Discuss the character of the boy in "The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish" by Naguib Mahfouz.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish” by Naguib Mahfouz begins with a simple errand that becomes more complex as the day goes on. The setting is Cairo. The narration is first person point of view with the protagonist, the nameless boy, serving as the  narrator. 

The boy lives in a compound with shops around his area. The mother of the boy is harsh and exacting of the boy who is ill prepared for any task that she gives him.

His mother gives the speaker simple instructions; however, the instructions are incomplete.  Take the bowl and the piastre [Egyptian currency]. Go and buy some beans for breakfast. 

This is a list of the problems that the boy faces  about buying the beans:

  • First, the mother forgets to tell what she wants in the beans---by themselves, with oil, or cooking butter.
  • Second, the mother tells him oil but not what kind—he returns to his frustrated mother who tells him linseed oil.
  • Third, he loses his money. She yells at him; then, she gives him more money.
  • Fourth, the boy becomes distracted and watches a magician or conjurer performing tricks. He goes to the Bean man.  Now he has lost his bowl.  He thinks that the conjurer has stolen his bowl. There are many children running toward a peep hole show.  Not thinking, he spent his piaster and went to the show.  Now he has lost the bowl and the money.  He meets a young, pretty girl and they kiss. He falls for her. She  promises to come back to him. 

He returns to his house.  His mother is not there.  He gets more money and a bowl.  The Bean Man is asleep because he has closed his shop.  He yells at the boy, and there is a confrontation.  The boy makes a quick decision and  throws the bowl and hits the man in the head.  He runs madly out of the shop and goes to the place where he is to meet the girl again.

As he waits for the girl on some stairs, the boy looks under the stairs into some ruins.  There he  sees a man and woman arguing.  Suddenly, the man starts choking the woman to death.  The boy screams and runs a long distance away from his compound.  He finds himself in the middle of a lot of blind beggars. He hopes that a miracle will come; then, he decides to make a quick decision.

Has the boy grown?

The boy has had a rough day.  His immaturity shows in many ways.  The conflicts that he has faced have beaten him down because of his poor decisions.  Several times in the story, the boy makes a quick decision which leads him down a worse path. 

“I made a quick decision. And with all my strength threw the dish at him.  It flew through the air and struck him on the head, while I took to my heels heedless of everything  I was convinced I’d killed him.

Nothing that the boy does indicates that he has grown from his experiences.  At the end of the story, he is lost; rather than ask the passers-by for help, he chooses to wait for a miracle. 

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