A Tribute to the late Egyptian Legend Naguib Mahfouz

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Homage to Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz is considered one of the foremost writers in modern Arabic literature. Born in the Al-Jamaliyya district of Cairo, Egypt, on December 11, 1911, he was the youngest of seven children and lived there until the age of six (or twelve, depending on biographer). He began his writing career at the age of 17. He published his first novel in 1939 (The Games of Fate), and since that date has written thirty-two novels and thirteen collections of short stories. In his old age he has maintained his prolific output, producing a novel every year. The novel genre, which can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, has no prototypes in classical Arabic literature. Although this abounded in all kinds of narrative, none of them could be described as we understand the term "novel" today. Arab scholars usually attribute the first serious attempt at writing a novel in Arabic to the Egyptian author Muhammad Hussein Haykal. The novel, called "Zaynab" after the name of its heroine, and published in 1913, told in highly romanticized terms the story of a peasant girl, victim of social conventions. Soon after, writers like Taha Hussein, Abbas Al-Aqqad, Ibrahim Al-Mazini and Tawfiq Al-Hakim were to venture into the unknown realm of fiction.

The Arabic novel, however, was to wait for another generation for the advent of the man who was to make it his sole mission. Mahfouz, who was born to a middle-class family in one of the oldest quarters in Cairo, was to give expression in powerful metaphors, over a period of half a century, to the hopes and frustrations of his nation. Readers have so often identified themselves with his work, a great deal of which has been adapted for the cinema, theater and television, that many of his characters become household names in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. On the other hand, his work, though deeply steeped in local reality, appeals to that which is universal and permanent in human nature, as shown by the relatively good reception his fiction has met in other cultures. In English and other languages, since the appearance in 1966 of his first translated novel Midaq Alley, he has been widely read.

A study of Mahfouz’s output shows his fiction to have passed through four distinguishable stages. The first (1939-44) comprises three novels based on the history of ancient Egypt. They provide a useful insight into the germination of the then budding young talent. Admittedly written under the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s historical romances, the last of the three, "The Struggle of Thebes", is particularly interesting for the way in which the novelist brought history to bear on the political scene at the time. The novel draws on the heroic struggle of the Egyptians and their patriotic Pharaohs to expel the Hyksos, as foreign ruling invaders, from their country. The novel bore a relevance to Egyptian sociopolitical reality at the time (British occupation and a ruling aristocracy of foreign stock) that was all too obvious to be missed. Mahfouz had meant to write a whole series of novels encompassing the full history of Pharaonic Egypt; he even did the research required for such a monumental task. In the event, and perhaps luckily for the development of the Arabic novel, he was voluntarily deflected from his intended course and the scene of his next novel, "A New Cairo" (1945), was placed in the raw reality of its day. This marks the beginning of the second stage in the novelist’s career, which culminated in the publication in 1956-57 of his magnum opus, "The Cairo Trilogy". The novels of this phase include six titles, of which three are English translation, i.e. "Midaq Alley", "The Beginning", and "The End", and Volume 1 of the Cairo Trilogy ("Palace Walk"). In this period of his writing, the novelist studied the sociopolitical ills of his society with the full analytical power afforded him by the best techniques of realism and naturalism. What emerges from the sum total of these novels is a very bleak picture of a cross section of Egyptian urban society in the twenty or so years between the two World Wars. A work which stands by itself in this phase is "The Mirage" (1948), in which Mahfouz experimented for the first and last time with writing a novel closely based on Freud’s theory of psycho-analysis. For his Trilogy, the peak of his realist/ naturalist phase, the Egyptian people will forever stand in their great novelist’s debt. For without this colossal saga novel, in which he gives an eyewitness account of the country’s political, social, religious and intellectual life between the two wars, that period of turmoil in their nation’s life would have passed undocumented. After writing the Trilogy, which met with instant wide acclaim and served to focus renewed attention on his previous work, Mahfouz fell uncharacteristically silent for a number of years (1952-59) – the Trilogy having been completed four years before its publication. Different theories exist as to why this happened. One theory held by Ghaly Shukri, a well-known Mahfouz scholar, is that by writing the Trilogy Mahfouz had brought the realistic technique to a point of perfection which he could not possibly surpass. He thus needed a period of incubation in which to look for a new style. Whatever the reason, when Mahfouz serialized his next novel in the Cairo daily Al-Ahram in 1959, his readers were in for a surprise. The people of "Our Quarter" (available in English) as "Children of Gebelawi", was a unique allegory of human history from beginning to the present day. "The Thief and the Dogs" (available in English), published in 1982, is in a way like switching from a Dickens or a Balzac to a Graham Greene or a William Golding, so radical was the change that this style underwent in the third stage of his development. No longer viewing the world through realist/naturalist eyes, he was now to write a series of short powerful novels at once social and existential in their concern. Rather than presenting a full colorful picture of the society, he now concentrated on the inner working of the individual’s mind in its interaction with the social environment. In this phase his style ranges from the impressionistic to the surrealist, a pattern of evocative vocabulary and imagery binds the work together, an extensive use is made of the stream of consciousness, or to use a more accurate term in the case of Mahfouz, free indirect speech. On the other hand, while the situation is based on reality, it is often given a universal significance through the suggestion of a higher level of meaning. Just as his realistic novels were an indictment of the social conditions prevailing in Egypt before 1952, the novels of the sixties contained much that was overtly critical of that period. In the years following 1967, his writing ranged from surrealist, almost absurd short stories and dry, abstract, unactable playlets, to novels of direct social and political commentary. Mahfouz himself was aware of the new turn his work had taken. In the mid-seventies we find Mahfouz again searching for a new style. It would appear that, having been diverted by national traumatic events from the course he had embarked on in the early sixties, he was no longer able to return to it. Or it may be that in his old age, with a life’s experience behind him, he felt at last that he could "Arabize" the art of the novel. For it is since then that we observe the sporadic emergence of a number of novels, which justify the proposition of a fourth stage in his literary development (which has yet to be studied). What is remarkable about the novels of this stage, of which we can count five, is their departure from the norms of novel writing as they evolved in Europe over the last two centuries; these are the norms which conceive of the novel as a work of indivisible unity which proceeds logically from a beginning to a middle to an end. But Mahfouz no longer wants any of that. He now harks back to the indigenous narrative arts of Arabic literature, particularly as found in the Arabian Nights and other folk narratives in which Arabic literature abounds. While any talk of an organic unity in these works is precluded, the presence of what may be called, for the lack of a better term, a cumulative unity producing a total effect of sorts is undeniable. It is this form that Mahfouz has been experimenting with for the last ten years or so in novels like "The Epic of the Riff-Raff", "The Nights of Thousand and One Nights" and others. In his evocation of both the form and the content of these classical Arabic narrative types, and his utilization of them to pass judgment of the human condition past and present, Mahfouz appears to open endless vistas for the young Arab novelist to find a distinct voice of his own.

How Mahfouz pictures the world

The picture of the world as it emerges from the bulk of Mahfouz’s work is very gloomy indeed, though not completely despondent. It shows that the author’s social utopia is far from being realized. Mahfouz seems to conceive of time as a metaphysical force of oppression. His novels have consistently shown time as the bringer of change, and change as a very painful process, and very often time is not content until it has dealt his heroes the final blow of death. To sum up, in Mahfouz’s dark tapestry of the world there are only two bright spots. These consist of man’s continuing struggle for equality on the one hand and the promise of scientific progress on the other; meanwhile, life is a tragedy. Mahfouz creates an intricate pattern of verbal irony which he weaves into the very texture of the novel and maintains throughout. This pattern of verbal irony engenders in the reader an awareness of the incongruity between the object and mode of expression, i.e. the realistic situation and the hyperbolic terms in which it is rendered. This awareness creates and sustains, all the way through, a sense of dramatic irony where the reader is, as it were, cognizant of a basic fact of which the protagonist is ignorant, namely that his obsession has misguided him. It is in the creation and containment of this pattern of verbal irony, and in the complete subjugation of the novelistic experience to a language order originally alien to it, that Mahfouz has achieved a feat unprecedented not only in his own work but probably in Arabic fiction altogether.

In awarding the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature to Naguib Mahfouz, the Swedish Academy of Letters noted that "through works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous – (Mahfouz) has formed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind." Mahfouz is the author of more than thirty novels. "He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romains." – Edward Said, London Review of Books.

Many of his novels have been put on the silver screen in Egypt and even abroad as "Midaq Alley" was adapted to a Mexican film starring Salma Hayek as well as in Australia.

Published works translated into English.

Palace Walk (Book 1 of the Cairo Trilogy) (originally published in Arabic 1956)

Palace of Desire (Book 2 of the Cairo Trilogy) (originally published in Arabic 1957)

Sugar Street (Book 3 of the Cairo Trilogy) (originally published in Arabic 1957)

Children of Gebelawi (originally published in Arabic 1959)

The Beginning and the End (originally published in Arabic 1956)

Adrift on the Nile (originally published in Arabic 1966)

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (originally published in Arabic 1983)

Midaq Alley (originally published in Arabic 1947)

The Harafish (originally published in Arabic 1977)

The Beggar (originally published in Arabic 1965)

The Thief and the Dogs (originally published in Arabic 1961)

Autumn Quail (originally published in Arabic 1962)

Wedding Song (originally published in Arabic 1981)

The Search (originally published in Arabic 1964)

Fountain and Tomb (originally published in Arabic 1975)

Miramar (originally published in Arabic 1967)

The Time and the Place and other stories


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