Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
Issue No.564
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Naguib Mahfouz:

A life in writing

By Amina Elbendary

Mahfouz outside the Al-Ahram building: his association with the paper began in the mid-1950s
As the Cairo Trilogy (which opens at the home of El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel- Gawwad with the words "She woke at midnight") begins at home, so too should the tale of Arabic literature's master storyteller, at his home in Al- Gamaliya. Naguib Mahfouz was born on Monday 11 December, 1911, in Cairo's historic neighbourhood, a site that has informed much of his literature and, ultimately, his life.

It was at 8, Midan Bayt Al-Qadi, in Gamaliya, that Mahfouz was born to a middle-class family, the youngest of seven children, four girls and three boys. His father, Abdel-Aziz Ibrahim Ahmed El-Basha, was a civil servant -- again a background that informs much of his writing -- and named his son after the obstetrician, Naguib Mahfouz Pasha, who ensured both the infant and mother's lives after a particularly difficult birth.

In 1924, when Naguib Mahfouz was 12, the family moved to a house in Abbasiya, a neighbourhood foregrounded in the novels of the Trilogy, in Al- Harafish and Awlad Haratina as well as in the semi-autobiographical sketches contained in Mirrors.

Whatever the contextual similarities between Mahfouz's family background and the typical Cairene middle-class that functions, often, as the real "hero" in several of his novels, Mahfouz has been at pains in interviews to detach his own father and family from that of the occasional despot El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel- Gawwad, the patriarch in the Trilogy.

"I grew up in a stable family. The atmosphere around me was one that inspired the love of parents and family... The family was a basic, almost sacred, value of my childhood; I was not one of those who rebelled against their parents or rejected their authority," he once remarked. And unlike Amina, El-Sayed's famously subservient wife, Mahfouz's mother seems to have enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom.

Mahfouz entered a politically-charged Fouad I (now Cairo) University in 1930 to study philosophy, graduating in 1934. His choice of subject -- unusual on the part of an ambitious young man -- provoked bewilderment within his family, not least, as the writer was to later explain to Ragaa El-Naqqash, because he was notably proficient in mathematics and sciences.

Echoes of the confusion caused by Mahfouz's decision perhaps inform the episode in Palace of Desire in which Kamal tries to explain (and convince) his father of his decision to join the Teachers' Training College: "[Kamal] believed that the life of thought was man's loftiest goal, rising with its luminous character high above the material world." College was "the path open to [Kamal] for the cultivation of thought."

And in his reminiscences about his childhood, Mahfouz draws a picture of a home in which (typically) religion and politics were vibrant, culture almost absent: "You would not have thought that an artist would emerge from that family," he says in Atahaddath Ilaykum.

Mahfouz published his first collection of short stories, Hams Al-Gonoun (Whispers of Madness), in 1938 and his first novel, 'Abath Al-Aqdar, (The Games of Fate), in 1939. Yet despite this relatively early publishing debut it was only in the 1950s that his works came to the attention of the larger public, following the appearance in the Al- Kitab Al-Dhahabi series of several of his novels: Khan Al-Khalili (1952), Al- Qahira Al-Gadida [New Cairo] (1953), Middaq Alley (1954) and Bidaya wa Nihaya [The Beginning and the End] (1956). His magnum opus, The Cairo Trilogy, was first serialised in Al-Risala Al-Gadida in 1956 before being published in three volumes. It follows three generations of El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel- Gawwad's family from 1917 to 1944, spanning the 1919 revolution, two world wars and the inter-war years, replete with the social and political tensions of the period.

Mahfouz's most controversial novel by far is Awlad Haratina (Children of the Alley or Children of Gebelawi as it was translated into English), serialised on the pages of Al-Ahram newspaper in 1959. The novel's theme centres around the role of religion in a world dominated by science, a theme already latent in several of Mahfouz's earlier works. Its serialisation caused a furore, prompting a ban in Egypt. It was published in Beirut in 1967.

Subsequent novels were marked by a greater concentration on the psychology of the alienated individual in post- revolutionary Egypt; novels such as Al- Liss wa Al-Kilab (The Thief and the Dogs) and Al-Tariq (The Search).

Naguib Mahfouz must be among the most -- if not the most -- prolific of Arab writers, having produced 35 novels and 14 collections of short stories. He has also worked on 25 screenplays, none of which, are based on his novels.

During a long career he has been the recipient of many awards recognising his achievement. In 1957 he received the State Literary Prize for the Novel and the State Merit Award in 1968. In 1988 the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mahfouz, "who, through works rich in nuance -- now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous -- has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind."

As an aspiring writer, Mahfouz was fortunate in knowing a number of contemporary thinkers and scholars closely. He was influenced by the prominent socialist Salama Moussa, who inspired him to begin working on short stories. And among his earliest mentors was Sheikh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, who appointed Mahfouz as his parliamentary secretary when he was minister of awqaf.

Mahfouz spent 37 years of his life as a government employee, occupying various positions, including secretary to the minister of national guidance, director of the Film Censorship Office, director- general of the Film Support Organisation, adviser to the General Organisation for Film Industry and adviser to the minister of culture.

In 1954, at the age of 43, Mahfouz married Atiyyatallah Ibrahim. They have two children, Fatma and Umm Kulthoum, beyond which almost nothing is known of the family life of Arab literature's most celebrated writer. He recalls his childhood home and childhood memories, but the house in which he has spent half his life is rarely glimpsed.

On 14 October 1994, Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed by a fanatic enraged by what he perceived as the writer's irreligious beliefs, with particular reference to the then still-banned novel Awlad Haratina. Mahfouz survived the attempt on his life, though he remains frail and rarely attends public functions.

It is both disappointing, and telling, that given the significant corpus of literature Mahfouz has authored, the corpus of literary criticism concerned with those writings, and the general consensus on Mahfouz's contribution to modern Arabic literature, he has reached the age of 90 without a comprehensive, scholarly biography to his name. Most of the information we have on his life and thought is what can be read between the lines of his novels, or else in the pages of the minor works Mahfouz has produced covering aspects of his life, including Echoes of an Autobiography. Such information is supplemented by lengthy interviews given by the author (with Gamal El-Ghitani in Naguib Mahfouz Yatadhakkar [Naguib Mahfouz Remembers] and Ragaa El-Naqqash in Naguib Mahfouz Safahat min Mudhakiratihi wa Adwaa Gadida 'ala Adabihi wa Hayatihi [Naguib Mahfouz: Pages of his Diaries and New Light on His Art and Life]) but these remain far short of a reliable, definitive biography. Such a project would, perhaps, make the nicest of birthday presents.

EmailIt!Recommend this page

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Send a letter to the Editor
Issue 564 Front Page

Search for words and exact phrases (as quotes strings),
Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NEAR, AND NOT) for advanced queries
Letter from the Editor
Editorial Board
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time
Al-Ahram Organisation