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|Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)|
Egyptian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, and was the first Arabic writer to be so honored. Many in the Arab world saw the prize as somewhat ironic, not least because the work for which Mahfouz received the prize had been published at least three decades earlier. In spite of millions readers in the Arab world, the author's books are still unavailable in many Middle Eastern countries on account of his support for President Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Mahfouz wrote some 40 novels and short story collections, 30 screenplays, and many plays.
"Zaabalawi!" he said, frowning in concentration, "You need him? God be with you, for who knows, I Zaabalawi, where you are?"
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Gamaliya, Cairo. The family lived in two popular districts of the town, in al-Jamaliyyah, from where they moved in 1924 to al-Abbasiya, then a new Cairo suburb; both have provided the backdrop for many of the author's writings. His father, whom Mahfouz described as having been "old-fashioned," was a civil servant, and Mahfouz eventually followed in his footsteps. In his childhood Mahfouz read extensively. His mother often took him to museums and Egyptian history later became a major theme in many of his books.
The 1919 revolution in Egypt had a strong affect on Mahfouz, although he was at the time only seven years old. From the window he often saw English soldiers firing at the demostrators, men and women. "You could say," he later noted, "that the one thing which most shook the security of my childhood was the 1919 revolution." After competing his secondary education, Mahfouz entered the University of Cairo, where he studied philosophy, graduating in 1934. By 1936, having spent a year working on an M.A., he decided to become a professional writer. Mahfouz then worked as a journalist at Ar-Risala, and contributed to Al-Hilal and Al-Ahram. The major Egyptian influence on Mahfouz's thoughts of science and socialism in the 1930s was Salama Musa, the Fabian intellectual.
Before turning to the novel, Mahfouz wrote articles and short stories, 80 of which were published in magazines. His first published book was a translation of James Baikie's work on ancient Egypt. Mahfouz's first collection of stories appeared in 1938. In 1939 he entered government bureaucracy, where he was employed for the next 35 years. From 1939 until 1954, he was a civil servant at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and then was appointed director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema, the State Cinema Organization. In 1969-71 he was a consultant for cinema affairs to the Ministry of Culture. After marrying Atiyyatallah Ibrahim in 1954, he moved from the family house in al-Abbasiya to an apartment overlooking the Nile in Jiza.
Most of Mahfouz's early works were set in al-Jamaliyyah. Abath al-Aqdar (1939), Radubis (1943), and Kifah Tibah (1944), were historical novels, written as part of a larger unfulfilled project of 30 novels. Inspired by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) Mahfouz planned to cover the whole history of Egypt in a series of books. However, following the third volume, Mahfouz shifted his interest to the present, the psychological impact of the social change on ordinary people.
Mahfouz's central work in the 1950s was The Cairo Trilogy, a monumental work of 1,500 pages, which the author completed before the July Revolution. The novels were titled with the street names Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. Mahfouz set the story in the parts of Cairo where he grew up. They depict the life of the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over three generations in Cairo from WW I to the 1950s, when King Farouk I was overthrown. With its rich variety of characters and psychological understanding, the work connected Mahfouz to such authors as Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Galsworthy. Mahfouz ceased to write for some years after finishing the trilogy. Disappointed in the Nasser régime, which had overthrown the monarchy in 1952, he started publishing again in 1959, now prolifically pouring out novels, short stories, journalism, memoirs, essays, and screenplays.
The Children of Gebelaawi (1959) portrayed the patriarch Gebelaawi and his children, average Egyptians living the lives of Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. Gebelaawi has built a mansion in an oasis in the middle of a barren desert; his estate becomes the scene of a family feud which continues for generations. "Whenever someone is depressed, suffering or humiliated, he points to the mansion at the top of the alley at the end opening out to the desert, and says sadly, 'That is our ancestor's house, we are all his children, and we have a right to his property. Why are we starving? What have we done?' " The book was banned throughout the Arab world, except in the Lebanon. In the 1960s, Mahfouz further developed its theme that humanity is moving further away from God in his existentialist novels. In The Thief and the Dogs (1961) he depicted the fate a Marxist thief, who has been released from prison and plans revenge. Ultimately he is murdered in a cemetery.
Mahfouz left his post as the Director of Censorship and was appointed Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema. He was a contributing editor for the leading newspaper Al-Ahram and in 1969 he became a consultant to the Ministry of Culture, retiring in 1972. He has been a board member of Dar al Ma'aref publishing house. Many of his novels were serialized in Al-Ahram, and his writings also appeared in his weekly column, 'Point of View'. Before the Nobel Prize only a few of his novels had appeared in the West.
In the 1960s and 1970s Mahfouz started to construct his novels more freely and use interior monologue. In Miramar (1967) he developed a form of multiple first-person narration. Four narrators, among them a Socialist and a Nasserite opportunist, represent different political views. In the center of the story is an attractive servant girl. In Arabian Nights and Days (1981) and in The Journey of Ibn Fatouma (1983) Mahfouz drew on traditional Arabic narratives as subtexts. Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985) is about conflict between old and new religious truths, a theme with which Mika Waltari dealt in Finland in his historical novel Sinuhe (1945, trans. The Egyptian).
"As a geographical place and as history, Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz's Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity." (Edward W. Said in New York Review of Books, November 30, 2000)
Mahfouz, called the "Balzac of Egypt", described the development of his country in the 20th-century. He combined intellectual and cultural influences from East and West - his own exposure to the literarature of non-Arabic culture began in his youth with the enthusiastic consumption of Western detective stories, Russian classics, and such modernist writers as Proust, Kafka and Joyce. Mahfouz's stories, written in the florid classical Arabic, are almost always set in the heavily populated urban quarters of Cairo, where his characters, mostly ordinary people, try cope with the modernization of society and the temptations of Western values.
Among those people, who brought early translations of his work to the English-speaking readers was Jacqueline Onassis. In Egypt he was widely considered a spokesperson not only for Egypt but also for a number of non-Western cultures. However, Mahfouz himself almost never traveled outside of Egypt, and sent his daughters to accept the Nobel Prize on his behalf.
Like many Egyptian writers and intellectuals, Mahfouz was on a "death list" by Islamic fundamentalists. He defended Salman Rushdie after the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death, but later he criticized Rushdie's Satanic Verses as "insulting" to Islam. In 1994, near his home, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife, and two Egyptian Islamic militants were sentenced to death for attempting to kill him. Texts written after the assassination attempt for a weekly women's magazine were collected in Dreams (2000-2003). "Al Ustaz" (The Professor"), as his friend, the journalist Mohamed Salmawy called him, recorded his dreams on a tape recorder or Mahfouz dictated them to a friend, after which they were sent to the magazine Nisf al-dunya for publication.
In his old age Mahfouz became nearly blind, and he though he continued to write, had difficulties in holding a pen or a pencil – the attempt on his life had left his writing had injured. He also had to abandon his daily habit of meeting his friends at coffeehouses. In his last dream Mahfouz saw himself preparing the table and listening to the voices of his mother, brothers and sisters in the next room, then falling asleep and awakening: "I found the room completely empty, totally silent, and for a minute I was frightened before I gradually remembered that they'd all passed away and that I'd attended their funerals, one after the other." Mahfouz died in Cairo on August 30, 2006.
For further reading: The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Najib Mahfu's Novels by Sasson Somekh (1973); The Modern Egyptian Novel by Hilary Kilpatrick (1974); The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1982); Naguig Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives (1989) Nobel Laureates in Literature, ed. by Rado Pribic (1990); Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt by Hayim Gordon (1990); Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz, ed. by Trevor Le Gassick (1991); Naguib Mahfouz, ed. by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar (1993); Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning by Rasheed el-Enany (1993); The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt by Matti Moosa (1994); The Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz by Gamal al-Ghitani (2000)