Cairo – Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is one of the most prominent writers, not only, in Egypt but also in the whole world. He is regarded as one of the first writers to explore themes of existentialism.
He was born to a middle-class family in Cairo’s Gammaliya district, the youngest among five brothers and two sisters. Mahfouz’s family decided to give him the name of the Coptic doctor who delivered him in 1911 (Naguib Pasha Mahfouz) after a strenuous delivery. His family moved in 1924 to another popular area, Al Abasseya. The two districts played a major role in Mahfouz’s early life and strongly affected his novels dominated by the concept of “Hara”, the Arabic acronym for alley.
Mahfouz’s “Hara” symbolized the Egyptian community and even the world as a whole. A large number of Mahfouz’s novels were titled by the name of Egyptian neighborhoods, including Khan Al-Khalili, Zoqaq Al-Madaq, Al-Sokareya, Bein Al Kasrein and others. These novels were topped by the personality of a bully or “Al-Fettewa” to symbolize the different sides of authority in its strength and weakness. They monitored the different phases of social development in the Egyptian community.
Egypt’s small neighborhoods represented, in Mahfouz’s novels, provided a greater image of the whole world, representing its conflicting ideas and contradicting trends. The 1919 Revolution left a great effect on the Egyptian writer’s novels although he was only seven when it was launched. He saw the British soldiers committing a large number of violations against the Egyptian demonstrators from the window of his small room. He stressed in an interview in 1980s that these violations left a growing anger inside him, stressing that he was feeling sympathy with the revolutionaries and their demands.
Coming from a strict Islamic background, Mahfouz managed to attain an intellectual stench and historical themes to his literary works. Even his mother took him to museums which planted in him bride in the great Pharaonic history which inspired him to create historical novels such as “Tiba’s fight”, “Rapodis” and “Messes the Fates”.
Mahfouz was mainly influenced in his writing by Hafiz Najib and Taha Hussein, but the one that got to him the most and later was the reason Mahfouz ever had such scientific mind and socialistic thoughts was Salama Moussa, the Fabian intellectual.
Arab writers were not the only influences Mahfouz had; Sir Walter Scott had a major psychological impact on his writing and tale-telling. Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were other modernist writers who consumed Mahfouz entirely. Mahfouz covered a broad range of taboo topics such as homosexuality and God, which eventually got him in murky waters.
Literature was not the only influence Mahfouz had; political views at the time and the set of contrasts Egypt harbored helped him lean towards socialist and democratic ideals which were showed profusely in his writing.
Mahfouz in Eyes of Society, Religion
Mahfouz’s novels have been differently read on the levels of critics and readers. Mahfouz, however, argued that “valuing my writings must be left to the readers themselves. Only they can say whether my writings influenced them or not”.
Although most of Mahfouz’s works were considered shocking for the Egyptian society, no one can claim that he insulted anything related to heritage or traditions of society. Unfortunately, there was a great lack of comprehension on the part of some readers, and this made many of Mahfouz’s works misinterpreted by those who didn’t know how to differentiate between allegory and blasphemy.
Every society has its traditions, laws and religious beliefs, which it tries to preserve, and Mahfouz knew that very well. He believed that society had the right to defend itself, just as the individual had the right to attack what he disagreed. This is the author’s duty to criticize his society’s laws or beliefs when he comes to a conclusion that they are no longer valid or even harmful.
Naguib Mahfouz stopped writing after the triple “Al Tholatia”, and entered in the case of literary silence, which moved from social realism to the symbolic realism. Then he began publishing his new novel “Children of the Alley” in Al-Ahram newspaper in 1959.
In Egypt, they say that nothing moves people as much as religion. Mahfouz’s most renowned novel “Children of Alley” made that point clear. Although the book is about ghettos and those who run them, it was interpreted as being about the prophets themselves. Because of this interpretation, the story was, naturally, considered shocking, supposedly showing the prophets walking barefoot, acting cruelly.
Children of the Alley is one of the four novels have caused Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as it was the direct cause of incitement to the assassination attempt.And then it did not quite given up on the symbolic sense of reality, deployment of “The Harafish”
Politics in Mahfouz’s works
In Naguib Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, politics must be included as he once said, “In all my writings, you will find politics. You may find a story which ignores love or any other subject, but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking.”
Mahfouz witnessed in his life two revolutions, the first one was the 1919 revolution which he wrote about it Bayn Al-Qasreen (Palace Walk) novel in 1956 that reflected the Egyptian street life from 1917 during World War I in 1917 till 1919 revolution.
The second revolution that Mahfouz witnessed was the July 23, 1952 Free Officers Movement’s revolution against King Farouq I, who was overthrown. So Mahfouz highlighted the normal Egyptian achievements & championships, not to glorify Kings.
After that, Revolution Command Council announced the establishment of the Republic of Egypt and appointed its general Mohamed Naguib as the first President of Egypt, but after two years Gamal Abdel Nasser became Egypt’s President.
As Mahfouz believed in democracy he was disappointed in Nasser’s regime. He said in an interview with TV presenter Mofeed Fawzy that the biggest mistake that Nasser’s regime fell in was dictatorship, which was the reason for a number of disasters that happened during Nasser’s era.
He also criticized Nasser’s era in his novel Thartharah fooq Al-Nil “Adrift on the Nile”, «The Thief and the Dogs», «quail and autumn», «beggar», and «Miramar» in 1966 and was made into a film in 1971. The novel reflected the corruption of the Egyptian society during Nasser’s era and discussed the relationship between the people and authority.
“Adrift on the Nile”, released during President Mohamed Anwar Al Sadat, who came after Abdel Nasser made a controversial situation in Egypt. The movie was banned by Sadat because he did not want to “upset” the Egyptian people who still love and respect Abdel Nasser.
Despite criticizing Abdel Nasser, Mahfouz admitted in an interview in 1998 that he “long felt that Nasser was one of the greatest political leaders in modern history. I only began to fully appreciate him after he nationalized the Suez Canal.”
“Awlad Haretna”, Controversial Novel
Mahfouz’s writings always were controversial due to his different ideas, but his novel Awlad Haretna (Children of Alley) was the most controversial among his novels.
The novel was published in the daily newspaper Al-Ahram in 1959 in a series form, but a number of religious authorities including Al-Azhar institution opposed the novel. The publication of the novel in the form of a book was banned in Egypt.
Mahfouz was accused of atheism as a number of Islamist figures said that the novel affects the Islamic holy issues, adding that he made of communism, Marxism and scientific socialism a substitute for religion and God.
Mahfouz refused to publish the novel in Egypt due to the rejection of Al-Azhar, but after he earned the Nobel Prize in 1988, a number of Islamist extremists criticized Mahfouz’s Awlad Haretna novel.
Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is still detained in the United States for planning the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, said that Mahfouz is an apostate that must be killed due to his novel that talked about Islam in an inappropriate way.
On October 2, 1994, two young extremists tried to assassinate Mahfouz in his house by stabbing him in the neck. He survived from the assassination attempt but he suffered severe injuries that affected him until his death. The two extremists were sentenced to death, but Mahfouz said later that he was not angry at them and admitted that he did not want the court to sentence them to death.
After Mahfouz’s assassination attempt, several Islamist movement leaders and figures such as Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leading member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fetouh visited Mahfouz at the hospital to announce their condemnation of this hideous attack, but most of Islamist groups and MB rejected Aboul Fetouh’s visit as they believed that Mahfouz deserved to die.
In 2006, Dar El Shrouk Publishing House printed and published Awlad Haretna novel in Egypt after banning it for 47 years, to mark that Mahfouz is carved in and out of history as pole of civilization and free-thinking.