by David Shasha
The late Egyptian novelist and man of letters Naguib Mahfouz is perhaps the single most important cultural figure in the contemporary Arab world. Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and passed away in 2006, wrote scores of novels and short story collections that remain central to the intellectual development of Arabic civilization. His prolific output once remained limited to the Arabic-speaking world, with few of his books being translated into English or other Western languages.
Beginning in 1990 Doubleday Books began to sort out the existing English translations published by the American University in Cairo Press and, under the supervision of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her editorial capacity at Doubleday, began a groundbreaking effort to publish the many novels and short story collections into English. The centerpiece of this project was the publication of Mahfouz’s monumental Cairo Trilogy in three installments beginning in 1991 and finally completed in 1993.
But Mahfouz’s output was so prodigious that it looked like all of his books would not find their way into Doubleday’s adventurous program.
Recently the American University in Cairo Press has been issuing the remaining novels in hardcover and little by little the books are seeing the light of day in Doubleday/Anchor’s paperback collection. Two of Mahfouz’s later novels, Karnak Cafe (1974) and Morning and Evening Talk (1987) have just been issued over the past few months with more of the missing titles to come in the upcoming years.
For those who have never read the work of Mahfouz, please be aware that it is impossible to be even minimally conversant in contemporary Arab culture without some awareness of his great literary efforts. His many novels and stories describe the lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people in Egypt and the net effect is a cultural encyclopedia of modern Arab life and politics. Mahfouz began writing historical reconstructions of ancient Egypt and was led to social realism and then to more experimental works that played with form and structure, often returning to the classical Arabic literary tradition for inspiration. He wrote simple stories of family life as well as he could write historical epics and religious allegories.
The best English introduction to the work of Mahfouz remains Rasheed El-Enany’s excellent one-volume survey Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning published in 1993 by Routledge Books in its wonderful Arabic Thought and Culture series. The book discusses in a comprehensive fashion all of Mahfouz’s work up till that time, so you can get a strong sense of the massiveness of Mahfouz’s accomplishment. But more than the comprehensiveness, El-Enany provides strong critical readings of Mahfouz that provide the perfect entry point into his work.
The book can be ordered at:
The best critical introduction to the world of the great contemporary Egyptian writers headed by Mahfouz and his disciples Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani is the classic book by Samia Mehrez called Egyptian Writers Between History and Fiction. Samia’s book is the most perceptive introduction to the Egyptian literary culture of which Mahfouz was so much a part. The book is one of the best English-language works on modern Arabic civilization and will serve the reader as a worthy companion to the reading of Mahfouz’s books, situating them in historical and political context.
The book can be ordered at:
For those who have never read Mahfouz, this is a great time to begin, and for those who have been following the English-language publication of his work since the 1990s, the completion of the project is a most welcome bit of news.
For more information on the Doubleday/Anchor Mahfouz collection, please see their website:
Naguib Mahfouz: The Death of a Literary Giant, David Shasha http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/naguib_mahfouz_the_death_of_a_literary_giant/
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech By Naguib Mahfouz http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/nobel_prize_acceptance_speech_by_naguib_mahfouz/
The Relevance of Naguib Mahfouz, Hasan Zillur Rahim http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_relevance_of_naguib_mahfouz/