Adam Ash

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bookplanet: Naguib Mahfouz, greatest Arab novelist, dies

1. Naguib Mahfouz, 94, Nobel Laureate in Literature, Dies -- by ROBERT D. McFADDEN

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist, playwright and screenwriter who won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature and was widely regarded as the Arab world’s foremost novelist, died yesterday in Cairo. He was 94.

Mr. Mahfouz had been hospitalized and in declining health since suffering a head injury in a fall at his home in July, Reuters and The Associated Press reported, citing Dr. Hossam Mowafi, who supervised Mr. Mahfouz’s treatment and who announced his death.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Mahfouz survived a stabbing attack near his home after Islamic fundamentalists had accused him of blasphemy.

Mr. Mahfouz’s city was teeming Cairo, and his characters were its most ordinary people: civil servants and bureaucrats, grocers, shopkeepers, poor retirees, petty thieves and prostitutes, peasants and women brutalized by tradition, a people caught in the upheavals of a nation struggling through the 20th century.

Around their tangled lives, Mr. Mahfouz chronicled the development of modern Egypt over five decades in 33 novels, 13 anthologies of short stories, several plays and 30 screenplays. The Swedish Academy of Letters hailed his work as “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”

Mr. Mahfouz, a slim, shy and modest man — he once described himself as “a fourth- or fifth-class writer” — was admired for his vivid depictions of modern Egypt and the social, political and religious dilemmas of its people. Critics compared his richly detailed Cairo with the London of Dickens, the Paris of Zola and the St. Petersburg of Dostoyevsky.

He has been the only Arab writer to receive the Nobel Prize. At the time of his selection, in 1988, he was widely read in Egypt and other Arab countries but largely unknown in the United States and Europe. While many of his works had been translated into French, Swedish and German, only about a dozen had been rendered into English, and many were out of print. Since then, his best-known novels have been published in the United States and other English-speaking countries by Doubleday and sister companies. They include “The Cairo Trilogy,” widely regarded as his masterwork.

Arabic has a rich tradition in poetry, but the novel was not a strong art form until Mr. Mahfouz made it accessible. For English-language translators and readers, Arabic presents special difficulties: the dialogue sounds overwrought, the descriptions stilted. As Brad Kessler wrote in a 1990 article for The New York Times Magazine: “Mahfouz writes in the florid classical Arabic, which is roughly the equivalent of Shakespearean English.”

Until winning his $390,000 Nobel Prize, much of which he said he gave to charities, Mr. Mahfouz had struggled financially despite the popularity of his books. For many years he supported himself and his wife, Attiyat-Allah, and two daughters by working for government ministries. He almost never left Egypt and did not go to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize but sent his daughters, Om Kolthoum and Fatima, to accept it on his behalf. They and his wife survive him. During the 1960’s and 70’s, he was the head of the State Cinema Organization, which is responsible for raising money, censorship and decisions on which movies should be made. About 30 of his own novels and short stories were adapted, including one that won a national film prize in 1962. For his censorship work, he was often criticized by Cairo intellectuals.

Mr. Mahfouz had many enemies. Islamic fundamentalists considered some of his work blasphemous, and political opponents resented his support for Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and his earlier criticisms of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seized power after a 1952 coup.

Many of Mr. Mahfouz’s books were banned in Arab countries, and a 1959 novel, “Children of the Alley,” whose theme is man’s search for spiritual values, has always been blacklisted in Egypt at the behest of the Islamic theological authorities because it portrays Muhammad as a simple, all-too-human womanizer. It also has characters based on Adam and Eve, Moses, and Jesus.

Like many Egyptian intellectuals, some of whose works have been denounced as disrespectful to Islam, Mr. Mahfouz in recent years had been put on a “death list” by Islamic fundamentalists who were said to be responsible for hundreds of terrorist killings in Egypt and abroad.

In 1989 Mr. Mahfouz joined scores of literary figures in defending Salman Rushdie after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned one of his books, “The Satanic Verses,” as blasphemous and offered a reward for his being killed. But in 1992, Mr. Mahfouz distanced himself from Mr. Rushdie and criticized his book as “insulting” to Islam, though he also said that the death threats against him were wrong.

Mr. Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside his apartment building in 1994. The assailant fled in a car. The authorities said the attack might have been carried out by the Islamic militants who had declared him an infidel. The police had offered him protection, but Mr. Mahfouz, who condemned “cultural terrorism” by Islamic fundamentalists, refused it.

After the stabbing, however, armed guards were posted outside his apartment building, which overlooks the Nile. And though he continued to write in his later years, he did so in failing health; he was diabetic and nearly blind, and the attack impaired his ability to hold a pen.

It also led to a more restricted life, forcing him to curtail his almost daily walks to a coffeehouse to meet friends or to an office at Al Ahram, the newspaper for which he wrote occasional columns. After the attack, friends had him driven to their homes for weekly salons.

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo on Dec. 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children of a civil servant. His early childhood was spent in the old city’s Gamaliya quarter, the setting of many of his books, and he came of age in an era of intense nationalist activity against British rule.

He studied Arabic literature in high school and cultivated a wide range of literary interests while studying philosophy at the University of Cairo, from which he graduated in 1932. He read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Mann, Kafka and Joyce and the playwrights O’Neill, Shaw, Ibsen and Strindberg.

He began writing short stories, 80 of which were published in magazines, and in 1938 he published his first collection, “ The Whisper of Madness.” A year later, his first novel, “The Games of Fate,” appeared. It was a thinly veiled allegory about the struggle against British occupation but was set in ancient Egypt to get around the censors.

After several such “historical” novels, he turned to a new genre, the realistic novels of the 1940’s and 50’s for which he is best known. “The Cairo Trilogy,” whose three volumes took 12 years to complete, appeared in the late 1950’s and is regarded as a masterpiece of the Arabic language.

It tells the story of Egypt through the eyes of three generations of a middle-class Cairo family from World War I through the 1952 coup that overthrew King Farouk. Each of the volumes — “Palace Walk,” “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — is named for a Cairo street, and the tragedies and fortunes of the family parallel the nation’s struggle for political independence.

Later works by Mr. Mahfouz — “The Thief and the Dogs” (1961), “Chatting on the Nile” (1966) and “Miramar” (1967) — were experimental, sometimes given to stream-of-consciousness, and critical of either the coup that eventually made Nasser the ruler or of his dictatorial rule. Mr. Mahfouz was never jailed for these or other writings, though other writers were.

Women play important roles in many Mahfouz stories and often illuminate their inferior status in Egypt and the wrenching social changes under way. In one story, a girl exploited as a prostitute fights back; another tells of a home where women are not even allowed to look out a window for fear of being seen, until a modern woman marries into the family and begins to demand equal rights.

Mr. Mahfouz supported President Anwar el-Sadat and the Camp David accords that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and he was denounced by many of his countrymen. But he also supported the Palestinian cause, giving a portion of his Nobel money to Palestinian charities, and his works remained popular; his Nobel Prize was welcomed throughout the Arab world.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2002, Mr. Mahfouz said he no longer feared death and no longer fretted that it would come before he had the chance to finish his work. But he sounded melancholy when enumerating the pastimes that old age had denied him. “That is the way of life,” he said. “You give up your pleasures one by one until there is nothing left, then you know it is time to go.”

2. Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz Dies -- by LEE KEATH and NADIA ABOU EL-MAGD

CAIRO, Egypt -- Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, died Wednesday at the age of 94, bringing tributes from literary figures and world leaders for an author who became a symbol of liberalism in the face of Islamic extremism.

Mahfouz's novels depicted modern life in his beloved neighborhood of Islamic Cairo, a teeming district of millennium-old mosques and winding alleyways. He brought to life his city's traditional families as they faced the 20th century's upheavals, including the changing role of women.

But he raised controversy among conservatives with his calls for religious tolerance. In 1994, an Islamic militant stabbed the then-82-year-old Mahfouz, accusing him of blasphemy because of one his novels, "Children of Gebelaya," a religious allegory that depicted Islam's main prophet, Muhammad.

Still, Mahfouz continued to write, often dictating stories. He was hospitalized last month after falling in his home and injuring his head, then died Wednesday morning after a sharp decline, Dr. Hossam Mowafi said.

"His wife last night was whispering in his ears and he was smiling and nodding," Mowafi said.

The Nobel prize, which he won in 1988, introduced to the world a man seen by many as the Middle East's greatest writer, with 34 novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, dozens of movie scripts and five plays over a 70-year career.

In a condolence statement, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised Mahfouz as "a cultural light" who expressed "the values shared by all, the values of enlightenment and tolerance that reject extremism."

President Bush was saddened at Mahfouz's death, calling him "an extraordinary artist who conveyed the richness of Egyptian history and society to the world," the White House said.

An unlikely condolence came from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamic group. A statement on the group's Web site Wednesday said "Children of Gebelawi" was seen as a "violation" of Islamic tenets.

Still, Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said two senior figures of the group intend to attend Mahfouz's funeral on Thursday.

"We are not gods to punish and reward people. It's not time to judge him or history, we're asking for (God's) mercy for him. He is a great writer," he told the Associated Press.

Mahfouz's literary prominence, modesty and irrepressible sense of humor enabled him to unite Arabs from across the political spectrum -- even those who differed with his backing for normalization of ties with Israel after Egypt signed the 1979 Camp David peace accords.

In his final years, he kept up his evenings in Cairo's literary cafes, meeting his anti-Israel friends in one and his pro-normalization ones in another.

"I differed with him a lot, on his stance from Camp David, Egypt's 1952 revolution, Egypt's Arabism ... He was a liberal man and always asked us to judge him by his writings," novelist Youssef al-Qaeed, a friend of Mahfouz, told Al-Jazeera TV.

The state has ordered a military funeral for Mahfouz at a mosque in Cairo's Nasr City neighborhood.

But first -- in keeping with a request in his will -- private prayers for family and friends will be held at Hussein Mosque, a major shrine in Islamic Cairo, where his mother took him to pray as a child.

Islamic Cairo was for Mahfouz what St. Petersburg was for Fyodor Dostoevsky or London for Charles Dickens -- a canvas on which to depict with startling realism the travails of an Everyman.

The scene of some novels rarely stretched beyond a few familiar blocks of Gamaliya, the corner of the district where he was born on Dec. 11, 1911.

The crowded neighborhood is the setting for his 1956-1957 masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy -- "Palace Walk," "Palace of Desire" and "Sugar Street," which depict a Muslim merchant family not unlike Mahfouz's own.

It introduced a character who became an icon in Egyptian culture: Si-Sayed, the domineering father, who lords his authority over his wives and daughters but holds the family together -- a character Mahfouz drew from his own father.

Mahfouz's Cairo was a place of traditional families, but also prostitutes, drug dealers and political dissidents. Promising young men die fighting British colonial rule, revolutions inspire and then bitterly disappoint, women strain against religious and traditional restrictions, gracious old manners surrender to modern ways.

"It has to do with the plight of humanity as a whole," said Fatma Moussa, a renowned Egyptian critic and writer. "It's kind of a microcosm of the whole world, a little image of the fate of man."

He moved easily between genres, from social realism to religious or political allegories.

The 1959 "Children of Gebelawi" -- or "Children of Our Alley" by its Arabic title -- told the story of a family patriarch and his sons, who represent the series of prophets that Islam believes includes Jesus and Moses and culminates in Muhammad.

Islam frowns on any literary depiction of Muhammad, except for a straightforward biography. But even more rankling to conservatives was that Mahfouz added a final son who represented science, suggesting he was a prophet after Muhammad.

First serialized in Egyptian newspapers in 1959, Egyptian religious authorities banned it from being published in book form -- though it was published in Lebanon.

The controversy was resurrected when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of British writer Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses" in a 1989 fatwa, or religious edict.

In a copycat fatwa the same year, Egyptian radical Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman -- later convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks -- said Mahfouz deserved to die for "Children of Gebelawi."

The militant who stabbed Mahfouz said at his trial he had never read the book but was inspired by the fatwa.

"Children of Gebelawi" will be republished along with all Mahfouz's other works next year, his publisher said.

The attack damaged nerves leading to Mahfouz's right arm, seriously impairing his ability to write. A man who had once worked for hours at a time -- writing in longhand -- found it a struggle to "form legible words running in more or less straight lines," he wrote in the aftermath.

Still, he continued to produce short-short stories, sometimes only a few paragraphs long. His final published major work came in 2005, a collection of stories about the afterlife titled "The Seventh Heaven."

"I wrote 'The Seventh Heaven' because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death," the wispy-bearded writer told the AP with a grin during a small gathering for his 94th birthday in December. "Spirituality for me is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration for me."

3. From

MaguibMahfouz: Egyptian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, and was the first Arabic writer to be so honored. Many in the Arab world saw the prize as somewhat ironic, not least because the work for which Mahfouz received the prize had been published at least three decades earlier. In spite of millions readers in the Arab world, the author's books are still unavailable in many Middle Eastern countries on account of his support for President Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Mahfouz has written some 40 novels and short story collections, 30 screenplays, and many plays.

"Zaabalawi!" he said, frowning in concentration, "You need him? God be with you, for who knows, I Zaabalawi, where you are?"
"Doesn't he visit you?" I asked eagerly.
"He visited me some time ago. He might well come now; on the other hand I mightn't see him till death!"
I gave an audible sigh and asked:
"What made him like that?"
He took up his lute. "Such are saints or they would not be saints," he said laughing.
"Do those who need him suffer as I do?"
"Such suffering is part of the cure!"
(from 'Zaabalawi,' 1965)

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Gamaliya, Cairo. The family lived in two popular districts of the town, al-Jamaliya and al-Abbasiya, which have provided the backdrop for most of his writings. His father was a civil servant, and Mahfouz eventually followed in his footsteps. In his childhood his mother often took him to museums and Egyptian history later became a major theme is many of his books. He graduated from Cairo University in 1934. By 1936, having spent a year working on an M.A., he decided to become a professional writer. He worked as a journalist at Ar-Risala , and contributed to Al-Hilal and Al-Ahram .

Before turning to the novel, Mahfouz wrote articles and short stories. His first published book was a translation of James Baikie's work on ancient Egypt. His first collection of stories appeared in 1938. In 1939 he entered government bureaucracy, where he was employed for the next 35 years. From 1939 until 1954 he was a civil servant at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, and then worked as director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema, the State Cinema Organization. In 1969-71 he was a consultant for cinema affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

Mahfouz's early works, ABATH AL-AQDAR (1939), RADUBIS (1943), and KIFAH TIBAH (1944), were historical novels, that were written as part of a larger unfulfilled project of 30 novels. Inspired by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) Mahfouz planned to cover the whole history of Egypt in a series of books. However, following the third novel, Mahfouz shifted his interest to the present, the psychological impact of the social change on ordinary people.

Mahfouz's major work in the 1950s was The Cairo Trilogy, which the author completed before the July Revolution. The novels were titled with the street names Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. Mahfouz set the story in the parts of Cairo where he grew up. They depict the life of the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over three generations in Cairo from WW I to the 1950s, when King Farouk I was overthrown. With its rich variety of characters and psychological understanding the work connected Mahfouz to such authors as Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Galsworthy. Mahfouz ceased to write for some years after finishing the trilogy. Disappointed in the Nasser régime, which had overthrown the monarchy in 1952, he started publishing again in 1959, now prolifically pouring out novels, short stories, journalism, memoirs, essays, and screenplays.

The Children of Gebelaawi (1959) portrayed the patriarch Gebelaawi and his children, average Egyptians living the lives of Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. Gebelaawi has built a mansion in an oasis in the middle of a barren desert; his estate becomes the scene of a family feud which continues for generations. "Whenever someone is depressed, suffering or humiliated, he points to the mansion at the top of the alley at the end opening out to the desert, and says sadly, 'That is our ancestor's house, we are all his children, and we have a right to his property. Why are we starving? What have we done?' " The book was banned throughout the Arab world, except in the Lebanon. In the 1960s Mahfouz further developed its theme that humanity is moving further away from God in his existentialist novels. In The Thief and the Dogs (1961) he depicted the fate a Marxist thief, who has been released from prison and plans revenge. Ultimately he is murdered in a cemetery.

Mahfouz left his post as the Director of Censorship and was appointed Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema. He was a contributing editor for the leading newspaper Al-Ahram and in 1969 he became a consultant to the Ministry of Culture, retiring in 1972. He has been a board member of Dar al Ma'aref publishing house. Most of his novels have been serialized in Al-Ahram , and his writings also appeared in his weekly column, 'Point of View'.

In the 1960s and 1970s Mahfouz started to construct his novels more freely and use interior monologue. In Miramar (1967) he used a form of multiple first-person narration. Four narrators, among them a Socialist and a Nasserite opportunist, represent different political views. In the center of the story is an attractive servant girl. In Arabian Nights and Days (1981) and in The Journey of Ibn Fatouma (1983) he used traditional Arabic narratives as subtexts. Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985) is about conflict between old and new religious truths, a theme with which Mika Waltari dealt in Finland in his historical novel Sinuhe (1945, trans. The Egyptian). Waltari's book inspired the Hollywood film The Egyptian (1954), directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Michael Wilding as Akhenaten, Gene Tierney as Nefertiti, and Victor Mature as Akhenaten's childhood friend Horemhab.

"As a geographical place and as history, Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz's Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity." (Edward W. Said in New York Review of Books , November 30, 2000)

Mahfouz, called the "Balzac of Egypt", has written some 40 novels and short story collections, screenplays, and several stage plays. In his work Mahfouz has described the development of his country in the 20th-century. He has combined intellectual and cultural influences from East and West - his own exposure to the literature of non-Arabic culture began in his youth with the enthusiastic consumption of Western detective stories. Mahfouz's stories are almost always set in the heavily populated urban quarters of Cairo. He had focused on 'the little man', who has to deal with the modernization of society and the temptations of Western values. In his own country his characters have become household words, and he is widely considered a spokesperson not only for Egypt but also for a number of non-Western cultures. Before the Nobel Prize only a few of Mahfouz's novels had appeared in the West. Jacqueline Onassis was among those people, who brought early translations to the English-speaking readers. In 1994 Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife. Two Egyptian Islamic militants were sentenced to death in 1995 for attempting to kill him. In his old age Mahfouz has become nearly blind.

For further reading: The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Najib Mahfu's Novels by Sasson Somekh (1973); The Modern Egyptian Novel by Hilary Kilpatrick (1974); The Arabic Novel by Roger Allen (1982); Naguig Mahfouz, Nobel 1988: Egyptian Perspectives (1989) Nobel Laureates in Literature , ed. by Rado Pribic (1990); Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt by Hayim Gordon (1990); Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz , ed. by Trevor Le Gassick (1991); Naguib Mahfouz , ed. by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar (1993); Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning by Rasheed el-Enany (1993) - NOTE :In his works Mahfouz has offered critical views of British colonialism and contemporary Egypt, social issues, and political prisoners. The major Egyptian influence on Mahfouz's thoughts of science and socialism in the 1930s was Salama Musa, the Fabian intellectual. Fundamentalist Muslims have threatened Mahfouz, especially due to his moderate position on Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses .

Selected works:
ABATH AL-AGDAR, 1939 - Mockery of the Fates
ZUQAQ AL-MIDAQQ, 1947 - Midaq Alley - Midaqq-kuja - film El Callejón de los milagros / Midaq Alley , dir. by Jorge Fons and starring Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Salma Hayek, and Maria Rojo, was based on Mahfouz's novel but set in Mexico City.
AL-SARAB, 1949
BIDAYAH WA-NIHAYAH, 1949 - The Beginning and the End
AL-THULATIYA, 1956-57 - The Cairo Trilogy; BAYN AL-QUASRAYN (1956) - Palace Walk - QUAST AL-SHAWQ (1957) - Palace of Desire - AL-SUKKARIYAH (1957) - Sugar Street - suom. Palatsikatu, Intohimon palatsi, Sokerikuja
Children of Gebelaawi, 1959 - Children of the Alley (trans. by Peter Theroux)
AL-LISS WA-AL-KILAB, 1961 - The Thief and the Dogs
AL-SUMMAN WA-AL-KHARIF, 1962 - Autumn Quail
AL-TARIQ, 1964 - The Search
AL-SHAHHADH, 1965 - The Beggar
THARTHARAH FAWQ AL NIL, 1966 - Adrift on the Nile
AWLAD HARITNA, 1967 - Children of Gebelawi / Children of the Alley
MIRAMAR, 1967 - trans.
AL MARAYA, 1971 - Mirrors
AL-KARNAK, 1974 - Three Contemporary Egyptian Novels
HADRAT AL-MUHTARAM, 1975 - Respected Sir
MALHAMAT AL-HARAFISH, 1977 - The Harafish
AFRAH AL-QUBBAH, 1981 - Wedding Song
LAYALI ALF LAYLAH, 1981 - Arabian Nights and Days
RIHLAT IBN FATTUMAH, 1983 - The Journey of Ibn Fatouma
Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, 1985 (translated from the Arabic by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo)
YAWM MAQTAL AL ZA'IM, 1985 - The Day Leader Was Killed

4. Paris Review Interview: Echoes from an Autobiography, 1994

Naguib Mahfouz credits Hafiz Najib—thief, jailbird, renowned cop
baiter, and author of twenty-two detective novels—with being his
earliest literary influence. The ten-year-old Mahfouz read Najib’s
Johnson’s Son on the recommendation of an elementary school
classmate, and the experience, Mahfouz avows, changed his life.
Mahfouz’s subsequent influences have been many and various.
In high school Mahfouz became preoccupied with Taha Husayn,
whose revolutionary critical work Fil-shi’r al-Jahili provoked a
hysterical reaction from conservative Asharite circles when it was
published in 1926. In college Mahfouz read Salama Musa, who as
the editor of the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida later published
Mahfouz’s first novel, and from whom Mahfouz says he learned
“to believe in science, socialism, and tolerance.”

In the years following the Second World War, Mahfouz retreated
from his socialist ideals to a deep pessimism. He spent much of
his time engaged in gloomy discussions of life and the purposelessness
of literature with fellow writers Adil Kamil and Ahmad Zaki
Makhluf, on the lawn area by Cairo’s Jala’ Bridge, which they
dubbed “the ominous circle.” In the fifties he experimented with
Sufi mysticism, seeking in it answers to the metaphysical questions
not addressed by science. These days Mahfouz appears to have settled
on a philosophy that combines scientific socialism with a concern
for the spiritual—a combination anticipated by the definition
of fiction he advanced in 1945: Fiction is art for the industrial age.
It represents a synthesis of man’s passion for fact and his age-old
love affair with the imagination.

Born in Cairo in 1911, Mahfouz started writing at the age of
seventeen and has since written more than thirty novels. Until he
retired from the civil service at sixty, he wrote at night, in his spare
time—unable, despite his critical successes, to depend on writing
for a living. His first published work, Abath al-Aqdar, appeared in
1939, the first in a series of three historical tales set in the time of
the pharaohs. Mahfouz originally intended to expand this series
into a thirty- or forty-novel history of Egypt in the style of Sir
Walter Scott, but he abandoned the project to work on his contemporary
Cairo novels, the first of which, Khan al-Khalili,
appeared in 1945.

Although much acclaimed in other parts of the Arab world,
Mahfouz did not acquire a significant reputation in Egypt until the
publication of The Cairo Trilogy in 1957. This three-thousand page
epic portrays life in middle-class Cairo between the world
wars, and was immediately hailed as the novel of its generation.

Mahfouz became known abroad in the late sixties, when a number
of his works were translated into English, French, Russian, and
German. In 1988 Mahfouz achieved worldwide recognition when
he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now eighty, Mahfouz lives in the Cairo suburb of Agouza
with his wife and two daughters. He avoids public exposure, especially
inquiries into his private life, which might become, as he puts
it, “a silly topic in journals and radio programs.” The series of
meetings that made up this interview were held on a succession of
Thursdays, each time at precisely eleven o’clock. The interviewer
sat on a chair to Mahfouz’s left, next to his good ear.

Mahfouz in person is somewhat reserved, but always candid
and direct. He laughs frequently and wears an old-fashioned dark
blue suit, which he buttons to the top. He smokes, and he likes his
coffee bitter.
—Charlotte El Shabrawy, 1992

When did you start writing?
In 1929. All my stories were rejected. Salama Musa—the editor
of Majalla—used to say to me: You have potential, but you’re
not there yet. September 1939 I remember well because it was the
beginning of World War II, Hitler’s attack on Poland. My story,
“Abath al-Aqdar,” was published, a sort of surprise gift from the
Majalla publishers. It was an immensely important event in my
Did writing and publication then follow easily?
No . . . though after that first publication a friend of mine, a
writer, came to me and told me about his brother who owned a
printing press. He formed a publication committee with some colleagues
who had had a little success. We began publishing in 1943
with some regularity. We published a story of mine every year.
But you never depended on your writing for a living?
No. I was always a government employee. On the contrary, I
spent on literature—on books and paper. I didn’t make any money
from my writing until much later. I published about eighty stories
for nothing. Even my first novels I published for nothing, all to
help the committee.
When did you begin to make money from your writing?
When my short stories were translated into English, French,
and German. “Zabalawi” in particular was extremely successful
and made me more money than any other story.
The first novel of mine to be translated was Midaq Alley. The
translation was first published by a Lebanese named Khayyat. Neither
I nor the translator made any money because Khayyat cheated
us. Heinemann published it again around 1970. After that it
was translated into French, and other translations of my work
soon followed.
Could you tell us about the notorious Kharafish group? Who
belongs to it, and how was it formed?
We first became acquainted in 1943: Mustafa Mahmud,
Ahmad Baha al-Din, Salah Jahin, Muhammad Afifi. We would
hold discussions on art and on current political issues. Kharafish
means “hoodlum”—those types found on the fringes of demonstrations
and who start looting at the first opportunity, they are the
kharafish. Ahmed Mazhar [one of Egypt’s leading actors] gave us
the name. At first we used to meet at Muhammad Afifi’s house.
Sometimes we would go to a place called Sahara City, near the pyramids.
Now we go to the film director Tewfiq Saleh’s place because
he has a balcony on the tenth floor, facing the Nile. There are four
or five of us left.
Do you have much contact with the younger generation of
Egyptian writers?
Every Friday evening I attend a session at the Casino Kasr el-
Nil, to which new writers are invited. Many come: poets, writers,
literary types . . . Since I stopped working for the government in
1971 I have had more time for friends.
What role did the political situation prior to 1952 play in your
I was about seven when the 1919 revolution took place. 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 I’ve never worked in politics, never been a
member of an official committee or a political party. Although I
was a Wafdist, I never wanted to be known as a party member; as
a writer I wanted the total freedom that a party member can never
And 1952?
I was happy with that revolution. But unfortunately it did not
bring about democracy.
Do you think progress has been made toward democracy and
freedom since the time of Nasser and Sadat?
Oh yes, there’s no doubt about that. In Nasser’s time one
feared the walls. Everyone was afraid. We would sit in the cafés,
too afraid to talk. We would stay at home, too afraid to talk. I was
afraid to talk to my children about anything that happened before
the revolution—I was worried they would go to school and say
something that would be misinterpreted. Sadat made us feel more
secure. Hosni Mubarak? His constitution is not democratic, but he
is democratic. We can voice our opinions now. The press is free.
We can sit in our homes and speak loudly as though we were in
England. But the constitution does need revising.
Do you think the Egyptian people are ready for full democracy?
Do they really understand how it works?
In Egypt today most people are concerned with getting bread
to eat. Only some of the educated really understand how democracy
works. No one with a family has a free moment even to discuss
Have you had much trouble with censorship? Have you had to
rewrite any of your manuscripts?
Not recently, but during World War II Al-Qawra al-Jadida and
Radibus were censored. I was called a leftist. Censors called
Radibus inflamatory because in it the people kill a king, and our
king was still alive. I explained to them that it was simply a historical
tale, but they claimed that it was false history, that the king
in question had not been killed by the people but had died under
“mysterious circumstances.”
Didn’t the censors also object to The Children of Gabelawi?
They did. 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 the Al-
Azhar—the main seat of Islam in Cairo. It was published in Beirut
but not allowed into Egypt. This was in 1959, in Nasser’s time.
The book still can’t be bought here. People smuggle it in.
What did you intend with Children of Gabelawi? Did you
intend it to be provocative?
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. I wanted it to persuade readers that
if we reject science, we reject the common man. Unfortunately, it
has been misinterpreted by those who don’t know how to read a
story. Although the book is about ghettos and those who run them,
it was interpreted as being about the prophets themselves. Because
of this interpretation, the story was, naturally, considered shocking,
supposedly showing the prophets walking barefoot, acting
cruelly . . . But of course it’s an allegory. It’s not as though allegories
are unknown in our tradition. In the story of “Kalila and
Dimnah,” for example, a lion represents the Sultan. But no one
claims that the author turned the Sultan into an animal! Something
is meant by the story . . . an allegory is not meant to be taken literally.
There is a great lack of comprehension on the part of some
What do you think about the Salman Rushdie case? Do you
think a writer should have absolute freedom?
I’ll tell you exactly what I think: Every society has its traditions,
laws, and religious beliefs, which it tries to preserve. From
time to time individuals appear who demand changes. I believe
that society has the right to defend itself, just as the individual has
the right to attack that with which he disagrees. If a writer comes
to the conclusion that his society’s laws or beliefs are no longer
valid or even harmful, it is his duty to speak up. But he must be
ready to pay the price for his outspokenness. If he is not ready to
pay that price, he can choose to remain silent. History is full of
people who went to prison or were burned at the stake for proclaiming
their ideas. Society has always defended itself. Nowadays
it does so with its police and its courts. I defend both the freedom
of expression and society’s right to counter it. I must pay the price
for differing. It is the natural way of things.
Did you read The Satanic Verses?
I didn’t. By the time it appeared, I could no longer read very
well—my eyesight has deteriorated a lot recently. But the American
cultural attaché in Alexandria explained the book to me chapter by
chapter. I found the insults in it unacceptable. Rushdie insults even
the women of the Prophet! Now, I can argue with ideas, but what
should I do with insults? Insults are the business of the court. At the
same time, I consider Khomeini’s position equally dangerous. He
does not have the right to pass judgment—that is not the Islamic
way. According to Islamic principles, when a man is accused of
heresy he is given the choice between repentance and punishment.
Rushdie was not given that choice. I have always defended
Rushdie’s right to write and say what he wants in terms of ideas.
But he does not have the right to insult anything, especially a
prophet or anything considered holy. Don’t you agree?
I see your point . . . Does the Koran discuss insults or blasphemy?
Of course. The Koran and the laws of all civilized nations legislate
against the vilification of religions.
Were you religious as a child? Did you go to the mosque with
your father every Friday?
I was especially religious when I was young. But my father
put no pressure on me to go to Friday prayers, even though he
went every week. Later on I began to feel strongly that religion
should be open; a closed-minded religion is a curse. Excessive
concern with religion seems to me a last resort for people who
have been exhausted by life. I consider religion very important
but also potentially dangerous. If you want to move people,
you look for a point of sensitivity, and in Egypt nothing moves
people as much as religion. What makes the peasant work?
Religion. Because of this, religion should be interpreted in an
open manner. It should speak of love and humanity. Religion
is related to progress and civilization, not just emotions.
Unfortunately today’s interpretations of religion are often
backward and contradict the needs of civilization.
What about women who cover their heads, or even their faces
and hands? Is this an example of religion contradicting the needs
of civilization?
Head covering has become a style, a fashion. It has no more
meaning than that for most. But I do fear religious fanaticism . . .
a pernicious development, totally opposed to mankind.
Do you pray these days?
Sometimes. But age prevents me at present. Between you and
me, I consider religion an essential human behavior. Still, it’s clearly
more important to treat one’s fellow man well than to be always
praying and fasting and touching one’s head to a prayer mat. God
did not intend religion to be an exercise club.
Have you been to Mecca?
Do you want to go?
No. I hate crowds.
How old were you when you married?
Thirty-seven or thirty-eight.
Why so late?
I was busy with my job and with writing. I was a government
employee in the morning and a writer in the evening. My
day was completely filled. I was afraid of marriage . . . especially
when I saw how busy my brothers and sisters were with
social events because of it. This one went to visit people, that
one invited people. I had the impression that married life would
take up all my time. I saw myself drowning in visits and parties.
No freedom.
Even now, don’t you refuse to attend dinners and receptions?
I never attend such events. I never even visit my friends. I meet
them at the Casino Kasr el-Nil or at one or two other coffee houses.
Is that why you didn’t go to Sweden to receive your Nobel
Prize? Too many visits, dinners, parties . . .?
No, not exactly. As much as I would have loved to travel when
I was young, nowadays I no longer have the desire. Even a twoweek
trip would disrupt my lifestyle.
You must have been asked many times about your reaction to
receiving the Nobel. Did you have any inkling beforehand that you
would win?
None at all. My wife thought I deserved it, but I had always
suspected the Nobel was a Western prize; I thought they would
never select an Eastern writer. There was a rumor, though, that two
Arab writers had been nominated: Yusef Idris and Adonis.
Did you know you were being considered?
No. I was at Al-Ahram that morning. Had I stayed half an
hour longer I would have found out immediately. But I went home
and had lunch instead. The news came across the tickers at Al-
Ahram and they called my house. My wife woke me up to tell me,
but I thought she was joking and wanted to go back to sleep. Then
she told me Al-Ahram was on the phone. I picked up to hear someone
saying, Congratulations! It was Mr. Basha. Now Mr. Basha
sometimes plays jokes on me, so I didn’t take him seriously. I went
into the living room in my pajamas and was just sitting down
when the doorbell rang. Someone came in whom I assumed was a
journalist, but he turned out to be the Swedish ambassador! So I
excused myself to change . . . and that’s how it happened.
Turning once more to your writing: do you work according to
a regular schedule?
I have always been compelled to. From eight till two I was at
work. From four until seven I wrote. Then from seven until ten I read.
This was my schedule every day except Friday. I have never had time
to do as I please. But I stopped writing about three years ago.
How do you come up with the characters and ideas for your
Let me put it this way. When you spend time with your friends,
what do you talk about? Those things which made an impression
on you that day, that week . . . I write stories the same way. Events
at home, in school, at work, in the street, these are the bases for a
story. Some experiences leave such a deep impression that instead
of talking about them at the club I work them into a novel.
Take, for instance, the case of a criminal who killed three people
here recently. Beginning with that basic story, I would go on to
make a number of decisions as to how to write it. I would choose,
for example, whether to write the story from the point of view of
the husband, the wife, the servant, or the criminal. Maybe my sympathies
lie with the criminal. These are the sorts of choices that
make stories differ from one another.
When you begin writing, do you allow the words to flow or
do you prepare notes first? Do you start with a specific theme in
My short stories come straight from the heart. For other
works I do research first. Before beginning The Cairo Trilogy, for
example, I did extensive research. I compiled a file on each character.
If I hadn’t done that I would have gotten lost and forgotten
something. Sometimes a theme arises naturally out of the events in
a story, and sometimes I will have one in mind before I begin. If I
know beforehand that I want to portray a human being’s ability to
surmount whatever evil may befall him, I will create a hero capable
of demonstrating that idea. But I also begin stories by writing
about a character’s behavior at length, allowing the theme to
emerge later on.
How much do you revise and rewrite before you consider a
story finished?
I make frequent revisions, I cross out a lot, I write all over the
pages, even on the backs. Often my revisions are major. After I
revise, I rewrite the story and send it to the publisher. Then I tear
up all the old reworkings and throw them away.
You never keep any of your notes? Many writers keep every
word they have written! Don’t you think it’s interesting to study a
writer’s process by examining his revisions?
It may well be, but it is simply not part of my culture to preserve
notes. I have never heard of a writer preserving his early
drafts. I have to discard my revisions—otherwise my house would
overflow with useless paper! Besides, I have terrible handwriting.
Neither the short story nor the novel is part of the Arab literary
heritage. How do you explain your success with these forms?
We Arab writers did borrow the modern concept of the short
story and the novel from the West, but by now they have been
internalized in our own literature. Many translations came our
way during the forties and fifties; we took their style to be simply
the way stories were written. We used the Western style to express
our own themes and stories. But don’t forget that our heritage
includes such works as Ayyam al-Arab, which contains many stories
—among them “Antar” and “Qays and Leila”—and of course
The Thousand and One Nights.
Do you identify with any of your characters?
Kamal from the trilogy represents my own generation—our
ideas, our choices, our dilemmas and psychological crises—and so
his character is in that sense autobiographical. But he is universal
at the same time. I also feel close to Abdul Gawad, the father . . .
open to life in all its aspects, he loves his friends and he never wittingly
hurts anyone. The two together represent both halves of my
personality. Abdel Gawad is very gregarious, loves art and music;
Kamal is inhibited and shy, serious and idealistic.
Let’s talk about a specific example of your writing: The Thief
and the Dogs. How did you begin?
The story was inspired by a thief who terrorized Cairo for a
while. His name was Mahmoud Suleiman. When he got out of
prison he tried to kill his wife and his lawyer. They managed to
escape unharmed, but he was killed in the process.
Had his wife betrayed him, as in the novel?
No . . . I created the story from his character. At the time I was
suffering from a persistent and peculiar sense that I was being pursued,
and also the conviction that under the political order of the
time our lives had no meaning. So when I wrote the criminal’s
story, I wrote my own story along with it. A simple crime tale
became a philosophical meditation on the times! I subjected the
main character, Sayyid Mahran, to all my confusion, my perplexities.
I put him through the experience of looking for answers in the
sheikh, in the “fallen woman,” in the idealist who has betrayed his
ideas for money and fame. The writer, you see, is not simply a journalist.
He interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions, and
values. That is art.
What about the role of religion in the story? Is faith in God the
path to true happiness, as the sheikh suggests? Is Sufism the answer
the criminal is looking for?
The sheikh rejects life as we know it. The criminal, on the
other hand, is trying to solve his immediate problems. They are in
two different worlds. I love Sufism as I love beautiful poetry, but it
is not the answer. Sufism is like a mirage in the desert. It says to
you, come and sit, relax and enjoy yourself for a while. I reject any
path that rejects life, but I can’t help loving Sufism because it
sounds so beautiful . . . It gives relief in the midst of battle . . .
I have several Egyptian friends who consult Sufi sheikhs regularly
looking for solutions . . .
I wish them well. The real solution to their problems is in the
National Bank.
What of Nur, the woman in the story? And women such as
Nefisa in The Beginning and the End and Zohra in Miramar?
These characters, although “fallen,” are clearly good-hearted, and
appear to embody the only hope for the future.
That is correct, although I intended Nefisa also to demonstrate
the consequences of dishonorable conduct in a typical Egyptian
Do you condone that type of punishment?
I, with most Egyptians, feel that punishment on that level is
too severe. On the other hand an Egyptian man who does not
respond the way Nefisa’s brother did cannot continue to live in this
society. Whether or not he wants to, he is obliged to kill the dishonored
girl. He cannot escape it. And it will be a long time before
this tradition changes, although its force has lessened somewhat
recently, especially in the cities.
Abdul Gawad in the trilogy personifies the typical Egyptian
male of the time. Is his type still common today?
Oh yes. Particularly in upper Egypt, in the countryside . . .
though an Abdul Gawad today would probably be less extreme.
Isn’t there a shade of him in every man?
Every Egyptian man, or every man?
I can’t speak for other countries, but it is certainly true of
Egyptian men.
Things seem to be changing, though, wouldn’t you say?
Things are beginning to change. The position of the woman in
the household has become much stronger, mainly due to education,
although there are other factors.
Who do you think should have the upper hand in the household?
Who should make the decisions?
A marriage is like a company with equal partners. No one
rules. If there is a disagreement, the more intelligent of the two
should override. But each family is different. Often the power
depends on money; whoever makes the most money has the most
strength. There are no fixed rules.
In very conservative, traditional societies such as Egypt, don’t
women often have great power over men?
Certainly, and recent history proves it. Men with considerable
political or military power will fall into the hands of strong women
who influence their decisions. These women rule from behind the
curtain, from behind the veil.
Why are the majority of your heroines women from the lower
strata of society? Do you intend them to symbolize anything larger?
Egypt, for example?
No. By writing about lower-class women I simply intended to
show that during the period in which these novels are set women
had no rights. If a woman couldn’t find a good husband or divorce
a bad one, she had no hope. Sometimes her only recourse was,
unfortunately, illicit behavior. Until very recently, women have
been a deprived lot with very few rights . . . even basic rights such
as freedom of choice in marriage, divorce, and education. Now
that women are being educated, this situation is changing, because
a women who is educated has a weapon. Some critics see Egypt
symbolized by Hamida in Midaq Alley, but I never intended anything
of the sort.
What do you think of such critics, who interpret your work in
terms of symbols?
When I first heard that Hamida symbolized Egypt, I was taken
by surprise, even a little shocked. I suspected that the critics had
simply decided to turn everything and everyone into symbols. But
then I began to see resemblances between aspects of Hamida’s
behavior and aspects of the political situation. And by the time I
had finished reading the article, I realized that the critic was
right—that while I was writing about Hamida I was also subconsciously
writing about Egypt. I think such symbolic parallels probably
always come from the subconscious. Although I may not
intend a story to convey a certain meaning that a reader sees in it,
that meaning may nevertheless be a legitimate part of the story. A
writer writes both consciously and subconsciously.
What is the subject closest to your heart? The subject you most
love to write about?
Freedom. Freedom from colonization, freedom from the
absolute rule of a king, and basic human freedom in the context of
society and the family. These types of freedom follow from one to
the other. In the trilogy, for example, after the revolution brought
about political freedom, Abdul Gawad’s family demanded more
freedom from him.
What is the most difficult situation you have had to face in
your life?
Most certainly it was the decision to dedicate myself to writing,
thereby accepting the lowest standard of living for myself and
my family. It was especially difficult since the prospect of money
was dangled before me . . . Around 1947 I was given the chance to
work as a scriptwriter with the best in the field. I began working
with Salah Abu Seif, but I gave it up. I refused to continue. I didn’t
work with him again until after the war when everything
became expensive. Before that, I wouldn’t think of it. And my family
accepted these sacrifices.
Many prominent writers, especially in the West, are known for
their decadent private lives—their excessive drinking, drug use,
unusual sexual habits, suicidal tendencies . . . but you appear to be
Well . . .
Perhaps that is your greatest flaw?
It is certainly a defect. But you are judging me in my dotage.
In my younger days I did all those things—I drank, I pursued the
gentler sex, and so forth.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Middle East, particularly
in view of the Gulf War and continued violence?
At my age it is unseemly to be pessimistic. When you are
young you can declare that there is no hope for mankind, but
when you are older, you learn to avoid encouraging people to hate
the world.
But what about a conception of the hero? Heroes don’t seem
to exist in your stories, nor indeed in the stories of any contemporary
Egyptian writer.
It’s true that there are no heroes in most of my stories—only
characters. Why? Because I look at our society with a critical eye
and find nothing extraordinary in the people I see. The generation
before mine, influenced by the 1919 uprisings, saw heroic behavior
—the worker able to overcome unusual obstacles, that kind of
hero. Other writers—Tawfiq al-Hakim, Muhammed Husayn
Haykal, Ibrahim Abd al-Quadir al-Mazini—write about heroic
types. But on the whole, our generation is very apathetic and a
hero is a rare thing; you can’t put a hero in a novel unless it is a
work of fantasy.
How would you describe a hero?
There are many heroes in ancient Arabic literature, all of them
horsemen, knights. But a hero today would for me be one who
adheres to a certain set of principles and stands by them in the face
of opposition. He fights corruption, is not an opportunist, and has
a strong moral foundation.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
Aren’t you a model, for your children and your public, of one
who stands by his principles in the face of adversity?
Yes, certainly. But I don’t think of myself as a hero.
How, then, would you describe yourself?
Someone who loves literature. Someone who believes in and is
sincere about his work. Someone who loves his work more than
money or fame. Of course, if money and fame come, they are welcome!
But they have never been my goal. Why? Because I love
writing more than anything else. It may be unhealthy, but I feel
that without literature my life would have no meaning. I might
have good friends, travel, luxuries, but without literature my life
would be miserable. It’s a strange thing, but not really, because
most writers are the same way. This is not to say I have done nothing
but write in my life. I am married, I have children. Then, since
1935, I have had a sensitivity in my eyes that prevents me from
reading or writing during the summer, so this has imposed a balance
on my life—a balance sent down by God! Each year I must
live for three months as a man who is not a writer. Those three
months I meet my friends and stay out until morning.
And I haven’t lived?


At 12/26/2012 12:41 PM, Blogger lovelygirl said...

please, Was this published by a famous writer ... or that's just a personal endeavor ?
thanks in advance


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