The Father of Modern Arabic Literature

Daily News Egypt
4 Min Read

I first met Naguib Mahfouz shortly after arriving in Cairo in 1945. Aware that a renaissance of Arabic literature was taking place at the hands of a group of writers, of whom Naguib Mahfouz was one, I made a point of getting to know some of them and of trying to make their work known in translation. The Egyptian State Broadcasting was ready to put out talks about their work, also to make available in English translation the occasional short story. Thus, when Naguib Mahfouz’s first volume of short stories appeared in the ‘forties under the title Hams Al-Gunoun (The Whisper of Madness), I translated a story from it which was read over the local radio and was perhaps printed in the magazine the E.S.B produced.

I then later translated his story Zaabalawi which appeared in the volume of Arabic Short Stories published by Oxford University Press and later found its way into the Norton Anthology of Masterpieces of Literature.

Of course, Naguib Mahfouz is known primarily as a novelist and I felt that he was disappointed that I didn’t, in those early days, give the time to translating a novel by him. In fact, unbeknownst to him, I started translating his novel Zuqaq Al-Midaqq but gave it up knowing that no English publisher would have the courage to publish a novel translated from the Arabic by an unknown Egyptian writer, however outstanding such a novel might be. It was only later that, having been awarded the Nobel Prize, publishers in London and New York successfully introduced him to the English- reading public. Today Naguib Mahfouz the novelist needs no recommendation from anyone. Despite the fact that he wrote in a language unknown to most people and in a down-to-earth manner about a part of the world that was merely the stuff of fairy tales to most people, Naguib Mahfouz in his writings opened a realistic window on a particular district of Egypt’s capital and made it and its inhabitants familiar to millions of readers worldwide. Naguib Mahfouz was a great frequenter of Cairo’s cafes and it was invariably in one of them that I would meet up with him during the years I lived in Egypt or visited it when living elsewhere in the Arab world.

It says a lot of someone who remains unchanged after being awarded the greatest honour that can be bestowed on a man of letters. Few people could continue to retain the same genuine modesty about themselves and the same ability to give a broad smile to everyone he met.

Naguib Mahfouz gave the world a rare lesson in not taking oneself too seriously. He will be missed by many.

Denys Johnson-Davies is considered one of the leading Arabic-English translators. He has translated more than twenty-five volumes of Arabic novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.

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