"The Arab world also won the Nobel with me. I believe that international doors have opened, and that from now on, literate people will consider Arab literature also. We deserve that recognition."
Naguib Mahfouz, Aramco World Magazine, March-April 1989.
ON OCTOBER 14, 1994, as Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, then 82, made his way to a weekly gathering with friends at a Cairo cafe, a man stabbed him in the neck. Mahfouz survived the assassination attempt, the work of an Islamic militant group.
Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, the first Arab writer to win the prize, Mahfouz, though a devout Muslim, was a high-profile target for such an assault. Much of the Arab world, including Egypt, had unofficially banned his 1959 novel Children of the Alley for its blasphemous, demythologized depiction of religion. A fatwa had later been issued against him when he defended Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988) and freedom of speech. Though a popular, well-respected writer, he was also controversial for his deep humanitarian vision--his criticism of President Sadat's "open-door policy" (which privatized much of Egypt's public sector), his support of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978, and his thinly veiled works of social criticism. Indeed, Mahfouz's novels reflect Egypt's--and his own--social, political, and intellectual evolution during the 20th century. "Through the story and the characters," Mahfouz said, "the outlines of a social, psychological, romantic, or political problem appear" (nobelprize.org, 3/11/99).
In about 40 novels and short-story collections and 30 screenplays (more than two dozen translated into English), Mahfouz explored Egypt's turbulent transition to modernity. He gave expression to ordinary Cairenes' dreams, expectations, and disappointments as they weathered the ups and downs of the 20th century: British occupation; the rise of nationalism; independence in 1922; war with Israel in 1948; Nasser's "socialist" reforms of the 1950s; and the Six Day War. In the 1970s, Sadat's economic reforms, the Yom Kippur War, and the Camp David Accords again put Egypt on a new path. Taken together, Mahfouz's novels offer a panoramic portrait of 20th-century Egypt.
Steeped in local flavor, Mahfouz's back alleys teem with lower- and middle-class Cairenes--merchants, prostitutes, beggars, shopkeepers, strong men, and even stronger women--who must choose between a traditional past and an uncertain future. His most popular work in translation,
The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57), peeks voyeuristically into the family's inner sanctum. His readers discover, "with guilty delight, a quiet murmur of furtive gropings, dissatisfaction, and despair that confirms everything he has ever suspected about his neighbors," writes Amitav Ghosh. "[Mahfouz] has a fine instinct for discovering the fears, the prejudices, and the suspicions of his People, and serving them back to them as fiction" (The New Republic, 5/7/90).
Mahfouz knew Cairo's back alleys well. He was born in 1911, the youngest of seven children, and spent his childhood in the crowded Gamaliya quarter of Cairo, in the heart of the old city. The modest neighborhood of little shops, cafes, groceries, medieval mosques, and schools inspired the backdrop for his fiction. In 1934, after graduating from King Fuad University with a philosophy degree, Mahfouz took a job as a clerk in the civil service. Until his retirement in 1971, he supported his wife and two daughters by working in various government positions: as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art, Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema, and as a consultant to the Ministry of Culture. He also wrote professionally.
Mahfouz intended to address all of Egyptian history in 30 novels. The Struggle of Thebes (1938), for example, linked Egypt under British occupation to the Hyksos invasion of ancient Egypt. During World War II, however, he turned his focus to modern-day Egypt. Mahfouz started with New Cairo (1945) and followed it with Midaq Alley (1947), about a lower-class woman who descends into prostitution. During the 1950s Mahfouz penned the monumental 1,500-page Cairo Trilogy, a portrait of three generations of an ordinary family experiencing all aspects of Egypt's upheavals. Written in the style of social realism, The Cairo Trilogy revealed the contradictions of modern Egyptian life and brought Mahfouz fame throughout the Arab world.
In 1959, in the midst of Nasser's major economic and social reforms, Mahfouz published Children of the Alley (or The Children of Gebelawi) in Al-Ahram, a respected daily. Though it enraged fundamentalist Muslims, Mahfouz continued to challenge religion and politics in further allegorical novels, including The Thief and the Dogs (1961), Autumn Quail (1962), and Miramar (1967). The early 1960s marked a new phase for Mahfouz. The fiction he published until the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967, including The Search (1964) and Adrift on the Nile (1966), experimented with modern, escapist themes and styles. In 1970, Mahfouz received Egypt's National Prize for Letters. After he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, his work garnered international acclaim. Much of it has been adapted for Egyptian cinema...