Naguib Mahfouz

Innovative novelist and author of 'The Cairo Trilogy' who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature

Thursday 31 August 2006 00:00 BST

Naguib Mahfouz, writer and civil servant: born Cairo 11 December 1911; Nobel Prize for Literature 1988; married 1954 Atiyah-Allah Ibrahim (two daughters); died Cairo 30 August 2006.

In 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was born in 1911 in the popular quarter of Gamaliya in the heart of old Cairo, and he devoted his life and work to his native city. He inscribed Cairo's life, space and modern history into the hearts of Arab readers, from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, and familiarised them with its ways and norms.

As the youngest son of a family of seven children, he enjoyed attention and affection and relished his happy childhood. His vivid recollections of old Cairo inspired his work, from his early novels up to his last, Qushtumor (1988). Mahfouz's father was a middle-class civil servant and afforded his family a comfortable life.

Mahfouz went to Cairo University, where he studied philosophy, and upon his graduation in 1934 he worked for the university, contemplated postgraduate study and even registered for a PhD to study Sufism in Islamic philosophy, but he abandoned this academic endeavour and embarked on a career of literary creativity. Yet philosophical ideas and Sufi preoccupations pervade his literary work.

He started publishing articles and short stories soon after his graduation and in 1938 published his first book, Hams al-junun ("Whispers of Madness"), a collection of short stories. The following year he left the world of academia, opted for an undemanding civil service job and published his first novel, Abath al-aqdar ("Absurd Fates", 1939). This and the following two novels, Radubis ("Radobis", 1943) and Kifah Tibah ("The Struggle of Thebes", 1944) were historical works written as a part of a grand plan to employ the narrative genre in relating the history of Egypt from the time of the Pharaohs to the present.

After reading Ivanhoe at secondary school, Mahfouz had become fascinated by the historical novels of Walter Scott and embarked on this grand project under his influence. Mahfouz's early historical novels were clearly different from their predecessors in the genre. The historical setting was merely an attempt to root the work in Egypt's glorious history and use this to help develop a sense of national identity. The quest for independence and the need to develop both the national character and the individual's awareness of his role in society are the major preoccupations of these novels.

But after writing three novels without making a dent in the vast history of Egypt (he was still in the early pharaonic period) and after reading more 19th-century European novels, particularly the work of Zola, Balzac and Dickens, he turned his attention to the present. This coincided with the Second World War, which proved to be an important period in Mahfouz's career. During these turbulent years he became increasingly aware of the need to avoid historical metaphor and deal directly with the burning social issues. Although his historical novels were first published during the early years of the war they were all written before its outbreak.

The title of his first socio-realistic novel, Al-Qahira al-jadida ("New Cairo"), written in the first year of the war but not published until 1943, sums up his new preoccupation. He was concerned with the transformation of Cairo both as a city and as a distinct urban culture. Cairo is both the setting and the symbol of the clashes of cultural values that affect many of the inhabitants of this teeming Third World metropolis. The novels of this phase of Mahfouz's literary career reflect various facets of the trauma of change and its social, human and political ramifications.

This culminated in Al-thulathiya (translated as The Cairo Trilogy), the masterpiece of the Cairene urban chronicles. The Cairo Trilogy - its three volumes Bayn al-qasrayn (1956; translated as Palace Walk, 1990), Qasr al-shawq (1957; Palace of Desire, 1991) and Al-sukkariyya (1957; Sugar Street, 1992) - spans half a century of Egypt's quest for national identity and modernisation over three different generations. It is the greatest family saga of modern Arabic literature and the work that enshrines middle-class morality and culture. Inspired by Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, it succeeds in executing a survey of social customs as well as folk songs, tales, popular wisdom, common proverbs and the whole undercurrent of urban culture in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century.

The trilogy reflects the cultural and political development of a society in turmoil under the pressures of the British occupation, and draws a highly detailed map of Egypt's political orientations. It sets out the major social stereotypes of relationships, emotions and roles to the extent that its hero, Ahmad Abdul-Jawwad, based on Mahfouz's own father, has become the Egyptian patriarch par excellence. When the trilogy was serialised on television, both men and women throughout the Arab world viewed this archetypal patriarch with nostalgia and admiration.

The Cairo Trilogy ends with the death of the patriarch and the birth of a new child heralding the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The completion of the trilogy coincided with Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolution of 1952 which ended the ancien régime. The radical change brought by this revolution led Mahfouz to five years of contemplation in which he stopped writing.

The revolution had removed in one stroke the three major topics of Mahfouz's attention - the monarchy, the British occupation and the corrupt political system. His writing was inspired by a desire to create an awareness of the need for socio-political changes, and the desired change was taking place at a very rapid pace. The major aims of his old literary projects were being realised and he had to rethink his priorities. This was a very long and laborious process which led to radical changes both in themes and in textual strategies. In the interim he concentrated on writing film scenarios.

In 1959 Mahfouz published his major novel Awlad haritna (Children of Gebelawi, 1981), which was serialised in the newspaper Al-Ahram. As soon as its serialisation was complete, the Azhar, the major religious authority in Egypt, moved a resolution banning it from publication in book form. But in 1966 the book was published in Beirut and was allowed calmly into Cairo until it was banned again on the heels of Salman Rushdie's case (in 1994 Mahfouz himself was attacked and stabbed outside his house in Cairo).

The book enraged the religious establishment. An allegorical novel, it was interpreted as solely a narrative account of the story of creation and man's spiritual and intellectual development through the three major religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - reaching the peak of his intellectual and spiritual maturity with the age of reason. The book's final section posits scientific and rational thinking as the new creed for humanity.

But it can also be seen as Mahfouz's contribution to the search for a new direction after Egypt had achieved its independence - as his implicit advice to the new rulers to adopt a more liberal and rational attitude towards the complex socio-political reality of Egypt. The advice was not heeded. This provoked Mahfouz to start a series of six novels, constituting his output in the 1960s and forming what the critics call the period of critical realism in his development.

These are highly political novels emphasising the importance of freedom and the dire consequences of its absence from society as a whole. They can be seen as documents of the disappointment of Mahfouz's generation in Nasser's regime and their attempt to undermine his growing popularity. They are documents of defiance and glorification of the spirit of rebellion (Al-Liss wa'l-kilab, 1961: The Thief and the Dogs, 1984). They lament the blindness and cruelty of change and sympathise with its victims (Al-Samman wa'l-kharif, 1962: Autumn Quail, 1985). The impossible quest for meaning and search for a way out of the impasse pervades the majority of these novels, and reaches its acme in (Al-Tariq, "The Road", 1964) and (Al-Shahhaz, 1965: The Beggar, 1986). Mahfouz's repartee and sharp sense of humour (particularly in Tharthara fawq al-nil, 1966: Adrift on the Nile, 1993), turns the novel into powerful critical commentaries on corruption and tyranny.

Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war, realising the prophecy of doom enshrined in Miramar (1967), the last novel of this period, came as a shock none the less and led to another period of silence in Mahfouz's career. Instead of turning his attention to writing films, he poured his energy into short stories and one-act plays. These works were marked by their symbolic, even surrealistic, structure in order to portray the complexity and absurdity of the unexpected events that followed the 1967 defeat.

His next novel, Al-Hubb Taht Al-Matar ("Love in the Rain", 1973), was solely concerned with the impact of this tragic event on the Egyptian psyche. Al-Karnak (Karnak, 1971), written immediately after the death of Nasser, was a harsh and strongly critical illustration of the police state and its responsibility for the destruction of the spirit of the younger generation and their will to fight for their own country.

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a marked increase in Mahfouz's productivity. He wrote more than 20 novels and eight collections of short stories. Although many of these novels were quickly written and loosely structured and some of them are closer to film treatments that fully developed novels, Mahfouz justifies this by his strong urge to illustrate the various aspects of a rapidly shifting reality. Among these numerous works, three novels stand out as some of the best examples of the modern Arabic novel. Malhamat al-harafish (1977; The Harafish, 1993) is a remarkable achievement that rivals The Cairo Trilogy in its richness and complexity. Layali alf layla (1982; Arabian Nights and Days, 1995), is an ambitious attempt to inscribe the modern preoccupations of the Arab world into the fantastic world of the Arabian Nights. Mahfouz posits the modern novel as rival to the great classic of Arabic narrative, and succeeds in reproducing the magic world of the old classic but with completely modern content.

Hadith al sabah wa-al-masa ("Talk of Morning and Evening", 1987) stands out as the most significant Arabic novel of the 1980s. In this novel Mahfouz proved to be in the forefront of narrative innovation in his portrayal of the fragmentation of Egyptian society under the successive failures of the process of modernisation. The novel is a vast undertaking in its historical scope, encompassing a period of two centuries of Egypt's history. It starts before Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 and continues until the 1980s and the aftermath of the infitah economic policy of Anwar Sadat.

One of the major achievements of Hadith al sabah wa-al-masa is its success in finding fragmentary novelistic structure capable of portraying the disintegration of the old coherent system of values, human relationships, ethics, and a strong sense of national identity. The alphabetical ordering of the characters subverts any causal development and demands a high degree of alertness from the reader in order to understand the logic that permeates this ostensibly random structure. The written text hides beneath it a suppressed one that relates the destiny of the characters to that of their own nation.

The world of Naguib Mahfouz is a vast and extremely rich one extending from pharaonic times down to the present day. He spans the various changes in the reality, dreams and aspirations of his nation and provides an elaborate record of its attempts to come to terms with the process of modernisation. Although his world is mainly Cairo and predominantly the old quarter of Gamaliya in which he spent his childhood, he made the urban scene an elaborate and highly significant metaphor of the national condition.

His narrative world is peopled with characters from all walks of Egyptian life, from beggars to aristocrats, with a special place reserved for the intellectuals with whom Mahfouz identifies. On the literary plane, his career spans the whole process of development of the Arabic novel from the historical to the modernistic and lyrical. He earned the Arabic novel respect and popularity and lived to see it flourish in the work of numerous writers throughout the Arab world.

Sabry Hafez

Naguib Mahfouz's 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature and the subsequent English translations of his major novels prompted several Western newspapers to send emissaries to Cairo, writes D. J. Taylor. Here Mahfouz could be found in a room at the offices of Al-Ahram, a diffident, elderly figure with an uncanny resemblance to Ray Charles, apparently unfazed by the camera crews and relays of foreign journalists scuffling in the corridor beyond.

Arriving at this sanctum in the spring of 1990, with a bagful of copies of Palace Walk, supplied by his British publishers, I discovered that we were not alone. It was Mahfouz's habit, in fact, to conduct press interviews with the assistance and the intervention of his secretary. Although Mahfouz spoke perfect English and this lady did not, he insisted for some reason on questions' being addressed through the chair in English and conveyed to him in Arabic.

This suggested that he had a mischievous side, and so it turned out. The first obvious question to ask the first Arabic laureate was how he felt about the enormous interest now being shown in his work in the West. Mahfouz looked baffled. "My books reach England?" he shyly enquired. Resisting the urge to reply, "You know they do, or why else would I be here?", I moved on to the great controversy currently animating British letters, the Muslim-inspired campaign against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, condemned by its disparagers on grounds of blasphemy. Writerly solidarity turned out to be in short supply. Nobody minded criticism of Islam, Mahfouz crisply deposed, but this was "insolence".

Already the three-way dialogue was taking its toll on the questions. Keen to hear what he thought of the 19th-century English classics from which The Cairo Trilogy was thought to derive, I wondered to the chair whether Mr Mahfouz mightn't elaborate on his clear thematic, if not linguistic debt, to these distinguished Victorian predecessors. The secretary looked worried. I tried again, using slightly fewer syllables. Still the secretary shifted nervously in her chair. Mahfouz, meanwhile, stared courteously into space.

In the end I took a deep breath and asked, "Would Mr Mahfouz please tell me which English writers he likes?" There was a rumble of Arabic. Mahfouz beamed. "John Galsworthy!" he crowed. "I love him very much."

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