Activity (4):

Naguib Mahfouz

A. Naguib Mahfouz is considered as the master of both detailed realism and fabulous storytelling, but the scope of his genius remains unjustly little-known to English readers. A Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, into a large and noticeably happy family in Gamaliya, the thunderous quarter of Cairo where so many of his books were set. And there were, indeed, a lot of writings – more than thirty novels and countless numbers of stories. It is said that Mahfouz had written about three hundred and fifty stories. His own satirical, pithy and moving contemplations appear in Echoes of An Autobiography (1994), Mahfouz’s first nonfiction book to be published in English, which opens with a meditation on the idea of rebellion in Egypt. The text ends with Mahfouz, a boy of seven years, being refused from school, which had momentarily closed its doors because of the rebellion.

B. He was always revolutionist in his own way: one who refused Egyptian ways while loving them at the same time, so affectionately rendered in his vast fiction. His chief claim to fame, at least in the west, is probably the lavish Cairo Trilogy of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. These books follow the life and times of an Egyptian patriarch over three decades, beginning with the rebellion against British occupation in 1919 – a turning point in Egyptian history that inspired Mahfouz, who was an ardent nationalist – and extending to the end of the Second World War. It’s a rich and engaging work, offering a detailed realistic portrait of Cairo that drew comparisons with European masters such as Balzac, Tolstoy, and Dickens.

C. Mahfouz read a lot of European novels when he was a young man. Mahfouz said, “A writer must read.” His old friends often met up with him for talk and strong coffee. Dickens was especially important for Mahfouz. He said about Dickens, “The world breaks before you in his books, its light and darkness. Everything is there.” He was a tiny man with immense energy and a quick smile, despite the fact that in 1994 he had been attacked by a young Islamic fundamentalist who disapproved of his largely secular work. The attacker managed to sever a nerve that left his writing hand withered, thus complicating his last years, but he somehow continued to write.

D. Writing preoccupied him from a young age. He married late, in his mid-40s, preferring to allocate his energies to his writing, though he also worked as a civil servant for many decades, retiring in 1972 from a position in the Ministry of Culture. Mahfouz was always happiest at his writing desk. He wrote in the morning, late in the afternoon, and spent the evenings with friends in a café.