Naguib Mahfouz museum: veteran novelist’s captivating life journey beneath walls of Ottoman empire building 

Nada Deyaa’
8 Min Read

Inside a narrow, unpaved alley in Al-Gamaleya district in the heart of Old Cairo, the glamour of the timeworn, authentic building of Tkeit Abu el-Dahab, overcomes the journey one has to go through in order to reach the targeted gem of the Naguib Mahfouz Museum.

Surrounded by dozens of locals of days long gone are grocery shops, and butchers, and the place shines like a magnetic time machine taking visitors into the legacy of the Ottoman era, and the overwhelming joy of Mahfouz’s treasures.

The once known as Muhammad Bek Abu El Dahab Complex, has been officially inaugurated on Sunday as the museum of the late Nobel winner genius novelist, Naguib Mahfouz.

The antique building is listed as one of the country’s heritage buildings. With the cooperation of both the ministries of antiquities and culture, it was turned into an official museum of the late writer where all  his belongings were put on display.

The Minister of Culture, Inas Abdel-Dayem, inaugurated the museum, with the Minister of Antiquities, Khaled El-Anany, in the presence of a number of foreign ambassadors.

Abdel-Dayem said the museum adds to Egypt’s achievements, in that the displayed items tell the story of Mahfouz, who managed to attract the world’s eyes toward Egypt’s modern art.

Commemorating his name in Al-Gamaleya, the place where he lived in all of his life and which shaped his soul into the shining dynamo that brought the world irreplaceable literary treasures, the Muhammad Bek Abu El Dahab Complex was the best antiquated building to turn into the museum.

Abu El-Dahab was one of the leaders of Egypt’s Ottoman Empire. He was dubbed Abu El Dahab (The father of the Gold) for his known generosity that led him to often distribute gold to the poor and needy.

The building, which was turned into the current museum, is part of a huge complex Abu El-Dahab built, consisting of a mosque, school, a water tub for animals, and residential area like the known Ottoman and Fatimid era’s building designs.

The complex was built in 1774 AD. The process of turning the Tkeit into the museum started in 2006, right after Mahfouz’s death. It took 13 years to have a museum that matches the reputation and international image of Mahfouz. 

The museum is the “Tkeit” building of the complex, which is a three floor residential area for the homeless, and the people who came to Egypt on visits and needed a place to stay.   

For his side, El-Anany praised the museum’s location in the middle of Al-Azhar area, which reflects the true spirit of Old Cairo that stirred the beauty of Mahfouz’ writings, and produced valuable content that had an international reach.

Born, and bred in Al-Gamaleya, Mahfouz’s inspiration was always reflected in his novels, bringing the world one of its most astonishing masterpieces, that chronicled the area of Old Cairo, like Bayn El Kasrain “Between the Two Palaces”, a trilogy that chronicled Egyptian society in the 1920s.

The museum takes visitors into a tour of Mahfouz’s life journey, highlighting the main stops in separate rooms. Renovated with grey and pale navy colours to look like the original form it was built in, the place is filled with his pictures, and his most famous quotes taken from his novels. The quotes describe his perspectives on life, women, society, and art.

All the showcased belongings were gifted from Mahfouz’s daughter, Om Kalthoum, to the ministry of culture, according to Abdel-Dayem.

It contains four main libraries: Mahfouz’s personal library that has the 1,091 books he owned all of his life and spent his time roaming among them, a literary library that offers visitors 119 of the world’s most known and famous literature, a third library of Mahfouz’s 169 art masterpieces, and the fourth is a general one with 165 books in different fields. 

The museum also offers people two workshop halls dedicated to novels, script writing, short stories workshops, and other activities related to writing as well as signing books.

A hall in the museum is dedicated to the medals and awards Mahfouz received in his life, including the most important award, which is the Nobel prize in Literature in 1988.

Mahfouz is the only Arab writer to have ever won the award until this day.

The alley hall in the museum is dedicated to the novels Mahfouz wrote out of Al-Gamaleya district. In his novels, Mahfouz opened a window for readers to explore the alleys of Old Cairo, like Haret El Maqaq, Midaq Alley, Bayen Qasren, and Sugar Street. 

A film of the neighbourhood Mahfouz grew up in is also being showcased at the hall, in order to introduce people to the world Mahfouz opened his eyes to.

As for the biography hall, it welcomes visitors to introduce them to Mahfouz’s family, through a number of pictures of him and his closest siblings.

The bemoaning room holds one of the veteran writer’s most important achievements in Egypt, which is the Nile Necklace he received for enriching the literature scene in the world. 

For those who are passionate about diving deep into the place from which the captivating literature work comes, the manifestation room brings the desk and chair he sat on writing hundreds of books, with the eye glasses he always wore.

The museum also takes people to the journey of the films which were taken from the novels he wrote in the filmographia hall. It displays footage from famous films based on his writings.

The museum documents all the phases of Mahfouz’s lifetime, including his assassination attempt. At the dream of departure hall, there are the incidents of the two Islamists who stabbed him in the neck. They aimed to kill him for his controversial novel, Awlad Haretna (Children of Gebelawi). This led to a permanent disability causing him to be unable to write except for a few minutes every day. 

In 2006, Egypt bid farewell to the one of a kind novelist, as he passed away at the age of 96. 

The museum is open for a month for free.

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