Today, Egypt celebrates the 108th anniversary of its most famous novelist’s birth:
Despite the passing of Naguib Mahfouz in 2006, plenty happened in the ongoing life of his work. Much of it had to do with new manuscripts turned up by Egyptian critic Mohamed Shoair; some with his daughter’s struggle to control her father’s legacy.
Several years ago, prominent Egyptian critic Mohamed Shoair set himself the quest of finding the manuscript of Mahfouz’s most notorious novel, The Children of the Alley. The book was first serialized in Al Ahram newspaper in 1959 and met with fierce opposition from a range of politicians and religious figures. After complaints flooded in to President Gamal Abdel Nasser, this brilliant parable became Mahfouz’s only novel banned in Egypt. It was also the novel that inspired the later attempt on his life.
Shoair, part of a new generation of Egyptian critics, was determined to find the original. He approached Philip Stewart, the novel’s first English translator, who joked, “perhaps it’s in a bank vault in Beirut!”
Shoair has not (yet) turned up the manuscript of The Children of the Alley. However, Shoair did write a cracking book about Mahfouz and his famous book, in addition to turning up a number of previously unseen and unexpected manuscripts.
Early in 2019, ArabLit published Chapter 12 of Mohamed Shoair’s Children of the Alley: The Story of the Forbidden Novel in Samah Selim’s translation. It opens:
“The air was choked with dust” as Naguib Mahfouz wrote in the opening to his 1961 novel The Thief and the Dogs. Sandstorms had slammed into Cairo, causing accidents and property damage of all kinds, and some of the southern governorates were drowned in widespread flooding from violent thunderstorms. Mahfouz was in the habit of leaving his house at 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoons and heading to his famous weekly literary gathering in Qasr Al-Nil Café, where he regularly met his friends and harafish. On this day, October 14, 1994, Dr. Fathi Hashim waited outside to drive him there. Yet Hashim wasn’t alone. Another young man was waiting outside with a concealed switchblade. He approached the car as Mahfouz settled into the passenger seat and plunged the knife into his neck. “I saw a terrifying monster close in on me and tear at my throat with his teeth,” Mahfouz recalled. A fountain of blood gushed from the wound, and the assailant fled. ‘God help us!’ Egyptians from all walks of life exclaimed in horror when the news started to spread.
Also in January 2019, a section of the stolen autobiography of Mahfouz’s childhood appeared, in Spanish translation, in El Mundo. This text — an autobiography was written in 1929-30, when Mahfouz was nineteen years old — was also turned up Shoair.
Chapters of the stolen autobiography began appearing in Al Roeya.
Initially set to open in March, it was June 30, 2019 when the Egyptian government finally opened up the Naguib Mahfouz Museum.
The first floor of the long-awaited two-floor museum consists of auditoriums, a visual and sound library, a public library, and a library of research on Naguib Mahfouz’s works, while the second has a pavilion for Mahfouz’s certificates and medals, and another pavilion for his personal belongings. There are also manuscripts, translated works, and a cinema hall.
Emily Drumsta translated Naguib Mahfouz’s “Culprit Unknown,” a story that was originally published in his 1962 short-story collection God’s World, and published it in Asymptote. She talked about the story with ArabLit, saying, “I was trying to explore what I’ve been calling ‘Mahfouz’s Sufi Noir,’ to see how and why he was drawn to both crime-writing and Sufi storytelling and the same time. When I read ‘Culprit Unknown,’ I couldn’t believe how much it was like a detective story—and that it hadn’t been translated yet!”
Also in July, Mahfouz’s Palace Walk was included in a list of “books to help you fall asleep,” surely a strange and dubious honor.
A Mahfouz caricature exhibition was launched:
Mahfouz’s short texts from the 1990s — turned up by Shoair — were published as The Quarter in Roger Allen’s English translation. They appeared in July in the UK; September in the US. The collection — which I described as part folktale, part Sufi koan — was brought out by Saqi Books:
This new folio of interconnected stories is very much part of Mahfouzʹs late experiments. There are no sophisticated characters in The Quarter. There is no self-reflective Kamal Abd Al Jawwad, nor a guilt-ridden Mansour Bahi. The geographical and historical specificity disappear. We are in “the Quarter”, but there is no particular Egyptian landmark or well-known event.
Indeed, the stories in The Quarter – part folktale, part Sufi koan – are anti-national in outlook. There are bigger places outside the Quarter: Europe, Zamalek… and wherever the Health Inspector comes from. But the Quarter is not tied to a national or regional history.
At the end of the collection, Saqi editors have slipped in Mahfouzʹs Nobel acceptance speech. Although Mahfouz didnʹt give this 1988 talk in person, it illuminates the aspirations of The Quarter. The speech gives a nod to the Nobel while also provincialising it. Although Mahfouz did not like to travel, his speech is deeply international, throwing light on the injustices of both apartheid South Africa and Palestine.
The works in The Quarter, presumably written between 1988 and the attack in 1994, feed off this universality. They also abandon many Western genre conventions. Time is out of joint, disasters come from nowhere, and events are almost never logically explained.
In November, Karim Zidan wrote “Naguib Mahfouz’s Daughter Fights to Preserve Her Father’s Legacy,” which appeared in LitHub, and the piece chronicles the ongoing struggles of Mahfouz’s daughter to control her father’s legacy.
Also in November, the AUC Press announced that they would not be awarding the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature this year, but that the award would return in 2020.
The forthcoming issue of ArabLit Quarterly will feature a short story by Naguib Mahfouz, “The Man in the Picture,” appearing for the first time in Zidan’s translation.
Also, for today, I did a 5-book starter kit for those just setting out on the ocean of Mahfouz:
‘Midaq Alley’ (1947) Re-translated by Humphrey Davies in 2011
‘Adrift on the Nile’ (1966) Translated by Frances Liardet in 1993
‘The Journey of Ibn Fattouma’ (1983) Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies in 1992
‘The Day the Leader Was Killed’ (1985) Translated by Malak Hashem in 1997
‘Morning and Evening Talk‘ (1987) Translated by Cristina Phillips in 2007
Margaret Litvin: Meeting Mahfouz: An Evening at the Nadwa
Gada Mahfud Dhiem: How I Met Naguib Mahfouz: ‘He’s Always Been in My Life’
Mohamed Salmawy: Memories of Naguib Mahfouz and the Movies
From AUC Press: Faten Mahfouz speaks about her Nobel laureate father
Approaches to Teaching the Works of Naguib Mahfouz, ed. Waïl S. Hassan, Susan Muaddi Darraj.