The short story “Zaabalawi” by Naguib Mahfouz follows an unnamed narrator as he searches for Sheik Zaabalawi so he can cure the narrator of “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Even though the narrator searches everywhere for Zaabalawi, no one can tell him where Zaabalawi is because Zaabalawi does not have a permanent location.
This short story is an allegory. The narrator is on a spiritual journey, and the characters he meets on the journey represent specific perspectives. As the narrator moves through his journey, he gets closer and closer to finding Zaabalawi by connecting with people who are more spiritual and less material.
The narrator’s journey is part of how Mahfouz both reflects and critiques Muslim values. The story reflects the Sufi mystic tradition, as is seen in the narrator’s allegorical spiritual journey. The narrator’s journey has a specific goal in mind: to find Zaabalawi to get his cure. However, the quest itself does not have a clear path for the narrator to follow. This reflects Sufism, which believes that a teacher is the conduit between the student and the divine. The narrator is searching for Zaabalawi to be his connection to a cure.
However, Mahfouz critiques Muslim values towards the end of the story. The narrator finally interacts with Zaabalawi when he meets Mr. Wanas, who gets him drunk in a bar. This event is paradoxical because the narrator is finally able to have a connection with Zaabalawi when he gives in to Mr. Wanas’s pressure and drinks so much that he passes out. While Sufism is not a Muslim sect, almost all of Muslims believe that drinking alcohol is haram, or unlawful. Mahfouz is critiquing Muslim values through the narrator’s haram practice that leads him to find a sense of spiritual connection.