The Big Read Blog (Archive)


March 10, 2009
Washington, DC

The Big Read Egypt/U.S. is in full swing in Egypt where the American University in Cairo and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina have both launched their Big Read celebrations. Here in the U.S., Big Readers have been reading and discussing The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz, a beloved author in Egypt and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. I confess that I hadn't heard of Mahfouz before the Big Read but I'm now hooked on his atmospheric evocations of old Cairo and his keen understanding of the human character. From the Reader's Guide, here's Mahfouz's bio, which I hope will intrigue you enough to seek out The Thief and the Dogs or another of his many works.

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo on December 11, 1911, the youngest child of a family that prized both religious values and Egyptian patriotism. His education began at kuttab (Koran school), where he studied religion and reading. The discovery of detective stories in primary school ignited his passion for books and, from that point on, Mahfouz was a voracious reader.Demonstrations, protests, and massive strikes paralyzed Egypt in 1919 as the country struggled for independence from Great Britain. Hundreds of people were killed in riots before the British backed down. Witnessing what many Egyptians call "the first revolution" had a lasting effect on young Mahfouz, whose works often examine themes of nationalism, the quest for democratic principles, and freedom.

Mahfouz began writing during school holidays, modeling his early stories after the novels he read in translation. He studied the masters of Arabic literature in high school. After college graduation Mahfouz entered the civil service, holding a variety of government posts until his retirement in 1971.
He delayed marriage until his forties fearing family life would hinder his writing. In 1954 he married Atiyyatallah Ibrahim; they raised two daughters together. Despite the responsibilities of a full-time job and family, he became a prolific writer whose oeuvre includes more than thirty novels, sixteen collections of short stories, and numerous other publications.

In 1988, Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was a modest man who kept a disciplined routine, including regular trips to Cairo's cafés to meet with other writers, but his growing fame had a cost. In 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a follower of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind cleric later convicted for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mahfouz lost partial use of his right hand and wrote with difficulty thereafter.

Twice a recipient of the Egyptian State Prize for Literature, Mahfouz won awards at home and abroad. In 1988, he received the Order of the Nile, Egypt's highest honor, from President Hosni Mubarak. He was elected an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1992 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. Hailed as "the father of the modern Arabic novel," Naguib Mahfouz died in August 2006 at the age of ninety-four.