Writer Spotlight: Naguib Mahfouz

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 Echoes of an Autobiography naguib mahfouzNo. 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.” 



Further reading:

The Art of Fiction no. 129, interview with Naguib Mahfouz

Biography: Naguib Mahfouz by Marcia Lynx Qualey



TBR Chronicles #09

This month has been a bit of a quiet month for new additions to my TBR list.  I have only one new book; The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, which looks interesting. The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science

“In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt exposes traditional wisdom to the scrutiny of modern science, delivering startling insights. We learn that virtue is often not its own reward, why extroverts really are happier than introverts, and why conscious thought is not as important as we might like to think…” (GoodReads)

Ultimately it is about happiness coming from within rather than without and as the end of the year approaches I figured I’d try read some books to realign or affirm my mindset for the new year.

Other than this book I’ve just been focusing on which fiction books from my TBR I wanted to read in the final stretch of the year.  I had a couple of false starts at the beginning of the month but I’ve settled on Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo TrilogyPalace Walk is the first novel, which I’ve started reading, followed by Palace of Desire and Sugar Street.

Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three palace walk cairo trilogy 1 naguib mahfouzsons—the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. The family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two world wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries.” (GoodReads)

palace of desire cairo trilogy 2 naguib mahfouz“The novels of the Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. In Palace of Desire, his rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s.” (GoodReads)

Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the agingsugar street cairo trilogy 3 naguib mahfouz patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.” (GoodReads)

And that’s it for October.  Do you have anything specific you want to read in preparation for the new year?