Naguib Mahfouz Long Fiction Analysis
After the end of World War II, Naguib Mahfouz published novels that represented life as he knew it when he was growing up, beginning with Khn al-Khalli in 1945. Details of the neighborhood where he was born, Gamaliya, provided him with setting and symbols. Midaq Alley focuses on people struggling to survive amid the rapidly changing conditions of old Cairo. Mahfouz’s disillusionment with President Nasser is reflected in many of the novels published after 1961, beginning with The Thief and the Dogs. These novels express the spiritual need and political discontent that had been suppressed in his previous works. Autumn Quail and The Search reflect the way Mahfouz expresses in his titles the symbolic images that crystallize the themes of these novels. Miramar presents an episode of romantic violence in a boardinghouse in Alexandria, Egypt, told by four boarders from their different points of view. Mahfouz would return to this narrative device in the later novel Wedding Song, with self-reflective characters who observe themselves in a drama with the same title as the novel.
Mahfouz’s art varied in several different novels after Respected Sir in 1975, an ironic tale of a civil servant who sacrifices everything for career advancement. This includes the allegorical and anecdotal techniques of Children of the Alley, the epic adventures of The Harafish, and the romantic fantasies of Arabian Nights and Days. The first and third of these represent radical innovations by Mahfouz, in which he rewrites historical tales of religion and fable. The Harafish, on the other hand, is an extended version of the techniques used in Children of the Alley, with more irony and surface realism, and also with a conclusion that promises a return to original goodness.
While the romantic settings of ancient Egypt capture the majestic and the exotic in Mahfouz’s fiction, his realistic scenes of twentieth century Cairo bring to life poor neighborhoods with complex entanglements amid sectarian and ideological differences, such as the English presence in Egypt, Shiahs, Sunnis, Islamic extremists, and Sufis. Mahfouz blends the Western art of fiction with the Islamic literary tradition of Sufism, which connects spirituality with folk culture. Even though the political environment in which he lived subjected Mahfouz to personal suffering and injustice, his artistic vision was not restrained by national politics. His vision of the human condition is guided by mystical dimensions that enrich his fiction with figurative language, infusing universal appeal. His use of symbols and allegorical devices may have served as a mask for his political criticism, but only a reductive approach would disregard the full scope of his fiction. It draws on both the Western tradition and the Sufi conventions of universal mystical appeal that connect the language of the heart and mind through feeling and meaning. Mahfouz also uses Sufism as a historical link with the grandeur of the Islamic past, beyond Arab-speaking countries, to integrate the magical or the miraculous, opening up his narratives to ambivalent interpretations. His recurrent references to Sufi sheikhs engaged in dhikr, or meditation, serve as a reminder of eternal hope and the spiritual path of love that unites the Creator and his creation.
Mahfouz’s major accomplishment is made up of three volumes: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. Palace Walk is a street in Cairo on which Ahmad, a storekeeper, and his family live at the end of World War I. The head of the family is al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a religiously conservative middle-class merchant who finds pleasure in drinking with his friends and carousing with prostitutes. The lustful Yasin is his son by his first wife. Amina is Ahmad’s devoted second wife and mother of four children. Fahmy is her elder son, a law student who becomes increasingly involved in the 1919 Revolution. Kamal is her younger son, who will grow to maturity over the course of the three novels, from a simple, innocent boy to a troubled, skeptical man. Khadija is the ugly elder daughter with a big heart. The beautiful younger sister, Aisha, marries first and goes to live on Sugar Street with her new family. Fahmy joins in a victory celebration at the end of Palace Walk and is killed by British soldiers.
Palace of Desire begins in 1924. The members of the family are portrayed after Fahmy’s martyrdom. Yasin chases woman after woman, never satisfying his lust. Ahmad, relaxing his tyranny over his family, has a desperate affair with a prostitute, who marries Yasin. Amina becomes more outspoken. Kamal, in teachers’ college, is disillusioned with...
(The entire section is 1975 words.)