Self-described as a "man of two civilizations," Naguib Mahfouz saw himself as a product of both ancient Egypt and the modern Islamic era. Writing across genres and in varying styles, his work celebrates Egypt's rich history while bearing witness to the country's twentieth-century political and social issues.
Mahfouz's first novel, Khufu's Wisdom (1939), explores the life of the pharaoh for whom the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. The author continued to mine the riches of Egyptian pharaonic culture in other early novels such as Rhadopis of Nubia (1943), the story of a young pharaoh's infatuation with a beautiful courtesan, and Thebes at War (1944), a tale of Egypt's defeat of an Asiatic tribe that ruled the Nile Valley for more than two hundred years.
From the 1940s through the early 1980s, Mahfouz wrote screenplays and film scenarios to supplement his government income. Many of these are counted as classics of Egyptian cinema. These screenplays as well as other screenwriters' adaptations of Mahfouz's novels added to his popularity with the Egyptian people.
In the late 1940s Mahfouz began to write about contemporary Egyptian society. Novels Khan al–Khalili (1946) and Midaq Alley (1947) take their names from sections of Old Cairo, yet both are set in the modern era and populated with characters struggling to adjust to life during and after World War II. Critics almost universally agree that The Cairo Trilogy stands as Mahfouz's best work. Originally written as one single tome of nearly 1,500 pages, publishers convinced Mahfouz to release the epic family saga in three separate volumes: Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957).
Long known as a writer of realistic fiction, Mahfouz experimented during the 1960s with new techniques such as stream of consciousness and second-person narration. Like The Thief and the Dogs, novels Autumn Quail (1962), The Search (1964), and The Beggar (1965) express concern over the shortcomings of the 1952 Revolution yet are filled with a love for his country and compassion for the lowest members of Egyptian society.
The author continued his stunning output of fiction throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with short story collections such as Love Under the Pyramids (1979) and The Secret Organization (1984); and novels The Harafish (1977), Arabian Nights and Days (1982), and Morning and Evening Talk (1987).
Though Mahfouz published his first novel in Arabic in 1939, his work remained little-known in the United States outside academic and literary circles. Translation into English in the 1960s cemented his international reputation as an author of excellence and importance. Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988—becoming the first Arab writer to receive the honor—proving to the rest of the world what Egyptians already knew: Naguib Mahfouz was one of the world's greatest writers.