CAIRO—The new museum dedicated to the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz can be found down a busy side street across from Al Azhar Mosque, in the heart of the part of Cairo where Mahfouz was born and drew life-long inspiration from.
Mahfouz, the country’s most famous modern writer, was born in the nearby Gamaliya neighborhood in 1911. The area is home to medieval Cairo’s iconic mosques, gates, souqs and winding alleys. Although Mahfouz moved away as an adolescent, he set many of his books, starting with his famous Cairo Trilogy, here.
The Naguib Mahfouz Museum is located in a renovated takiyya—a building where Sufis could lodge and study—attached to an Ottoman-era mosque.
In a TV interview, Mahfouz once explained how within his narrative world, which often used the hara, or alley, as a stand-in for Egyptian society at large, he saw the takiyya as a way to symbolize “a spiritual center.”
Architect Karim Shaboury, who designed the museum and curated a large part of the exhibition, featured that quote on one of the museum’s panels, because he found the parallel so evocative.
The takiyya was originally a “building for the public, that serves a certain public,” Shaboury said, and this original function “conforms with the idea of a museum and a cultural center.”
Yet how well the museum will act as a living space for cultural discovery and discussion, as opposed to an official mausoleum, remains to be seen.
Delay and Disappointment
After Mahfouz’s death in 2006, his surviving daughter donated a collection of his personal effects, books and awards to the state. Mahfouz’s old friend the writer Yusuf al-Qa’id championed the idea of a museum. Yet it took 12 years for the museum to become a reality. Shaboury was only brought in to work on the project the year before the museum opened.
The long delay seems to have been the result of bureaucratic in-fighting between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Antiquities over the site to be renovated, and of poor planning and budgeting for the renovations themselves.
When the museum was finally inaugurated, with much fanfare, by the ministers of culture and antiquities in July 2019, some visitors were disappointed by the collection on display, alleging that some items donated by Mahfouz’s family weren’t included.
Critics also noted that the museum put very few of the author’s papers on display, and used uncaptioned copies of book covers and photographs rather than sourced originals.
Others complained that the entrance to the museum should be through a main door into the complex on Al Azhar Street, making it more welcoming to the public, rather than through the current back door, which takes a bit more work to find.