Naguib Mahfouz - World Literature

World Literature

Naguib Mahfouz


BORN: 1911, Cairo, Egypt

DIED: 2006, Cairo, Egypt


GENRE: Fiction


Palace Walk (1956)

Palace of Desire (1957)

Sugar Street (1957)

Miramar (1967)



Naguib Mahfouz. AP Images



Considered modern Egypt’s foremost literary figure, Naguib Mahfouz is credited with popularizing the novel and short story as viable genres in Arab literature. He is best known for novels in which he creates psychological portraits of characters whose personal struggles mirror the social, political, religious, and cultural concerns confronting Mahfouz’s Egyptian homeland. Mahfouz was the first Arabic-language author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, winning in 1998.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Began Writing Career at University. Born Najib Abdel Aziz al-Sabilgi Mahfouz on December 10, 1911, in Cairo, Egypt, he was the son of Abdel Aziz Ibrahim Mahfouz, a merchant, and his wife, Fatma Mostapha. Because his siblings were many years older, he grew up essentially an only child. In 1934, Mahfouz received a degree in philosophy from the University of Cairo and did postgraduate study in philosophy for the next two years. At the time, Egypt was a protectorate of the United Kingdom but was also a nominally sovereign country ruled by a king although it also had a growing nationalist movement. while the United Kingdom controlled foreign affairs, defense, security of communications, and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the situation changed in 1936. That year, King Faruk ascended to the throne and the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty limited British control to only armed forces in specified areas, primarily along the vital Suez Canal.

Encouraged by Salama Musa, an Egyptian socialist and editor of an intellectual journal, Mahfouz began writing short stories while he was a university student. Many of these stories were collected in Whisper of Madness (1939). Mahfouz’s first published book was Ancient Egypt (1932), a translation of a history text written in English by James Baikie. Mahfouz’s first three novels— Abath al-aqdar (1939), Radubis (1943), and Kiftah Tiba (1944)—are historical narratives set in ancient Egypt that contain allusions to modern society.

The Cairo Trilogy. In response to the political and social conditions in Egypt during world war II, Mahfouz turned his attention from ancient history to the contemporary situation of Egypt. During World War II, a massive conflict launched in Europe because of the aggressive territorial ambitions of Nazi Germany, Egypt served as a base of operations for the Allies (Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States). While the war was being fought, the Egyptian nationalist movement continued to grow. After World War II ended, the government in Cairo abrogated the 1936 treaty in 1951. Because of royal extravagance, government corruption, and delays in social and political reforms, King Faruk was removed from power in a coup. He was first replaced by his seven-month-old son, but in 1953, a republic was proclaimed, with General Muhammad Naguib serving as Egypt’s first president. In 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the revolution, forced Naguib out of power and took control of Egypt himself. Egypt sought international support for key internal projects, and also unified with the Syria in the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958-1961).

In what is known as the Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz created a series of portraits of several Cairo families. Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire: Cairo Trilogy II (1957), and Sugar Street: The Cairo Trilogy III (1957) depict families and communities from the middle and lower classes of Egyptian society, some struggling to climb the social ladder, others trying to survive, while the country witnesses a period of turmoil both domestically and internationally. The novels cover such topics as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 (in which nationalist Egyptians attempted to gain independence from Great Britain), the effects of modernization on cultural and religious values, and changing social attitudes toward women, education, and science.

Disillusionment. Although Mahfouz had supported the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which successfully overthrew the monarchy and eventually established Egypt as a republic, he became disillusioned with the resulting social, educational, and land reforms. After seven years of silence, Mahfouz wrote the pessimistic and allegorical novel Children of Gebelawi in 1959. In thinly veiled allusions to the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the narrative relates humanity’s quest for religion, beginning with Adam and Eve and ending with the last prophet—represented as the modern man of science—who is inadvertently responsible for the death of Gebelawi (God). Although it was published in Lebanon in 1967, the novel has not yet been published in Egypt. A 1969 serialization of the novel inflamed Islamic fundamentalists and led to the banning of the manuscript’s publication in book form. A new English translation of the book appeared in 1995 under the title Children of the Alley.

Social Commentary Fiction. Drawing on his education in philosophy and his familiarity with the cities of his country, Mahfouz was committed to writing fiction that revealed the hopes and concerns of the Egyptian people. The portraits he drew were not always flattering. One such novel is Miramar (1967), one of Mahfouz’s most acclaimed later works, which examines the behavior of several male residents in an Alexandrian boardinghouse when a beautiful and naive young rural woman is hired as a maid. The novel expands from this situation to become a general critique of Egyptian society.

Al-Hubb tahta al-matar (1973) and Al-Karnak (1974) contrast the repressive actions of authorities during the postrevolutionary regime of Nasser with the idealism of young people hoping for political and social reform. Reflecting the content of much of Mahfouz’s later work, these novels also examine the disillusionment and malaise that affected Egypt following the country’s military defeat in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel. (The Six Day War pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. During the six-day conflict, Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, and Golan Heights, which became the so-called Occupied Territories.)

Turned to Fables. Many of Mahfouz’s later works were extended fables. Taking its inspiration and form directly from A Thousand and One Nights, Arabian Nights and Days (1981) is more a loosely connected set of tales than a novel. A later novel, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, (1983) is loosely based on a classic of Western literature, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Mahfouz’s influence on Egyptian literature expanded to several other areas. He contributed columns on a wide range of topics to Al-Ahram, a leading Egyptian newspaper. As a dramatist and scriptwriter, Mahfouz endeavored to elevate the intellectual content of theater and film in Egypt. He also published several collections of short stories. God’s World: An Anthology of Short Stories (1973) offers English translations of stories from several phases of Mahfouz's career.

Nobel Laureate. In 1988, Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his dedication to developing a tradition of modern fiction in Arabic. Along with worldwide acclaim, the award also brought Mahfouz a death sentence. The same year Salman Rushdie was denounced for his Satanic Verses (1988), an influential Egyptian Muslim cleric issued a death sentence against Mahfouz for his notorious novel Children of Gebelawi. On October 13, 1994, the anniversary of the announcement of his Nobel Prize, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a religious fanatic. Although Mahfouz recovered, the attack left him unable to write with a pen, forcing him to dictate his later works, which included his 1997 autobiography Echoes of an Autobiography.

In the years preceding his death, several of his fictional works appeared in English translation, including his first three novels. His last ‘‘writing’’ consisted of short pieces that he dictated for publication, including weekly newspaper columns. Up until his death, Mahfouz published accounts of his own dreams in a Cairo periodical. These pieces appeared in book form under the title The Dreams in 2005. Mahfouz died on August 30, 2006, at the age of ninety-four.



Mahfouz's famous contemporaries include:

Menachem Begin (1913-1992): Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel and cowinner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, began the 1982 Lebanon War as a retaliatory gesture against the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.

Jimmy Carter (1924-): After a term marred by inflation, fuel shortages, and U.S. hostages held in Iran, Carter, the thirty-ninth president of the United States, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for the humanitarian work he did in the years after his presidency.

Tawfiq el-Hakim (1898-1987): This Egyptian dramatist and novelist established serious drama as an Egyptian art form. His plays include The People of the Cave (1993).

Anwar el Sadat (1918-1981): Sadat, the third president of Egypt and cowinner of the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace with Israeli prime minister Begin, was assassinated by radicals opposed to his position on Israel.

Yusuf Idris (1927-1991): Many of the realistic short stories by this Egyptian writer are in the vernacular. His short-story collections include Akrhas Layali (1954).

Salman Rushdie (1947-): Rushdie is an Indian writer and novelist who uses magical realism in his novels. The Satanic Verses (1988) led to protests and death threats over his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad.



Social realism is a style of literature that gives an uncensored view of society. Here are some other works of social realism:

The Doll (1890), a novel by Boleslaw Prus. This novel examines the lives of two men living in Warsaw, Poland, under Russian rule.

Middlemarch (1871-1872), a novel by George Eliot. Subtitled ''A Story of Provincial Life,'' this novel examines the life and moral code of a small English town.

Les Miserables (1862), a novel by Victor Hugo. This novel, later turned into a Broadway musical, follows a group of poor French citizens and criminals during and after the Napoleonic period.

Oliver Twist (1837-1839), a novel by Charles Dickens. This novel follows an orphan through the gritty underworld of Victorian London.

The Red and the Black (1830), a novel by Stendhal. This coming-of-age novel tells of a young man's struggle to make a future for himself in France.


Works in Literary Context

Influences Mahfouz’s prose works—which have been compared in spirit, tone, and ambience with the raw social realism of nineteenth-century novelists Honore de Balzac and Charles Dickens—reflect Egypt’s volatile political history and illustrate the distressing conditions under which the Arab poor live. Mahfouz himself cited Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as inspirations.

Oppressed Characters. From the very beginning, Mahfouz’s interest in characters who strive to endure societal oppression has been evident. Early stories in Hams aljunun, for instance, explore themes of conformity and deviance from the norm. In works such as Midaq Alley (1947) and The Beginning and the End (1951), Mahfouz blends formal language with colloquialisms. At the same time, he depicts the struggle and turmoil of individuals in repressive environments.

Literary Techniques. In his later works, Mahfouz uses literary devices such as allegory, symbolism, and experimental narrative techniques to explore social and cultural disillusionment, spiritual crisis, alienation, political issues, and corruption in contemporary Egypt. The Children of Gebelawi, for instance, is an allegory in which Egypt’s contemporary social concerns are linked with those of the past. Modeling his characters on religious figures including Jesus, Adam, Satan, Moses, and Muhammad, Mahfouz explores such broad themes as the nature of evil and the meaning of life. Furthermore, he proclaims science and technology to be humanity’s modern prophets.

In the 1960s, Mafouz abandoned the traditional realism that characterized his previous works. He produced shorter novels that employed many of the experimental techniques—including stream of consciousness and scriptlike dialogue—of modern Western literature. For example, The Thief and the Dogs (1961) demonstrates Mahfouz’s experiments with unconventional techniques as he uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative to create a psychological portrait of a wrongly imprisoned man who upon his release seeks revenge. This is one of several works in which Mahfouz depicts an outlaw who is rebelling against repressive values, often embodied by unscrupulous officials.


Works in Critical Context

Mahfouz pioneered the development of the modern Arabic novel and became its first genuine master. Edward Said wrote, ‘‘Naguib Mahfouz’s achievement as the greatest living Arab novelist and first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize has in small but significant measure now retrospectively vindicated his unmatched regional reputation, and belatedly given him recognition in the West.’’

Khan al-khalili. Most critics agree that Mahfouz’s talent matured with Khan al-khalili (1945), his first novel set in contemporary Cairo. M. M. Badawi commented, ‘‘Khan al-khalili began a series of eight novels in which [Mahfouz] emerged as the master par excellence of the Egyptian realistic novel, the chronicler of twentieth-century Egypt, and its most vocal social and political conscience.... [Mahfouz’s Cairo] is a recognizable physical presence; its powerful impact upon the lives of characters is as memorable as that of Dickens’s London, Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg or Zola’s Paris.’’

The Cairo Trilogy. Roger Allen called the Cairo Trilogy ‘‘a monumental work,’’ and Sasson Somekh added that the author’s masterpiece is also ‘‘symbolic ... because through the development of its characters you can see the development of modern Egypt.... No future student of Egyptian politics, society or folklore will be able to overlook the material embodied in Mahfouz’s Trilogy.’’


Responses to Literature

1. When you read, do you read to escape or to learn about the world? Do you think realistic fiction has a place for today’s readers? Why or why not? Write a paper that outlines your opinions.

2. Hip-hop artists often defend the language and topics of their lyrics by saying that they are just reflecting their society. Why do their lyrics not change once they become successful and move to wealthy neighborhoods? Are they genuinely concerned about their roots, or are they capitalizing on what made them successful? Create a presentation, using musical examples, to illustrate your points.

3. Some well-known artists, such as Bono, U2’s lead singer, actively work for social justice. Do artists—singers, writers, filmmakers, and others—have a responsibility to promote solutions to the social issues they bring up? Write a paper in which you explain your arguments.

4. Books are banned in the United States today, not just in Arab countries. Are there ever cases where banning books is justified, such as books about terrorism or ones that promote violence against a particular group? Research book banning in the United States. Write an essay arguing for or against the practice of banning books. Use specific examples in your argument.




Allen, Roger. Modern Arabic Literature. New York: Ungar, 1987.

Beard, Michael and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

Brugman, J. An Introduction to the History of Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984.

Enani, M. M., ed. Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives; A Collection of Critical Essays. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989.

Legassick, Trevor, ed. Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1991.

Milson, Menahem. Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

Salmawy, Mohamed. Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.


Moosa, Matti. ‘‘Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History.’’ Georgia Review 49 (Spring 1995): 224-30.

Said, Edward. ‘‘Goodbye to Mahfouz.’’ London Review of Books (December 8, 1988): 10-11.