamic groups complained that the book was hostile to Islam, and the ban was not lifted until 1994. After the ban was instituted, Mahfouz was highly critical of his country’s religious fundamentalists, who had been trying for many years to replace Egypt’s secular government with an Islamic one. In 1981 fundamentalists assassinated President Anwar Sadat, whose 1979 peace treaty with Israel Mahfouz had enthusiastically supported. In response Mahfouz wrote a novella, Yawma qutila al-za‘īm (1985; The Day the Leader Was Killed, 1989), to underline his lifelong belief that only science and socialism, not religion, can offer a cure for an Egypt plagued by poverty, despair, and political violence.
In 1992, when fundamentalists assassinated author Farag Foda, Mahfouz issued a furious statement accusing the group responsible of “intellectual terrorism.” It was therefore only a matter of time until Mahfouz himself would become a target. On October 14, 1994, a young militant Muslim stabbed Mahfouz in the neck as he was about to be driven to his favorite café. He was in the hospital for two weeks, and he subsequently made a complete recovery. Much to his irritation, he was placed under constant government protection after the attempt on his life. Due to his injuries, which resulted in nerve damage in his right hand, he was unable to write for more than half an hour every day. His literary output slowed significantly, and he primarily wrote very short stories based on his dreams, which were serialized under the title Ahlam fatrat al-naqaha (Dreams of convalescence) in the Cairo magazine Nisf al-dunya. Two English translations, both by Raymond Stock, were published by the American University in Cairo Press as The Dreams (2004) and Dreams of Departure (2007).
Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize win in 1988 was largely in recognition of his early works, in particular Midaq Alley and the Cairo Trilogy. While the prize brought him fame and recognition internationally, it also generated jealousy among some Arab writers who consider Mahfouz a borrower of the novel from Europe rather than an innovator. Nevertheless, he is still regarded by many as the Arab world’s finest novelist.
Mahfouz remained single into his forties, fearing that marriage would take his time and attention away from his writing. Then, in 1954, he married a woman named Atiya, with whom he had two daughters, Faten and Umm Kulthoum. They lived together in the Agouza district of Cairo. Mahfouz died in Cairo on August 30, 2006, at age ninety-four.