Egypt opens museum commemorating life and legacy of novelist Naguib Mahfouz

A movie theatre on the second floor allows screening of Mahfouz’s literary works that were made into films.
Saturday 20/07/2019
More than just stories. Posters of movies based on Naguib Mahfouz’s novels on display in Cairo.(Amr Emam)
More than just stories. Posters of movies based on Naguib Mahfouz’s novels on display in Cairo.(Amr Emam)

CAIRO - Amuseum celebrating renowned Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz has been established in the heart of Cairo’s old city, also known as Fatimid Cairo, where the Nobel laureate was born, raised and lived most of his life.

“Mahfouz was not a mere man of letters but a whole life,” said Kareem Shaboury, the engineer who designed the museum. “He is the man who made everything that was local in Egypt international.”

Opened July 14 in ceremonies that involved the minister of culture and the minister of antiquities, the museum is the first to honour Mahfouz since his death in 2006.

Mohamed Abul Dahab Mosque, a building of great historical value, was selected to host the museum. It is part of the Abul Dahab Complex, a few metres from al-Azhar Mosque, in Gamaliya District, an area closely associated with the Ottoman era of the 16th-20th centuries.

Abul Dahab, treasurer of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, built the complex in 1772. The mosque was the main building of the complex. Apart from being a house of worship, it contained an eatery where the poor could receive free food.

It took three years of combined efforts by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Antiquities to convert the mosque into a museum showcasing the legacy of Mahfouz, the only Arab to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“This is an important international achievement,” said Egyptian Minister of Culture Enas Abdel Dayem. “Egypt is very keen on preserving the legacy of its innovators who have formed its soft power.”

A large photo of Mahfouz greets visitors at the entrance of the two-storey building. Being initially a mosque, the building has a large dome, surrounded by four smaller ones.

The site is divided into sections, each occupying a room accessible through a blue door. One of the rooms is a conference centre and another is a library that contains hundreds of books, some written by Mahfouz and others that are critical studies of his works.

One space on the ground floor contains awards, medals and certificates that Mahfouz won in his lifetime. A special room is dedicated to the Noble Prize in Literature where photos of all those who have won the award are displayed. The room contains a copy of Mahfouz’s speech delivered after the prize was awarded in 1988.

A movie theatre on the second floor allows screening of Mahfouz’s literary works that were made into films. Another room contains personal belongings, such as shaving kit, eyeglasses, pen and suits. Most of the belongings were donated to the museum by Mahfouz’s daughter.

Another space contains a large screen that plays a television programme in which Mahfouz tells his life story. A room dubbed “Departure Dreams” displays information about an attempt on Mahfouz’s life in October 1994 and papers that were handwritten by Mahfouz. Another room is called “Eulogy” and contains writings about Mahfouz after his death in 2006.

Gamaliya is the incarnation of Mahfouz’s life and art. The district is an open-air museum with dozens of historical buildings. Each is associated to part of Egypt’s history and has been witness to the country’s political, economic; social and religious developments. It is home to al-Azhar and al-Hussein mosques and was the trading centre in the Fatimid and Mamluk eras.

The district, a maze of alleyways lined with small shops that sell fabrics, scents and clothes, is a very dynamic place. Women wearing traditional Egyptian dresses and the buildings that stand on both sides of the alleyways seem to have jumped out of Mahfouz’s novels.

The surroundings become an integral part of Naguib Mahfouz Museum and its message.

“This is more than just a museum of Naguib Mahfouz but a centre of light and an exhibition of everything Mahfouz believed in,” said Yusuf al-Qaid, a writer and a long-time friend of Mahfouz.

A glimpse into the world of the writer. Naguib Mahfouz’s personal belongings on display at the museum in Cairo.(Amr Emam)