Naguib Mahfouz, 1911-2006
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo on December 11, 1911, the youngest child of a family that prized both religious values and Egyptian patriotism. His education began at kuttab (Koran school), where he studied religion and reading. The discovery of detective stories in primary school ignited his passion for books and, from that point on, Mahfouz was a voracious reader.
Demonstrations, protests, and massive strikes paralyzed Egypt in 1919 as the country struggled for independence from Great Britain. Hundreds of people were killed in riots before the British backed down. Witnessing what many Egyptians call "the first revolution" had a lasting effect on young Mahfouz, whose works often examine themes of nationalism, the quest for democratic principles, and freedom.
Mahfouz began writing during school holidays, modeling his early stories after the novels he read in translation. He studied the masters of Arabic literature in high school. After college graduation Mahfouz entered the civil service, holding a variety of government posts until his retirement in 1971.
He delayed marriage until his forties fearing family life would hinder his writing. In 1954 he married Atiyyatallah Ibrahim; they raised two daughters together. Despite the responsibilities of a full-time job and family, he became a prolific writer whose oeuvre includes more than thirty novels, sixteen collections of short stories, and numerous other publications.
In 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was a modest man who kept a disciplined routine, including regular trips to Cairo's cafés to meet with other writers, but his growing fame had a cost. In 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a follower of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind cleric later convicted for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mahfouz lost partial use of his right hand and wrote with difficulty thereafter.
Twice a recipient of the Egyptian State Prize for Literature, Mahfouz won awards at home and abroad. In 1988, he received the Order of the Nile, Egypt's highest honor, from President Hosni Mubarak. He was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Hailed as "the father of the modern Arabic novel," Naguib Mahfouz died in August 2006 at the age of ninety-four.
For more than fifty years, the Paris Review has published interviews with great writers from around the world in the column "The Art of Fiction." The following is excerpted from an interview with Naguib Mahfouz that appeared in the summer 1992 issue.
Charlotte El Shabrawy: The Thief and the Dogs. How did you begin?
Naguib Mahfouz: The story was inspired by a thief who terrorized Cairo for a while. 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.
CES: Had his wife betrayed him, as in the novel?
NM: No . . . I subjected my main character, Said 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.
CES: What about the role of religion in the story?
NM: 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.
CES: What of Nur, the woman in the story? Though "fallen" [she is] clearly good-hearted, and appears to embody the only hope for the future.
NM: That is correct.
CES: Why are the majority of your heroines from the lower strata of society? Do you intend them to symbolize anything larger? Egypt, for example?
CES: What do you think of such critics, who interpret your work in symbols?
NM: When I first heard that [one of my female characters] symbolized Egypt, I was taken by surprise, even a little shocked. . . . And by the time I finished reading the article, I realized that the critic was right—that while I was writing about [her] 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 unconsciously.
CES: What about a conception of the hero? Heroes don't seem to exist in your stories.
NM: 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.
CES: How would you describe a hero?
NM: 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.
CES: What is the subject closest to your heart? The subject you most love to write about?
NM: 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.
Naguib Mahfouz (Image by Barry Iverson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Cairo, Egypt (Image by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)