By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
‘Our Role Is To Be the Bridge’The Arabic publication rights to the written works of the iconic Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) have—to the surprise of many—gone to a small, new press in Egypt: Diwan Publishing.
As Nadia Wassef says, “In life, it so often happens that books and people choose you—they come to you, they enter your life. And that’s what occurred with Naguib Mahfouz. And when that happens, how can anyone resist?” Wassef, the author of Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, is a co-founder of Diwan, the Egyptian bookstore chain, part of the Diwan enterprise.
A little more than a year ago, the rights contract for Mahfouz’s written works in Arabic was to expire. Those rights had been handled by the venerable Cairo publisher Dar El Shorouk for 17 years. In 2005, a year before his death, Mahfouz himself had approached Dar El Shorouk and asked them to publish him. In 2015, the contract was renewed by Mahfouz’s daughters until 2022.
“Everyone in the [Arab world] publishing industry knew when the contract was ending, and had approached Umm Kulthoum,” says Amal Mahmoud, the managing director of Diwan and a co-founder of the new Diwan publishing arm.
Umm Kulthoum is Mahfouz’s daughter, and manages her father’s estate. She did this along with her sister Fatma until Fatma’s death in 2017. In a 2019 interview with journalist Karim Zidan published in Literary Hub, Umm Kulthoum discussed what she said were rights issues with the American University in Cairo Press. The press holds the English-language rights for Mahfouz’s novels and some of his short stories, together with translation rights for all other languages except Arabic. The American University in Cairo Press did not respond to a request for a comment on Umm Kulthoum’s references to rights issues.
Diwan’s team members ‘are extremely enthusiastic, different, creative, excellent marketers, and are targeting younger generations. I’m glad they have the rights to my father’s work.’Umm Kulthoum Mahfouz
Umm Kulthoum tells Publishing Perspectives that she had reservations about Dar El Shorouk, which is why she decided not to renew her father’s contract with that company. Offered a chance to respond for this article, a senior El Shorouk management member declined, saying that since the rights have moved to Diwan, Dar El Shorouk’s official position has been to remain silent “out of respect to Naguib Mahfouz and his legacy.”
Umm Kulthoum also wanted a closer working relationship with a future publisher, according to Layal Al Rustom, who handles rights at Diwan Publishing. A journalist and friend of Umm Kulthoum approached the Diwan team in 2021, and at first both Mahmoud and Al Rustom said they were honored but didn’t feel ready to handle “something so major,” Mahmoud recalls.
“We thought it was enough just to meet her as admirers of Naguib Mahfouz,” Al Rustom says. The meeting went very well, however, and the four members of Diwan Publishing told Umm Kulthoum that they dreamed of doing more than just publishing him.
“We wanted to create more art around him in all media forms, maintaining the legend,” Mahmoud says. “When you read Mahfouz, he’s also a philosopher, and you want young Egyptians to know him, too–how modern he was and how he played with taboos. His writing is still relevant.”
When Umm Kulthoum signed with Diwan Publishing, “At first, people didn’t believe it,” Mahmoud says, remembering many calls, asking her about the rumor.
‘A New Generation of Readers’
Diwan began revamping Mahfouz’s 55 works with an editorial approach spearheaded by Diwan Publishing’s editorial director, the author Ahmad El Qarmalawi. This included a complete redesign of the book covers by the design firm 40Mustaqel. The artwork on the covers, by a collective of young Egyptian designers, was selected by Youssef Sabri, who is the creative director of a larger branding initiative called the Naguib Mahfouz Project.
“We felt it was important that the art direction be with the new generation,” Al Rustom says, “that young Egyptian artists could express their vision on the book covers. Our role is to be the bridge in a creative way to reintroduce [Mahfouz] to a new generation of readers. It’s like having a dialogue with your own history.”
Mahfouz was published by a variety of houses that included his original publisher, Maktabet Misr, and in Lebanon Dar Al Adab. Because of this, Al Rustom says, “We have a committee of experts reviewing all the work because there are differences in each edition.”
Some of those differences were based on censorship, she says, imposed by the religious establishment and/or changes made during the Nasser years. Some differences were made for books being exported to countries in the Gulf. In other cases, they were internal design changes or simply typos.
“We’re trying to get the oldest copies and have the committee confirm the most accurate wording,” she says, to produce editions that reflect how they’d have been read “before any censorship.”
Diwan began by publishing 12 Mahfouz books at once. Those include his “Cairo Trilogy”: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. The books have the newly designed covers, as well as a reworked Arabic calligraphy inspired by writing inscribed on stone or the brick walls of buildings in Cairo’s Gamaliya neighbourhood, where Mahfouz grew up. Readers reacted strongly to them.
“When the first covers were revealed,” Mahmoud says, “some people were genuinely offended, others were just shocked, and others loved them. Mahfouz belongs to everyone and so many people have an idea of what the book should look like. We welcomed that and believed that we were doing something experimental and beautiful.”
Several Egyptian publishers who decline to be named have either praised Diwan’s initiative or criticized the covers, but all have said they’re relieved that the rights have remained with an Egyptian publisher.
Diwan’s team members “are extremely enthusiastic, different, creative, excellent marketers, and are targeting younger generations,” Umm Kulthoum Mahfouz says.”I’m glad they have the rights to my father’s work.”