Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab World’s Most Prominent Literary Figure

Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian Author, the Arab World's Most Prominent Literary Figure

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was an incredibly prolific Egyptian writer who, over course of five decades, wrote over thirty-five novels, five plays, fourteen short-story collections and many articles.

After a degree in philosophy from the University of Cairo, Mahfouz got a job with the civil service. In 1939, he published his first book: a historical novel called Mockery of the Fates. Mahfouz’s first three novels dealt with ancient Egypt, but his later novels were critical of contemporary Egyptian society and portrayed human foibles.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz “Al-thul al-hiyyah” or “the Cairo Trilogy”, consisting of “Palace Walk” (1956), “Palace of Desire” (1957) and “Sugar Street” (1957) recounted generational and philosophical conflicts in Cairo life between 1917 and 1944, and established Mahfouz as a leading Arab novelist. Mahfouz’s celebrated work is “Palace Walk” or “Between the Two Palaces” (1956), considered by many the most famous novel in the Arabic language.

In the novel “Children of Gebelawi” or “Children of the Alley” (1959), Mahfouz portrayed feuding brothers who resemble Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed and their power struggles in a traditional Cairo neighborhood. This book portrayed God in an allegorical manner, and metaphorically suggested the failure of religion and the prospective success of science in creating a better life. The book was deemed blasphemy and was formally banned in the entire Arab world with the exception of Lebanon.

Palace Walk or Between the Two Palaces: Naguib Mahfouz's most famous novel in the Arabic language Through his writing career, Mahfouz kept his day job as a civil servant in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema, and the Ministry of Culture. His daily routine included taking a ninety-minute walk around Cairo, and reading the newspaper at the same Cairo cafe each day.

Naguib Mahfouz is known as the “Father of Modern Arabic Literature.” He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. He delivered his 1988 Nobel Lecture in Arabic, and he commenced,

I would like you to accept my talk with tolerance. For it comes in a language unknown to many of you. But it is the real winner of the prize. It is, therefore, meant that its melodies should float for the first time into your oasis of culture and civilization. I have great hopes that this will not be the last time either, and that literary writers of my nation will have the pleasure to sit with full merit amongst your international writers who have spread the fragrance of joy and wisdom in this grief-ridden world of ours.

In the late 80s, the disputes over Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” again evoked the controversy surrounding Mahfouz’s novel “Children of the Alley” (1959). In 1994, Mahfouz was the target of an assassination attempt by militant Islamists. He survived the assassination attempt but damaged the nerves in his right hand. Mahfouz could not write for more than a few minutes a day and subsequently produced fewer works. He died in 2006 at the age of 94.

Naguib Mahfouz: Written Works

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