Laureates in Literature
An Ongoing Series to Share the Writings of Great Authors with
Naguib Mahfouz: 1988 Nobel Prizewinner
Lillian L. Schapiro
award of the Nobel Prize in literature to Naguib Mahfouz awakened
Egypt’s people to his place in the world’s regard. He had started
writing at the age of 17 and continued to experiment in various
forms–short stories, plays, essays–but it was the Nobel that earned
him recognition in Arabic fiction. He has been called the Egyptian
Balzac, Dickens and Dostoevsky, reflecting some of his own favorite
authors, which include Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Kafka and such
playwrights as Ibsen, Shaw and O’Neill. But it is Egypt, the country,
its history and the lives lived by its families that is the rock
foundation of his own existence. His parents were middle-class
Muslims, his father a civil servant, as was Mahfouz until the
income from his writing allowed him to devote himself entirely
to what he loved best in life. He attended the Fuad I University,
later renamed Cairo University, with a degree in philosophy. In
the 91 years of his life he has made only two short trips outside
Egypt, government-mandated trips to Yemen and Yugoslavia. In fact,
he sent his daughters to Stockholm to accept the Nobel award.
In a slender volume entitled The Day My Leader Was Killed
we share the thinking and hopes of three characters: a very pious
grandfather, his grandson, who is more concerned with the great
love he feels for Randa, a beautiful girl who is bound by the
strict codes of behavior which prohibit young people from expressing
their romantic attractions. The political and economic terrain
during this period is a thread that runs through the story, crashing
into a finale with the final assassination of Sadat.
This deceptively simple story, which illustrates the essence of
Egypt and its people, was richly developed by Mahfouz into his
most important work: the three volumes of the Cairo trilogy. Three
generations of a Cairo family are the basis of these books, describing
their lives from the end of World War I to 1944. In Midaq Alley
we meet a varied cast: Uncle Kamil, a seller of sweets, his next-door
storekeeper, young Abbas, the barber, Kirsha the café owner with
a penchant for drugs and young boys (and his much-abused wife,
who finally attacks him in his café.) The many other characters
include the baker, a formidable woman who, in an unusual reversal
of family roles, behaves like a tyrant to her husband, much to
the amusement of the Midaq Alley inhabitants. The serious love
in the community is related by Abbas and his unrequited feelings
for Hamida, who sees love possible only when it also includes
money enough to satisfy her real passion–beautiful clothes. Mrs.
Afify, community matchmaker, is highlighted, with results of her
arrangements not always ensuring a happy future for those being
united. One extremely important character in this most enjoyable
novel is Salim Alwan, who, like Abbas, has his eye on Hamida,
but as a wealthy industrialist has a better chance with her. Another
character “Zaita the cripple-maker,” practices an extraordinary
In Mahfouz’s stories, the economic and political affairs of Egypt
are always present. His writings did not please all of his fellow
citizens, particularly Muslims with the strictest adherence to
the Qu’ran. An attack on the author by one such enraged Egyptian
left Mahfouz with a badly damaged right arm–his writing arm.
In an investigation of the attack, Omar Abdul Rahman was arrested
in an FBI sting in 1993 and is now in a federal prison in the
Midwest. When questioned about Mahfouz, he denied any involvement
in the attack on him but declared that if the writer had been
tried and found guilty, the punishment should have been execution.
Today, his companions in Egypt make it possible for this special
man, who now has sight and hearing problems, to enjoy conversation
and laughter. On a happy note, Mahfouz currently lives in Cairo
with his wife, two daughters and their two dogs. #
L. Shapiro, former supervisor of high school libraries in NYC
Schools, is the author of Fiction for Youth.
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