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.
A Walk Through the Naguib Mahfouz Museum
Personally, I agree that access is important, but I find the criticism of the current entrance for taking people through a shaabi, or working-class street, condescending and misplaced. This is exactly the kind of neighborhood Mahfouz’s work is set in, after all, and it’s charming.
Designing the museum, said Shaboury, “was challenging because it was a historical building, so we cannot intervene on the building.” Plans to install an elevator hit a snag when digging revealed an ancient cistern, and the architect had to maintain the original layout of individual rooms arranged around a narrow rectangular courtyard.
Visitors move from one room to the next—each is dedicated to a different aspect of Mahfouz’s career or era in his life. Several contain prizes and honors he was awarded, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has a room all its own.
Other rooms contain personal effects, such as his desk, spectacles, cigarettes, hearing aid, or the notebooks in which he handwrote the fragmentary texts collected in Dreams of Departure. He penned these texts as he was recovering the use of his hand after barely surviving an attack on his life by an Islamist extremist in 1994.
A Feeling of Formality
For someone like me, who is quite familiar with Mahfouz’s life story and work, the museum didn’t contain any revelations about the enigmatic, deeply private, prodigiously talented writer. Overall, the approach to Mahfouz felt stiff and official; I couldn’t help feeling that the space could be much more dynamic and engaging.
An area dedicated to the authors’ famous gang of friends, the so-called Harafish, is meant to evoke the ahwas, or coffeeshops, they used to meet in, but it’s just a hallway with a few modern café chairs and tables (and no coffee).
And while the museum rightly highlights Mahfouz’s role in Egyptian cinema—he wrote screenplays and dozens of his books were turned into movies—it doesn’t do justice to this aspect of his career. Although some rooms are dedicated to screening scenes from his films and interviews with the author, the quality of these videos is very poor. One hopes that better quality recordings and subtitled clips will be forthcoming soon from the Egyptian television archives.
One also hopes that the museum’s board will make an effort to make the new institution the center for scholarship and public engagement that it deserves to be, especially as new facets of Mahfouz’s work and life continue to be revealed.
In 2018, the journalist Mohamed Shoair wrote an acclaimed account of how Mahfouz came to write his most controversial novel, Children of the Alley. Last year, a collection of “lost” stories was found and published in Arabic as The Whisper of Stars and in English translation as The Quarter.
As Karim Shaboury noted, the audience for Naguib Mahfouz is wide, including locals and foreigners, tourists, students, scholars and lovers of literature and film. The Naguib Mahfouz museum could be “an institution dedicated to literature and cinema,” he said.
In fact, the ground floor of the museum is set up to house archives and activities. It reportedly contains a library of Mahfouz’s books, a photographic archive, a conference room and a computer lab—none of which I saw because when I visited my guide made no mention of these facilities; all the rooms seemed to be closed, as was the bookshop.