NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

THE ARAB NOVEL

There is something about novels that puts us under a spell in a way that books about history or politics often can’t. It’s unbelievable, then, to think that the novel – just like the telephone and electricity – had to be invented! It took centuries of writers feeling limited by old styles and experimenting with new ones to finally bring about the birth of this form of creative storytelling. In the Muslim world, poetry was traditionally the more common style of writing, but popular stories like those contained in the famous Arabian Nights collection nevertheless hinted at what was to come [1].  It wasn’t until the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, however, that the Arab novel fully came into its own. 

Born in the Gamaliya neighborhood of Cairo on December 11, 1911, Naguib Mahfouz was the youngest of seven children. As a boy, he lived a happy and devout life but felt acutely aware of the age gap between him and his siblings, and this sensitivity as well as other themes from his childhood appears in the pages of his novels [2].  In 1919, when Mahfouz was only eight, Cairo was alive with revolution. Even at that young age, Mahfouz was caught up in the nationalist energy, and from that moment forward felt a deep connection to his country and its people. [3]

 

Growing up, Mahfouz read a good deal of European literature: he loved detective and adventure novels, and was a fan of Shakespeare. [4] From an early age, he also explored Arabic literature. When he was ten, a classmate suggested he read Hafiz Najib’s Johnson’s Son, and Mahfouz insists that the book changed his life. [5] In secondary school he read the work of more Arabic writers, and by the time he was a student at Cairo University he was heavily influenced by the writings of Taha Husayn and Salama Musa. [6] 

ORDINARY PEOPLE IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The success and beauty of Mahfouz’s books results from his ability to describe things familiar to his own experience while mastering tricks from both Arab and European authors who came before him. Mahfouz’s descriptions of Cairo have been compared to Charles Dickens’ representations of London: his books paint images of the streets of Cairo from the point of view of everyday people. [7] His stories unfold on the corners and in the alleyways of neighborhoods that are nearly identical to Gamaliya and Abbasiya, the districts of Cairo where he spent his youth. [8] In Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, ordinary people are placed in the spotlight. Characters who might otherwise be seen as weak are given a strong voice. The women of Mahfouz’s books are wise, empowered, and in control. [9]

NOBEL PRIZE

 

Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize, but when he won it in 1988 he was still fairly unknown to readers in Europe and the US. [10] His masterpiece, a series of three novels called The Cairo Trilogy, eventually became famous worldwide, aided by the fact that more of his work was translated into English, French and German. Yet for much of the time that Mahfouz was busy writing his dozens of novels and short stories – he spent twelve years perfecting The Cairo Trilogy alone! – he scribbled away in relative obscurity. [11] Like the central characters in his books, he was just an ordinary bloke: he made little if any money from his writing, working instead as a civil servant to support his wife and daughters. [12] 

 

And yet, like the characters in his novels, the quiet and discreet manner in which Mahfouz led his life did not prevent him from building an intense bond with his country. Mahfouz lived his life as a true native son of Cairo, chinwagging with other local poets and artists in cafes overlooking the Nile and the pyramids. [13] When he died in 2006, Mahfouz was hailed as a champion of Egyptian literature, as a groundbreaking if humble pioneer of the novel form. 

 

  
[1] Hallengren, Anders. “Naguib Mahfouz – The Son of Two Civilizations.” Nobel Prize. N.p., 16 October 2003. Web. 3 February 2013.
[2] “Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006).” The American University in Cairo Press. AUC Press, n.d. Web. 3 February 2013. 
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid 
[5] El Shabrawy, Charlotte. “Naguib Mahfouz, The Art of Fiction No. 129.” The Paris Review. 123 (1992). Web.
[6] Ibid
[7] McFadden, Robert D. “Naguib Mahfouz, Chronicler of Arab Life, Dies at 94.” New York Times 30 August 2006. Web. 
[8] “Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006).” The American University in Cairo Press. AUC Press, n.d. Web. 3 February 2013.
[9] Hallengren, Anders. “Naguib Mahfouz – The Son of Two Civilizations.” Nobel Prize. N.p., 16 October 2003. Web. 3 February 2013. 
[10] McFadden, Robert D. “Naguib Mahfouz, Chronicler of Arab Life, Dies at 94.” New York Times 30 August 2006. Web.
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] El Shabrawy, Charlotte. “Naguib Mahfouz, The Art of Fiction No. 129.” The Paris Review. 123 (1992). Web.


Images:
'Poster for Cairo bookfair with image of Naguid Mahfouz', by David Lisbona via Flickr, Creative Commons license, February 2007
'Naguib Mahfouz', Micheline Pelletier/Corbier via kids.britannica.com
'Nagib Machfus statue', Bertramz via Wikimedia, December 2008