When Naguib Mahfouz left his job as a civil servant in 1971, a Nobel Prize in literature was nowhere on the horizon, nor was his global recognition as the central figure of Arab literature. He was just beginning a new job on the editorial staff of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, and elsewhere in Cairo, Anwar Sadat was just beginning his hugely transformative Egyptian presidency, which would span eleven years.
The Meaning of Civilisation is a collection of essays that captures one of Egypt’s most important decades in the prose of one of the Middle East’s most important writers. It stitches together a fascinating and vivid account of the dramatic events of the time, from Egypt’s break with the Soviet Union to the Yom Kippur War with Israel and eventual peace accord and up to Sadat’s assassination by Islamic extremists in 1981.
Through this tumultuous history, Mahfouz takes on a diverse array of political topics—including socioeconomic stratification, democracy and dictatorship, and Islam and extremism—which are still of crucial relevance to Egypt—and the world—today. Clear-eyed and direct, the pieces illuminate Mahfouz’s personal and political convictions, which were more often hidden in his novels, enriching his better-known corpus with social, political, and ideological context.
This collection is a rare treasure, a story of a time of tremendous social and political change in the Middle East, told by one of its most iconic authors.
The Non-fiction Writing of Naguib Mahfouz: Volume I
Naguib Mahfouz is one of the most important writers in contemporary Arabic literature. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1988 (the only Arab writer to win the prize thus far), his novels helped bring Arabic literature onto the international stage. Far fewer people know his non-fiction works, however—a gap that this book fills. Bringing together Mahfouz’s early non-fiction writings (most penned during the 1930s) which have not previously been available in English, this volume offers a rare glimpse into the early development of the renowned author.
As these pieces show, Mahfouz was deeply interested in art and history, as well as literature and philosophy, and his early writings engage with the origins of philosophy, its development and place in the history of thought, as well its meaning writ large. In his literary essays, he discusses a wide range of authors, from Anton Chekov to his own Arab contemporaries like Taha Hussein. He also ventures into a host of important contemporary issues, including science and modernity, the growing movement for women’s rights in the Arab world, and emerging ideologies like socialism—all of which outline the growing challenges to traditional modes of living that he saw all around him.
Together, these essays offer a fascinating window not just into the mind of Mahfouz himself but the changing landscape of Egypt during that time, from the development of Islam to the struggles between tradition, modernity, and the influences of the West.