Loud and vexatious debate over the poor quality of Naguib Mahfouz’s book covers

Naguib Mahfouz did not imagine that his name would become a “foundation” that generates money and provokes conflicts. He remained in his usual good manners with his first publisher, “The Book of Egypt” for decades, even if there was no clear commitment to the number of editions and sales volume. During these years, millions of readers in the Arab world return to seeing the covers designed by the late artist Gamal Kotb (1930 – 2016). Qutb was the first painter of the prestigious Dar Al-Hilal Foundation and was influenced by great artists such as Hussein Bikar and Norman Rockwell, and we do not exaggerate if we say that half of the covers of Egyptian writers for decades bore his signature and adorned his brushes the most important Egyptian and Gulf magazines. Qutb’s covers were distinguished by their realistic Egyptianness and strength in colors, lines, and expressive meanings, as well as presenting the most important characters of the novel to readers. For decades, her familiarity became overwhelming, as if she was an intimate part of a preserved world. We cannot imagine the novel without Qutb’s paintings or drawings.

Then came the second stage when Dar Al-Shorouk contracted, a few years after winning the Nobel Prize, to publish Mahfouz’s works in paper and electronic format, and relied on the artist Helmy Al-Tuni (1934), a famous painter who has a special style in coloring and investing in popular and Egyptian motifs, and he also worked in the Dar Al-Hilal Foundation . The main difference between the two experiences is that Qutb is more realistic and direct, and Al-Tuni is not devoid of a mythical and exotic tinge, and does not tend to crowd the surface of the cover with faces.

Then we moved to the third stage with the copyright granted to Darren and not one. The Hindawi Foundation obtained the electronic publishing right and retained its identity for all its publications. All works were issued with a picture of Naguib Mahfouz, which is a simple and artistically austere cover, knowing that it makes all its electronic publications available for free.

As for the “Diwan” house, it had its share of paper and audio publishing, and its first edition was launched in conjunction with the sixteenth anniversary of Mahfouz’s departure, and since the publication of some covers, there has been an uproar in the “Social Media”.

Notice to the Attorney General

Most of the creators considered the covers to be “bad” and not appropriate for Mahfouz’s name and did not reflect the nature of his novels. Some mocked the way his name was written, which turned it into “Bakhit” and not “Najib.” Some of the cover designers were accused of not reading the novels at all, and it was better not to assign the design to “amateurs.” It is feared that “tampering with the covers” will affect the content as well!

Writer Fatima Al-Ma’doul, one of the most prominent objectors, described the drawing as “superficial and absurd”, similar to “festival songs” and more suitable for “pocket novels”, but it did not express the spirit of Mahfouz’s works that we know in the previous covers. Because, according to him, it has nothing to do with art or the development of any artistic ideas, describing it as “a ridiculous joke and a terrifying and obscene nightmare.” The writer, Safaa Al-Najjar, called on the Attorney General to intervene and terminate the contract with Diwan, and considered what had happened “sabotage, not trial.” On the other hand, the novelist Yasser Abdel Hafez objected to what he called “incitement by the authorities” because it is not a cultural act, while acknowledging that the covers are “bad”, but this remains a point of view that we disagree and agree on.

Does the attorney general really have the power to terminate a legally valid contract between the publisher and the heirs? Does this proposal open the door to “nationalizing creativity” in the sense that there are unanimous national figures such as Umm Kulthum, Naguib Mahfouz, Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim… The state has the right to strip property rights from their heirs? When and how do we determine the dishonesty of the heirs and their misuse of the inheritance that is the property of the public?

“Diwan” has owned the right of paper publishing for fifteen years, and in the face of controversy or anger, the publishing director, writer Ahmed Al-Qarmlawy, expressed his satisfaction with what has been accomplished and that the controversy is normal, and he cited that the readers’ vote in “Social Media” was in favor of the covers. He pointed out that the design was based on a workshop that included a group of young people under the age of thirty-five who freely presented their visual vision. He hoped that Arab painters would join the project and bet on time for people to accept differences and change negative impressions.

Al-Qarmlawi’s defense is understandable by virtue of its position, especially since opinions, even if negative, are free propaganda. Therefore, he called on the opponents to “continue with the same enthusiasm.”

afor a stick from the middle

Hoda Naguib Mahfouz entered the crisis line, and by virtue of the fact that she granted “Diwan” the right to publish, she grabbed the stick from the middle and did not object to the covers and said that she saw some of them before they were released, but she did not say that they were great and impressive, but that “some of them liked them.” It is natural that people’s tastes differ, so what she likes Others may not like it. She explained that her father was not interfering with the covers. If Mahfouz was alive, would he have objected and rejected the covers? Probably his opinion would be like his daughter holding the stick in the middle. It is known that he did not express a negative opinion of films based on his novels, regardless of their level, and adopted the slogan “I am only responsible for my written novels.” When he saw his statue, which is currently standing in the Mohandessin neighborhood, where it looks like an old man walking on a crutch, he thanked those who made it and said lightly that they had probably only read the novel “The Beggar” from his works, indicating his dislike of him.

Tolerance and guardianship

The house issued about ten covers of controversy, three or four of them, and it is suspected that they are “shocking” covers due to the familiarity that readers have known for decades with Jamal Qutb and then Helmy Al-Tuni. Its lines and colors are not characterized by the experience of these two veteran creators, and lacked the fingerprint and special identity that distinguishes their work, especially with the participation of more than one person in the design. There is an absence of the designer’s personal imprint, as well as the familiar imprint of Mahfouz’s novels and characters, and the lack of the Egyptian spirit. Some look flashy and fanciful, like the cover of Heart of the Night, and others are very direct and superficial, like The Thief and the Dogs. In addition to the nature or size of the font used in the title, and the absence of a picture of Mahfouz on the back cover, as did “Al-Shorouk”.

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Far from evaluating the experience, it reveals two basic positions in any cultural debate, the position of tolerance in terms of encouraging young people and giving them the opportunity to express themselves and their tastes and calmly mature their experience, in contrast to the logic of guardianship over Mahfouz and his fixation, and his creativity in a specific perception that no one is allowed to break and change. Classics may not need this glamor in their covers, but no one has the right to monopolize Mahfouz’s name and always speak for him. What really prevents an innovative artistic and marketing trend that expresses a young generation?

The cover is the reader’s window to the book, and a threshold in which the spirit of the writer, the painter, the reader and the text itself converge. It is not only sufficient for it to fulfill the aesthetic requirements, but with its pictures, texts and advertisements, it must be part of the marketing process. Therefore, it remains up to the coming days to see if the publishing house itself has won Or did you lose your bet? It is not excluded that the campaign, which may seem “programmed”, is part of the publishers’ struggle and what goes on behind the scenes and under the tables to get a cake named Naguib Mahfouz.

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