Naujib Mahfouz, Egypt’s celebrated novelist and master short story writer whose oeuvre also encompassed scriptwriting, would have been hundred had he been alive today. The Nobel Peace Prize winner produced a body of work credited with some of the best writing not just in Arabic but possibly in any language. His work has had a profound impact on the world of contemporary Arab literature and cinema. To honour his hundredth birthday, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is hosting commemorative events and screenings of some of his best known films.
Mahfouz was a product of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, a rebellion against British rule that engendered new individualism and identity in Egyptian hearts and minds. His early years saw a new Egypt that had won independence from British rule in 1922. There is curious symmetry in that Mahfouz’s hundredth birthday also falls on a revolution where Egypt is once again negotiating its identity.
At a panel discussion marking Maufhuz’s contribution to cinema, Egyptian critic Kamal Ramzi said, “Mahfouz gave us a common language of literature, and metaphors we could share. Through his novels and scripts, he enrolled us in a school of life that taught us what universities couldn’t. His brilliance as a writer was in bringing his characters to succinct life, and he always left clues that allowed actors to do justice to the roles he created.”
Mahfouz, the veritable man of cinema, had an early introduction to the screen. Since the age of seven, he used to accompany his nanny to the cinema. He’s been known to write about the agony of watching a film end and a story finish. Those moments were among the unhappiest of his life, when the characters and their stories disappeared into a roll of credits. Not only did Mahfouz write for cinema, he also wrote about cinema – his books are peppered with cinematic references. “The importance of cinema is reflected in Mahfouz’s writing. He often uses techniques like parallel montages, and flashbacks, which are techniques inherent to the world of film,” said critic Samir Farid.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival is showing some of Mahfouz’s classic works, including The Beginning And The End (Bidaya wa Nihaya) as well as its contemporary reinterpretation ‘Principio y fin’ set in Mexico, Between Heaven And Earth (Bayn el Sama wa el Ard) and The Thief And The Dogs (Al Lis wa Al Kilab).
Mahfouz enriched the world of cinema as he did of books. His work speaks volumes of his attachment to Cairo, to Egyptian culture, and the new flame of identity post independence from British rule in 1922. A very happy hundredth birthday to the man of cinema and letters.