How I Met Naguib Mahfouz: ‘He’s Always Been in My Life’

Guest post by Gada Mahfud Dhiem

Cairo, Egypt is where my father got his Agriculture BSc from Cairo University. My Father was lucky enough to be in Cairo at the golden age of Arabic literature, and I envy him the ability to be one of the first people to pick up Naguib Mahfouz’s books as soon as they were put up for sale.

From an early age, as soon as I could read and write, I was conscious of the presence of Naguib Mahfouz on my father’s library shelves. I was attracted to the name because it was the same name my Father had — Mahfoud — and one of the first words I learnt to write. But my introduction to Naguib Mahfouz’s work was through a television drama series based on one of his many famous works and ironically the introduction took place in Egypt, while I was on holiday.

The television series name is that of the book, Bein Algasreen ( Palace Walk), and after a couple of episodes I was hooked, I couldn’t get enough of the characters. When my Father noticed how fascinated I was by the television series, he informed me that it was a three-part saga, a thulathia. The next day I accompanied my father to the Figala, a Cairo district famous for the abundance book stores, and that day I started my own Naguib Mahfouz collection.

There was: Sei Alsaid, the strict unforgiving Master of the house by day and playboy by night, meek Amina, playful Aisha, vindictive Khadija, fun Yaseen, and the list goes on.

This Naguib Mahfouz work was so powerful that Arab psychologists today still use the name of his main character, Sei Alsaid, as a term for classifying dominating male characters.

Naguib Mahfouz was a pioneer in so many ways: he challenged the mentalities of conservative societies, challenged religious convictions, he invented a new type of storytelling where fiction was intermittent with non-factious dates and events.

I hope the Arab spring will produce for us many Naguib Mahfouzs, because suffering and oppression are the catalysts that create all forms of art. Meanwhile, I would like to wish Nagib Mahfoud a happy century.

Gada Mahfud Dhiem is a Libyan-American who was born in Louisiana, grew up partly in the UK, spent some time in Cairo, and currently lives in Malaysia.