Honouring the past, fashioning new futures: Next-gen Cairenes reimagine celebrated works of Naguib Mahfouz

Naghuib Mahfou Egypt
6 min read
23 September, 2022

Looking to the past in order to inform the present and inspire the future is something Arabs do pretty well. Mainly because we have so much to remedy in our present, and thus so much to imagine for our future.

Naguib Mahfouz sits somewhat liminal between these measures of time because, for so many, he was ahead of his time, and for so many, he still lives on. His words work to document the past, speak to the present, and offer visions of the future for the Arab world.

For example, his books have widely been declared feminist and praised for their nuanced depictions of women at the time, vital for a country still plagued by femicide and male violence against women.

"[Mahfouz's] words work to document the past, speak to the present, and offer visions of the future for the Arab world"

In a bid to introduce the Nobel-prize-winning Egyptian writer to new audiences, and refresh his legacy for seasoned audiences, Diwan Publishing enlisted the aid of Egyptian illustrator Yousef Sabry and design studio 40Mustaqel to reimagine all 55 of Mahfouz’s works, resulting in the Naguib Mahfouz Project.

Yousef, the creative director for the Naguib Mahfouz Project and lead artist, wanted to make sure that Mahfouz was being represented through various different styles and lenses, in order to illustrate just how many lives he touched and inspired through his words.

“[Diwan] wanted me to [illustrate] all 55 books at first,” explains Yousef when asked how the project came to fruition. “But you know what, it would have been a shame if only one artist did all 55."

He then asked an entire cohort of diverse Egyptian artists to illustrate the books to be published by Diwan, starting with a set of 12 books, four of which have been illustrated by Yousef himself.

“In Egypt, we don’t have foundation-style institutions that are dedicated to enhancing writers’ legacies beyond their books,” Yousef continues, explaining why it was so important that the publishing house worked with so many artists. “We work with the goal of the community as a whole and try to create opportunities.”

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For the written part of the project, Diwan asked, in Yousef’s words, a “panel of Naguib Mahfouz aficionados” to re-write the books in his most original style, since the books have gone through many rounds of heavy edits and translations after being re-published so frequently.

Yousef explains that for the visual elements of the project, he took a lot of influence from the writers’ side. "We had to break down his books into themes,” he explains, “to get an idea of which artist would be appropriate for each mood.”

Mariam El Reweny, Mohamed Mustafa, and Nora Zeid make up the artists who have illustrated the remaining books in the first set.

"Inspired by Gamaliya, Mahfouz’s iconic Cairo neighbourhood, Hesham and her team got to reworking the ‘Thuluth Mamluki’ Arabic calligraphy that can be found on the buildings of the neighbourhood"

Bringing revered Cairo-based studio 40Mustaqel on board, Yousef worked with Nada Hesham – 40Mustaqel’s founder – and her team to create a graphic system and a new typeface to live across the series of books.

For Nada, the biggest challenge was to create a system that could “stay consistent but also be malleable enough to adapt to the material.” She wanted to make sure the illustration was the focus of each book, so the layout had to accommodate this, resulting in the framed structure of the artworks on the covers headed by the new typeface which has a story of its own. 

Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz smiles in his Cairo home a few days after the announcement of his award of the Nobel Prize in Literature [Getty Images]
Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz smiles in his Cairo home a few days after the announcement of his Nobel Prize in Literature award [Getty Images]

Inspired by Gamaliya, Mahfouz’s iconic Cairo neighbourhood, Nada and her team got to reworking the Thuluth Mamluki Arabic calligraphy that can be found on the buildings of the neighbourhood – thick, clunky and heavy as to be read easily when inscribed into brick or stone walls.

“[Gamaliya] is almost like an architectural influence to [Mahfouz’s] writing,” argues Nada.

“You cannot deny that he was obsessed with going into details about his surroundings and the architectural style of old Cairo,” she continues, hence why it was so important to the team to pay homage to the flair of the built environment of the Egyptian capital.

Despite the nuance of the new typeface and its beautiful results, it's drawn some criticism from old-school (some might say die-hard) Mahfouz fans for being ‘illegible’.

“Because people already know Naguib Mahfouz, we had the luxury of playing around with this logo or lettering piece,” Nada justifies. “Because I know people say that it's not the most legible piece ever, but we treated it as a logo rather than a way to introduce his work.”

For the designer, creating some discomfort is “very refreshing” because, for her at least, that means she has moved the content out of its own comfort zone.

“Old and new don’t clash with each other,” Yousef adds when asked how he and his team have tried to make the old into something new. “Paying homage to him is new, by doing various interpretations of his work,” he expands.

He also thinks that this project has given all the creatives involved an opportunity to “be [themselves] in relation to one man’s work,” rather than attempting to recreate what’s already been done.

In a sense, then, the project is also an exercise in artistic responses to iconic material for those creatives involved, as well as a commercial venture.

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As a result of the Western homogeny which heads today’s globalised culture, hugely influential artists from outside of the English-speaking world are still relatively marginalised globally.

Reaching global audiences was paramount for this project and Yousef stresses that the team are “not just trying to reach artists in Egypt, but also trying to have an international reach, albeit in response and in relation to our home.”

The team behind the Naguib Mahfouz project hope they are able to make older generations see Mahfouz’s work in a new way.

"We want to make it inviting for those who have heard of him but not read him, while also creating a way for people who have never heard of him but would love to know more about him," concludes Yousef. 

Dalia Al-Dujaili is Digital Editor of Azeema, Founder of The Road to Nowhere, a columnist at This Orient, and a freelance journalist with bylines in the Guardian, Huck, Cosmopolitan Middle East, Trippin', Notion and more. She also works with organisations such as Counterpoints Arts and Migrant Rights Network. 

Follow her on Instagram: @dalia.aldu