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The Naguib Mahfouz museum that never was - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Image of Naguib Mahfouz's childhood home in Cairo, Egypt, taken on 11 December, 2013. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Photo of Naguib Mahfouz’s childhood home in Cairo, Egypt, taken on December 11, 2013. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Naguib Mahfouz is one of Egypt’s most famous writers, and the only Arab writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mahfouz is most famous for his Cairo Trilogy, and so his name is inexorably linked with the Egyptian capital. Despite this, a planned Naguib Mahfouz museum to be established at the Egyptian writer’s childhood home still a long way from being created, with the house today serving as a workshop and storehouse for another famous Egyptian icon, the shisha or water pipe.

In the run up to the hundred-year anniversary of the birth of Cairo’s most famous writer two years ago, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture planned to establish a Naguib Mahfouz Museum and Tourist Center in the house where he was born and grew up. The small house, located in the Gamaliya neighborhood of Cairo’s Al-Hussein district, was viewed by many fans of Mahfouz’s work as being a perfect choice, being located in a residential neighborhood just like those that Mahfouz himself wrote about. Egypt’s Culture Ministry even tasked a special committee with establishing the museum, with Egyptian media at the time lauding the decision.

But following the recent political and security upheavals in the country, Egypt appears no closer to establishing a Naguib Mahfouz museum, as the 30th anniversary of his Nobel Prize award approaches.

One hundred and two years since the birth of the renowned Egyptian novelist, Asharq Al-Awsat visited his childhood home, the site of the proposed tourist center.

The neighborhood is straight out of a Naguib Mahfouz novel, full of claustrophobic alleyways and intersecting passages. Walking to the house where the Nobel Laureate was born, Asharq Al-Awsat could not help but think of scenes from Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street before finally reaching the neighborhood of Haret Qirmaz.

In a coffee shop in Haret Qirmaz, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Said Afifi, 80, the oldest living resident of the district. Afifi was reading a newspaper and watching the people walk by over the rims of his thick glasses.

Gesturing to the scenes of daily life around him, Afifi told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This is where the world-renowned writer Naguib Mahfouz grew up. This is where his character was formed and crystalized. He lived here before moving to Al-Abbasiya,” in central Cairo.

Mohamed Yousef, 38, told Asharq Al-Awsat what happened to Naguib Mahfouz’s childhood home.

“The house was rented out to a succession of people. First, it was turned into a kindergarten. Then it was bought by one of the tenants, before he sold it once again and it was transformed into a workshop and storehouse. It has remained in this condition until today,” Yousef said.

He added: “Former culture minister Farouk Hosni was the last Egyptian official to visit the house, about four years ago, when he proposed turning it into a museum. However, since he left the ministry nobody has paid any attention to the project, with the successive Egyptian governments acting as if it has nothing to do with them.”

From simply walking around Haret Qirmaz, it is clear to see the effect and influence that the old Cairo neighborhood had on Mahfouz’s writing and creative landscape. The neighborhood was, and remains, a living breathing model of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo, and it is a shame that fans of the renowned Egyptian novelists work do not get to experience it for themselves.

For his part, Egyptian writer Nabil Farouk told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There can be no doubt that Haret Qirmaz had a great influence on the personality of Mahfouz and his work.”

“I do not forget how Naguib Mahfouz himself described the neighborhood. He said: ‘You exit it only to find yourself coming back again, as if there are invisible strings pulling you back. When you return, you forget yourself there. For this neighborhood is Egypt.’”