Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) and Egyptian Nationalism

Dr Ahsan Raza Miscellaneous

The most acclaimed writer of Arabic literature, the Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006, leaving behind a huge body of literature in the form of fiction. He has contributed to the Arabic literature and documented the Egyptian socio-cultural events by producing 34 novels, more than 200 short stories and several articles. Naguib was born in 1911 when all the Arab world in general and Egypt were struggling to achieve their independence from the colonial power, and he got chance to witness several socio-political difficulties of the country from his childhood. After finishing his education, he first joined in government job as a civil servant but very soon got disillusioned and resigned from it and devoted himself in creative writing to participate in a broader movement or an intellectual debate which was taking place at the time to decide new nation’s future. The dominant debates revolved around Egyptian futurities, how it should go or which ideology it should adopt or what political course of action the country should follow. There were many political ideologies, including the Pan Arabism and pan Islamism. The idea of an Egyptian nationalism independent from Islamic and Arabic tag holding its Pharohnic and Hellenistic past, giving an equal chance to the modernist and liberal’s theory to build a unified nation was also debated.

Naguib Mahfouz advocated the later Egyptology or Egyptian nationalism, independent of Pan Islamic or Pan Arabic identity. In this context, Edward Said remarked, “Egypt for Mahfouz has no counterpart in any other part of the world. Old beyond history, geographically distinct because of the Nile and its fertile valley, Mahfouz’s Egypt is an immense accumulation of history, stretching back in time for thousands of years, and despite the astounding variety of its rulers, regimes, religions, and races, nevertheless retaining its own coherent identity. Moreover, Egypt has held a unique position among nations. The object of attention by conquerors, adventurers, painters, writers, scientists, and tourists, the country is like no other for the position it has held in human history, and the quasi-timeless vision it has afforded.” This is the idea and basic theme of his work that echoes throughout his writings like the Cairo trilogy, Khan al Khalili and Mideq alley.

Mahfouz has witnessed some socio-political watersheds in the Twentieth Century Egypt including 1919 Egyptian revolution, the internal political competition between the Wafdists, the Palace and the British officials in the first half of the Twentieth Century and finally the 1952 revolution.

However, to the surprise of many, Naguib kept writing in Al Ahram throughout these eventful years, but he observed a studied silence on the country’s current political development. His initial works, Abath al Aqdar (The Mockery of Fate) Radubees and Kifah Tyab (The Struggle of Tyba)-all three novels- were published in between 1940 to 1945, the period of second World War. These stories are based on Egypt’s pre-Islamic Era, which deals with Egyptian history’s Pharaonic and Hellenistic period.

This act of seeking his themes in the country’s glorious past while it was passing through its tumultuous days indicates that Naguib was trying to discover his own identity and that of his country. He was not aligned to any of the political currents prevailing in the country at that time. His disillusion with these movements, it seems, led him to engage in a journey to the bygone days when huge pyramids were built. These writings in the author’s early career were also a reminder to the Egyptians for their own nationalism as they had fought and won the battle of independence by creating their self-identity and promoting Egypt as a separate country from other Arab and Islamic countries.

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