Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was an Egyptian author of fiction who was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He published more than 350 short stories and34 novels. He also wrote tens of movie scripts and five plays over his lengthy career. Written in Arabic, many of his works have been translated into English and other languages, made into films and serialized in the Egyptian press.
The youngest of seven children, Mahfouz was born in 1911 in the Gamaliya quarter of Cairo into a strictly religious Muslim lower-class merchant family. The various neighborhoods in which the family lived featured later in Mahfouz's novels, as did the history that he gleaned from Cairo's museums that he visited with his mother. Despite his father's wish that he become a doctor, Mahfouz chose to study philosophy at King Fouad University (now the University of Cairo), graduating in 1934. He subsequently worked as a newspaper journalist for er-Risala, el-Hilal and Al-Ahram. He later entered the civil service, where he worked until his retirement in 1971, working for government departments including the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Bureau of Art and the Ministry of Culture.
Following his graduation from university, Mahfouz had begun dabbling as a writer. As noted by critics, he had been inspired by European literature rather than the Arabic classics. By the mid-1940s he had published three historical novels set in ancient Egypt. The language used in his novels was Arabic, but he also employed Nilotic Egyptian words and incorporated Hellenistic, Coptic, Fatimiade and European details.
Literary critics and academics have identified four chronological phases in Mahfouz's works: historical/romantic, realistic/naturalistic, modernist/experimental, and "the phase of indigenous or traditional form." However, others have noted that Mahfouz did not necessarily adhere to these phases and he also published, for example, historical novels later in his career.
Critics have also noted that Mahfouz's background in philosophy influenced his stories. For example, his best-known work, The Cairo Trilogy, provides a fictionalized commentary on modern society, politics, religion and the role of women. His works also often have altruistic and existential themes.
Mahfouz's works have become classics in the Arabic world and beyond owing to his ability to weave intricate plots, use memorable characters and employ vivid descriptions of Middle Eastern life and the scenery of Cairo. Several of the characters in his stories have even become household names in Egypt. For example, the dogmatic father figure in The Cairo Trilogy, Si El Sayed, has become an Arabic expression for male chauvinism. Through the use of allegory and symbolism, Mahfouz's works also often offer a concealed commentary of contemporary political events.
Mahfouz was outspoken and as a result both he and his works were often dogged by controversy. Arab nationalists were outraged when he came out in support of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace accord with Israel, leading to his books being banned from Arab countries in 1979. His 1959 novel, Children of Gebelawi, had also caused uproar in the Islamic world, as its characters were likened to the prophets in the Bible and Koran. The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Egypt, the Al Azhar, stopped its publication. Following the 1989 death fatwa by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, and Mahfouz's subsequent criticism of Khomeini's actions, criticism of Children of Gebelawi resurfaced. Blind cleric and convicted terrorist Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman denounced both Satanic Verses and Children of Gebelawi as attacks on Islam and called for the authors to be assassinated. Mahfouz also received death threats from others and in October 1994 he was stabbed in the neck outside his Cairo home. While he survived, from that time he was unable to write properly owing to nerve damage to his right hand. Following the public outcry after the stabbing, the Egyptian Information Minister declared that his government did not support the banning of the book and it was published in Egypt for the first time and serialized in the press.
Mahfouz died on August 30, 2006, in a Cairo hospital following illness resulting from a head injury he had sustained a few months earlier after a fall.