Naguib Mahfouz is a well known Nobel Laureate born in Cairo, Egypt in 1911. He has written 34 novels and over 350 short stories as well as plays and film scripts over a 70 year career. He passed away in 2006. It was his Cairo Trilogy; Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar street that earned him the honour of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 but his first full length novel was Khufu’s Wisdom published in 1939. Mahfouz is the Arab world’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner.
In his younger years he is said to have read extensively and credits Hafiz Najib as being his first literary influence. In the Art of Fiction No. 129, Charlotte Shabrawy writes that upon reading Johnson’s Son by Hafiz Najib Mahfouz says his life was changed. Some of his other literary influences include Taha Husayn and Salama Musa.
Mahfouz attended what is today the Cairo University to study Philosophy. He abandoned his postgraduate studies and went on to a career in the civil service. What I find amazing is that Mahfouz never depended on his writing for a living despite being such a prolific and celebrated writer. He says in Art of Fiction No. 129 that he was always a government employee and, on the contrary, spent on literature. He only began making money from his writing when his stories began to be translated into English, French, and German.
Mahfouz lived through times of great change and revolution in Egypt. As a 7 year old boy he witnessed the 1919 revolution against British occupation which also forms the backdrop for his Cairo trilogy. He saw the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 of which Mahfouz is quoted as saying: “I was happy with that revolution. But unfortunately it did not bring about democracy.” He also experienced World War II during which two of his works; Cairo Modern (1945) and Rhadopis of Nubia (1943) were censored.
Ironically, when he worked as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Arts his novel The Children of Gabelawi (1959) was censored. In the interview with Shabrawy (The Art of Fiction no. 129) Mahfouz says:
“Even though I was at the time in charge of all artistic censorship, the head of literary censorship advised me not to publish the book in Egypt in order to prevent conflict with Al-Azhar – the main seat of Islam in Cairo. It was published in Beirut but not allowed in into Egypt. This was in 1959, in Nasser’s time. The book still can’t be bought here. People smuggle it in.”
Shabrawy then asks Mahfouz if he intended the book to be provocative to which he responded: “I wanted the book to show that science has a place in society, just as a new religion does, and that science does not necessarily conflict with religious values.”
Unfortunately, with the appearance of The Satanic Verses the controversy surrounding Mahfouz’s novel was brought back up and he started to receive death threats. He was given police protection but in 1994 an Islamic extremist succeeded in attacking the then 82 year old writer by stabbing him in the neck outside his home in Cairo. He survived but nerves that affected his right upper arm were permanently damaged leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes a day.
When it came to his writing habits he wrote from 4 until 7 pm everyday after work and then spent his time reading until 10pm. Mahfouz describes how much of his work and themes came from the heart with little to no planning while other works, like the Cairo Trilogy, followed extensive research. One thing Mahfouz is serious about is revision of his work. Revise and rewrite. To create art as a writer you must give of yourself, put yourself into your work.
“The writer, you see, is not simply a journalist. He interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions, and values. That is art.”
Ultimately, how does Mahfouz describe himself? “Someone who loves literature…Someone who loves his work more than money or fame…Because I love writing more than anything else.”