The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish

by Naguib Mahfouz

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

“The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish” is a subtle metaphor told in first-person narration about the loss of a young Egyptian boy’s innocence and his need for parental protection. One morning the boy is sent out by his mother to buy a piaster’s worth of beans for breakfast. There follows an account of all the things that happen to the boy as he tries to complete this seemingly simple errand. However, even after several visits to the neighborhood bean seller, his mission is unsuccessful.

The first time the boy is sent out to buy the beans, he does not know or has forgotten whether the beans need anything on them and, if they do, whether it should be oil or cooking butter. On returning better informed to the store the second time, he is still unable to specify which kind of oil he needs—linseed, vegetable, or olive. On his third visit, following a scolding by his mother, the boy is unable to find the coin that she had given him to pay for the beans. After his increasingly irate mother gives him another piaster, threatening to recoup it from his money box and to break his head if he returns empty-handed, the boy is diverted from his destination by a conjurer’s show. He is attracted by the man’s sleight of hand involving rabbits, eggs, snakes, and ropes. However, the conjurer, incensed by the boy’s refusal to pay after watching the performance, hits him on the back. On reaching the bean seller’s store, the boy realizes that he no longer has his mother’s dish to carry the beans. He retraces his steps, suspecting the conjurer of having made off with the dish. However, when he confronts the man, he is threatened with further bodily harm and escapes, weeping in frustration.

He happens on dozens of children watching a performance. Fascinated, the boy parts with his coin to see the show. It depicts a gallant knight engaging and killing a ghoul, thereby winning the love of a beautiful lady. The boy, forgetting about dishes, piasters, and beans, is transported into this heroic world. He reenacts aloud the climactic scene. A young girl who had stood next to him at the show and who now overhears his declamation, agrees to sit down with him on the steps by an ancient wall. However, soon she must rush off to perform an errand for her mother—fetching the local midwife—but agrees to return later. Thereupon the boy remembers his own mother and hurries home—minus the piaster, the dish, and the beans—crying aloud at the prospect of punishment. However, his mother is not home. So the boy takes another coin, this time from his own savings, and another dish from the kitchen. He has to rouse the bean seller who by now is sound asleep outside the store. The incensed man roughs up the boy, who, energized by the knight’s action at the show, hurls the dish at the man’s head and runs for his life.

Fearing retribution at home, the boy decides on a final fling with his piaster, but neither the conjurer nor the show operator are around. He returns to the ancient stairway, hoping to find the girl, but instead, he hears the whispers of a couple below. Their whispers remind him of his encounter with the girl. Their conversation is followed by an amorous episode but it ends with a violent confrontation about money that the man, seemingly a tramp, demands from the woman, who appears to be a Gypsy. It looks as if the man is about to strangle his companion. The boy, until then unnoticed, screams and escapes in terror. When he finally stops running, out of breath, he notices that he is in an unfamiliar place. By now dusk is falling, and he wonders whether he will find his home.

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