The Arab world’s only Nobel-prize-winning author was born in Cairo in 1911, in a time of direct British rule. Naguib Mahfouz spent his first years in the Gamaliyya neighborhood, and the sights and smells of this area permeate his early works.
Gamaliyya was also the district in which Mahfouz lived when he experienced perhaps the most important event of his life: the country-wide 1919 uprising against British occupation. Mahfouz, although still a young boy, was strongly marked by the revolutionary spirit. The theme of personal and political freedom was one he visited again and again in his literary work.
In an interview with Charlotte El Shabrawy for The Paris Review, Mahfouz said, of the 1919 revolution, “I became more and more affected by it and more and more enthusiastic about the cause. Everyone I knew was for the Wafd Party and freedom from colonization. Later I became much more involved in political life as an outspoken follower of Zaghlul Pasha Saad. I still consider that involvement one of the most important things I have done in my life.”
But Mahfouz’s political entanglements came later: In 1920, the year after the 1919 revolution, Mahfouz moved with his family to the then-suburban Abbaseya district. In his primary-school years, Mahfouz was engrossed by the detective novels of Hafiz Najib. In high school, he consumed the works of stylistic and political innovators like Taha Hussein, Mostafa Lotfi al-Manfalouti, and Muhammed Husayn Haykal. Then, although he continued reading and writing at university, Mahfouz chose to study not literature, but philosophy.
Following university, Mahfouz joined the Ministry of Religious Endowments and began his career as a civil servant. He continued in various government capacities—including a time as Egypt’s head censor—until his retirement in 1971.
It was in 1939, while at work for the government, that Mahfouz published his first novel, translated into English as Khufu’s Wisdom. He brought out ten more books in the twelve years that followed. Then, after the 1952 revolution, he stopped writing for several years.
Mahfouz achieved significant acclaim with these early novels. He also angered Egypt’s king: During the WWII period, his Cairo Modern and Rhadopis of Nubia were censored, a ban that was soon lifted.
After 1952, the king was no longer a factor, and the British were forced to remove their direct colonial presence. Mahfouz was—like many Egyptians—thrilled with the possibilities of the July revolution. He later became disillusioned with President Gamal Abdel Nasser and voiced criticisms of the Abdel Nasser regime, but Mahfouz was never arrested.
Mahfouz’s experimentation with literary forms continued, as did his complicated dance with power. From the 1950s, Mahfouz worked in various capacities for the government censorship boards. In 1959, he was in charge of all artistic censorship in Egypt when he agreed to censor his own pioneering Children of Gebelawi. The book, which was published in Lebanon, remained officially unavailable in Cairo for several decades.
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Mahfouz also developed his strict writing habits while at work in the ministry. He worked his government job from eight till two. From four until seven, he wrote. Then from seven until ten, he read. This was his schedule, he told El Shabrawy, every day except Friday.
The great novelist remained a bachelor until 1954, and later said that he hadn’t wanted to disrupt his writing habits. But in 1954, perhaps still in the thrall of a second revolution, he married. He and his wife raised two daughters in their Agouza apartment, where he resumed his exacting schedule: work, write, read. Work, write, read. Mahfouz reportedly left Egypt only three times: once to Yemen, once to the former Yugoslavia, and once to England for surgery.
His daughter Faten, in a recent interview with AUC Press, said, “He was different from other parents because of his age. He married late. If we didn’t agree with his opinion, we could discuss our differences. If we couldn’t convince each other, he wouldn’t say this is right or wrong. He was open minded.”
Then, in 1988, seventeen years after his retirement from government service, the hard-working Mahfouz suddenly achieved blinding international fame. It was a surprise to him, he said, when he heard that he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ever a glass-half-full fellow in his life—if not in his novels—Mahfouz said in his lecture, “In spite of all what goes on around us I am committed to optimism until the end. I do not say with Kant that Good will be victorious in the other world. Good is achieving victory every day.”
After the Nobel, Mahfouz was deluged with a notoriety that disrupted his organized lifestyle. A few years later, in 1994, his life received a far more painful abruption when he was the victim of a religiously-motivated assassination attempt. The attempt, ostensibly in reaction to Mahfouz’s 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi, left him permanently disabled and able to write only for a half hour each day.
But this didn’t stop Mahfouz from writing. He altered his literary style yet again, expanding into a sort of dreamy flash fiction, only writing stories that he could memorize and work over in his head. In this period, he wrote the very short fictions based on his dreams that he called Dreams of Convalescence.
Slowly, however, Mahfouz’s life was narrowed: by his eyesight, by his diabetes, by the attack on his life. As he said in his memoir Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber, “That is the way of life. You give up your pleasures one by one until there is nothing left, then you know it is time to go.”
Mahfouz died in Cairo on August 30, 2006, at the age of 94, accompanied in his final moments by his wife Atiya and his two daughters. He had told fellow author Mohamed Salmawy late in life that, “Among my works, I am especially fond of the Trilogy, The Harafish, and The Thousand Nights. These have a unique place in my heart.”
AUC Press has produced a documentary about Naguib Mahfouz that can be accessed by clicking on this link.