Naguib Mahfouz ( December 11, 1911 – August 30, 2006) was an Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is regarded as one of the first contemporary writers of Arabic literature, along with Tawfiq el-Hakim, to explore themes of existentialism.
He published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career. Many of his works have been made into Egyptian and foreign films.
Born into a lower middle-class Muslim family in the medieval Fatimid quarter of Cairo in 1911, Mahfouz was named after Professor Naguib Pasha Mahfouz (1882–1974), the renowned Coptic physician who delivered him. Mahfouz was the seventh and the youngest child in a family that had five boys and two girls, with fifteen years separating Mahfouz and his next youngest sibling.
(Experientially, he grew up an “only child.”) The family lived in two popular districts of Cairo: first, in the Bayt al-Qadi neighborhood in the Gamaleya quarter in the old city, from where they moved in 1924 to Abbaseya, then a new Cairo suburb north of the old city, locations that would provide the backdrop for many of Mahfouz’s later writings. His father, Abdel-Aziz Ibrahim, whom Mahfouz described as having been “old-fashioned”, was a civil servant, and Mahfouz eventually followed in his footsteps in 1934.
Mahfouz’s mother, Fatimah, was the daughter of Mustafa Qasheesha, an Al-Azhar sheikh, and although illiterate herself, took the boy Mahfouz on numerous excursions to cultural locations such as the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids.
The Mahfouz family were devout Muslims and Mahfouz had a strict Islamic upbringing. In an interview, he elaborated on the stern religious climate at home during his childhood. He stated that “You would never have thought that an artist would emerge from that family.”
The Egyptian Revolution of 1919 had a strong effect on Mahfouz, although he was at the time only seven years old. From the window he often saw British soldiers firing at the demonstrators, men and women. “You could say … that the one thing which most shook the security of my childhood was the 1919 revolution”, he later said.
In his early years, Mahfouz read extensively and was influenced by Hafiz Najib, Taha Hussein and Salama Moussa, the Fabian intellectual.
After completing his secondary education, Mahfouz was admitted in 1930 to the Egyptian University (now Cairo University), where he studied philosophy, graduating in 1934. By 1936, having spent a year working on an M.A. in philosophy, he decided to discontinue his studies and become a professional writer. Mahfouz then worked as a journalist for al-Risala, and contributed short stories to el-Hilal and Al-Ahram.
Mahfouz published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts and five plays over a 70-year career. Possibly his most famous work, The Cairo Trilogy, depicts the lives of three generations of different families in Cairo from World War I until after the 1952 military coup that overthrew King Farouk. He was a board member of the publisher Dar el-Ma’aref. Many of his novels were serialized in Al-Ahram, and his writings also appeared in his weekly column, “Point of View”. Before the Nobel Prize only a few of his novels had appeared in the West.
Mahfouz was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Arab writer to have won the award. Shortly after winning the prize Mahfouz was quoted as saying “The Nobel Prize has given me, for the first time in my life, the feeling that my literature could be appreciated on an international level. 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.” The Swedish letter to Mahfouz included the quotations “rich and complex work invites us to reconsider the fundamental things in life. Themes like the nature of time and love, society and norms, knowledge and faith recur in a variety of situations and are presented in thought-provoking, evocative, and clearly daring ways. And the poetic quality of your prose can be felt across the language barrier. In the prize citation you are credited with the forming of an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.” Because Mahfouz found traveling to Sweden difficult at his age, he did not attend the award ceremony.
Mahfouz remained a bachelor until age 43 because he believed that with its numerous restrictions and limitations, marriage would hamper his literary future. “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.”
However, in 1954, he quietly married a Coptic Orthodox woman from Alexandria, Atiyyatallah Ibrahim, with whom he had two daughters, Fatima and Umm Kalthum. The couple initially lived on a houseboat in the Agouza section of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile, then moved to an apartment along the river in the same area. Mahfouz avoided public exposure, especially inquiries into his private life, which might have become, as he put it, “a silly topic in journals and radio programs.”