Middle East & Islamic Studies Collection

Naguib Mahfouz : A Biography

Naguib Mahfouz is considered one of the foremost writers in modern Arabic literature. Born in the al-Jamaliyya district of Cairo, Egypt, on December 11, 1911, he was the youngest of seven children and lived there until the age of six (or twelve, depending on biographer). He began his writing career at the age of 17 He published his first novel in 1939 (The Games of Fate), and since that date has written thirty-two novels and thirteen collections of short stories. In his old age he has maintained his prolific output, producing a novel every year. The novel genre, which can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, has no prototypes in classical Arabic literature. Although this abounded in all kinds of narrative, none of them could be described as we understand the term "novel" today. Arab scholars usually attribute the first serious attempt at writing a novel in Arabic to the Egyptian author Muhammad Hussein Haykal. The novel, called "Zaynab" after the name of its heroine, and published in 1913, told in highly romanticized terms the story of a peasant girl, victim of social conventions. Soon after, writers like Taha Hussein, Abbas Al-Aqqad, Ibrahim Al-Mazini and Tawfiq Al-Hakim were to venture into the unknown realm of fiction.

The Arabic novel, however, was to wait for another generation for the advent of the man who was to make it his sole mission. Naguib, who was born to a middle-class family in one of the oldest quarters in Cairo, was to give expression in powerful metaphors, over a period of half a century, to the hopes and frustrations of his nation. Readers have so often identified themselves with his work, a great deal of which has been adapted for the cinema, theater and television, that many of his characters become household names in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. On the other hand, his work, though deeply steeped in local reality, appeals to that which is universal and permanent in human nature, as shown by the relatively good reception his fiction has met in other cultures. In English and other languages, since the appearance in 1966 of his first translated novel Midag Alley, he has been widely read.

A study of Mahfouz's output shows his fiction to have passed through 4 distinguishable stages. The first (1939-44) comprises three novels based on the history of ancient Egypt. They provide a useful insight into the germination of the then budding young talent. Admittedly written under the influence of Sir Walter Scott's historical romances, the last of the three, "The Struggle of Thebes", is particularly interesting for the way in which the novelist brought history to bear on the political scene at the time. The novel draws on the heroic struggle of the Egyptians and their patriotic Pharaohs to expel the Hyksos, as foreign ruling invaders, from their country. The novel bore a relevance to Egyptian sociopolitical reality at the time (British occupation and a ruling aristocracy of foreign stock) that was all too obvious to be missed. Mahfouz had meant to write a whole series of novels encompassing the full history of Pharaonic Egypt; he even did the research required for such a monumental task. In the event, and perhaps luckily for the development of the Arabic novel, he was voluntarily deflected from his intended course and the scene of his next novel, "A New Cairo" (1945), was placed in the raw reality of its day. This marks the beginning of the second stage in the novelist's career, which culminated in the publication in 1956-57 of his magnum opus, "The Cairo Trilogy". The novels of this phase include six titles, of which three are English translation, i.e. "Midag Alley", "The Beginning", and "The End", and Volume 1 of the Cairo Trilogy ("Palace Walk"). In this period of his writing, the novelist studied the sociopolitical ills of his society with the full analytical power afforded him by the best techniques of realism and naturalism. What emerges from the sum total of these novels is a very bleak picture of a cross section of Egyptian urban society in the twenty or so years between the two World Wars. A work which stands by itself in this phase is "The Mirage" (1948), in which Mahfouz experimented for the first and last time with writing a novel closely based on Freud's theory of psycho-analysis. For his Trilogy, the peak of his realist/ naturalist phase, the Egyptian people will forever stand in their great novelist's debt. For without this colossal saga novel, in which he gives an eyewitness account of the country's political, social, religious and intellectual life between the two wars, that period of turmoil in their nation's life would have passed undocumented. After writing the Trilogy, which met with instant wide acclaim and served to focus renewed attention on his previous work, Mahfouz fell uncharacteristically silent for a number of years (1952-59) - the Trilogy having been completed four years before its publication. Different theories exist as to why this happened. One theory held by Ghaly Shukri, a well-known Mahfouz scholar, is that by writing the Trilogy Mahfouz had brought the realistic technique to a point of perfection which he could not possibly surpass. He thus needed a period of incubation in which to look for a new style. Whatever the reason, when Mahfouz serialized his next novel in the Cairo daily Al-Ahram in 1959, his readers were in for a surprise. The people of "Our Quarter" (available in English) as children of Gebe-lawi, was a unique allegory of human history from beginning to the present day. "The Thief and the Dogs" (available in English), published in 1982, is in a way like switching from a Dickens or a Balzac to a Graham Greene or a William Golding, so radical was the change that this style underwent in the third stage of his development. No longer viewing the world through realist/naturalist eyes, he was now to write a series of short powerful novels at once social and existential in their concern. Rather than presenting a full colorful picture of the society, he now concentrated on the inner working of the individual's mind in its interaction with the social environment. In this phase his style ranges from the impressionistic to the surrealist, a pattern of evocative vocabulary and imagery binds the work together, an extensive use is made of the stream of consciousness, or to use a more accurate term in the case of Mahfouz, free indirect speech. On the other hand, while the situation is based on reality, it is often given a universal significance through the suggestion of a higher level of meaning. Just as his realistic novels were an indictment of the social conditions prevailing in Egypt before 1952, the novels of the sixties contained much that was overtly critical of that period. In the years following 1967, his writing ranged from surrealist, almost absurd short stories and dry, abstract, unactable playlets, to novels of direct social and political commentary. Mahfouz himself was aware of the new turn his work had taken. In the mid-seventies we find Mahfouz again searching for a new style. It would appear that, having been diverted by national traumatic events from the course he had embarked on in the early sixties, he was no longer able to return to it. Or it may be that in his old age, with a life's experience behind him, he felt at last that he could Arabicize the art of the novel. For it is since then that we observe the sporadic emergence of a number of novels which justify the proposition of a fourth stage in his literary development(which has yet to be studied). What is remarkable about the novels of this stage, of which we can count five, is their departure from the norms of novel writing as they evolved in Europe over the last two centuries; these are the norms which conceive of the novel as a work of indivisible unity which proceeds logically from a beginning to a middle to an end. But Mahfouz no longer wants any of that. He now harks back to the indigenous narrative arts of Arabic literature, particularly as found in the Arabian Nights and other folk narratives in which Arabic literature abounds. While any talk of an organic unity in these works is precluded, the presence of what may be called, for the lack of a better term, a cumulative unity producing a total effect of sorts, is undeniable. It is this form that Mahfouz has been experimenting with for the last ten years or so in novels like The Epic of the Riff-Raff", "The Nights of "The Thousand and One Nights" and others. In his evocation of both the form and the content of these classical Arabic narrative types, and his utilization of them to pass judgment of the human condition past and present, Mahfouz appears to open endless vistas for the young Arab novelist to find a distinct voice of his own.

Views of life

Although Mahfouz's novelistic technique has passed, as we have seen, through recognizable stages, one cannot say the same about his world view, the main features of which can be traced back to his earliest works. Mahfouz appears indeed to have sorted out the main questions about life at an early juncture of his youth and to have held on the answers he arrived at ever since, age and experience serving only to deepen and broaden but hardly to modify them. A sociopolitical view of man's existence is at the very root of almost everything that Mahfouz has written. Even in a novel with a strong metaphysical purport like "Al-Tariq" (The Way), the social message is aptly woven into the texture of the work: man is not meant to spend his life on Earth in a futile search and his only true hope of salvation is the exertion of a positive and responsible effort to better his lot and that of others. That Mahfouz has always been a socially committed writer with a deep concern for the problem of social injustice is an incontestable fact. To him individual morality is inseparable from social morality. In other words, according to Mahfouz's moral code, those who only seek their own individual salvation are damned; to him nirvana is, as it were, a distinctly collective state. On the other hand, characters who are saved in Mahfouz's work are only those with altruistic motives, those who show concern for others and demonstrate a kind of awareness of their particular predicament being part of a more general one.

How he Pictures the World

The picture of the world as it emerges from the bulk of Mahfouz's work is very gloomy indeed, though not completely despondent. It shows that the author's social utopia is far from being realized. Mahfouz seems to conceive of time as a metaphysical force of oppression. His novels have consistently shown time as the bringer of change, and change as a very painful process, and very often time is not content until it has dealt his heroes the final blow of death. To sum up, in Mahfouz's dark tapestry of the world there are only two bright spots. These consists of man's continuing struggle for equality on the one hand and the promise of scientific progress on the other; meanwhile, life is a tragedy. Mahfouz creates an intricate pattern of verbal irony which he weaves into the very texture of the novel and maintains throughout. This pattern of verbal irony engenders in the reader an awareness of the incongruity between the object and mode of expression, i.e. the realistic situation and the hyperbolic terms in which it is rendered. This awareness creates and sustains, all the way through, a sense of dramatic irony where the reader is, as it were, cognizant of a basic fact of which the protagonist is ignorant, namely that his obsession has misguided him. It is in the creation and sustainment of this pattern of verbal irony, and in the complete subjugation of the novelistic experience to a language order originally alien to it, that Mahfouz has achieved a feat unprecedented not only in his own work but probably in Arabic fiction altogether.

In awarding the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature to Naguib Mahfouz, the Swedish Academy of Letters noted that "through works rich in nuance - now clearsightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - (Mahfouz) has formed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind." Mahfouz is the author of more than thirty novels. "He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romains." - Edward Said, London Review of Books.

Published works translated into English.

Palace Walk (Book 1 of the Cairo Trilogy)

(originally published in Arabic 1956)

Palace of Desire (Book 2 of the Cairo Trilogy) (originally published in Arabic 1957)

Sugar Street (Book 3 of the Cairo Trilogy) (originally published in Arabic 1957)

Children of Gebelawi (originally published in Arabic 1959)

The Beginning and the End (originally published in Arabic 1956)

Adrift on the Nile (originally published in Arabic 1966)

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (originally published in Arabic 1983)

Midaq Alley (originally published in Arabic 1947)

The Harafish (originally published in Arabic 1977)

The Beggar (originally published in Arabic 1965)

The Thief and the Dogs (originally published in Arabic 1961)

Autumn Quail (originally published in Arabic 1962)

Wedding Song (originally published in Arabic 1981)

The Search (originally published in Arabic 1964)

Fountain and Tomb (originally published in Arabic 1975)

Miramar (originally published in Arabic 1967)

The Time and the Place and other stories


Adrift on the Nile

Frances Liardet (Translator)

Ten young professionals spend their evenings drifting in a houseboat on the Nile until a senseless tragedy splits them apart--in a brief 1966 novel, the most clearly modernist work yet translated into English by the Nobel-winning author of The Cairo Trilogy. The group's master of ceremonies, Anis Zaki, is a widower at the Ministry of Health whose addiction to smoking kef is so severe that he can write out and submit a lengthy document at work without noticing that his pen has run out of ink. Anis marks time from night to night, when he and his thirtysomething friends--a translator for the Foreign Ministry, an accountant at the Ministry of Social Affairs, a lawyer, an art critic, a noted writer of short stories--gather to cast off from the shoreline for endless, aimless conversations about Egyptian society, politics, religion, and other imponderables that lead to gravely modish insights: ``Last night I believed totally in eternal life--but on my way to the office I forgot the reason why.'' One night the group is joined by Samara Bahgat, a ``serious'' journalist, and their placid world begins to shiver. Announcing that she ``will not be tempted into the abyss,'' Samara begins to keep a notebook casting her companions as characters in a play about ``the Serious versus the Absurd''; she draws ever closer to Anis without acknowledging or returning his love; and when the group, out joy-riding one night on the streets of Cairo, runs down and kills a pedestrian, she insists they go to the police--even if it means a prison term for the driver and the end of their ``paradise.'' Quietly, disturbingly incisive about modern Cairo's uneasy truce between old ways and new, though less powerfully compressed than either The Cairo Trilogy or last year's magical The Journey of Ibn Fattouma. -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. Synopsis. A stunning novel by the widest-read Arab writer currently published in the U.S. The age of Nasser has ushered in enormous social change, and most of the middle-aged and middle-class sons and daughters of the old bourgeoisie find themselves trying to recreate the cozy, enchanted world they so dearly miss. One night, however, art and reality collide--with unforeseen circumstances.

Arabian Nights and Days

An austerely modern reworking of The Thousand and One Nights- -the most magical work yet set into English by Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz (The Harafish, 1994, etc.). Although these intertwined fables are, like the volume that inspired them, set in the past, they deal with all-too-modern consequences of fairy-tale adventures. In ``Nur Al-Din and Dunyazad,'' peerless storyteller Shahrzad's sister dreams of the perfume seller and wakens to find herself pregnant by him, with all the contemporary burdens of unwanted pregnancy. In ``Sanaan al- Gamali,'' a merchant, purchasing his life from a genie he has crossed, is ordered to kill the corrupt governor; but when Sanaan goes to see him, the governor, every inch the modern wheeler- dealer, asks if he can marry Sanaan's daughter, offers his own daughter as a bride for Sanaan's son, and announces his plan to sign an enormous contract with one of Sanaan's relatives. In ``The Cap of Invisibility,'' a righteous man accepts a magical gift on the condition that he be allowed to do ``anything except what [his] conscience dictates''; he then faces moral dilemmas the original Arabian Nights never dreamed of.

The Beginning and the End

First Published in 1956, this is a powerful Portrayal of a middle-class Egyptian family confronted by Material, moral, and spiritual problems during World War II.

Children of the Alley

The Mahfouz publishing industry for American audiences continues undiminished; this latest of the Nobel laureate's works to be translated appeared originally in Arabic in 1959. As a story of a community in his native Egypt, the novel stands as a compelling depiction of succeeding generations of an extended family unit in a circumscribed area--"Everyone in our alley knows everyone else, men and women, alike; and yet no alley has ever known the terrible quarrels ours has." Then, too, the novel can be read on a higher level--as an allegory about the beginnings of humankind, when expulsion from paradise, in this case the villa of the family patriarch, results in brother fighting brother and, finally, the eventual formation of a workable society with established places for everyone (though, of course, bickering goes on indefinitely).

The Harafish

First published in 1977, Harafish is now presented in an American edition, and the author's enthusiasts will applaud. Epic, fablelike, it follows the fortunes of a particular family in the "alley," presumably a neighborhood in Mahfouz's native Cairo. We move through time but without the usual historical signposts. The passage of decades is indicated strictly in terms of local events in the alley, namely the rise and fall of the al-Nagi clan, who win, lose, and win again the respect and leadership of the harafish, the common people of the alley.

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma

Thwarted in marriage when his fianc‚e is claimed by the sultan's chamberlain, Qindil Muhammad al-Innabi, called Ibn Fattouma, resolves to go on a pilgrimage to the storied land of Gebel. The tale of his travels is a tale of detours. Passing through the moon-worshipping land of Mashriq, he stays for several years with lightsome Arousa, but is exiled for sharing his Muslim religion with their children. When Haira, a police state where Fattouma has been staying, conquers Mashriq, he purchases Arousa in a slave auction, but again his bride catches the eye of an influential advisor, and he is sentenced to life imprisonment for speaking out against the advisor. Released after 20 years by another war, he travels to Halba--a land of complete freedom that seems a sly portrait of America--and takes another wife; the reappearance of Arousa, though, reproaches him with his inconstancy to his pilgrimage, and he sets out for Aman, the land of perfect justice whose price is total conformity. Increasingly disillusioned in his nation's betrayal of Muslim beliefs, Fattouma follows Arousa to Ghuroub, where he attaches himself to a holy man who tries to prepare him for the journey to Gebel, but more fighting forces him to press on prematurely, and it is unclear from the ending of his journal whether he ever reaches his elusive goal.

Midaq Alley

Considered by many to be Mahfouz's best novel, Midaq Alley centers around the residents of one of the hustling, teeming back alleys of Cairo. No other novel so vividly evokes the sights and sounds of the city. The universality and timelessness of this book cannot be denied.


Once again, Naguib Mahfouz has fashioned a highly charged, tightly written tale of intersecting lives that provides readers with both an engaging and powerful story as well as a vivid portrait of life in Egypt in the late 1960s. Set in Alexandria, Miramar tells the violent, tragic story of the former grand hostelry Miramar, now a pension run by an elderly grand dame and a young country girl.

"With Miramar we are in the hands of a considerable novelist, and one who knows his country's complex problems, and complex soul, profoundly."--John Fowles

Palace of Desire (Cairo Trilogy 2)

The second volume of the highly acclaimed Cairo Trilogy from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, Palace Of Desire is the unforgettable story of the violent clash between ideals and realities, dreams and desires.

Palace Walk (Cairo Trilogy 1)

Volume I of the masterful Cairo Trilogy. A national best-seller in both hardcover and paperback, it introduces the engrossing saga of a Muslim family in Cairo during Egypt's occupation by British forces in the early1900s.

Respected Sir

This novel retells a familiar theme--vaulting ambition--in a powerful and religious metaphor. What is essentially a prosaic experience becomes--in Mahfouz's hands--a beautifully crafted story of an exalted and arduous holy quest.

The Search

A powerful story of lust, greed and murder. Unflinching, tough, and dramatic, The Search was most certainly intended to be a harsh criticism of Post-Revolution morality, but, on its most elemental level, it is a lurid and compelling tale.

Sugar Street (The Cairo Trilogy, 3)

The final volume in Nobel laureate Mahfouz's magisterial Cairo trilogy takes the Abd al-Jawad family from a rising tide of nationalist sentiment in 1935 through the darkness and confusion of WW II, as Britain defends an Egypt officially neutral. Yet national politics, for all its importance as background accompaniment here (as in Palace Walk and Palace of Desire), is usually kept just offstage--``They say that Hitler has attacked,'' old family servant Umm Hanafi announces halfway through, and matriarch Amina's final illness coincides with a bombing raid--as Mahfouz continues to dramatize the emergence of modern Egypt through ailing family head Ahmad Abd al-Jawad's family--his sons, sensualistic Yasin and scholarly Kamal; his daughters, prematurely aged widow Aisha and settled wife and mother Khadija; and his five grandchildren. As perennial bachelor Kamal methodically visits his father's favorite brothel and frets about whether to marry, the focus of the trilogy shifts from Palace Walk to Khadija's home with Ibrahim Shawkat on Sugar Street, where the couple's sons--Abd al- Muni'm, turning toward fundamentalist Islam, and increasingly committed Communist Ahmad--argue about their duty to the country and the nature of Egyptian society, but both end meeting the same fate. Meanwhile, Yasin's son Ridwan rises rapidly through the ranks of the civil service with the aid of magnetic, homosexual Pasha Isa, and their sister Karima, like Aisha's daughter Na'ima, prepares to receive the inevitable wedding proposal--though both times from a surprising source. Individual episodes--Ahmad Abd al- Jawad's hazy awareness that his friends are all dying; Kamal's abortive romance with Budur Shaddad, sister of his far-distant first love Aida; and his final tormented guilt over his moral paralysis--show Naguib's Tolstoyan economy at its most dramatic, though the third generation of his family makes a more muted impression than the first two.

The Time and the Place : And Other Stories

Selected and translated by the distinguished scholar Denys Johnson-Daivies, these stories have all the celebrated and distinctive characters and qualities found in Mahfouz's novels: The denizens of the dark, narrow alleyways of Cairo, who struggle to survive the poverty; melancholy ruminations on death; experiments with the supernatural; and witty excursions into Cairene middle-class life.

Wedding Song

Set against the backdrop of the the theater, this novel is a taut psychological drama on and off the stage. First published in 1981, this brilliant novel focuses on how time transforms people and their emotions.

Middle East & Islamic Studies, http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast

Ali Houissa, The Middle East & Islamic Studies Bibliographer.