2021 Yearender: A renewed interest in Naguib Mahfouz on his 110th birth anniversary

Sayed Mahmoud , Friday 31 Dec 2021

On the 110th anniversary of the birth of Naguib Mahfouz in December, publishers are showing as much interest in his literary work as they did during his heyday in the mid-20th century.

Naguib Mahfouz

Not only did 2021 see the literary quarters in Egypt celebrate Mahfouz’s birthday, it also saw a new publisher buy the rights to his complete works, with the promise of revising them all for any omissions that have occurred due to censorship or errors over the past decades.

The digital rights to his works have also been sold to a non-profit organisation that will make them available online for free.

Dar El-Shorouk, which has been the sole publisher of Mahfouz’s works since 2005, has re-published his full works in new and more economical editions with new covers. The complete works were in bookstores in the week of 11 December, the day Mahfouz was born in 1911. The complete works are available in 10 volumes for EGP 1,800.

New publisher

The publishing of this new and much more affordable set of Mahfouz’s work came in parallel with the signing of a contract between Oum Kolthoum Mahfouz, the daughter and only remaining heir of the prominent Egyptian novelist, with Diwan Books.

Diwan has promised to start putting out “new and revised” editions of Mahfouz’s works in May 2022. The revisions, according to Diwan, include all omissions that had been made to his novels and short stories, either due to censorship, especially under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, when Mahfouz wrote his most prominent works, or due to errors that took place during production at the many publishing houses that have released his books over the decades.

Dar El-Shorouk asserted in a statement on 16 December that its new editions are based on Mahfouz’s original drafts, which have not been altered during editing or language correction. The publisher also said that it has never allowed for any adjustments to be made for commercial or political purposes.

Diwan will come out with its first editions in May, when Dar El-Shorouk’s exclusive rights expire.

Also in May 2022, Hindawi Foundation, which provides open access online to journals and papers, will be putting up free soft copies of Mahfouz’s complete literary works after having signed a contract with his daughter earlier in the autumn.

While Hindawi Foundation has secured the online publication of his novels, Diwan Books has obtained the right to the print and audio versions of the Nobel laureate’s work.

Renewed interest

The handover of copyrights has prompted renewed interest Mahfouz’s work. It was certainly this interest that prompted Al-Ahram, under the chairmanship of its most prominent head Mohamed Hassanein Heikal in the 1950s, to offer Mahfouz to join board, with the intention of securing the exclusive rights of the first publication of all his works.

It was actually in 1959, upon the publication of his most controversial and famous novel Awlad Haretna (Children of Gebelawy) on the pages of Al-Ahram daily against the protests of orthodox religious figures, when Mahfouz received the first offer to join a very prominent board of writers and intellectuals that Heikal ensured had their works and views shared on the pages of Al-Ahram – out of a deep conviction of the value of culture and intellect.

While Al-Ahram at the time offered what was arguably an uncontested platform for prominent intellectuals and writers to have their works published without fear of the obvious red lines of the time, Mahfouz did not immediately agree to join the board. He preferred to keep his government job at the Ministry of Culture until reaching the age of retirement.

On 11 December 1971, the day he retired, Mahfouz was ready to accept the renewed offer that Al-Ahram made him. Less than a month later, Heikal, who was clearly very keen to add Mahfouz to an impressive list of prominent commentators and writers, had already sent him a contract to sign.

Al-Ahram’s archives have the contract Mahfouz signed on 3 January 1971 for a monthly payment of EGP 100, which was considerable pay at the time. The contract, which is in the Mahfouz dossier at the archives, was a one-year agreement to be renewed with the consent of both sides and with any adjustments either side wished to make.

Heikal did not hesitate to renew the contract and to up the pay. Successive chairmen of Al-Ahram kept this tradition until Mahfouz passed away on 30 August 2006 at the age of 94.

During these years, especially in the first few years under Heikal, Al-Ahram made a point of having Mahfouz’s work serialised on its art and culture pages. And more often than not, these new works prompted controversy – and at times the apprehension of the Nasser regime.

A few years prior to joining Al-Ahram, Mahfouz almost got arrested for publishing a short story titled The Train Driver (Saeik Al-Qetar), which was perceived in the corridors of Nasser’s regime as a heavy-handed piece of criticism against the president himself, who was portrayed to have led the country into a disaster, like a reckless train driver with helpless passengers who could neither stop him nor escape their tragic destiny.

Mahfouz had also published other controversial pieces that were negatively perceived by Nasser’s regime, including the novel-turned-film Chitchat on the Nile (Therthara fawqa alnil) in 1966 – the same year when his Children of Gebelawy came out as a complete novel in Lebanon at Dar Al-Adab.

At the time, however, Al-Ahram would not hesitate to allow ample space for sophisticated literary writers. The prominent Tawfik Al-Hakim had already been on board with Al-Ahram when he published one of his most politically daring novels Anxiety Bank (Bank Al-Kalak), also in 1966.

About his experience with Al-Ahram, Mahfouz said that he was always very content with the way his work was published, especially during the Heikal years, when there was a lot of support for intellect and culture.

Throughout his years as a novelist, Mahfouz seemed to have a very smooth and fruitful relationship with all his publishers, in and out of Egypt. However, the most constructive relationship was the one he had established with his readers, who are now being offered a wide range of options to enjoy his complete works.

Mahfouz is certainly an author to be read for decades to come – many more than those that have passed since he published his first novel, Khufu’s Wisdom (Abath Al-Aqdar) in 1939.

Earlier this year, in addition to the cafe that holds his name in the heart of Old Cairo where he was born, a new cafe was opened in Al-Mokattam that also carries the name Naguib Mahfouz.

The interior of the new café, which is on Street 9 in Al-Mokattam, is decorated with the covers of the older Dar El-Shorouk editions of his novels, as well as stills from the films that adapted his novels and short stories to the silver screen.

Mahfouz produced over 50 novels and short stories.

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