Naguib Mahfouz: Books, Quotes & Biography

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

Naguib Mahfouz was one of the greatest literary minds of the Arab world. In this lesson, learn about his contributions to literature as well as his sometimes controversial style.

Who was Naguib Mahfouz?

One of the most famous Arab writers in history, Naguib Mahfouz, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his work. Often focusing on the lower class neighborhoods of his native Cairo, Mahfouz was one of the first Arab writers to explore existentialism, at times clashing with more conservative members of his community. However, life was not always easy for the prolific writer, whose opinions often placed him at odds with many in the societies that he portrayed.

Early Life

Naguib Mahfouz was born into a lower-middle class family in Cairo in 1911. Despite her illiteracy, Naguib's mother made sure her son received a cultural upbringing, with trips to the sites of Ancient Egypt as well as frequently attending mosques. In his twenties, Mahfouz was accepted to the University of Cairo to study philosophy. However, after gaining his bachelor's degree, he opted to become a writer. Much of his early work was as a journalist, with pieces published by the famous Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram. After a nearly 70-year career as a writer that included the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Mahfouz died in 2006.


Mahfouz combined Western ideals with Egyptian life in order to provide his characters an interesting juxtaposition of life in the twentieth century. He was heavily influenced by existentialists, and brought some the bluntness from of that genre to his own writing. Characters within his works want to uphold Egyptian ideas, but are tempted by the perceived decadence of Western thought. Therefore, it is not surprising that much of Mahfouz's works take on a political dynamic. While he doesn't ever seem fully satisfied with politics of Egypt, he seemingly appreciates them more than those in the West.

Major Works

Mahfouz's most famous work is his Cairo Trilogy that follows daily life of a Cairo over three generations. Comprised of three books, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, the novels show the trials faced by an economically comfortable family during the first half of the twentieth century in Cairo.

However, while Cairo Trilogy may have been his best-known works, it was by no means his only. Mahfouz wrote more than 30 novels during his lifetime. Some readers were often uncomfortably close to considering some of these, such as Children of Gebelawi, blasphemy.

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