Naguib Mahfouz was a respected Egyptian novelist and writer regarded as one among the pioneer contemporary writers of Arabic Literature. Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He had begun writing at the young age of 18 and went on to pursue this interest until his death. Naguib Mahfouz started his literary career with short stories and journals, however, later began writing novels and this gained him international recognition. His works were originally in Arabic and were later translated into English, French and German. Majority of Naguib Mahfouz’s works presented his views on the monarchy system prevalent in Egypt in ancient times, colonialism and present-day Egypt. It predominantly dealt with social issues concerning political captives and women. His blunt narrative style led to severe outrage from religious groups and subsequent banning of certain works. During his lifetime, he published more than 350 short stories, 34 novels, 5 plays and a couple of scripts.
Childhood & Early Life
Naguib Mahfouz was born on 11 December 1911 in a middle class family in Cairo. His father Abdel-Aziz Ibrahim was a civil servant and his mother’s name was Fatimah. He had 6 siblings - four brothers and two sisters and he was the youngest.
He was tutored at a Koranic school also called ‘Kuttab’. He completed his primary and secondary education and his interest in Arabic Literature began growing here. His greatest influence during the time was writer Hafiz Najib.
When Naguib Mahfouz was only seven, he witnessed the Eqyptian revolution of 1919. It is said to have had a great effect on him as it gave him his initial experience of nationalist sentiment and deeply influenced his writings later on.
After completing his education at the Kuttab, Naguib Mahfouz was enrolled at Egyptian University in 1930. He graduated with a degree in Philosophy in 1934. He went on to pursue an M.A in Philosophy, but discontinued after a year, with the objective of taking up professional writing as occupation.
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After completing his graduation, Naguib Mahfouz went on to take up work with the Egyptian civil service in 1934. Here, he continued working in various departments until his retirement in the year 1971. His initially worked as a clerk at the Cairo University.
By 1936, he began his writing career as a journalist with Al – Risala. During this time, he also used to contribute short stories to newspapers Al- Ahram and El- Hilal.
In 1938, he was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Islamic Endowments at the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf). The following year Naguib Mahfouz’s debut novel ‘Khufu’s Wisdom’ was published.
Other prominent works by him include novels like ‘Abath Al Aqdar’ (published in 1939), ‘Radobis’ (published in 1943), ‘Khan al-Khalili’ (published in 1945). His style of writing was unpolished and he often included topics like socialism, God, homosexuality, philosophical and psychological issues.
He requested a transfer to the al-Ghuri Mausoleum library at Cairo in 1945. Here, he managed the ‘Good Loan Project’, which was an ‘interest- free’ loan program for poor.
He also got the opportunity to observe the area and life there and explored western literature in this period. He read the works of Conrad, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Proust, Stendhal etc.
During the 1950s he took up the post of Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Arts and Director of the Foundation for the Support of Cinema. His last assignment in the Civil Services was as a consultant to the Ministry of Culture.
He published ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ - three novels that portray the lives of three generations in the Cairo city beginning from World War I to the military coup in 1952. The novels are titled ‘Bayn al Qasrayn’ (1956), ‘Qasr al Shawq (1957), Sukkariya’ (1957) (Between-the-Palaces, Palace of Longing, Sugarhouse).
In 1959, his novel ‘Awlād ḥāratinā’ (Children of the Alley) was published and was subsequently banned in Egypt owing to its controversial content. The usage of religious prophets’ names and the treatment of religion in the novel caused much outrage among a section and he even received death threats.
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Between the years 1940 and 1980, approximately twenty five of his works were converted into screenplays. However, he was not interested in adapting his own books and thus did not participate in these endeavors directly.
In 1971, he was offered a position with al – Ahram newspaper and he continued to write a column every week. He continued contributing to the paper until a short while before his death.
Naguib Mahfouz’s works are concentrated around the lives and people of Egypt. His most notable work is the ‘The Cairo Trilogy’, a collection of three novels that were published during 1956-1957, and earned him international acclaim.
Awards & Achievements
He received two Egyptian state awards for his writings.
In 1988 Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1989, the American University at Cairo awarded him the Presidential Medal. The University also gave him an honorary doctorate in 1995.
In 1992, he was made an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
In 2002, he was elected as a member to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Personal Life & Legacy
Naguib Mahfouz married Atiyyatallah Ibrahim in 1954. The couple had two daughters - Fatima and Umm Kalthum.
He had stated that he remained a bachelor until he was 43 as he believed that marriage would restrict his future in literature.
He was stabbed in the neck by a religious fanatic in 1994 in an attempt to take his life. He recovered the attack but the nerves on the upper right limb were severely damaged. This had a negative impact on his work as he was able to write for a few minutes a day only.
Naguib Mahfouz died on 30 August 2006 at Cairo. He was 94 at the time of his death.