in memoriam: NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

NAGUIB MAHFOUZ, an Egyptian screenwriter, playwright and novelist passed away Aug. 30, 2006. He was 94. Mahfouz, already recognized in Egypt as one of the Arab world’s finest writers, was the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, bringing modern Arabic literature into the international spotlight. The oddity, however, lies in the fact that the novel chosen for the Nobel was written 30 years before his nomination.

Mahfouz was born Dec. n, 191 1, in a modest home in Gamaliyya, a heavily populated, 1,000-year-old urban city. With its narrowly networked alleyways, street bakers, centuries-old mosques, animated artisans and clustered buildings, it was his upbringing in this area that would affect the intricate details of much of his future writing. Mahfouz’s father, an old-fashioned civil servant, and his illiterate mother were very patriotic Egyptians with a passion for history, often taking the young Mahfouz and his six older siblings to museums. Although he had never traveled outside Egypt, the young Mahfouz became a voracious reader of foreign literature, from Russian classics to American detective stories.

Mahfouz’s education began at a kuttab (Qur’anic school), which provided him with a very strong basis in the complex syntax and grammar of the Arabic language, before he moved on to regular primary and secondary schools. He received his master’s degree in philosophy from Cairo University in 193 1 , known at the time as King Fouad University. Yet he remained an avid reader of literature by authors from George Bernard Shaw to Ernest Hemingway. Upon graduation, Mahfouz followed in his father’s footsteps and became a government clerk while continuing to write on the side. He started out writing short stories and articles, as well as translating the works of James Baikie on ancient Egypt, eventually publishing 80 of his stories in 1938. Mahfouz held several high positions in the Ministry of Culture, such as advisor to the Minister of Culture and Director of the Film Censorship Office, before retiring in 1 971.

In 1939, Mahfouz wrote his first three novels, all set against a Pharonic backdrop; the first was The Curse of Ra. Finding contemporary Egypt more appealing to his animated mind, however, he began in 1947 to mimic the social realism of his surroundings in novels such as Midaq Alley. The work gave a lucid portrayal of the winding alleys of his childhood with a set of animated, drugged characters who would perform “disfigurement surgeries” on those who wanted to be maimed for a successful career in begging.
The groundbreaking, 1,500 page, Cairo Trilogy came out in 1956 and eventually made its way into the cinemas, and sold more than 250,000 in the United States alone. The volumes provide a detailed depiction of a way of life that has vanished from modern-day, post-colonial Cairo. The narrative is situated in 1917-1944, when even the most apathetic were affected by new political trends, from the rise of Saad Zaghloul and the Wafd party to the beginnings of the Islamist movement. The novel carefully follows three generations of the fictional Abd-el-Jawad family, a typical traditional family, as they face the 20th century’s upheavals, including the changing role of women.

Perhaps the most lasting and pervasive effect of the novel came from the introduction of the iconic character, Si-Sayed, inspired by Mahfouz’s own overbearing father, who ruled his household, most particularly his wives and daughters, with an iron fist. A silent advocate of women’s rights, Mahfouz showed in each of his novels how women are able to slowly fight the oppression they face in society, quite uncommon in Middle Eastern literature.

Although the trilogy inspired profound nostalgia for a now departed era, Mahfouz was itching to criticize the repressive wave brought by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s 1952 revolution. In 1957, unable to suppress his frustration any longer, Mahfouz began writing his most critical work to date, Children of Gebelawi (“Children of Our Alley”). The highly symbolic work opens with an anonymous narrator telling the story of Gebelawi’s grand, highly secured mansion, which has been said by some to be emblematic of God and the Gardens of Eden. Gebelawi banishes his sons from his paradise, and the subsequent generations of his son’s children pray to Gebelawi for salvation. Some of the characters are said to be representations of Adam, Isa (Jesus) and Muhammad. Eventually these “children” seize part of the estate, only to subsequently ruin any chance of happiness because of greed, oppression and corruption . A ruling from Al Azhar and critics from Cairo University soon declared the themes as “unfit” for fictional work due to its religious connotations.

Almost equal in its effect on the trilogy was Mahfouz’s 1967 novel Mir amar, which, in terms of technique, shows the extent to which Mahfouz was influenced by Western literary styles. The story has many structural similari- ties to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, following the same incidents described in that novel through the eyes of four characters living in a seaside hotel in Alexandria. Its deeper meaning, however, mirrors the struggle for political independence from the dictatorial rule of Nasser. By 1978, the novel had been translated into English, and even at this early stage, British author John Fowles described Mahfouz as a “significant novelist” and wrote an insightful introduction to the translation. However, just as the novel began gaining a strong readership, Egypt faced a devastating and unexpected defeat in the 1 967 Six Day War with Israel. In response, Mahfouz took a five-year moratorium from writing novels and instead published 14 volumes of short anecdotes, as dark as the mood reigning over Cairo at the time. Although Mahfouz is most remembered for his novels, one of his short stories, Zaabalwai, is considered one of the best stories in Arabic ever written; so much so, that apart from some excerpts of the Qur’an, it is the only piece of Arabic literature to be included in the Norton Masterpieces of the World.

In 1989, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, mimicking Ayotallah Khomeini’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie, pronounced a similar sentence against Mahfouz for his three-decadeold Children of Our Alley. Sure enough, five years later, in October 1994, Mahfouz was attacked by a man who accused Mahfouz of blasphemy and stabbed the 82-year-old author in the neck. Mahfouz’s injuries paralyzed his right arm, permanently impairing his ability to write. Mahfouz’s spirit, however, was not broken and, determined to continue his work, he kept his schedule as busy as he could, attempting to go out six days a week to share banter, ideas and discussion with friends at local coffee shops.

Although Mahfouz was renowned all over the Arab world by 1988, when he won the Nobel, he remained relatively unknown in the West. Only about a dozen of his works had been translated into German, Swedish and French.

Despite his financial constraints, Mahfouz donated much of his $390,000 Nobel award to charity. He had always supported his wife, Attiyat-Allah, and two daughters, Fatima and Umm Kulthum, primarily from his modest salary as a civil servant. He sent his daughters to Stockholm to accept the Nobel in his stead due to his dwindling health. However, neither the fame nor fortune altered the state of this modest man or his family’s daily routine.

Every morning for four decades, Mahfouz would have breakfast at the downtown Ali Baba Café. Toward the end of his life, he commented on his favorite spot: “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” He would make it a point to meet with four of his closest friends weekly; his last semi-autobiographical novel, Qushtumar, talks about what happened during these happy meetings.

In July 2006, after he sustained a head injury, Mahfouz was admitted to the hospital, where he spent the last month of his life. His legacy – more than 30 novels, hundreds of short stories, essays and articles, dozens of movie scripts and five plays – mark his unmatched 70-year career. In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, Mahfouz said, “That is the way of life. You give up your pleasures one by one until there is nothing left, then you know it is time to go.”

A small ceremony attended by 200 mourners was held at AI-Hussein Mosque in Cairo, where, surprisingly, members of the Muslim Brotherhood came to offer their condolences, despite the statement on their website that ‘”Children of Gebelawi’ was a violation of Islamic tenets.” The party’s leader told The Associated Press, “We are not gods to punish and reward people. It’s not time to judge him or history, we’re asking for (God’s) mercy for him. He was a great writer.”

Mahfouz is survived by his wife and two daughters. One can only hope that his legacy does not end with his death, but that his words will continue to inspire future writers of equal merit.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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