Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing at a young age. His Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street) was published in the mid 1950s and marked him as a prodigious literary talent. Mahfouz was eventually awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, and he remained an active writer until shortly before his death in 2006. Mahfouz is remembered as a keen observer of the struggles faced by a modernizing Egypt.
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The Cairo Trilogy follows three generations (from 1917-1944) of the Cairene al-Jawad family. Conservative family patriarch Al-Sayyid al-Jawad and his wife Amina are reluctant to embrace the changing times (for good reason in Amina’s case; the one time she leaves home she is struck by a car). Their descendants have fewer reservations. Yasin, one son, openly embraces the libertine traditions his father only enjoys in secret. One grandson becomes involved in politics as well, even joining the Muslim Brotherhood.
CHILDREN OF GEBELAWI
Children of Gebelawi departs from Mahfouz’s previously realist works, and its allegorical exploration of religion generated controversy upon its release. The book concerns the residents of an alley founded by a God stand-in named Gebelawi. The residents of Gebelawi’s alley are forced to obey rules known as the Ten Conditions. Prophets of the major Abrahamic religions are the five main characters of the book. Gabal (Moses), Rifaa (Jesus), and Qasim (Muhammad) lead the people out of the alley, but it isn’t until the arrival of Arafa (modern man) that Gebelawi’s power is broken.
The action of Midaq Alley occurs in the Gamaliya Neighborhood, a lower-class area of Cairo. The novel features no central character but rather an ensemble cast. Some of these characters include Dr. Booshy, a self-taught dentist; Hamida, a strong-willed and beautiful girl who is lusted after by many of the Alley’s occupants, and Abbas, a barber who is beaten to death by British soldiers.
THE THIEF AND THE DOGS
The titular thief of Mahfouz’s novel is Said Mahran. The novel begins with the nationalistic, self-serving Mahran being released from prison. Enraged to find his daughter less than enthusiastic to welcome him home and certain that his old comrade Rauf Ilwan betrayed him to the police, Mahran embarks on a self-destructive quest for vengeance.
THE DAY THE LEADER WAS KILLED
The Day the Leader was Killed is a short novella narrated by three characters: the elderly Muhtashim, his grandson Elwan, and Elwan’s fiancè Randa. The novel concerns the days leading up to the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. In the novel Mahfouz also explores the negative impact of the Infitah, Sadat’s economic reforms that aimed to open up Egypt to foreign investment and privatization.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Mahfouz had a complex relationship with the country of his birth.
Learn more about the circumstances surrounding Anwar Sadat’s assassination.
To see a brief overview of Mahfouz’s life and learn more about some of his lesser-known work check out this article.
Mahfouz's novels have been made into several successful films, including this Mexican adaptation of Midaq Alley:
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