Naguib Mahfouz: from Cairo to the world

Roger Allen
30 August 2006

To begin with the personal, I met Naguib Mahfouz for the first time in 1967. At that time he was serving as censor for the Egyptian cinema within the ministry of culture. Because of a problem with his eyes, his office was shuttered against the bright sunlight, but, in spite of that, he welcomed me warmly. I was immediately introduced to that one quality which seems to me to summarise his personality best: his incredible, always ready sense of humour and fun.

Even after the worldwide reputation he acquired after the Nobel literature award in 1988, he did not change. During my intermittent visits to Cairo in recent years, I always found him welcoming and ready to listen to news and opinion about anything and everything, and then to deliver those one-line retorts for which he was famous, some of which made their way into the dialogues of his fiction.

On the broader, global scale, Mahfouz was the one Arab writer who succeeded in bringing the genre of the novel to its full maturity; from that perspective, he is the founder of the contemporary tradition of the Arabic novel in all its wonderful variety. Today's generation of Arab novelists stands on his shoulders.

Roger Allen is professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania

Roger Allen has translated several of Naguib Mahfouz's works into English, including an anthology of short stories published as God's World (1973) and Al-Maraya (Mirrors, 1977). An interview with him in al-Ahram is here

This article will also be published in the journal of contemporary literature from the Arab world, Banipal

Also on Naguib Mahfouz in openDemocracy:

Thomas Le Gassick, "Naguib Mahfouz: a farewell tribute"
(1 September 2006)

The novel(s) by which he has become most famous in the west are the three works that make up Al-thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy). These were written before the Egyptian revolution in 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, but were only published in 1956-57. The trilogy represents a breakthrough in modern Arabic fiction, in two ways: it shows an entirely new level of maturity in the writing of novels in Arabic, and it records in vivid detail the struggles of the middle class of Cairo in the pre-revolutionary period.

The Arab world of the 1950s, much of it savouring a post-independence era, could look back and see what it was it had lived through and what it had sought to escape. The Cairo Trilogy made Mahfouz into an Arab-world figure of considerable importance.

That said, it is my view that Mahfouz's best works are those he wrote during the 1960s, and especially Al-Liss wa'l kilab (The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), with Tharthara fawq al-nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1966) close behind.

Between the publication dates of The Cairo Trilogy and these novels there lies Mahfouz's most controversial excursion into fiction, Awlad haratina (Children of Gebelawi, 1959 – there is also another translation of the incomplete Beirut edition, entitled Children of the Alley). In this work, Mahfouz explores the human community's proclivity to violence through an examination of the role of five "leaders" attempting to control these baser instincts; an overseer, Gebelawi, living outside the walls of the community, watches on in dismay.

Those five "leaders" were soon recognised by readers as being portraits of Adam, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and – most controversially, "Science", the last of whom goes to the overseer's house and kills him.

The book was serialised in al-Ahram (Cairo's main newspaper) against protests from the al-Azhar mosque-university in Cairo, then banned from publication in book form Egypt, before being published in Lebanon in 1967 (with some excisions from the text). It was this work that aroused the fury of the religious establishment in Egypt and led (after Mahfouz's Nobel prize in 1988) to a fatwa from Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian popular preacher, condemning Mahfouz to death (a la Salman Rushdie and Ayatollah Khomeini). That threat was almost made a reality in October 1994 when Mahfouz was stabbed outside his apartment in Agouza.

Mahfouz's world

Mahfouz retired from the Egyptian civil service in the early 1970s. Before and since, what was most striking about him was his willingness to participate in a process of re-examining the very bases of Arabic fiction and in expanding the arena in which it operates in terms of language, structure, narrative strategy – everything. Mahfouz has shared involvement in this project with his fellow Egyptian novelists, including many of the younger generation, all of whom – Gamal al-Ghitani foremost among them – acknowledge owing him so much.

Mahfouz's own particular favourite from the later years, I learned, was Malhamat al-harafish (The Harafish, 1977), a multi-generational work that replicates some of the pre-modern sagas of the Arabic literary tradition. But there were also returns to earlier works and indeed to ancient Egypt and religion and society, both of them themes that had interested him early in his career and indeed at various intervals throughout his incredibly lengthy journey as a writer.

Naguib Mahfouz's name is now inscribed in the list of great writers of fiction in the 20th century. That he is the only Arab writer whose reputation transcends the regional frame of reference to any significant degree is perhaps a reflection of the status of the vastly understudied tradition of Arabic literature. However, it must also be said that, by dint of his dedication, perseverance, loyalty to basic values, and sheer genius, Mahfouz did manage to transcend such barriers and to achieve world renown.

Now he has left us at the grand age of 94. Those of us who were privileged to know him can reflect wistfully on those occasions when we met, while we can all recall the many, many wonderful hours of reading in which we encountered his unforgettable characters, and on the many ways through which he managed to introduce to a world readership that fascinating universe that is Egyptian society.

Requiescat in pace, may he rest in peace. Rahima-hu Allah.

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