Historical Context

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Egypt in the Twentieth Century
Mahfouz has been a witness to all of the major events in Egyptian history during his lifetime. Many of these events have had a profound effect on the subject matter, style, and political implications of his stories and novels.

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In 1922 Egypt gained independence from British rule. With the establishment of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948, Egypt, and much of the Arab world, became engaged in a series of conflicts with Israel. As soon as the Israeli state had been formed, the surrounding Arab nations of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan attacked the new nation—a conflict that ended with Israel's victory over the four nations.

In 1952 a military coup overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. In June 1967, Egypt again suffered a loss to Israel in the Six-Day War. This defeat wounded the national pride of the people of Egypt. In 1973, under the new regime of Anwar Sadat, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War (launched during the Jewish high holiday); although they could not claim a victory, Egypt did regain some national pride.

In 1978, Sadat met at Camp David, Maryland, with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and United States President Jimmy Carter. This historic meeting resulted in a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

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Arabic literature
Arabic literature includes any literature written in an Arabic language, regardless of the nationality of the author. Thus, Arabic writers have included a broad compass of nationalities, such as Egypt, India, Iran, Persia, Spain, and Syria.

The work of Mahfouz, an Egyptian, can thus be understood in the context of Arabic literary history The classic era of Arabic literature, mainly proverbs and poetry, was first communicated in the oral tradition and later written down in text form. Classic Arabic literature dates from the sixth century to the sixteenth century. Although this classic literature was not necessarily religious, it is categorized into two distinct periods: first before the advent of Islam in the early seventh century, and the second after the advent of Islam.

Arabic literature was virtually eliminated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as most of the Arab-speaking world was conquered by other cultures.

The modern era of Arabic literature emerged in the nineteenth century, in part through contact with Western culture and literary traditions. Whereas the European short story and the modern novel had its roots in the eighteenth century, the Arabic world did not begin to develop these literary forms until the late nineteenth century.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Egypt' 'became the center of the renaissance'' in Arabic literature. Highly influenced by translations of French literature, the first generation of Arabic writers of the realistic short story and novel did not emerge until after World War I. Naguib Mahfouz was one of the first to master the literary form.

The Arabic Language
The Arabic language is written and spoken in many nations and encompasses many regional and national dialects. Moreover, there have always been two distinct forms of Arabic: the written and the spoken. In developing the modern form of the realistic story, however, fiction writers in Arabic have been faced with a difficult dilemma: when and if to continue to write in classic written Arabic, and when and if to write in the spoken dialect that would realistically be used by the story's characters in their conversation.

Throughout the twentieth century, individual Arabic writers have made their own choices in this matter. Some, for instance, continued to use written Arabic in the prose sections of their stories, while utilizing the spoken dialect in the dialogue sections. In all of his works, however, Mahfouz has consistently utilized the classic written Arabic.

Literary Style

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Allegory
An allegory is a story with events and characters not meant to be interpreted at a literal level but at a symbolic one. Menahem Milson, in his book Naguib Mahfouz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo, maintains that in the work of Mahfouz, "allegory is an extremely important literary mode.'" "Half a Day’’ is an allegory for life and the human condition. The story is clearly not meant to be interpreted literally, since the use of time in the narrative is completely unrealistic. The narrator enters the schoolyard a young boy and leaves it "half a day'' later, only to discover that the world outside has been completely transformed and he is now the age of a grandfather. The ‘‘half a day’’ spent in school is thus an allegory for the way in which an entire lifetime can seem to last only ‘‘half a day.’’

The school represents what one might call the "school of life,'' as all of the events that take place there are allegorical for the human condition and the human experience of life. Because the story is an allegory, none of the characters, including the main character, are given names; they are meant to represent humanity in general, and their experiences are that of the human condition, rather than of individuals. The meaning in this story is thus derived from re-examining it in terms of its allegorical, rather than literal, implications.

Setting
As is the case in many allegorical stories, the setting of "Half a Day'' is general. Mahfouz has lived in Cairo, Egypt, all of his life—and nearly all of his stories take place there—so it can be assumed that the story is set in Cairo. Yet it is told in such a way that it could take place in almost any schoolyard in any city over the course of the twentieth century.

The setting, however, is more important in terms of its allegorical meaning. The schoolyard refers to the ''school of life.'' The events that occur there represent the experiences of an entire human life span. The gate to the schoolyard thus represents an important stage of transition in the life of the narrator. He first passes through the gate in order to make the transition from early childhood into manhood and adulthood. As the narrator's father tells him while gently pushing him through the gate, ‘‘today you truly being life.’’

Stepping out of the gate at the end of the "half a day’’ spent in school, the narrator, now and old man, is once again making the transition to the ending of his life, on his way to "home," which signifies death and the afterlife.

Narrative voice
The narrative voice of a story refers to who tells the story. In ‘‘Half a Day,’’ the narrative voice is that of the main character, who, at the beginning, is a young boy; by the end, the narrator is an old man.

In the beginning, the story is told in the "first person singular,’’ meaning that the narrator speaks from the perspective of an individual "I." However, this voice alters once he has entered the schoolyard, at which point it slides into a first person plural voice from a group perspective of "We." The narrator thus describes school as a group experience, whereby he speaks from the perspective of the common experience of all of the children.

This change in perspective is significant to the allegorical implications of the story. The story describes the experience of the human condition; therefore, the narrator's experiences in school are meant to be understood in terms of the ways in which "we," all humans, experience life, time and memory.

Social Concerns

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Naguib Mahfouz gained international recognition in 1988 when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until that time Mahfouz was not widely known in the Western world, although he had been recognized as a prominent author in his own country of Egypt. In 1989 "Half a Day" was first published in Arabic as part of a short story collection entitled The False Dawn. In 1991 "Half a Day" was included in an English-language collection entitled The Time and the Place.

"Half a Day" belongs to the later phase of Mahfouz's literary career, which is characterized by a shift from social realism to a more modern, experimental mode of writing. It is a very short (five-page) allegorical tale in which the narrator begins the day as a young boy entering school for the first time, but leaves the schoolyard an old man whose life has passed in what seemed like only "half a day."

The central allegorical implications of this tale comprise a commentary on the human condition; an entire life span is experienced as only "half a day" in the school of life. The story also alludes to the cycle of life, whereby the narrator passes through childhood, middle age and old age in the course of one day.

Critic Rasheed El-Enany, in Naguib Mahfouz, has called "Half a Day" a "technical tour de force." El-Enany explains that "brief as it is, the story must count as the author's most powerful rendering of the dilemma of the gulf between observable time and mnemonic time."

Compare and Contrast

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1989: When Mahfouz's short story ‘‘Half a Day’’ was first published in Arabic in 1989, he had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, earning him instant international recognition. By this point, however, most of his novels and short story collections were not yet available in English translation.

Today: In the decade since he received the Nobel Prize for literature, more than half of Mahfouz's body of work has been published in English translation.

1922: Egypt gains independence from British rule.

Today: Egypt, despite many social and political upheavals, remains a sovereign state and a United States ally.

1948: Israel is established as an independent state, ushering in a tumultuous period of conflicts between Egypt and Israel.

1978: The signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt initiated a new era in the relationship between the two nations.

Today: The relationship between Israel and Egypt is improved, but still problematic.

Literary Precedents

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Zaynab (1913), by Muhammad Hussein Haykal, is considered the first Arabic narrative to approach the European novel form. Other prominent Egyptian writers of the twentieth century include Taha Hussein (1889-1973), Abbas Al-Aqqad (1889-1964), and Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1898-1987).

Media Adaptations

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Mahfouz has written numerous screenplays for the Egyptian cinema. Many of his stories have been adapted to the screen, including sixteen of his novels. These films are not readily available in the United States.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
'Atiyya, Ahmad Muhammad. ‘‘Naguib Mahfouz and the Short Story,’’ in Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz, edited by Trevor Le Gassick, Three Continents Press, Washington, D.C., 1991.

Charters, Ann. Introduction to ‘‘Half a Day’’ by Naguib Mahfouz, in The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 4th ed., Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995, p. 848.

El-Enany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 195, 203, 212.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online [database online], [cited September 1999], available from Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, IL, s.v. ‘‘Arabic literature.’’

Milson, Menahem. Naguib Mahfouz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, pp. xiii, 82.

Further Reading
El-Enany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, London: Routledge, 1993.
A reassessment of the writings of Mahfouz, updating earlier criticism of the writer. Discusses the need to categorize the stylistic phases of his literary output.

Gordon, Haim. Naguib Mahfouz's Egypt: Existential Themes in His Writings, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Discusses the novels of Mahfouz in terms of existential issues facing modern Egyptians. Examines his work in the cultural, political, social, and religious context of modern Egypt.

Le Gassick, Trevor, ed. Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991.
A collection of essays on the work of Mahfouz. Provides an overview of the subjects and themes of
his work, and determines his contribution to Arabic literature.

Mehrez, Samia. Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction: Essays on Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim, and Gamal al-Ghitani, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1994.
Analysis of three of the most prominent Egyptian writers of the twentieth century.

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