Photo by Cherif Abdullah
This year marks the centenary of the birth of the great Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who was born in the crowded Cairo district of Gamaliya. He wrote nearly 40 novel-length works, plus hundreds of short stories and numerous screenplays.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.
In the past 25 years, the AUC Press has published English translations of all Mahfouz’s novels, including his world classic Cairo Trilogy, many of his short stories and other writings, and 600 foreign language editions.
His youngest daughter, Faten Mahfouz, speaks about her father, his writing, and his legacy, as AUC Press, which has been providing English translations of Mahfouz’s writing since 1978, celebrates this important milestone year.
Father and daughter
AUC Press: What is it like to be the daughter of Naguib Mahfouz, the great humanist, the Nobel laureate, the famous Egyptian, the internationally-acclaimed novelist?
FMahfouz: For me, he was just a father. I am very glad that he’s been appreciated. He was a famous person but he was also a regular person. We never used to say, my sister and I, that we were the daughters of Naguib Mahfouz. My mother was the same. She would not introduce herself as "the wife of Naguib Mahfouz."
AUC Press: What kind of a father was Naguib Mahfouz?
FMahfouz: He was an ideal father. He was very affectionate. He spent more time with me when he grew older. When my sister and I were little, it was once a week. We would spend all day Friday together. During vacation, in the summer, we used to go to Alexandria for three months, sometimes more. In the morning, he would meet his friends and in the afternoon we would go out together.
He was different from other parents because of his age. He married late. If we didn’t agree with his opinion, we could discuss our differences. If we couldn’t convince each other, he wouldn’t say this is right or wrong. He was open minded.
AUC Press: What were some of your favorite things that you would do with your father?
FMahfouz: When we were kids, he would tell us stories before we went to bed. We would sit on the couch in the living room and listen to him.
In Alexandria, he and I would go on a walk together while my sister and mother would get ready. We would then all go out to dinner and then to the movies. We loved that very much.
AUC Press: Did either you or your sister wish to follow in your father’s footsteps and become writers?
FMahfouz: My sister used to write when she was in school. She was much better than me. My father tried to encourage us. He told me: “Try to write and I’ll be with you.” But either you have it or you don’t. He was just interested in writing. He would write even if he would not get published. He just wanted to write.
AUC Press: How would you describe your father?
FMahfouz: He was kind, honest, generous, and very caring. He had a great sense of humor. He was also very fair. If I asked him for something, [my sister never did], and he would always get me whatever I asked for, he would get two of them. One for me and one for my sister, even if she said she didn’t want it. He would get her one anyway.
He would never go to bed unless he knew we were all home safe. If we went to parties or weddings and stayed out late, in the morning he would check on us and say: “you were late” but in a nice way. He was not strict. Even if he would criticize something we did, he would say it in a very nice way, and maybe in a funny way so that we would laugh.
He would forgive people no matter what they did. If people tried to fool him, he would realize it but he would not make a fuss of it. That was his nature.
Mahfouz and his writing
AUC Press: Alaa Al Aswany once said about Naguib Mahfouz: “He was the founder of the new Arab novel, and he opened doors for five generations of Arab novelists. He is our father.” In your opinion, what does Mahfouz mean to Egyptians?
FMahfouz: I think it is very difficult to answer that question in his place. It is not for me to say.
AUC Press: What makes your father such a great writer?
FMahfouz: He was very loyal, very honest. He was concerned about the problems of Egyptians. He cared about Egypt. He was patriotic.
AUC Press: Do you have a favorite among your father’s books?
FMahfouz: I did not read all his writings but I like his novels. But maybe because he is my father….
AUC Press: Would your father talk to you about his writing?
FMahfouz: No, no. He wouldn’t talk to anyone until the book he was working on was published, not even to his friends or my mother.
AUC Press: Where did he draw his inspiration for his stories?
FMahfouz: I think it was a combination of things - conversations with people, the newspapers, cafés….
AUC Press: Would he write in the café?
FMahfouz: No, never. Not at all. He never wrote outside the house. He would only sit in the café and read the newspaper. He liked Fishawi because it is located in the heart of old Cairo and because many intellectuals used to go there. Sometimes we used to go with him to Fishawi. It was OK if people just came to greet him and didn’t take notice of us but most people were curious and I don’t like that. We would feel uncomfortable. They irritated me a lot.
AUC Press: What were some of his writing habits?
FMahfouz: He liked to get up early. When he was young, it was 4:00 am. Later, when he got older he would wake up at 7:00 am. He would exercise and then read. He liked to read several books at the same time. After that he would go out to a café, but would always walk there. There he would read the newspaper.
And then when he returned home he would write from 4:00 to 7:00 pm. His study was in the living room but he would never close the door. During the summer though, he never wrote. When my sister and I were in school, he would sit with us while we studied and he would write. We knew he was working so we were quiet. We were not to speak loud and if we played, we had to play outside.
AUC Press: Did you ever celebrate when he finished writing a book?
FMahfouz: No, never. But also, by the time he got married with my mother, he had already written some of his novels. He had more time then.
We didn’t have many people or parties in our house. We only had this one friend Tharwat Abaza, another famous Egyptian writer, who would come by the house anytime he wanted. He would stay for about half an hour when he had to talk to my father about something. We loved him very much. He was like a second father to us.
AUC Press: December 11 of this year marks the centennial of Naguib Mahfouz's birth. How do you think your father wants to be remembered?
FMahfouz: Of course he would be happy if people recognized him but I don’t think he would be sad if they didn’t. When we celebrated his birthday, he said a rose was enough. During the last years of his life, especially after the assassination attempt, different friends would come by the house every day for a whole week and invite him out and that would tire him very much. He appreciated it but it was hard on him because of his age.
He deserves to be remembered as a good person and a good novelist but then I can’t be objective because he is my father.
AUC Press: Did you ever talk about the assassination attempt on his life, in 1994?
FMahfouz: No, we never talked about it. It was a very painful memory and we did not want to bring it up. All what we know is what was in newspapers but we never asked him directly. I didn’t like it when journalists asked him for details about that day.
AUC Press: What would Naguib Mahfouz have said about the 25 January revolution?
FMahfouz: I think he would have been happy, like most Egyptians, including all intellectuals. A lot of people had been suffering.