Egyptian literary figure Naguib Mahfouz is getting a makeover with a new publisher and a host of millennial artists designing the covers for his classic works.
However, the new covers drew a mixed reaction, with some saying the artwork doesn’t do the titles justice and others applauding the adaptation to contemporary times.
Diwan Publishing, the publishing arm of the Diwan bookstore chain, has secured exclusive rights to 55 of the late Nobel laureate’s Arabic novels, plays, texts and short stories for 15 years.
Dar El Shorouk, an Arabic publishing house based in Cairo and Beirut, previously held the rights for a long period which expired in May.
Diwan released eight titles in July with several more to come next year. He also created the Naguib Mahfouz project, which includes a website, events and a specialized committee to examine the different editions of his works.
“The Naguib Mahfouz Project is not just about book covers. It’s about embracing and including creativity throughout the journey,” said Layal Al Rustom, co-founder of Diwan Publishing. The National. “It is a complete project to revive the culture, literature and heritage of Naguib Mahfouz.”
Mahfouz, born in 1911 and died in 2006, had a literary career spanning 70 years. He was rocketed to international fame in 1988, when he became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He wrote dozens of novels, non-fiction books, short stories, plays and screenplays, many of which have been translated into English. Among his most famous novels are Cairo Trilogywhich follows an Egyptian family over three generations since the 1920s, and alley childrenwhich had been banned in Egypt due to its use of characters based on religious figures.
In the past, publishing houses commissioned an illustrator to design the entire collection of Mahfouz’s works. Among the best known are Helmi El Touni, a visual folk artist born in 1934, and Gamal Kotb, who died in 2016.
While the Diwan chain was established in 2002 with its flagship store in Zamalek, the publishing division is relatively new. He published the first book published under the Diwan brand, life coach Nevin Elgendy’s Bein 2020.
After a difficult time during the Covid-19 pandemic, Diwan Publishing resumed this year. In addition to Mahfouz, he has acquired the rights to publish the English translation of Egyptian writer Reem Bassiouney’s latest novel. Al Qata’i.
Diwan approached artist Yousef Sabry, 24, earlier this year with a proposal to design Mahfouz’s 55 book covers, but ultimately decided to involve multiple artists with their varying styles and interpretations.
“When they offered me this opportunity, I told them that it would be a shame if I was the only one to do them all,” explains Sabry, creative director of the project. “I felt it would be an incredible opportunity to work with a range of Egyptian artists so that I could show the true depth of Naguib Mahfouz’s nature.”
Working with Mahfouz’s committee of experts and aficionados, Sabry helped match the artists to the themes of the books. 40Mustaqel, an independent design studio in Cairo, handled the overall look of the brand.
“My work is seen as a bit more surreal and its associations could be a bit more philosophical or spiritual. That’s why I was assigned the most fantastic and fanciful storylines, such as Qalb al-Lail (heart of the night), Layali Alf Layla (Arabian Nights and Days) and Harafish,” he says.
Muhammad Mustafa was assigned “more socio-political themes because his work is more on the side of realism”, says Sabry. He designs the covers of Afrah al-Qubba (Wedding Song), Thartharah fawq al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile) and Al Liss Wal Kilab (The Thief and the Dogs).
As for Mariam ElReweny, Sabry says they felt her “universally beautiful artwork…would be perfect for books that are universal in subject matter and subject matter.” His cover designs include Asda‘ al-Sirah al-Dhatiyah (Echoes of an autobiography) and Hadith Al Sabah wa al Masaa (Morning and evening conversation).
The three novels that make up the Cairo Trilogy will be designed by Dubai-resident Egyptian artist Nora Zeid, known for her black and white illustrations of Cairo. She held her first solo exhibition titled Cairo Illustrated: Stories from Heliopolis in Tashkeel last year.
The artists are all in their 20s and 30s, which has helped Diwan’s goal of making Mahfouz relevant to the new generation.
“The important question we asked ourselves was: how do we make history part of today’s present and part of the future? For those who are 20 today and under, how can we get them to go to the shelf and pick up this book and read it, and start entering the magical world of Naguib Mahfouz? said Al Rustom.
“Working with contemporary artists just means reaching out to a more contemporary audience, and I think at the same time it creates a new opportunity for young readers to identify with the books,” says Sabry.
But book cover illustrator Ahmed Ellabbad says appealing to young people through modern designs is “not the right solution”.
“If the next generation is going to read the books, it’s not the graphics that are going to encourage them or discourage them,” says Ellabbad, who has been with the company for nearly 30 years.
Ellabbad himself recently designed the covers of 10 volumes of the complete works of Mahfouz for Dar El Shorouk.
He agreed with the concept that Mahfouz’s works should be presented in a new light, but criticized some aspects of the designs.
For example, he says that the font used to write the name Naguib Mahfouz “does not show the name clearly”. The coverage for Al Liss Wal Kilab shows a drawing of dogs, while in the story itself “dogs are a metaphor”.
“For people who read Naguib Mahfouz, the drawings are far from the atmosphere of his works,” says Ellabbad. “The idea is good, but the end result is not very good.”
Sabry says he expected “a range of reactions” and is sticking to the principles of the project to promote the famous writer’s works to many different audiences.
Al Rustom also defends the designs, saying they have also received lots of positive feedback.
“We did something unexpected. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means there is a kind of change from the traditional,” she says. “There is no right and wrong in art.”
Updated: August 03, 2022, 2:24 p.m.