At Abu Dhabi Book Fair: Diwan’s New Naguib Mahfouz Book Covers

In News by Porter Anderson

Egypt’s Diwan Publishing holds a place of honor at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair with its new series of Naguib Mahfouz covers.

Amal S. Mahmoud, managing director and board member of Egypt’s Diwan, at the 2024 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair’s Diwan stand where Naguib Mahfouz books in the original Arabic are being sold. They include the 54 newly created covers the company had made when Diwan attained the Arabic-language rights to Mahfouz’s written work. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

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‘Mahfouz Wanted To Be Available’
As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, two years ago, the Arabic publication rights to the written works of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naquib Mahfouz (1911-2006) went to a small, young press in Egypt, Diwan Publishing. And, as we’ve reported this spring, Dr. Ali Bin Tamim, chair of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, has made Mahfouz the “focus personality” for the  2024 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which runs through Sunday (May 5).

This week at the fair, Diwan Publishing has an especially prominent location at the Abu Dhabi Fair, thanks to the fact that Diwan is Mahfouz’s contemporary publisher. While the stand is modest in appearance, racks of copies of Mahfouz’s books on the right-hand end of the stand have more than the gleam of their plastic wrap to grab the eye.

Each cover of the books in this series is distinctive, the artwork having been made by a contemporary artist in the project that was led by the design firm 40Mustaqel. There are 54 of these Mahfouz titles, all in Arabic, each festooned with a special font for Mahfouz, consistent across the whole collection.

Umm Kulthoum, Mahfouz’s daughter and manager of her father’s estate, selected Diwan to have the rights, and supported the creation and production of these newly redesigned covers.

The introduction of these new book covers, with their powerful delivery of Mahfouz’s name and their new, simple but penetrating imagery created by a collective of young Egyptian artists, met with controversy.

“We had felt that maybe we can try to do something” special, says Amal Mahmoud, the managing director and a co-founding board member of Diwan, “because we loved him.

“We wanted to celebrate his work, but it wasn’t just about publishing and printing books. It’s more about having all the aspects of Mahfouz’s work being shown, and to make the books available to people and engage the broader community.

“Our first thought was to connect” the work of Mahfouz, inspiring commissioned artwork for each title “and connecting the younger generation in Egypt with the artists and with this legacy, this literature.”

‘He Loved the Youth’

Here are three examples of story collections by Naguib Mahfouz that you’ll find this week on the Diwan stand at the 2024 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. On the left, ‘Under the Umbrella’ carries the cover art of Mahmoud Talaat. In the center, ‘The Honeymoon’ carries a painting by Amina Yahya. And on the right, ‘A Story Without Beginning or End’ has a cover painting by Islam Othman. All three of these volumes were designed under the creative director Youssef Sabry for the firm 40 Independent

Mahfouz, Mahmoud says, would “definitely, definitely” have enjoyed this new redesign for his work, “because he had this artistic sense. And he loved the youth and he was very humble.

While there was “big resistance,” she concedes to the new book covers when they appeared, “It’s fine,” she says. “This has taken time because he was that big. We knew it was because they all loved Mahfouz. Everyone feels they own part of Mahfouz and they want to make sure that their idea of Mahfouz is intact.”

And this, then, is a healthy possessiveness, as Mahmoud describes it. And she and her colleagues at Diwan knew that a different look for these books would make them seem more available to new readers. One artist did four new covers, while the remaining artists each did three.

Today, she says, the newly redesigned Naguib Mahfouz book covers are embraced by many readers, especially among younger readers who are discovering him for the first time, just as she and her Diwan associates had hoped would happen.

“Mahfouz wanted to be available and he didn’t want to be this, you know, ‘very sophisticated writer,'” Amal Mahmoud says. “No, he had this very down-to-Earth and humble way, this beautiful goodness.”

Abu Dhabi International Book Fairgoers move past the Diwan stand, which is carrying the newly redesigned Naquib Mahfouz book covers. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on international book publishing rights and licensing is here, more on the Egyptian publishing market is here, more on Arabic literature is here, more on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.