Commentary Magazine

A Great 20th-Century Novelist

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who in 1988 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a man of contradictions. Well-versed in Western culture, he has never visited Western Europe or America. The most famous modern Arab novelist, on whom more has been written than on any other Arab writer, he is a man about whom relatively little is known. Although his works are deeply rooted in the milieu of Cairo’s lower and middle classes, in his writing he has conspicuously avoided the use of the language these classes speak. And perhaps the most amazing contradiction is this: while Mahfouz is the most popular writer in the Arab world, his political views differ radically from those held by the majority of Arab intellectuals.



Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children in a middle-class Muslim family which lived in a quarter of Cairo called Gamaliyya, part of the old section of the city whose roots go back to the 10th century. This traditional neighborhood, with its mosques, minarets, and bazaars, the most famous of which is the Khan al-Khalili, figures prominently in many of Mahfouz’s works. In fact, Cairo, both old and new, is the locale of almost all of his novels and stories. For Mahfouz, Cairo is the universe.

It is a universe that has undergone many changes in his lifetime, political as well as social and cultural. At the time of Mahfouz’s birth Egypt was still formally under the supreme sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan, although in fact it was a separate entity, having become virtually independent of Ottoman rule in the beginning of the 19th century under Muhammad ‘Ali, and then falling under the control of Great Britain in 1882. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Egypt was declared a British protectorate; but by the end of the war, Egyptian nationalists under the charismatic leadership of Sa’d Zaghlul were clamoring for independence. When the British departed Zaghlul in February 1919, a rebellion broke out which eventually forced the British to grant partial independence; in 1922 the sultan Fu’ad (great-grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali) declared himself king. The British continued, however, to exert much influence on Egyptian affairs and to maintain troops along the Suez Canal, until that residue of domination was finally removed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 when he nationalized the Canal and ordered the British out.

To Mahfouz, who was just a child at the time, the 1919 rebellion has remained the most crucial event in Egypt’s modern history, and Sa’d Zaghlul its foremost hero. A faithful supporter of Zaghlul’s party, the Wafd, Mahfouz never forgave Nasser for banning this and all other parties and for suspending parliamentary life.

Culturally, the Egypt in which Mahfouz grew up was a place that had become open to Western influence more than a century before his birth, in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of 1798. European cultural influence became especially conspicuous under Isma’il, Muhammad ‘Ali’ francophile grandson who in the late 19th century tried to turn Egypt into a province of Europe, and Cairo into another Paris. The Cairo opera house, modeled on the Paris Opera, was for a century (until it was ruined by fire in 1971) a monument to his relentless Westernizing zeal but also to the appalling gap between the Westernized upper crust and the masses.

Demographic change in Mahfouz’s lifetime has been particularly dramatic. Before World World I, the population of Cairo was about three quarters of a million, of Egypt about eleven million. By the time Mahfouz was working on the Cairo trilogy around 1950, the city’s population had tripled to over two million. It has grown constantly since then, due largely to a massive influx of people from the countryside, to become today an exploding megalopolis of fifteen million.



Information on the personal life of Mahfouz is rather scanty; what we know comes mostly from interviews he has given over the years as well as from his works, notably the Cairo trilogy.1 In these three novels, the character of Kamal comes very close to being the alter ego of the author—as a child in the first volume, as a high-school student in the second volume, and as a bachelor in his late thirties in the third.

Mahfouz’s father was a government official who after his retirement became an employee in a store in the old Gamaliyya quarter. His mother, who gave birth after a very difficult labor, named the child in honor of the obstetrician who delivered him. (Her account of that experience seems to have made a deep mark; difficult labors are described in a number of Mahfouz’s stories.) When Mahfouz was ten years old he suffered from a neurological disease diagnosed at the time as epilepsy. Although he lost a year of school, he overcame the illness without any lasting damage. An outstanding student both in scientific subjects and in Arabic composition, he was also an excellent soccer player; many years later one of his classmates said that Mahfouz was the fastest player he had ever seen, and that “if he had chosen a career in football instead of writing, he would have become a national champion.”

Already in his teens Mahfouz underwent two crises which affected him for life. At about fifteen he became infatuated with a girl a few years older than he, the daughter of one of the neighborhood’s wealthy families. In an interview Mahfouz later reflected, “It was an experience devoid of any contact, due to the differences in age and social class.” But this adolescent love made a very deep impression on his life and work. Many pages of the trilogy describe the excitement and anguish of the enraptured Kamal.

His religious crisis was also severe. Brought up in an observant atmosphere at home, and in the very traditional neighborhood of Gamaliyya, Mahfouz was terribly upset in school to learn that, contrary to popular belief, the head of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn was not buried in the mosque that was the center of religious activity in his neighborhood and the most highly revered shrine in Cairo. Then, while in high school, Mahfouz read about Darwin’s theory of evolution; the experience shook the very basis of his belief, and the idea of evolution has in fact become the core of his social thought as well as of his understanding of the history of civilization.

Loss of faith and the desperate effort to recover it are recurrent themes in Mahfouz’s work. They form the main concern of the allegorical novel The Search (1964) and of The Beggar (1965), the story of a successful lawyer who loses all interest in family and work and embarks on a quest for the ultimate meaning of life. In both books the search ends tragically, in one case in murder and execution, in the other in madness.

Against his father’s will and his older brother’s advice, Mahfouz as a university student chose neither medicine, engineering, nor law but rather philosophy. During his university years he became better acquainted with Western thought, both clasical and modern, and seems to have been influenced especially by Henri Bergson’s philosophy of evolution and by the American pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. While a student he also began writing short articles on philosophical subjects. In his first published work, an article entitled “The Passing Away of Old Beliefs and the Birth of New Beliefs” (1930), he argued that in the modern era religious faith was being replaced by new systems of belief, among them Communism and socialism. Yet socialism, whatever its attractions, would, he predicted, inevitably fail to fulfill its promise of an earthly paradise, while revolution would end up causing more harm than benefit. The suspicion with which, years later, Mahfouz viewed Nasser’s revolution seems to have had its roots in these early attitudes.

Mahfouz graduated from the university in 1934 and was nominated for but failed to win a government scholarship to continue his studies abroad. He obtained instead a secretarial position in the university administration, then in 1939 a government post. Mahfouz remained a civil servant until his retirement in 1971, first in the Ministry of Culture where he served as chief censor of films, then as director of the department of cinematic art, and finally as a special adviser. Starting in 1936, he abandoned philosophy and gave himself over exclusively to fiction.

Even as a child Mahfouz had always been an avid reader. When he decided to become a writer he embarked on an intensive course in Western literature. He proceeded in a typically systematic way, preparing a reading list based on John Drinkwater’s The Outline of Literature. Shakespeare, Dickens, Shaw, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Proust were all on his list; the non-English authors he read in English translation. Naturally he came to have his preferences: he does not especially like Balzac, Faulkner, or Hemingway (except for The Old Man and the Sea); he admires Melville, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Oddly, he does not like Dickens, to whom he is often compared. Shaw is a particular favorite, and he has a special place in his heart for Shakespeare. In recent years he has been reading as much as he can about the development of modern science and technology.



Two problems confronted Mahfouz as he embarked on his career as a writer. A gregarious man who recoiled from confrontation, he was troubled by the thought of acting as a social critic, of saying things people would not like to hear. The solution he hit on was to write allegorically, on more than one level of meaning. Allegory, indeed, proved especially useful under the oppressive political conditions in Egypt during the Nasser years of the 1950’s and 60’s. But allegory served not merely as a device for escaping harassment by the authorities, or even as a convenient way to avoid embarrassing social situations. Allegory has been Mahfouz’s way of reading the world. For him, observed reality always contains a hidden, inner aspect; if his great desire as a young student of philosophy was to achieve certainty—“to understand the secret of being”—as a writer he found in allegory a way of approaching the same issue disencumbered of the need to arrive at theoretical solutions.

The second problem Mahfouz had to face was that of language. This, indeed, has been a vexing issue for every modern Arab writer. The reason is that Arabs speak in the particular dialect of their country or area, but they read and write literary Arabic, “the eloquent language” (al -fusha), the language of the Qur’an, of classical Arabic poetry, and of all serious literature. Spoken Arabic dialects vary greatly from one place to another, but all differ from literary Arabic, which is one and the same throughout the Arab world.

Certain conventional practices regarding the use of literary and colloquial Arabic have evolved in modern times. Newspapers, magazines, and news broadcasts are all in literary Arabic; only the captions of cartoons and jokes are colloquial. Serious theater is in literary Arabic, comic plays in colloquial. Movies, unless they are on historical subjects, are in colloquial Arabic.

For Arab writers of realistic fiction, the problem of language is especially acute. How to represent the mundane conversations of people who in reality speak in a colloquial dialect—and may well be illiterate to boot? Some novelists handle the problem by writing narrative in literary language and dialogue in colloquial; others choose literary Arabic exclusively. The latter is the path followed by Mahfouz, and he has been strikingly successful in representing in literary Arabic the speech of his characters, educated and illiterate alike.

If Mahfouz were a proponent of pan-Arabism, one could possibly construe his choice as a political statement—eliminating that which distinguishes Egyptians from other speakers of Arabic, stressing that which unites them. But Mahfouz has never been a supporter of pan-Arab nationalism; on the contrary, he has always firmly upheld the idea of a distinct Egyptian national identity. The primary reason for Mahfouz’s decision lies elsewhere, in a particular quality of “eloquent” Arabic—namely, the notorious ambiguity of its vocabulary. This peculiarity, reflecting many centuries of semantic development, is regarded by some as a shortcoming, but for Mahfouz it has been a great advantage. Drawing freely on the wealth of cultural associations carried by literary Arabic (but absent in colloquial), he weaves a fabric whose texture suggests more than can be conveyed merely by narrative itself—a multivocal instrument for a multifaceted reality.



Although Mahfouz has made his name-as a novelist, he began his literary career as a writer of short stories—not very successful ones. Many of these stories reflect a level of art markedly lower than that of the novels Mahfouz began to publish in 1939. But the stories also exhibit some of his special qualities as a narrator, as well as his unique capacity to convey complex human emotions in just a few words. The characters range from Turko-Egyptian aristocrats to lower- and middle-class Egyptians, students, prostitutes, the children of the poor. Most take place in contemporary Egypt, but some of the more philosophical tales are set in the ancient past.

Mahfouz’s first three novels are likewise devoted to subjects derived from the age of the pharaohs but bearing on essentially modern concerns. His interest here was not so much historical as ideological, stemming from his concept of Egyptian national identity. Like other Westernized intellectuals of his time, Mahfouz considered that identity to be essentially neither Arab nor Islamic, but inherently and distinctly Egyptian, having its roots in the land and in the glorious civilization that had emerged from it. His first novel, The Irony of Fate (1939), a vehicle for Mahfouz’s ideas on government, education, and moral behavior, is placed in the court of Khufu (Cheops), the pharaoh who ordered the building of the great pyramid of Giza, while in The Struggle of Thebes (1944), the conflicting attitude to the British, and to Western culture, held by modern-day Egyptians is reflected in the predicament of Mahfouz’s hero, caught between duty to his people and his love for the fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the king of the Hyksos.

After these three historical novels Mahfouz abandoned his plan for a series of works tracing the history of Egypt from pharaonic to modern times and turned to the contemporary scene. Between 1945 and 1948 he published four novels describing various aspects of middle- and lower-middle-class life in Cairo and attentive to the political and cultural debates of the time. In one, The New Cairo (1945), the main characters are a prototypical group of students: an Islamic fundamentalist; a secularist/socialist; a supporter of the Wafd (the popular national party which, as already noted, Mahfouz himself has loyally supported ever since high school); and a cynical careerist who does not care about any ideal. Khan al-khalili (1946, not translated into English), which takes place during the early years of World War II in the Gamaliyya quarter where Mahfouz was born, chronicles the rivalry between a Communist and a hapless low-ranking official who is a proponent of cultural conservatism.

In 1949 Mahfouz published The Beginning and the End, the story of a Cairene family of the lower middle class whose father dies, leaving behind four children. The youngest of the three sons, an ambitious and vain character, enters the military academy in 1936—this was the same entering class, the first to be open to non-members of the Egyptian aristocracy, which as a matter of historical fact included Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and other future leaders of the Free Officers. Mahfouz’s negative judgment on this character—the novel ends with his suicide—anticipates his view of the military men who would lead the revolution of 1952.

But the strongest character in the novel is the mother, who withstands all the troubles and hardships life brings and, like the land of Egypt to which she is compared, remains “silent, patient, and good.” This contrast between men and women runs through many of Mahfouz’s books, whose male characters tend to be selfish, arrogant, vain, debauched, or utterly confused and lacking a sense of purpose in life, while the women often serve as models of selfless devotion to family and of perseverance, “the quality which makes it possible to endure life.”



Juxtaposition of mother and father is most conspicuous in Mahfouz’s major novelistic achievement, the Cairo trilogy, on which he worked for seven years and which he completed in the spring of 1952. (“This is not a novel, it’s a calamity,” said his publisher on seeing the size of it.) First published in installments in a literary magazine, the book was eventually brought out in three separate volumes: Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and The Sugar Bowl (1957).

The story traces three generations of a Cairo family over the period 1917-44, giving a detailed picture of middle-class existence and a dynamic account of Egypt’s major political and social developments. Against a background of home, bazaar, café, office, brothel, university, Mahfouz treats a multitude of subjects: Egyptian nationalism, family relations, love, the place of the writer in society, secular positivism versus religious faith, socialism versus Islamic fundamentalism.

The father, Sayyid Ahmad, the epitome of manliness and the very model of a traditional Muslim patriarch, is absolute ruler of his family and does not permit his wife or children to question his opinions and decisions. But while he imposes on his family an extremely strict code of behavior, he regularly spends the night drinking and merrymaking with his friends in the company of women of pleasure. It is the mother, meek and submissive, who wins the love of her children, the respect of the neighbors, and the sympathy of the reader. Kamal, her indulged youngest, grows up to become an introverted and insecure man, emotionally paralyzed by (as he sees it) the struggle between his two selves: the “human,” or idealistic self, the self that is interested in philosophy, and the “animal” who satisfies his desires by regular visits to brothels. On another level, he is also torn by an inner conflict between the pull of traditional indigenous culture and the imported attractions of modernity.

The Cairo trilogy established Mahfouz deservedly and uncontestably as the foremost Egyptian, indeed the foremost Arab, novelist. Taha Husayn, the dean of modern Arabic literature, greeted the work as “the greatest accomplishment in the field of the novel in the Arabic language in modern times,” and one which “stands well in comparison with any of the great novels in world literature.” With his reputation established, it was widely expected that Mahfouz would turn next to the new reality created after 1952 by the revolution of the Free Officers. But for a number of years he confined himself to film scripts, finally breaking his literary silence in 1959 with the publication of Children of Gebelawi. This book marked a break from the realistic mode. In the guise of a story about an old Cairo neighborhood, Mahfouz spins a tale of humanity under the aegis of the three great monotheistic religions and comments on the relations among science, religion, and political power. Children of Gebelawi has not been permitted to appear in Egypt in book form; it outraged Cairo’s religious circles, and also touched a political nerve with its allegorical representation of the Free Officers as club-wielding thugs who brutally oppress the people.

In 1961 Mahfouz published The Thief and the Dogs, a milestone in the development of his own art and in modern Arabic fiction. Introducing to Arabic readers the existentialist themes of alienation, despair, loss of meaning, it also introduced the hitherto unfamiliar narrative technique of stream of consciousness. (In political content, too, this book was a powerful expression of disenchantment with the 1952 revolution.) The Thief and the Dogs was followed by a series of other short novels, similar in style and featuring characters similarly alienated, lonesome, forlorn. They include Autumn Quail (1962), The Search (1964), The Beggar (1965), Miramar (1967), Respected Sir (1974), and Wedding Song (1981). Between 1961 and 1981 Mahfouz produced 24 books: 14 novels, 9 collections of short stories, and a volume of sketches. Of them all, The Thief and the Dogs, reminiscent in some ways both of the Hemingway of The Old Man and the Sea and the Camus of The Stranger, remains the most powerful.



When the Nobel Prize to Mahfouz was announced in October 1988, a wave of joy swept through the Arab world. In Egypt the celebration was particularly intense, for the Swedish Academy’s choice reaffirmed something Egyptians had known for decades. But the event did not pass without controversy. Amid the general acclaim for Mahfouz’s triumph, some accused the Nobel committee of awarding the prize on the basis of politics rather than literary merit.

As we have seen, Mahfouz has never been an admirer of Nasser’s revolution or autocratic regime. During Nasser’s lifetime he voiced his criticisms in a covert manner, usually by means of allegory; later, after Nasser’s death, more explicitly. To many Arab intellectuals, the position taken by Mahfouz toward this hero who defied the West and achieved national glory for the Arabs amounts to sacrilege. And compounding the sin is the fact that for a very long time Mahfouz has openly and unequivocally supported the idea of peace with Israel.

Some three years before President Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977, Mahfouz expressed the view that the time had come for the Arabs to negotiate peace with Israel; after Sadat’s initiative, he took a firm stand in support of the Egyptian president. Even in the aftermath of Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon he did not change his attitude. In an interview which he gave to an Arab paper in 1984, and which was suppressed for two years, Mahfouz went so far as to say that military actions taken by Israel were necessitated by the fact that the Arab states had refused to make peace.

Thus, it is not surprising that many Arab and Egyptian intellectuals, while congratulating Mahfouz on the Nobel Prize in 1988, issued a caveat that this did not indicate an endorsement of his political views. As for Mahfouz himself, he has been nothing daunted by their criticism. When asked about the possiblity that the Nobel Prize committee might have had considerations in mind other than the excellence of his work, he replied:

The Nobel Prize is granted by a Western nation and it is only natural that they cherish the values of their culture. Hence, when they grant the prize, they understandably prefer writers who cherish the same values. . . . I do cherish the best of the values of Western culture, primarily freedom.2



For some 60 years now, Naguib Mahfouz has been observing Egyptian society, recording what he sees in 52 volumes of novels, stories, and short plays, besides many screenplays. Without ever losing touch with Egyptian reality, on which his work provides a longterm running commentary, he has created an enduring and often exquisite body of art. No less valuably, he has brought into Arabic literature a whole variety of new narrative forms, borrowed from Western models but exploiting the full resources of the Arabic literary tradition, and in this way has helped make possible the renewal of Arabic writing in our time.

An eminent Egyptian critic, Raja’ al-Naqqash, recently summed up Mahfouz’s achievement:

Even if you read hundreds of books on Egyptian history and politics, you cannot understand Egypt unless you read Naguib Mahfouz. Naguib Mahfouz gives you the real taste of Egypt. He puts the keys to understanding the Egyptian personality into your hands, and then leads you into the hidden chambers of the authentic Egyptian spirit.

This is a true judgment, as true of Mahfouz and Egypt as a similar judgment would be of William Faulkner and Mississippi, or of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the inner world of Eastern European Jewry. And it is also true that Naguib Mahfouz ranks with these writers as among the great novelists of our century.




Over the last few years a number of Naguib Mahfouz’s most important works have been issued, or reissued, in English translation by Doubleday/Anchor Books. These include:

Palace Walk (The Cairo Trilogy I), translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny, 512 pp., $22.95; Anchor paperback $9.95.

Palace of Desire (The Cairo Trilogy II), translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, and Olive E. Kenny, 432 pp., $22.95.

The Beginning and the End, translated by Ramses Awad, edited by Mason Rossiter Smith, 416 pp., $19.95; Anchor paperback $9.95.

Wedding Song, translated by Olive E. Kenny, edited and revised by Mursi Saad El Din and John Rodenbeck, 112 pp., $16.95; Anchor paperback $7.95.

The Thief and the Dogs, translated by Trevor Le Gassick and M.M. Badawi, revised by John Rodenbeck, 128 pp., $16.95; Anchor paperback $7.95.

Autumn Quail, translated by Roger Allen, revised by John Rodenbeck, 176 pp., $19.95; Anchor paperback $7.95.

The Beggar, translated by Kristin W. Henry, 144 pp., $17.95; Anchor paperback $7.95.

Respected Sir, translated by Rasheed El-Enany, 208 pp., $19.95; Anchor paperback $7.95.

The Time and the Place and Other Stories, selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, 192 pp., $19.50.

In addition, there are Children of Gebelawi, translated by Philip Stewart, Three Continents, 355 pp., $12.00 (paperback); a short-story collection, God’s World, translated by Akef Abbadir and Roger Allen, Bibliotheca Islamica, $12.00; and a collection of sketches, Mirrors, translated by Roger Allen, Bibliotheca Islamica, $12.00.


1 See the Note on p. 38 for works of Mahfouz available in English. For convenience's sake I cite his books here by their English titles even where these differ from the Arabic.

2 Another source of tension, in different circles, has been Mahfouz's attitude toward Islam. This came to the fore with Children of Gebelawi in 1959, and was raised again in connection with the Salman Rushdie affair. When, a couple of months after Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize, the death penalty was pronounced on Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Mahfouz spoke out clearly in support of Rushdie's right to express his views. (He also said he found The Satanic Verses appallingly offensive.) This triggered an angry response on the part of Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt, one of whose leaders pronounced the death penalty against Mahfouz himself.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.