committed Egyptian novelist, essayist, and short story writer
who explored the problems of traditional and modern Egyptian
society; author of thirty-two novels, thirteen collections
of short stories, screen plays, and several stage plays; awarded
the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
born to a middle-class Muslim family in Cairo, the city which
is the setting for most of his novels.
his father's will, Mahfouz rejected medicine and chose to
study philosophy; interest in rediscovering and redefining
the truths which in the past he had found in religion.
published article, "The Dying of Old Beliefs and the
Birth of New Beliefs"
decided that literature would be his field and abandoned his
study of philosophy.
published his first novel, The Mockery of Fate (Abath al-Aqdar);
Mahfouz entered the government bureaucracy, where he was employed
for the next 35 years.
civil servant at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, then worked
as a director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema.
publication of Al-Thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy),
which is his most famous novel and made him a leading figure
in modern Arabic literature.
consultant for cinema affairs in the Ministry of Culture.
awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
82-year old Mahfouz survived a terrorist attack (stabbed several
times in the neck) by Islamic religious fanatics who have
targeted him for his criticisms of their fundamentalist ideologies.
of Fate (Abath al-Aqdar) (1939),
Radubis (1943), and Thebes' Struggle (Kifah Tiba) (1944);
historical novels modeled after the works of Sir Walter Scott and
part of a plan to deal with the whole history of Egypt; eventually
Mahfouz gave up that project and shifted his attention to contemporary
Trilogy (Al-Thulathiyya) (1956-57); the work that established
Mahfouz as the foremost Egyptian novelist. The trilogy is set in
the parts of Cairo where Mahfouz grew up. The character of Kamal
comes very close to being the author's alter ego. The individual
novels are titled with street names Palace Walk (Bayn al-Qasrayn),
Palace of Desire (Qasr al-Shawq), and Sugar Street (Al-Sukkariyya).
Mahfouz depicts the life of three generations in Cairo from World
War I to the 1950s, when King Farouk I was overthrown. While exploring
the nature and effects of different historical forces, Mahfouz also
studies the characters from psychological, intellectual, and social
perspectives. The trilogy connects Mahfouz with a line of authors
such as Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy.
of Gebelawi (Awlad Haratina) (1959), a work which was serialized
in the magazine, Al-Ahram; it portrayed average Egyptians
living the lives of Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed; prophets
and religious figures are presented as human and as social reformers.
Mahfouz was accused of blasphemy by orthodox religious believers
and the work was banned throughout the Arab world, except in Lebanon.
Mahfouz further developed the themes of the book in his existentialist
novels of the 1960's.
and the Dogs (Al-Liss wa al-Kilab) (1961), considered one of
Mahfouz's most successful works, the novel features a thief who
is hounded by the police with their dogs and is ultimately murdered
in a cemetery. Ostensibly a psychological crime story, the work
has social-political overtones and engages in subtle discussion
of the Islamic religion.
Shelter (Tahta al-Mazalla) (1967). A group of people waiting
for a bus witness a series of violent events reminiscent of Middle
Eastern reality as seen from an Egyptian point of view. The onlookers
however make no attempt to intervene. When they finally seek an
explanation from a policeman, he shoots them all. The story deals
with the fear of involvement that is one of Mahfouz's central concerns.
Love in the
Rain (Al-Hubb tahta al-Matar) (1973) deals with the problem
of a despondent and demoralized nation, a situation stemming from
Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Sir (Hadratu al-Muhtaram) (1975), a satirical examination of
the false values and mentality of the Egyptian bureaucracy of which
Mahfouz was part for many years.
Throne (Amama al 'Arsh) (1983) features, in a series of repetitively
worded chapters, the appearance of Egypt's dead leaders at a court
of Ancient Egyptian gods who are conducting pre-trial hearings before
their final judgment in the afterlife.
controlled by Ottoman Turks since 1517.
invasion of Egypt in 1798. Influence on Egyptians of the
doctrines of the French Revolution and the rhetoric of revolutionary
liberation; beginning of Westernization and shaking of the foundations
of Ottoman rule.
occupation of Egypt since 1883 and establishment of a British
protectorate in 1914. A popular uprising in 1919 challenged
British rule. Nominal independence was granted to Egypt in
1922 and a constitutional monarchy was established.
Mahfouz witnessed bloody confrontations between the British
and Egyptian nationalists demanding independence. In Thebes'
Struggle, he describes the heroic struggle of the ancient
Egyptians and their patriotic Pharaohs to expel the Hyksos from
their country. The novel evidently alludes, indirectly, to modern
Egyptian sociopolitical reality and the British as a ruling
aristocracy of foreign stock.
Free Officers Revolution of 1952. A movement of military
conspirators, the Free Officers, led by Col. Gamal Abdel
Nasser (1918-1970) toppled the monarchy in a coup in July
1952 and established Nasser as the first native Egyptian to
rule the country in over 2,000 years. Nasser nationalized
the Suez Canal, attempted to unite the Arab countries, and waged
war with Israel in 1956 and 1967. Nasser's rule brought
about progress at home and enhanced Egypt's standing abroad
as an island of stability in a turbulent Middle East. Mahfouz
stopped writing novels for about five years after the revolution:
"When the old social order disappeared, I lost my desire
to criticize it" (Mahfouz, 1963).
was succeeded by Anwar el-Sadat (president of Egypt from
1970 to 1981) who also had to deal with a war with Israel
(1973). Sadat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978
and was assassinated in 1981 by Muslim fundamentalists.
Literary Renaissance. 19th and 20th century movement toward
a modern Arabic literature, inspired by contacts with the West
and a renewed interest in classical literature; Egypt became
the center of the movement; abandoning of traditional, ornate
styles of the past and adoption of a simpler and more direct
kind of writing aimed at the general reading public; receptive
to new styles and ideas; the movement quickly spread to other
A major world religion first preached by Muhammad (Mohammed)
in 7th-century Arabia. The Arabic term islam (literally
meaning "surrender") refers to the idea that the believer
(called "Muslim") must completely submit to the will
of Allah (God). Allah is considered the sole God, creator and
supporter of the world. The will of Allah is revealed through
sacred scripture, the Qur'an (Koran), which Allah revealed to
Muhammad. In Islam, Muhammad is seen as the last of a series
of prophets (including Adam, Noah, Jesus, and others), and his
message simultaneously fulfills and supersedes the revelations
of earlier prophets and other religions. The "five pillars
of Islam" are: faith, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification,
and the pilgrimage to Mecca.
theory of evolution deeply influenced Mahfouz's thinking
and made him abandon traditional beliefs. The concept of evolution
became the center of his understanding of history, society,
and civilization. Mahfouz's reaction to Darwin is represented
in the Cairo Trilogy in the experiences and thoughts
of the young Kamal.
Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jung-Joon
Ihm in the creation of this page
2001, 2002 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta,
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