Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835
In his fiction, Naguib Mahfouz has assumed the role of chronicler and conscience of Egypt in the twentieth century. Since, however, many of his works examine issues that are common to all humanity, they are timeless and of universal interest. Mahfouz’s works have consistently expressed his interest in the role of women in society. His fiction suggests that he has generally been supportive of women exerting their personal choice. Even women who become prostitutes are viewed with equanimity and understanding, if not admiration.
Mahfouz is perhaps the best-known Arab fiction writer in the Anglophone world. Over a period of half a century he has given voice to the hopes and frustrations of his nation. Through his fiction, Egyptian and Arab-Islamic cultural heritage has become accessible to Westerners. His works illustrate the position of women in his culture, and clarify the changes and disruptions that Western ideas and culture have brought to individuals and society as a whole in Egypt.
Mahfouz is said to have published his first short story in an obscure Cairo journal, Al-Siyasa, in July, 1932. This was followed by a regular production in several Egyptian journals, both literary and popular. These early stories number approximately eighty, of which over twenty have been republished in a collection entitled Hams al-junn. They frequently present situations in which sadness results from faults of character and immorality or from ill fortune. The situations are often domestic and the problems prosaic, such as marital infidelity or a family’s descent into poverty through unemployment or the death of the wage earner.
These stories are generally didactic and sentimental and reflect the influence of the works of the then hugely popular Sheikh Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti; this author’s genius for archaic, sonorous, and rhythmic prose Mahfouz was, however, unable to match. Other early stories present flat and static character sketches of the lives and personalities of curious characters; these are reminiscent of the fiction of Mahmud Taymur, a prominent Egyptian writer who was himself a devotee of Guy de Maupassant. Often with characters and situations that are unconvincing and lack development, these works nevertheless suggest the pessimism and high seriousness that have characterized Mahfouz’s literary production.
The short stories of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, like the novels, still largely concern themselves with the issues and dilemmas that affect the poor, the bureaucracy, and the petit bourgeois. They emphasize the negative aspects of Egypt’s class structure and demonstrate how the struggle for survival and advancement entails loss of mortality and personal happiness. They suggest a general compassion for the underprivileged and a disapproval of the values of his compatriots who enjoy wealth and power.
The whimsical “Duny Allh” (“God’s World”), in the collection Duny Allh, and available in various English translations, centers sympathetically on an aging man, an impoverished messenger in a department of the bureaucracy, who, having stolen the salaries of his colleagues, absconds to Alexandria with a young woman. Though his idyllic vacation ends with her rejection of him and his capture by the police, the thief has no cause for regret since he has achieved one brief period of happiness in an otherwise dismal life.
Mahfouz’s writings of the 1950’s and 1960’s became increasingly complex in their structure and style and more political and obscure in their themes. As was the case with other Egyptian writers, such as Yusuf Idris, and Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus, his works now contained subtle expressions of discontent at the repressive nature of the rule of the country’s dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had led an army coup in 1952 that had overthrown the monarchy. While viewed as generally benevolent and reformist, the regime brooked no criticism from its citizenry, and brief jail sentences were served by many intellectuals whose loyalty became suspect. Caution and obfuscation were clearly necessary to escape notice or defy interpretation by the “defenders of the revolution.” The stories are therefore metaphorical and the criticisms oblique, though some do lend themselves to easy equational interpretation.
For example, his “Sa’iq al-qitar” (in the collection Bayt sayyi’ al-sumՙa) presents passengers in a train; one man, reminiscent of a bear, standing for the Soviet Union, constantly challenges another, reminiscent of an “eagle,” representing the United States, over the future of a woman who presumably stands for Egypt. The passengers realize that their train is rushing headlong into certain disaster. The train driver—clearly Nasser—locked in the engine compartment refuses all advice to slow down and seems crazed and suicidal. It is implied that the nation is helpless and headed for tragedy under his leadership.
Other short stories of the period reflect the malaise and confusion widely shared by Egyptian intellectuals. While they applauded the new international attention and prestige that the regime had won for Egypt as a leader of the neutralist Third World and were pleased at the downfall of the landowning aristocracy, they suffered from involvement in a debilitating war in Yemen, a stagnant economy, and restrictions on travel. They also chafed at the abolition of the country’s political parties and freedoms of expression, while they disdained the Nasser worship of the powerful state-controlled media. Stories such as “Zaabalawi” (in the collection Duny Allh) clearly suggest this malaise; it involves a sick man’s search for a revered healer, a holy man who embodied inherited rather than imported values and procedures of contemporary “doctors.” The dissatisfaction at the root of this story is viewed by some critics as similar in its message to that of Mahfouz’s extremely controversial novel Children of Gebelawi, which chronicles the failures of both the religions and the governmental structures to satisfy people’s needs for security and justice.
“Beneath the Shelter”
In the several months following the disastrous war of June, 1967, between Israel and the Arabs, Mahfouz wrote a variety of curious and disturbing short stories and five one-act plays, which were collected and published in 1967 in the volume Taḥta al-miẓalla. These works present characters and situations that show Egyptians to be living in a Kafkaesque and chaotic world where individuals live in distress and terror. The story reflects the trauma then affecting Egyptians from two sources—the fear of death from sporadic Israeli air attacks and the repressive policies being pursued by the Nasser regime.
While the internal message in these works is constrained and camouflaged by symbolism, their intent to reveal despair and to suggest criticism is clear. While not lending themselves to full equational interpretation, unlike some of his earlier stories, they contain enough “clues” to suggest the author’s purpose, which at times extended beyond the prosaic criticism of the country’s leadership into the metaphysical.
For example, the story “Taḥta al-miẓalla” (“Beneath the Shelter”) could obviously be interpreted as an expression of the tragedy and absurdity of the human experience stemming from failure to replace brutality and chaos with an order based on morality and compassion. In this story, dramatic and tragic events unfold in the street before onlookers awaiting the arrival of a bus. These incidents, occurring in an atmosphere of unrelieved gloom and downpourings of rain in increasing intensity, suggest the progression of the recent history of the Middle East as seen from an Egyptian perspective. The onlookers are reluctant to accept as reality the strange and bloody events that they witness. To justify their own fear of involvement, they convince themselves that the changing scene is merely the action of a motion picture being shot. A final horrific event, however, convinces them that they are witnessing a reality too horrible to ignore; a head gushing blood—presumably during the 1967 war—rolls down the street before them. Belatedly seeking involvement, they call out to a “policeman” who has also been an uninvolved observer of the scenes. His response, however, is to question their identity and loyalty and to shoot them all dead. While the general intent of the story is evident, its specific symbols may be variously interpreted. It is not clear, for example, whether the uninvolved spectators are Egyptian or foreign, or whether the brutal and callous policeman is Nasser or an abstraction, such as time or fate.
Such stories, for all the interest they arouse in Arabic and the speed and frequency with which they have been published in translation, have received little interpretation. Clearly, commentators have realized that it would be an act of betrayal to reveal the purposes of an author who has taken such pains to present his ideas in so obscure and circumspect a manner.
The issue of commitment against injustice is clearly a major theme of Mahfouz’s oeuvre, and, in works written before 1978, this theme often finds expression in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In several works—for example “Fijian Shayy” (in the collection Taḥta al-miẓalla) and the one-act play “Death and Resurrection” (from the collection Taḥta al-miẓalla, in English in the 1989 collection One-Act Plays)—Mahfouz insists on the need to redress the wrongs done to the Palestinians and to continue the Arab struggle against Israel. These works all appeared before Egypt’s 1978-1979 rapprochement with Israel, following which Mahfouz has been an outspoken advocate of peace and cooperation between Arabs and Israelis.
The chaotic and fast-changing nature of contemporary Egyptian society and its values and the resultant sense of disorientation and bewilderment has been the subject of several stories. In “False Dawn” (in the collection Al-Fajr al-kdhib), the reader follows a young man’s apparently logical search for an enemy only to discover that he has been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia caused by the confusion of change in modern society.
“The Answer Is No” and “Min taht ila Fawq”
Several of the short stories similarly center on strong-willed women; indeed, it could be maintained that Mahfouz, like many prominent Arab authors, has his female characters exemplify virtues lacking in his male figures. Mahfouz’s advocacy of the right to choose or reject marriage clearly contradicts traditional male mainstream opinion in his society. For example, in the story “The Answer Is No” (from the collection Al-Fajr al-kdhib), a young girl who is seduced by a teacher refuses to marry him despite his dutiful proposal to her as soon as she reaches the legal age for marriage. Years later, when he becomes the principal of the school where she teaches and inquires after her marital status, she expresses no regret at her unmarried state. Similarly, in “Min taht ila Fawq” (also in Al-Fajr al-kdhib), an unmarried young woman, orphaned as a child and exploited by her family for whom she acts as an unpaid cook and housekeeper, decides to take employment as a servant in luxury Cairo apartments. Formerly sickly and depressed at home, she becomes happy and earns a fine salary. When her health, morale, and dress improve, she marries an electrician, whom she proudly introduces to her family; she has married by choice, and as an equal.
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