The author’s most important work was banned by Egypt’s religious authorities
On Oct. 13, 1988, Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz became the first Egyptian and the first writer with Arabic as his native tongue to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
By then, Mahfouz, 76, had produced a rich and complex body of work, including more than 30 novels and 350 short stories, many of which were adapted for film. For many years, he also wrote a weekly column for Egypt’s leading newspaper, Al-Ahram.
The Nobel citation said that, “through works rich in nuance — now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous” — Mahfouz had created “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”
His writing also provoked controversy. His 1959 novel “Children of Gebelawi,” an allegorical retelling of the stories of the three Abrahamic faiths, was banned and, in 1994, he survived a knife attack by a religious extremist.
Upon Mahfouz’s death in 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised the author’s “values of enlightenment and tolerance.” He would be remembered as “a cultural light... who brought Arab literature to the world.”
CAIRO: In 1901, the first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. More than 80 years later, on Oct. 13, 1988, the Swedish Academy awarded the prize to Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. It was the first time it had been awarded to an Egyptian, and also the first time the winner’s mother tongue was Arabic. The academy’s statement noted that: “To date, Mahfouz has been writing for about 50 years. He is still indefatigable.”
It went on: “Mahfouz’s great and decisive achievement is as the writer of novels and short stories. His production has meant a powerful upswing for the novel as a genre and for the development of the literary language in Arabic-speaking cultural circles. The range is, however, greater than that. His work speaks to us all.”
Mahfouz’s life is itself worthy of literary fiction. He was born on Dec. 11, 1911, in Cairo’s old city, and was named after the obstetrician who helped deliver him.
At the eastern and western approaches to the Qasr El Nil Bridge, next to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, are four famous large bronze lion statues that enthrall me every time I cross the bridge. I used to make this journey twice a week in the early 1990s, and accompanying me was Mahfouz. At that time, we had agreed to jointly write eight articles for Al-Majalla magazine.
“The self-effacing 76-year-old, a habitue of bazaar coffee shops, has been compared to Charles Dickens for his vivid portrayals of poverty.”
From an AP story on Arab News’ front page, Oct. 14, 1988
I used to pass by his house in Al-Agouza in the morning and we would walk together to Tahrir Square to sit in a small cafe called Ali Baba. We would then define a topic for our next article — he would present his perceptions and points of view about this topic while I took notes. I would then formulate these observations and ideas and present them to him for approval at our next meeting.
The time I spent with him was of special value. It was an opportunity to approach the mind of one of the most important figures in Arabic and international literature. However, I do not claim to have known him deeply; he was by nature very reserved, so I only knew him to a limited extent. I understood why Mahfouz did not want to share his personal life with the public, instead preferring to keep it away from the spotlight. He only got married in the period after he stopped writing following the revolution of 1952. He was able to hide his marriage for 10 years.
Mahfouz was the youngest of seven siblings and, because the difference in age between him and his closest brother was 10 years, he was treated like an only child. He was little more than seven years old when the 1919 revolution took place and this deeply influenced him. He described it in many of his novels, notably in the first part of his “Cairo Trilogy,” “Bayn Al-Qasrayn” (Palace Walk).
Naguib Mahfouz is born in Old Cairo, the seventh and youngest child of Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, a civil servant.
Publishes his first full-length novel, “Mockery of The Fates,” which is translated into English in 2003 as “Khufu’s Wisdom.”
Publishes “Bayn Al-Qasrayn” (Palace Walk), the first book in the “Cairo Trilogy,” his most famous works, which follow the fortunes of a Cairene family over three generations from the time of the 1919 revolution. “Qasr Al-Shawq” (Palace of Desire) and “Al-Sukkariyya” (Sugar Street) follow in 1957.
His novel “Children of Gebelawi,” an allegorical retelling of the stories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, offends religious authorities and is banned in Egypt.
Wins Nobel Prize in Literature.
Stabbed in the neck by a religious extremist offended by his work, sustaining permanent nerve damage that makes writing increasingly difficult.
Publishes his final major work, “The Seventh Heaven,” written because “spirituality for me is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration (and) I want to believe something good will happen to me after death.”
Mahfouz dies in Cairo, aged 94.
After graduating in philosophy from Cairo University in 1934, he began preparing a master’s thesis on “Beauty in Islamic Philosophy,” but changed his decision to focus on literature. However, because literature was not a profession that could provide him with a monthly salary, but was rather a hobby, he worked in several government positions.
Mahfouz began writing in the mid-1930s and his short stories were published in Al-Risala magazine. In 1939, his first novel, “Abath Al-Aqdar” (Mockery of the Fates), was published. It presented his concept of historical realism and was followed by “Radubis” (Rhadopis of Nubia) and “Kifah Tibah” (Thebes at War) to complete a historical trilogy set in the time of the pharaohs.
The year 1945 marked the beginning of Mahfouz’s line of realistic writing, which he preserved for most of his literary career, reflected through novels such as “Cairo Modern,” “Khan Al-Khalili,” “Midaq Alley,” and “The Beginning and the End.” During this phase, his style ranged from the impressionistic to the surrealist, using a pattern of evocative vocabulary and imagery to bind the works together. His exclusive use of stream of consciousness also prevailed, such as in “The Beggar” and “Children of Our Alley.” He also excelled in writing novels that covered many generations, such as “The Harafish” and “Arabian Nights and Days.”
He was little more than seven years old when the 1919 revolution took place, and this deeply influenced him
Many classify “Children of Our Alley,” which was translated into English as “Children of Gebelawi,” as Mahfouz’s most important work. It began to be serialized in Al-Ahram in September 1959, but this was suspended on Dec. 25 the same year due to objections by religious organizations. It was this novel that brought Mahfouz into conflict with Egypt’s religious authorities. After its serialization in Al-Ahram, Cairo’s religious university, Al-Azhar, refused to allow the work to appear in book form. It took another eight years for it to be published in Beirut. Many years later, this book was the motivation for a 1995 attack on the author’s life, in which he was hospitalized with a wound to the neck. This left him partially paralyzed in his right arm.
Behind the scenes of his Nobel Prize award in 1988, it is said that this novel — as well as some other works — ensured he outdid his peers who were also nominated for the award at the time.
“Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha” (Dreams of the Period of Recovery), published in 2004, was a series of writings dictated to his friends. He passed away on Aug. 30, 2006, after receiving myriad well-deserved honors, awards and accolades. His name was given to a number of squares in Egypt, while a museum was last year opened in the writer’s honor near his home neighborhood.
- Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy, a columnist for Arab News, is an Egyptian writer and journalist. He was an acquaintance of Naguib Mahfouz. Twitter: @ALMenawy