Egyptian millennial artists give modern revamp to Naguib Mahfouz’s books

Diwan Publishing has secured the exclusive rights to the late Nobel laureate’s works for 15 years, but new cover designs have sparked a mixed reaction

Diwan has published new editions of some of Naguib Mahfouz’s most popular novels with modern cover illustrations. Nada El Sawy / The National
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Egyptian literary figure Naguib Mahfouz is getting a modern revamp with a new publisher and a host of millennial artists designing the covers of his classic works.

However, the new covers have sparked a mixed reaction, with some people arguing that the illustrations do not do justice to the titles and others applauding the adaptation to contemporary times.

Diwan Publishing, the publications arm of the Diwan Bookstore chain, has secured the exclusive rights to 55 of the late Nobel laureate’s Arabic novels, plays, texts and short story collections for 15 years.

The Naguib Mahfouz Project is not just the book covers. It’s about embracing and including creativity throughout the journey. It’s a full project to revive the culture, literature and legacy of Naguib Mahfouz
Layal Al Rustom, co-founder of Diwan Publishing

Dar El Shorouk, an Arabic publishing house based in Cairo and Beirut, previously held the rights for a long period that expired in May.

Diwan released eight titles in July and several more are to come over the next year. It has also created the Naguib Mahfouz Project, which includes a website, events and a specialised committee to review various editions of his works.

“The Naguib Mahfouz Project is not just the book covers. It’s about embracing and including creativity throughout the journey,” Layal Al Rustom, co-founder of Diwan Publishing, tells The National. “It’s a full project to revive the culture, literature and legacy of Naguib Mahfouz.”

Mahfouz, who was born in 1911 and died in 2006, had a literary career that spanned 70 years. He was propelled to international fame in 1988, when he became the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He has written 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 the Cairo Trilogy, which follows an Egyptian family across three generations from the 1920s, and Children of the Alley, which had been banned in Egypt because of its use of characters based on religious figures.

In the past, publishing houses have commissioned one illustrator to design the entire collection of Mahfouz’s works. The most well-known include Helmi El Touni, a visual folkloric artist born in 1934, and Gamal Kotb, who died in 2016.

While the Diwan chain was established in 2002 with its flagship store in the upscale Cairo district of Zamalek, the publishing division is relatively new. It released the first book published under the Diwan brand name, life coach Nevin Elgendy’s Be, in 2020.

Following a challenging time during the Covid-19 pandemic, Diwan Publishing has picked up again this year. In addition to Mahfouz, it acquired the rights to publish the English translation of Egyptian author Reem Bassiouney’s novel Sabil Al Ghariq (Fountain of the Drowning).

Diwan approached artist Yousef Sabry, 24, earlier this year with a proposal to design all 55 Mahfouz book covers, but ultimately decided to involve several artists with their varied styles and interpretations.

“When they offered me this opportunity, I told them that it would be a shame if it was just me to do all of them,” says Sabry, creative director of the project. “I felt it would be an amazing opportunity to work with a whole range of Egyptian artists in order to be able to show the true depth of Naguib Mahfouz’s nature.”

Working with the committee of Mahfouz experts and aficionados, Sabry helped match artists with the books’ themes. 40Mustaqel, an independent design studio in Cairo, handled the overall branding look.

“My work is considered a bit more surrealist and its associations might be a bit more philosophical or spiritual. So that’s why I was allocated the more fantastical, whimsical storylines, such as Qalb al-Lail (Heart of the Night), Layali Alf Layla (Arabian Nights and Days) and The Harafish,” he says.

Muhammad Mustafa was given “more socio-political themes because his work is more on the realism side,” says Sabry. He designed 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 artworks … would be perfect for books that are universal in their topics and subjects”. Her cover designs include Asda' al-Sirah al-Dhatiyah (Echoes of an Autobiography) and Hadith Al Sabah wa al Masaa (Morning and Evening Talk).

The three novels making up the Cairo Trilogy will be designed by the Dubai-resident Egyptian artist Nora Zeid, known for her black-and-white illustrations of Cairo. She held her first solo exhibit entitled Cairo Illustrated: Stories from Heliopolis at Tashkeel last year.

The artists are all in their twenties and thirties, which helped serve Diwan’s goal of making Mahfouz relevant to the new generation.

“The important question we had is: how can we make history part of the present today and part of the future? For those who are 20 today and younger, how can we make them go to the shelf and pick this book up and read it, and start entering the magical world of Naguib Mahfouz?” Al Rustom says.

“Working with contemporary artists just means relating to a more contemporary audience, and I think in tandem that creates a new opportunity for younger readers to relate to the books,” Sabry says.

But book cover illustrator Ahmed Ellabbad says appealing to youth through modern designs is “not the right solution”.

“If the new generation is going to read the books, it’s not the graphic that’s going to encourage or discourage them,” says Ellabbad, who has worked in the business for close to 30 years.

Ellabbad himself recently designed the covers of 10 volumes of Mahfouz’s collected works for Dar El Shorouk.

He agrees with the concept that Mahfouz’s works should be portrayed in a new light, but criticised certain aspects of the designs.

For example, he says the font used to write the name Naguib Mahfouz “does not show the name clearly”. The cover for Al Liss Wal Kilab shows a drawing of dogs, when in the story itself “dogs are a metaphor”.

“For the people who read Naguib Mahfouz, the designs are far from the atmosphere of his works,” Ellabbad says. "The idea is good, but the end result is not very good."

Sabry says he expected “a range of reactions” and that he stands by the principles of the project to promote the famous writer's works to many different audiences.

Al Rustom also defends the designs, saying they received a lot of positive feedback as well.

“We have done something unexpected. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means there’s some sort of change to the traditional,” she says. “There’s no right and wrong in art.”

Updated: August 03, 2022, 5:56 PM