Naguib Mahfouz Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975

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.

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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.

The Trilogy

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 love and loses his religious beliefs as he learns more science. At the end of this volume, in 1927, several characters are ill, and several die, as the hero of the revolution, Sa’d Zaghlul, also dies.

It is 1935 at the opening of Sugar Street, and the family is suffering from economic depression amid worries about war. At the end of the novel, in 1945, Ahmad is dead, Amina is dying, two grandsons are in a prison camp, and a granddaughter is about to have a child. Devastated by the deaths of her husband and children, Aisha is driven to madness and mysticism. Khadija is outraged when her sons—Abd al-Muni’m, a member of the Muslim Brethren, and Ahmad Ibrahim Shawkat, a communist—are arrested and imprisoned. Kamal, now an English teacher, believes life is a great cheat. Yasin is alarmed by signs of aging; he begins to reconstruct his memory, placing himself in a heroic light, thus casting The Trilogy in a comic attitude of ironic absurdity.

Children of the Alley

Children of the Alley centers on an Egyptian family confronted with trials and tribulations that suggest parallels with the patriarchs and religious leaders of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While the book has earned praise for its universal appeal, it has been condemned by Islamic extremists whose interpretation reduces the narrative to a disrespectful presentation of holy personages. It is a bold narrative in which the God-like Gabalawi chooses his youngest son, Adham, to manage his property. Adham, pressed by his satanic brother, violates his father’s trust and is driven into a hostile world, where he is forced to peddle potatoes. After Adham’s son Qadri murders his brother Humam, Adham is forgiven in a dream by Gabalawi. In the second tale, Gabal (a Moses-like figure) kills a henchman of Overseer, his foster father, and flees into the desert, where a snake charmer gives Gabal his daughter in marriage. Gabal returns home, and Gabalawi commands Gabal to oppose injustice. Gabal charms snakes away and becomes a lawgiver.

The Jesus-like Rifaa disappears into the desert to avoid marriage and returns, after a conversation with Gabalawi, preaching mercy. He protects a prostitute from a mob and then marries her. He acquires a reputation as a healer, but he is clubbed to death by gangsters and buried in the desert. There are rumors of his resurrection. The hero of the fourth tale is Qassem, who resembles the Prophet Muḥammad. He is visited by a servant of Gabalawi, who tells Qassem to bring justice to his people. He organizes athletic clubs to attract young men from the outcast tribe of Desert Rats, who train for combat; then he leads his men to overcome Overseer and establish peace. Arafa, a magician-scientist, and his brother Hanash arrive in the alley to avenge the death of their mother. Arafa steals into the house of Gabalawi and accidentally kills a servant, causing Gabalawi to die of shock. Arafa searches for magic to bring Gabalawi back to life. Arafa is summoned by Overseer, who forces him to share a bottle of explosive powder that Arafa has invented, but Arafa is kidnapped and buried alive in the desert, while his brother tries to protect the formula for the magic powder.

The Thief and the Dogs

The Thief and the Dogs alternates between interior monologues of the obsessed thief, Said Mahran, and objective descriptions of events in the days of his life after he is released from prison. Seeking revenge against his former friend and his former wife, he goes to the Sufi sheikh Ali al-Junaydi, who gives him aid and religious advice. Then Said searches for an old political comrade, journalist Rauf Ilwan, who tells Said to find a job. Said attempts to rob Rauf’s home, but he is caught and thrown into the night. He obtains a gun and meets Nur, a prostitute and old friend, who takes him into her home. Said kills a stranger whom he mistakes for the husband of his ex-wife. He tries to kill Rauf, but again he kills the wrong man. The full fury of the police and public are launched, through Rauf’s newspaper, to find and punish Said. He flees into a cemetery, and there, among the tombs, he is pursued by men and dogs; he opens fire and is cut down in a hail of bullets, raving at the dogs who have found him at last.

This novel incorporates elements of existentialism and psychological realism to show how social rejection—by his little daughter and then by his friend Rauf—leads to Said Mahran’s alienation and inability to resist irresponsible actions. His mistaken killings are followed by a final mistake when he leaves the Sufi sheikh’s sanctuary to retrieve his uniform, which provides a clue to the dogs who find him hiding in the cemetery. Said’s final moment is open to differing interpretations: Are individuals inevitably defeated by sociopolitical forces, or do they rise in stature through the courageous acceptance of destiny? Surrounded by the police, Said is no longer afraid; he comes out “raving at the dogs.” The dogs represent sociopolitical forces that are lacking in human understanding.

Arabian Nights and Days

Arabian Nights and Days is a retelling of the famous fifteenth century Arabic stories The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, also known as The Thousand and One Nights. Sultan Shahriyar announces he will no longer kill virgins. Gamasa al-Bulti, the chief of police, captures a genie, Singam, while fishing, then watches himself being beheaded because the genie has put a double in his place. The real Gamasa has assumed the form of Abdullah the porter. He begins a holy war, murdering people in the government. Abdullah confesses his murders, is ordered to a lunatic asylum, and disappears. Sakhrabout and Zarmabaha, drunken genies, scheme against people for fun. Foolish people are saved by Abdullah the madman, and the sultan becomes more righteous as he stalks the night streets to learn truth.

Aladdin is falsely arrested, then executed unjustly. The sultan is tricked, through a mock trial, into recognizing this injustice. Genies give a magic cap of invisibility to Fadil Sanaan, who can do anything except what his conscience dictates, yet he must not commit evil. He promptly violates these conditions, enjoying his powers and harassing people throughout the city, before he returns the cap, confesses his sins, and boldly meets his death. After the cobbler, Marouf, learns the limits of powers from genies, the sultan appoints him governor, and Marouf appoints the madman as police chief. Sindbad the Sailor teaches the sultan moral lessons, and in the final tale the sultan abandons his throne and family and finds a great rock, which opens to admit him to a beautiful eternal bride. However, he cannot resist opening a door that says, “Everything is clear except for this door.” The door takes him back outside the rock, and he cannot return. In despair, he hears Abdullah saying there is no path to truth, and so it cannot be attained, but it cannot be escaped. The innovative twist of the title of this work implies a blend of magical tales from the past and spiritual parables that emphasize the theme of an individual’s quest for truth that cannot be attained, either through “canonic laws” or through human perceptions.

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