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A Reflection Of Egypt In The 20Th Century Essay, Research Paper

The American University in Cairo

A Reflection of Egypt in the 20th century


+ Major argument: Many critics view Naguib Mahfouz as simply a storyteller. However, by using the Trilogy, this paper will show that Naguib Mahfouz can actually be regarded as a historian who has documented the history of Egypt in a very unique way. The Trilogy is a reflection of the political history of Egypt and it reveals many aspects of daily life in Egypt prevalent in the 20th century such as the opposition of political rights, the loosening of social norms, degradation of faith, the lack of spirituality and the gradual liberation of women. It has been said that through the Trilogy, Mahfouz gives an eyewitness account of the country’s political, social, religious and intellectual life between the two wars; that period of turmoil in the nation’s life would have otherwise passed undocumented.

+ Approach: analytical

I. Introduction:

+ The Life of Naguib Mahfouz

+ Brief survey of his works

II. Review of the Trilogy

+ General overview of the Trilogy

+ Palace Walk: Analysis of the character of Fahmy

+ Palace of Desire: Analysis of the character of Kamal

+ Sugar Street: Analysis of

III. Conclusion


+ Beard, Michael,ed. Naguib Mahfouz: from regional fame to global recognition.

New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

+ Boger, Allen. “World Literature in Review: Egypt.” World Literature Today 68

(Winter 1994): 203.

+ Cole, Gregory. “Conversation with Mahfouz.” Africa Report 35, no.2,

May/June 1990, 65-66.

+ Dickey, C.”A Baedeker to Egypt’s Soul.” Newsweek 115 (June 26, 1990): 64.

+ El-Enany, Rasheed. “Mahfouz: A great novel and a wanting translation.” Third

World Quarterly 13 (1992): 187.

+ Enani, M.M.,ed. Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel 1988, Egyptian Perspectives: a

collection of critical essays. Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1989.

+ Gershoni, Israel. “Between Ottomanism and Egyptianism: The Evolution of

National Sentiment in the Cairene Middle Class as Reflected in Najib Mahfouz’s Bayn al-Qasrayn.” Studies in Islamic Society: Contributions in Memory of Gabriel Baer, Hafia University Press, 1984, 227-263.

+ Haim, Gordon. Naguib Mahfouz’s Egypt: existential themes in his writings.

New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

+ Irwin, Robert. “Messages from Cairo.” Rev. of Sugar Street by N. Mahfouz.

Trans. William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan. The

Times Literary Supplement, 13 March 1992, 23.

+ Le Gassick, Trevor. Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz. Washington,

D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991.

+ Le Gassick, Trevor. “Najib Mahfouz’s Trilogy.” Middle East Forum 39, 1963,


+ Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. Trans. William Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny.

Cairo: AUC Press, 1989.

+ Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace of Desire: Cairo Trilogy II. Trans. William Maynard

Hutchins, et al. Cairo: AUC Press, 1991.

+ Mahfouz, Naguib. Sugar Street. Trans. William Maynard Hutchins et al.

Cairo, AUC Press, 1992.

+ “Mahfouz, the Nobel Lauriate”


+ Mikhail, Mona N. Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris. New

York: New York University Press, 1992.

+ “Naguib Mahfouz-Biased to Grassroots (People & Facts)”


+ Naguib Mahfouz’s interview to “Majallat al-Idha” (Cairo:December 21, 1957),

quoted in Al-Sharuni’s Dirasat fi al-Riwaya wa al-Qissa al-Qasira, p.23.

+ “Our exclusive interview with Naguib Mahfouz, by Ahmed Farid”


+ Peters, Issa. “World Literature in Review: Egyptian.” World Literature Today

65 (Autumn 1991): 759.

+ Peters, Issa. “World Literature in Review: Near East.” World Literature Today

67 (Autumn 1993): 887.

+ Salti, Ramzi M. “World Literature in Review: Egypt.” World Literature Today

68 (Winter 1994): 203.

+ Strawson, Galen. “A Groccer Comes to Grief.” Rev. of Palace Walk, by

Naguib Mahfouz. Trans. William M. Hutchinson & Olive E. Kenny. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4543, 27 April-3 May 1990, 435-36.

+ “The Works of Naguib Mahfouz”

http://www.userrs.ox.ac.uk/ orie0704/mahfouz

+ Tignor, R.L. “The Egyptian Revolution of 1919:New Directions in the

Egyptian Economy.” The Middle Eastern Economy 12 (October 1976): 41-67.

A Reflection of Egypt in the 20th century through

the eyes of Naguib Mahfouz

“His towering strength as a writer in his luminous specificity. All the magic, mystery and suffering of Egypt in the 1920s are conveyed on a human scale.”

The Life of Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz was born in the densely populated quarter of Al-Gamilia district in Cairo on December 12, 1911 to a middle class merchant family. His mother, Fatimah Kahisha, the daughter of a shiekh from Al-Azhar, instilled in him a love of Egyptian history by taking him to monuments and museums as a boy. During his high school years he began to read the Arabic classics as well as those Western ones he could find in translation. He majored in philosophy at Cairo University and later became Minister of Waqf (Charitable Foundations). He was also director of al-Qard al-Hassan (the Loan Department), an experience that gave him the opportunity of dealing with a section of society that otherwise would have been inaccessible. He appreciated the opportunity of dealing with women from the lower classes who sought the intercession of the Ministry of Information. By then he had begun to build a reputation as a writer and was offered the position of director of Cinema Organization, a position he retained until his retirement in 1972. Meanwhile he had begun to publish in Al-Ahram and other daily and weekly papers. A disciple of the pioneers of the Nahda (the Arab literary renaissance of the early twentieth century), he was particularly influenced by Salama Musa, Al-Aqqad, Taha Husayn and his longtime friend Tawfiq al-Hakim.

Mahfouz never studied abroad. His knowledge of the West and Western literary forms came primarily from his readings. A great admirer of the Russian masters Tolstoy, Turgnev, Dostoevsky, and especially Chekov, he equally well read in the French classics. Thomas Mann, Hemingway and Faulkner are also some of the major writers he generally esteems.

A Brief Survey of His Works

Naguib Mahfouz is one of the most well known Arab writers. His works reveal many of the changes of aspiration and orientation of Egyptian intellectuals over the span of his lifetime. Mahfouz fundamentally believes in the centrality of man in the universal scheme of things and the individual’s responsibility for his fate and life. A synthesis of religion, knowledge, and science is the ideal world that he aspires for.

Mahfouz’s writings can be divided into three phases In the thirties, he composed a couple of short stories dealing with the life of his own time and several works on the ancient history of his country. He translated an English text on ancient Egypt and wrote three historical novels depicting aspects of the lives and times of the pharaohs (Struggle of Thebes, The Meanderings of Fate and Radobis). In them, his particular concern was for the relationship between rulers and the people and the uprising of the Egyptians against the Hysksos invaders, subjects of obvious interest to his readers critical of the despotic Egyptian monarchy under King Farouk, himself dominated by the strong British presence in the country.

By the early forties, however, Mahfouz had abandoned his plan of constructing a massive series of novels based on ancient history and almost all his work since has related specifically to the Egypt that he has himself witnessed. This was a phase of social realism.

In that middle period of his work, he wrote a series of novels that dealt both with his own milieu, the Muslim middle-class of Cairo, and with that of the colorful characters of the conservative quarters of the ancient city. These included The New Cairo, Khan al-Khalili, and Midaq Alley.

These were followed by his masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy, which caused a literary sensation in the late fifties and consequently drew attention back to his earlier works. A voluminous work, the Trilogy presents a detailed panorama of the life experiences of three generations of a Cairo merchant class family over the turbulent first half of this century.

Though his famous Trilogy was published between 1954 and 1957, Mahfouz had in fact composed its last words in 1952 and then stopped writing for more than five years. Mahfouz had exhausted all the possibilities of realism. In an interview in 1957 he made the following assessment of his own development:

“I am now going through a stage of absorption and meditation I don’t know when I will resume writing, but when I do, I will not go back to realism. The world I had made it my mission to describe had disappeared.”

Awlad Haritna ushered in the beginning of a third stage of Mahfouz’s writings-neorealism. Here is more interested in ideas and concepts rather than depicting faithfully life in his city. He now concentrated on the “inner working of the individual’s mind in its interaction with the social environment.” The Beginning and the End, and The Thief and the Dogs fall within this period.

Author of more than forty novels and several anthologies of short stories, as well as uncollected plays and dozens of film transcripts, Mahfouz is a masterly presence on the Arab literary scene and can “rightfully claim the title of the best-known and most studied Arab novelist.” . In the very best sense he is a political writer. “Politics interested me since birth. I witnessed the revolution of 1919 I was seven. I supported it. Until the revolution of July 23, 1952. I also supported it even though I resisted it deep down myself because it postponed democracy for a long period. I opposed the regime subjectively in all my work.” Mahfouz has constantly strived to find new ways to express his vision of Egypt’s present and therefore its past and future.

General Overview of the Trilogy

Naguib Mahfouz is one of those who believe that the 1919 revolution was the first revolution in the history of modern Egypt. Certainly, the revolution of 1919 was a turning point in Egypt’ history, introducing new social forces to the political arena. A variety of sectors and groups of Egyptian society that had remained outside of political life now became active participants in Egyptian politics.

One of these new social forces was the urban middle class. With the 1919 revolution and the events that followed,, this class started to achieve political expression.. It played an important part in organizing, leading and directing the Wafd in the events of 1919. The Wafd remains for Mahfouz “the Faith of the Nation” and we see his faith in the leadership of Saad Zaghloul, the man who “seems to be the only one capable of fulfilling this national task after the banishment of the prominent national figures and their leader Mohamed Farid.”

In his Palace Walk Naguib Mahfouz puts on record that the people decided to pass the authority to the new leadership, the Wafd Party:

“We, the signatories to this declaration, call upon Saad Zaghloul Pasha, Ali Sharawy Pasha, Abdel Aziz Fahmy Bek, Mohamed Ali Alouba Bek, Abdel Latif El Mekabbaty, Mohamed Mahmoud Pasha and Ahmed Lotfy El-Sayed Bek to be our representatives. They are also to decide upon the other members who could join them to strive, legally and peacefully, whenever practicable, to achieve the complete independence of Egypt.”

The middle class gained new power, becoming an influential political factor. It would be difficult to understand post-1919 Egyptian politics without taking into account the growing presence of this class.

The Trilogy offers an insight into a single middle class Cairene family. In tracing the lives of three generations of the Abd al-Jawad family, Mahfouz manages to portray a picture of Egypt during his lifetime that describes not only the lives of the family but the social, political and philosophical change of the entire nation. Mahfouz “interweaves” family history with the emergence of the Egyptian national movement and its struggle against foreign rule, and develops the family’s consequent dilemmas and anguish in its transition from traditionalism to modernity.

Time changes the life of the family and the society as a whole. Old social norms and traditional mentalities give way to mew; a generation goes, another comes; there is the slow emancipation of women; modern education is spreading and secular national thought is penetrating the middle classes; the impact of Western culture is growing while religion’s authority in determining the daily way of life is declining; and finally, the structure of the patriarchal family has been destroyed and is slowly replaced by a less rigid, more open familial pattern. Mahfouz therefore portrays the collapse of the “old world of yesterday” and the “advent of the modern new world of tomorrow.”

Palace Walk

This is the first volume of Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” which covers the time period from late 1917 till 1919. Political events which occur during this novel include: the First World War, the changes in rulers of Egypt, the end of the war, the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the struggle against the British, the formation of the Wafd, the advent of Saad Zaghloul as the all powerful national leader, and the outbreak of the popular uprising of March-April 1919.

The central figure is Al-Sayyid Ahmad, a middle-class merchant who runs his family strictly according to the Qur’an and directs his own behavior according to his desires. Consequently, while his wife and two daughters remain at home and his three sons live in fear of his harsh wills, Al-Sayyid Ahmad explores the pleasures of Cairo.


The climax of Palace Walk is the tragic death of Fahmy, one of Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s sons. He is the only member of the family to participate in the 1919 revolution and is killed during its course.

Fahmy is a romantic youth of eighteen, a student in the law school where many of the earliest manifestations of the 1919 revolution were a source of constant unrest. He has received a modern education, influenced by the West, which included political and philosophical literature. His religious faith, unlike that of his father and mother does not come from orthodox Islam but from “Islamic modernism,” an intellectual rationalistic outlook “which he acquired from the principles of Muhammad Abduh and his disciples.”

Before the outbreak of the revolution, Fahmy fits well into his traditional home. He does not dare to openly oppose his father’s tyranny. He even submits to his father’s will when the latter goes against Fahmy’s love for Maryam, leaving him “brokenhearted.” With the outbreak of the revolution, a change is noticed in his character. Fahmy directly violates his father’s orders and becomes an active Egyptian nationalist-a member of the Wafd’s youth movement. He refuses to back down from ‘revolutionary’ national political activity, which in the end costs him his life.

Palace of Desire

This is the sequel to Palace Walk. It covers the period 1924-1927. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is mellowing as he leaves middle age. As this second novel opens, he is ending his self-imposed abstention from liquor and women, begun five years earlier upon the death of his son Fahmy. Meanwhile his children are struggling with life beyond their father’s domination. Yasin is twice divorced and incapable of resisting any woman. The two married daughters are split by an open feud. And Kamal, the intellectual center of the novel, enters college and grapples with religion, science and romance.


Kamal can be seen as an autobiographical character of Mahfouz, displaying his same characteristics: his “romantic idealism, his intellectual aspiration, his religious scruples and his spiritual yearnings,” as well as a type representing Egyptian philosophical involvement. Mahfouz uses him to show the impact of change in Egypt between the two World Wars. Kamal is concerned with the philosophical problems his country is newly experiencing and even his involvement with social and political change seems to be more centered in philosophy.

In the beginning of Palace of Desire, Kamal is possessed with love for Aida Shaddad, and his faith in Islam is complete and sincere. “Prayer for him was a sacred struggle in which heart, intellectual, and spirit all participated. It was the battle of a person who would spare no effort to achieve a clear conscience, even if he had to chastise himself time and again for a minor slip or thought.” His faith at this stage is very similar to his mother’s and it represents the old order of Egyptian philosophy grounded in Islamic ideology. This faith is linked closely to the idealism of his profound infatuation with Aidaa and his respect for Saad Zaghloul, indicating the old paradigm of nationalism and untroubled faith in God.

Kamal’s unusual interest in studying literature and philosophy may also be representative of Egyptian society as a whole as it reacted to the West. Europe was seen as the center of all the great art, literature and philosophy, and Arab society, like Kamal, seems to have consumed it when it has become available.

We can see Kamal’s initial idealism slowly eroded by the expansion of his knowledge and shocking discovery that the shrine of al Husayn does not contain the martyr’s head and that it is just a symbol. Religion, which has been his favorite subject as a child, comes to mean very little. Patriotism, which has been the core of his lifeis now full of doubts and misgivings. Even his deep love for his father goes to pieces when he discovers the shameful duality of his nature. He can no longer believe in the truthfulness of anything; everything has turned into an illusion. But it is the loss of Aida and the death of Saad Zaghloul that affect his beliefs the most, filling him with “bitterness and a sense of betrayal.” He becomes more willing to plunge himself into Darwin and the other newly discovered philosophers. The similarity between Kamal and Egypt as a whole in this matter is obvious, and we can see how a society with a firm religious base can be opened up to philosophical questioning and disillusionment by internal betrayal as well.

Kamal’s eventual fall from idealism to atheism, and his doubt likewise provide and indicator of Egypt’s philosophical response to the new European philosophies. The respect Egyptians carried for anything European, coupled with disillusionment with leaders and traditional ideals, made modern European ideas of science, society and metaphysics all the more attractive and Kamal’s despair may reflect a realization in Egypt of the bleak implications of its newly embraced philosophies.

Kamal’s resolution at the end of Sugar Street seems to be indicative of change in Mahfouz and the country as a whole. Fed up with doubt, Kamal seems to embrace an existentialist position that believing anything and acting upon it is what is important. The outcome of this change is a mixture of Arabic tradition and European philosophy.


Naguib Mahfouz, I believe, is a political writer and a political historian. His most direct treatment of political and national issues is prevalent in his trilogy. He records the events of the national liberation struggle of Egypt in its various stages, and their impact on the daily life of the ordinary individual.

Naguib mahfouz combines public life with the private daily life of people. In this way he portrays the fact that the life of individuals is closely connected with that of the nation. This is expressed explicitly in Palace Walk: “While the nation was actively occupied in calling for freedom, Yasin was engaged in continuous action to gain his own freedom as well.”

Liberty is the central theme of his work in the Trilogy: both national freedom and private, individual liberty. The relations between the civilians and the nation as well as between sons/daughters and the father, and between man and woman depicts this.

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