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Biography of Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

Naguib Mahfouz Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mafouz was one of the world's most renowned Arabic novelists. His work is mostly concerned with his native country of Egypt, and covers a wide range of topics there-in, from middle class and lower class life to the civilization's ancient history.

He was born in Cairo in 1911, the youngest of 7 children. Religion was very important in his family, who lived in the Gamaliya section of Cairo, where Midaq Alley takes place. Mahfouz began writing at the age of 17. He was deeply influenced by the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, which led him to adopt the nationalist ideals so present in much of his work.

He was educated at a kuttab (a Koranic School). During primary and secondary school, he became entranced by classical Arabic literature. However, his earliest influence was Hafiz Najib, a writer of detective novels that he started reading at the age of 10, at the recommendation of an elementary school classmate. In college, Mahfouz was introduced to the work of Salama Musa, from whom Mahfouz says he learned to "believe in science, socialism, and tolerance." Musa also gave Mahfouz his first big break when, as the editor of al-Majalla al-Jadida magazine, he published Mahfouz's first novel. Mahfouz was equally influenced by a number of Western writers including Flaubert, Zola, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and especially Proust. He also cites as influences other Arabic writers like Taha Hussein, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, and Ibrahim al-Mazini, from whom he learned about the art of the short story.

In college at Cairo University, he studied philosophy, not literature, which inspired him to write myriad non-fiction articles for various magazines and newspapers. He did start a Masters' degree in philosophy, but ultimately abandoned it to pursue his writing. In addition to his work as a writer, Mahfouz had a concurrent political career, and worked in various Egyptian government ministries. He would work during the day and write at night, producing over 30 novels and numerous short stories throughout his career. He was also a screenwriter, and supplemented his income by writing scenarios for the screen. His own novels were adapted into no less than 30 Arabic-language films, though they were all adapted by others, since Mahfouz refused to adapt his own work.

After World War II, Mahfouz's socialist ideals gave way to a deep pessimism. He was less likely to pursue political change during this period than he was to engage in long, critical discussions about the meaning of life with fellow writers Adil Kamil and Ahmad Zaki Makhluf.

Although Mahfouz was well known in the Arab world, it was not until his 1957 Cairo Trilogy that he built his reputation in Egypt. These stories centered around life in middle-class Cairo between the world wars, and were translated into a variety of different languages. The trilogy sold more than 250,000 copies. The success of the Cairo Trilogy laid the foundation for Mahfouz's international acclaim, which culminated in his 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1972, at the age of 60, Mahfouz retired from Egyptian bureaucracy, but continued to write. He won the Egyptian State Prize twice, and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Despite his monetary success, he continued to live in a modest flat with his family for the rest of his life.

Naguib Mahfouz's public life was mostly private. He did not get married until the age of 43. He, his wife Atiya, and their two daughters, Fatem and Umm Kalthum, lived in Aguoza, a suburb of Cairo. He only left Egypt three times in his life. Mahfouz continued to write until his death at 94 in 2006.

While religion is a central theme of Mahfouz's work, he was also renowned for a philosophical outlook that often angered fundamentalists. In 1994, in the aftermath of the death threat placed on Salman Rushdie, a religious fanatic stabbed Mahfouz in the neck outside of his apartment. He survived, but the injuries prevented him from writing more than a half an hour a day at most. During his recovery, he wrote several short stories based on his dreams. He generally shied away from public exposure.

Mahfouz's impact was international. Most of his work has been translated into several languages. The London Review of Books once said that Naguib Mahfouz was not only "A Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romain." Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany said that Mahfouz was "the founder of the new Arab novel, and he opened doors for five generations of Arab novelists. He is our father."

Study Guides on Works by Naguib Mahfouz