The Naguib Mahfouz Project is reviving the writings of one of Egypt’s most visionary authors
“We wanted to create something that would enrich his history, give opportunity for his work to be reinterpreted, and to be an inviting place for the new times we live in.”
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 13 June 2023
Single-handedly designing new covers for an entire collection of books written by a Nobel Prize-winning author is a prospect that would shake even the most assured and established designer’s confidence. Such was the reaction of Egyptian multidisciplinary designer and artist Yousef Sabry when asked to do just that for the extensive oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz, often regarded as one of Egypt’s most important writers. Yousef says the opportunity took him by complete surprise. “The idea of designing 55 books, to go through the journey of learning about each book and depicting them, seemed a scary one,” he recalls. “As much of an honour as it was, it was a responsibility I did not want to take alone.”
This was early in 2022, and Yousef was in talks with Diwan Publishing, the new publishing arm of Cairo’s most acclaimed bookstore, Diwan Bookstore. The company had just bought the rights to print and publish Naguib Mahfouz in Arabic and was searching for a suitable artist to take on the mammoth task of creating artworks and designs for every single book in the collection. Upon discovering Yousef’s work — specifically his collaboration with Acne Paper — the team at Diwan decided that his “fantastical approach” was the perfect fit.
Flattered and intrigued, but nervous in equal measure, Yousef presented Diwan with a slightly different idea: rather than simply reworking the old covers of Mahfouz’s books, to instead create an entire foundation dedicated to reviving the late author’s writings and introducing them to a new, modern audience. “This is when we agreed on The Naguib Mahfouz Project,” he says. “An endeavour that would start by republishing his books, but the process would involve working with a whole range of artists and styles to match the array of genres Mahfouz put out in his 94 years of life.”
Diwan agreed and before long Yousef was busy transforming his risograph studio Rizo Masr into a fully fledged design studio to handle this huge task. He enlisted the help of Salma Ehab to project manage the creation of the foundation and together they set about finding other artists whose practices would pair well with Mahfouz’s writing. “I took the more fantastical narratives; Nora Zeid took the iconic Cairo-inspired ones in The Cairo Trilogy; Muhammad Mustafa the more serious, heartfelt stories; and Mariam El Reweny the ones with humanist narratives and approaches,” Yousef explains. “This was the first batch, and eventually we worked with even more artists, each one being allocated stories that the Diwan Board agreed fit their style.”
With so many different books to work on and so many different artists to commission, Yousef says it was important to create an overarching design system to accommodate each style and approach. As such, he called upon local design studio 40MUSTAQEL and two of its members, graphic designers Mina Maurice and Nada Hesham, to answer this challenging brief. He also handed over the task of art direction to Cairo-based Maram El Refai and the responsibility of creating an identity for the foundation itself to Gamila El Kordy and Nouran Abed.
Evidently, The Naguib Mahfouz Project was, from the very start, an extremely collaborative endeavour. Beautifully orchestrated by Yousef and Salma, and brought to life through the efforts of many dedicated artists, the result is a foundation that not only pays tribute to the significant impact Mahfouz made during his lifetime, helping to popularise Arabic literature, but also celebrates the appeal his work can have, and continues to have, with a contemporary audience.
“My hope is that people respond to this project with passion, whether they find themselves passionately loving it or passionately hating it — as long as they respond with excitement, then I think we’re on the right track,” says Salma. “I hope that more people read Mahfouz and live Mahfouz the way we have, and I hope we can expand on his legacy in a way that is befitting of it. He is a genius on many fronts, and honouring his legacy deserves nothing less.”
Copyright © Naguib Mahfouz Project, 2023
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.