Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006)
In 2011, the AUC Press celebrated the centenary of the Egyptian Nobel laureate’s birth.
His Life and His Writing
Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, in the old Gamaliya quarter of Cairo, the youngest of seven children in a family of five boys and two girls. Although he had many siblings, Mahfouz felt like an only child because the next youngest brother was ten years older than him. He mourned his lack of normal sibling bonds, which is reflected in the portrayal of fraternal relationships in much of his work. But his childhood was a happy one—the family was stable and loving, with religion playing a very important role in their life—and there are many signs of Mahfouz’s affection for his early childhood in his work.
He spent his first nine or ten years in Gamaliya, which plays an important role in his earlier, realistic novels such as Midaq Alley and The Cairo Trilogy, and figures symbolically in later books like Children of the Alley and The Harafish. The alley of his childhood is a kind of microcosm of Egyptian society in his works. The family house, also, seems to have inspired Mahfouz and serves as the model for the Abd al-Jawad family house in The Cairo Trilogy. Mahfouz recalls the various rooms and secret places in these novels, including the roof, which becomes a scene for family gatherings and the meetings of lovers.
The 1919 Revolution also had a lasting effect on Mahfouz, leaving him with his first real sense of nationalist feeling and greatly influencing his writings. Interestingly, he later became disillusioned with the Revolution of 1952, though he took issue with its practices, not its principles. He voiced his criticisms clearly in some of his writings of the 1960s (in novels like Miramar), but unlike many other intellectuals of the time was never arrested by Nasser.
Around 1920, his family moved to Abbasiya, a new suburban district, which like Gamaliya is frequently evoked in his novels and short stories. This is where, like Kamal in The Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz experienced love for the first time.
Mahfouz began writing in primary school, when he was a fan of detective, historical, and adventure novels. In secondary school he moved on to the innovators of Arabic fiction—Taha Hussein, Muhammed Husayn Haykal, Ibrahim al-Mazini—who served him as models for the short story.
Despite his penchant for writing and his early facility with mathematics and the sciences, Mahfouz elected to study philosophy at Fuad I University (now Cairo University) in 1930, graduating in 1934. His interest in philosophy was partly inspired by the writings of Abbas al-Aqqad. Beginning in secondary school and continuing through his university years, he published more than forty articles in various magazines and newspapers, most of which dealt with philosophical and psychological issues and were heavily influenced by Henri Bergson.
From 1934 until his retirement in 1971 at the age of sixty, he worked in a variety of government departments as a civil servant. He held a secretarial post at Cairo University until 1938, when he moved to the Ministry of Religious Endowments to work as a parliamentary secretary to the minister.
In 1945 he requested transfer to the Ghuri Library, near his birthplace Gamaliya, where he managed the Good Loan Project, an interest-free loan program for the poor. This was a very happy time for him; he had plenty of opportunity to observe the life of the area and to read western literature, including his favorites: Shakespeare, Conrad, Melville, Flaubert, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust, O’Neill, Shaw, Ibsen, and Strindberg. From the 1950s he worked as secretary to the Minister of National Guidance, director of the Film Censorship Office, director-general of the Film Support Organization, advisor to the General Organization for Film Industry, and finally as advisor to the Minister of Culture.
Mahfouz remained a bachelor until 1954, when he married at the age of 43. He and his wife raised two daughters in their apartment in Agouza, a Nileside district of Cairo. He left Egypt only three times in his life, once to Yemen, once to the former Yugoslavia, and once to England for surgery.
His first novel, Khufu’s Wisdom, was published in 1939, and following that he wrote 35 more novels and fifteen collections of short stories, as well as Echoes of an Autobiography in 1994.
An attempt on his life in 1994—he was stabbed in the neck outside his home by a religious fanatic—left him able to write only with great difficulty for half an hour a day—and thus he wrote the very short fictions based on his dreams that he called “Dreams of Convalescence,” two selections of which were published in English translation as The Dreams and Dreams of Departure by the AUC Press, in 2004 and 2006 respectively.
From the late 1940s to the early 1980s he also worked on some twenty-five film screenplays, an activity that seems to have influenced the use of such devices as montage and flashback in his prose writings. Over thirty Egyptian films have been based on Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, but he was never interested in adapting his own books for the screen; the screenplay adaptations were done by others.
He was invited to be a writer emeritus at al-Ahram newspaper in 1971, and he continued to produce a weekly column that was published simultaneously in Arabic in al-Ahram and in English in Al-Ahram Weekly until shortly before his death. A collection of these columns was published for his ninetieth birthday celebration in 2001 as Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994–2001: From conversations with Mohamed Salmawy.
Mahfouz has received the Egyptian State Prize twice for his writings. In 1988 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy of Letters, in its citation for the prize, noted that Mahfouz “through works rich in nuance—now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous—has formed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind.”
In 1989 Mahfouz received the Presidential Medal from the American University in Cairo, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate in June 1995. In 1992 he was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 2002 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Naguib Mahfouz died in Cairo on 30 August 2006 at the age of 94, in the presence of his wife Atiya and his daughters Faten and Umm Kalthum.
His Work in Translation and Its Impact around the World
In December 1985, the AUC Press signed a comprehensive publishing agreement with Naguib Mahfouz, thus becoming his primary English-language publisher as well as his worldwide agent for all translation rights; prior to the award of the Nobel prize in 1988 the Press had already published nine Mahfouz novels in English and licensed numerous editions in other languages.
As Mahfouz wrote after receiving the Nobel prize, “it was through the translation of these novels into English that other publishers became aware of them and requested their translation into other foreign languages, and I believe that these translations were among the foremost reasons for my being awarded the Nobel prize.”
There are now some 600 editions in 40 languages of the works of Naguib Mahfouz published or licensed by the AUC Press. The first novel to be translated into English was Miramar, in 1978, and the most translated novel is Midaq Alley, which has appeared in more than 30 foreign editions in 15 languages.
On December 11, 1996, on the occasion of Naguib Mahfouz’s 85th birthday and the publication of his Echoes of an Autobiography, the AUC Press inaugurated the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature to recognize an outstanding work of Arabic literature. The medal is awarded annually on the day of his birthday.
On December 11, 2001, on the occasion of Naguib Mahfouz’s 90th birthday and the publication of The Complete Mahfouz Library in 20 volumes (expanded in 2006 to 25), the AUC Press announced the establishment of the Naguib Mahfouz Fund for Translations of Arabic Literature, to support and nurture the Press’s growing program of translations and worldwide distribution of the best of modern Arabic fiction.
In December 2006, the first annual Naguib Mahfouz Memorial Lecture was given at the American University in Cairo by Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer. In 2007 the Memorial Lecture was given by Mohamed Salmawy, author of The Last Station: Naguib Mahfouz Looking Back; in 2008 by Gamal al-Ghitani, author of The Mahfouz Dialogs. The 2009 Lecture was given by Rasheed E-Enany, author of Naguib Mahfouz: His Life and Times and the 2010 Lecture was given by the literary critic and Mahfouz Medal jury member Gaber Asfour.
The AUC Press now publishes 43 volumes of Naguib Mahfouz’s work, including a collection of his Life’s Wisdom, an anthology of his thought and philosophy collected from all his previous translated works, and most recently Heart of the Night (2011), and Love in the Rain (2011).
To mark the centenary of the birth of Naguib Mahfouz and his seventy-year career, the AUC Press is publishing this fall a one-time-only limited edition of the Naguib Mahfouz Centennial Library, a definitive collection of 20 hardbound editions featuring all his novels, three collections of his short stories, and his autobiographical writings.
In Praise of Naguib Mahfouz
“One of the greatest creative talents in the realm of the novel in the world.”—Nadine Gordimer
“As a citizen Naguib Mahfouz sees civility and the continuity of a transnational, abiding, Egyptian personality in his work as perhaps surviving the debilitating processes of conflict and historical degeneration which he, more than anyone else I have read, has so powerfully depicted.”—Edward Said
“[Mahfouz provides the] rare privilege of entering a national psychology, in a way that thousands of journalistic articles or television documentaries could not achieve.”—John Fowles
Denys Johnson-Davies with Naguib Mahfouz“Mahfouz also rendered Arabic literature a great service by developing, over the years, a form of language in which many of the archaisms and clichés that had become fashionable were discarded, a language that could serve as an adequate instrument for the writing of fiction in these times.”—Denys Johnson-Davies
“Mahfouz was of massively important influence on Arabic literature; he was our greatest living novelist for a very long time . . . . Mahfouz was an innovator in the use of the Arabic language; he also embodied the whole development of the Arabic novel starting with historical novels in the late 1940s through realism, through experimentalism and so on.”—Ahdaf Souief
“You can’t understand Egypt without Mahfouz—without his characters, with whom every reader, Arab or not, can identify.”—Tahar Ben Jelloun
“Naguib Mahfouz is a monument.”—Salwa Bakr
“He is the founder of the new Arab novel, and he opened doors for five generations of Arab novelists. He is our father.”—Alaa Al Aswany
“He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain.”—London Review of Books
“Naguib Mahfouz is the greatest writer in one of the most widely understood languages in the world, a storyteller of the first order in any idiom.”—Vanity Fair
“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in Mahfouz’s work as the streets of London were conjured by Dickens.”—Newsweek
“Throughout Naguib Mahfouz’s fiction there is a pervasive sense of metaphor, of a literary artist who is using his fiction to speak directly and unequivocally to the condition of his country. His work is imbued with love for Egypt and its people, but it is also utterly honest and unsentimental.”—The Washington Post
“Mahfouz’s work is freshly nuanced and hauntingly lyrical. The Nobel Prize acknowledges the universal significance of [his] fiction.”—Los Angeles Times
“Mr. Mahfouz embodied the essence of what makes the bruising, raucous, chaotic human anthill of Cairo possible.”—The Economist
“Mahfouz presents us with a different concept of the world and makes it real. His genius is not just that he shows us Egyptian colonial society in all its complexity; it is that he makes us look through the vision of his vivid characters and see people and ideas that no longer seem so alien.”—Philadelphia Inquirer