46 Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)

Midaq Alley


Postcolonialism/Contemporary Literature

The first Arabic-speaking writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988), Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911, the son of a civil servant. He graduated from Egyptian University in 1934 with a degree in philosophy and entered the Egyptian civil service, where he would work for most of his life.

Though Mahfouz began writing short stories, he is generally credited with introducing the novel form to Arabic-speaking readers; his masterpiece is considered to be his Cairo TrilogyPalace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957)—which depicts the lives of three generations of ordinary Egyptians from World War I to the 1952 coup that overthrew King Farouk. Mahfouz’s novels are generally critical of colonial and post-colonial Egypt and include discussions of women’s rights and the treatment of political prisoners. A 1959 novel, Children of the Alley, was banned for a time, and Islamic militants called for his death because of the novel’s inclusion of characters based on religious figures, including Mohammed and Moses.

Influenced by the Western literature he read as a student, Mahfouz developed existential themes in his later novels. He also experimented with interior monologues and multiple narrative voices. In 1996, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature was established to honor Arabic-speaking writers.
Midaq Alley (1966) presents the denizens of a back alley in Cairo as a microcosm of the world. In the novel, Mahfouz explores a number of themes typical in his work: the failures of political systems, humanity’s rejection of God, and political repression.

Consider while reading:

  1. Compare the way that Mahfouz depicts men and women. Do you recognize any consistent motifs?
  2. How does Mahfouz depict the experience of being Egyptian?
  3. What political tensions does Mahfouz dramatize in the story?

Written by Anita Turlington


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