Naguib Mahfouz and the Arab Springs

Have you ever heard of Naguib Mahfouz? Born in 1911 and died in 2006, Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer, probably one of the most famous in the Arab World at this time – but not only, indeed he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

With over 70 years of career, Naguib Mahfouz published more than 30 novels, several movie scripts and hundreds of short stories, in which he depicted Egyptians, with a particular emphasis on the urban class. Its Cairo trilogy – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugarhouse – published in 1956 and 1957 is probably one of his more famous work, in which he portrayed different families in Cairo, from the World War I until 1952, marking the end of King Farouk’s reign.

Courtyard – Mosque of Mohammed Ali in Cairo, Egypt 

More recently, and seven years after the first uprisings that occurred in the Arab World and the subsequent events thereafter, it appears that the short novel “Karnak Café” is in the news as ever. However, this Mahfouz’s novel was published in 1974, almost 40 years before the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Let’s set the scene: Cairo, in the mid-1960’s, a coffeeshop run by Qurunfula, a belly dancer, successful in the 40’s. The narrator is about to meet different characters, in them the main ones, three college students – that consider themselves as children of the 1952 revolution.

At this time, there was lot of hope with the Nasser assumption of power. But, within the pages, you discover another world, a world in which violence, repression and intimidation remain. Indeed, the police system, customary with torture, succeeded in disgusting even the most fervent defenders of the revolution. A way to dominate all the society and avoid any other voice or potential rebellion.


Naguib Mahfouz was not just a great writer. His books were from the very first that dealt with subjects such as sexual, religious, expression and political freedoms, in a country in where populations wanted to get out of the rules and morales established by the society. Arab countries have known at this time intense intellectual activities thanks to authors and artists like him, who tried to bring to the light so many paradoxes.

In a time of profond reassessment of the way our societies are run, with economic crisis likely to deepen social inequalities, governments willing to close their borders and a “turn in upon ourselves” attitude for some people – this book give us an interesting point of view that help us take a step back and think.

Some interesting books from the same author:
MAHFOUZ Naguib, Karnak Café. (1974)

MAHFOUZ Naguib, Palace walk. Part I, Cairo Trilogy. (1956)
MAHFOUZ Naguib, Palace of Desire. Part II, Cairo Trilogy. (1957)
MAHFOUZ Naguib, Sugarhouse. Part III, Cairo Trilogy. (1957)