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Naguib Mafhouz’ statue in Cairo

Egypt is the birthplace of modern Arabic literature and boasts numerous publishing houses, some of them more than a hundred years old, such as Dar al-Hilal, Dar al-Bustani, and Dar al-Maarif. This is the home of such great authors as Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987), who developed Arabic drama; Taha Hussein (1889-1973), nicknamed the Dean of Arabic literature; Yusuf Idris (1927-1991), who is considered to be the master of the Arabic short story; and Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the only Arab novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Written in styles that vary from the naturalistic, historical, romantic, and social realist to the magical realist, politically engaged, individualist, and graphic novels, books are everywhere in Egypt. Cairo is bustling with famous bookshops, such as Madbouli and al-Shorouk, libraries, and book stands on the streets. Annually, the country hosts one of the largest book fairs of the Arab world, the Cairo Book Fair, and has one of the oldest second-hand book markets, Sur al-Azbakeya.

Literature is, however, handicapped by several factors, including the high illiteracy rate and censorship by the Ministry of Culture and the religious institution of al-Azhar. Much has been done to reverse the decline in reading, from programmes to combat illiteracy to one of the few projects of good repute undertaken by Egypt’s former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, the Reading-for-All Campaign. The establishment of independent publishing houses that are willing to take more risks, and the spread of the Internet, which has given a voice to many, help maintain Egypt’s reputation as the leader in literary development in the Arab world.

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was the first (and so far the only) Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1988. During his career of seventy years, he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays. His works have been translated into more than forty languages. Many of them have been made into successful films in Egypt, and several have been adapted into film in Mexico.

Mahfouz was influenced by a wide variety of literary styles, both Arab and Western. For inspiration he read Western detective stories, Russian classics, and modernist works of Proust, Kafka, and Joyce. Mahfouz tried his pen at many styles, starting with historical novels such as The Struggle of Thebes (1944) and moving in the 1950s to naturalistic novels, of which The Cairo Trilogy was the most important. In the three novels Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, set in the neighbourhood where he grew up, Mahfouz depicted the life of a family over three generations, from the early 20th century to the 1950s, when King Farouk was overthrown. In the 1960s he got into critical realism, with such novels as The Thief and the Dogs (1961), Quail and Autumn (1962), and Miramar (1967). He also published several novels in the symbolist style, the best known of which is Children of Gebelawi, also called Children of Our Alley. Mahfouz originally published this novel in 1959, but it was banned until 2006 for its allegorical portrayal of God and the three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He continued to publish, in various styles, until his death.

For some years, his books were banned in many Arab countries in response to his outspoken support for Sadat’s efforts to reach a peace agreement with Israel. Mahfouz was threatened by Islamic extremists for his novel Children of Our Alley, which was considered blasphemous and was banned by al-Azhar. Matters got worse when he publicly condemned the Iranian death-fatwa against the British author Salman Rushdie, even though he found The Satanic Verses to be insulting to Islam. In 1994, at the age of 82, he was attacked and stabbed in the neck outside his house in Cairo. Mahfouz suffered severe nerve damage to his right hand, making writing extremely difficult. The young extremist who attempted to assassinate Mahfouz was sentenced to death and executed.

Alaa al-Aswany

Alaa al-Aswany

The new literary star on the Egyptian scene is dentist-turned-writer Alaa al-Aswany (born 1957). After writing columns in Egyptian newspapers on literature, politics, and social issues, co-founding the Kefaya movement for change prior to the January Revolution, al-Aswany tried his hand at novel writing. His second novel, The Yacoubian Building, was an instant hit and was so widely read in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world that al-Aswany is the first Arab author to have sold more than one million copies of a single book. His success grew after the novel was translated into 31 languages. In 2006, the book was adapted into a successful film (2006) and a television series (2007).

In January 2007, al-Aswany published Chicago, a novel about the Egyptian community in the American city where he himself was trained as a dentist. Since the revolution, al-Aswany has focused more on political analysis and activism.

Egypt also has several notable female writers, including the strident feminist activist Nawal al-Saadawi (born 1931), short-story writer Alifa Rifaat (1930-1996), and Miral al-Tahawy (1968), who won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The American University in Cairo Press makes great efforts to translate literary works of Egyptian authors into English.

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