Naguib Mahfouz World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2792

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In his novels and short stories, Mahfouz interwove autobiographical and historical facts, the background ranging from rebellions opposing the Hyksos occupation of 1500 b.c.e. to conflicts with Israel in the twentieth century. His works reflected developments in the aesthetic, philosophic, and political thinking in Cairo.

Mahfouz identified his Egyptian masters. One, Taha Husayn, academic and novelist, advocated the primacy of reason over tradition. His adherents campaigned for and were successful in obtaining changes in social structures, creating opportunities in education and employment for men and women. Likewise, Mustafa al-Manfaluti’s sketches of daily life instigated social reform. Third, Salama Mousa fostered Mahfouz’s acceptance of scientific socialism, with the works of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx shaping his form of literary realism. Lastly, in seeking stylistic accomplishment in Arabic literature, Mahfouz turned to the prose narratives of the Koran and The Thousand and One Nights.

When he abandoned his coursework in philosophy, Mahfouz pursued a self-study program for reading masterpieces of world literature. The Nobel laureate’s works reveal the strong influence of Western writers, especially that of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, Gustave Flaubert,Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Henry James, and William Faulkner.

In the late 1930’s, Mahfouz wrote three historical novels in the romantic style, using Sir Walter Scott’s works as models. Fascinated by such archeological discoveries as the tomb of Tutankhamen, he set the action in ancient Egypt, criticizing covertly the Egyptian government of his time. Two of the novels describe despotic pharaohs, who reflect the behavior of King Farouk I. The third describes the Egyptians’ triumphant insurrection against the Hyksos rulers, paralleling endeavors in his own times to oust the British occupiers.

Having sanctioned the conventions of literary realism and naturalism, Mahfouz focuses on people from the lower-class quarters of contemporary Cairo. He highlights Muslim religious practices and social customs. Mahfouz’s dynamic and unforgettable characters are products of their neighborhood.

In addition to offering veiled criticism of his era, Mahfouz used stylistic techniques in his early period that inform his later works as well. For example, he uses dualistic oppositions, such as old/new, good/evil, light/dark, and chaos/order.

At the opening of Zuqq al-Midaqq (1947; Midaq Alley, 1966), an old bard arrives at the café to intone his tales. The men ignore him and listen, instead, to the new radio. He is the first of the numerous people in Mahfouz’s fiction who are displaced, rejected, fired, or jilted because of social and political changes. The modern is more interesting than the old; people forgo tradition and disregard ancestors. Good luck and money or material possessions, rather than religious or ethical values, guarantee moral standing.

While Mahfouz did not espouse Zola’s theories of the novel as scientific experiment, the Frenchman’s twenty-volume saga on the Rougon-Macquart family informs Mahfouz’s masterpiece, the Cairo trilogy, a milestone in the history of the Arabic novel for which he gained honors in Egypt and abroad. Like most of his later works, the trilogy was serialized in the newspaper Al-Ahram and then published in book form. Each of the three books of the trilogy takes its title from the name of a street in the quarter of the al-Husayn mosque. The characters live within a rich context of time, place, and heredity. Cultural, intellectual, and political events provide motivations for their actions.

Mahfouz paints with epic grandeur the dilemmas and aspirations of three generations of the family of Ahmad Abd al Jawad, from 1917 to 1944. The first volume, Bayn al-qaṣrayn (1956; Palace Walk, 1990), focuses on the patriarch’s interactions with his wives, mistresses, children, and business associates. The second, Qaṣr al-shawq (1957; Palace of Desire, 1991), takes place between 1924 and 1927. Named for the street where a character lives, it focuses on the rebellious sons and especially on the emotional and intellectual struggles of Kamal, a university student. The third, Al-Sukkariya (1957; Sugar Street, 1992), which takes place from 1935 to 1944, offers a stage for the political roles played by the sons of the patriarch’s two daughters.

Following the revolution of July 23, 1952, Mahfouz endorsed a Sufi-oriented, democratic view of life. In 1959, he serialized Awld Ḥratin (book, 1967; Children of Gebelawi, 1981, also known as Children of the Alley, 1996). An allegorical novel advancing a negative view of religions not providing solutions to the problems of existence, it caused much controversy among fundamentalists, who had it banned in Egypt. Mahfouz returned to this topic. In his short stories especially, he examines the estrangement and the loneliness of humanity without God.

In the 1960’s, Mahfouz published six novels and two collections of short stories. Most of these works tell about the crisis of intellectuals, who are suffering from disillusionment and despair caused by civil strife, wars with Israel, and other forms of cruelty. Written in an impressionistic style (a few details evoke environment and situations), the novels indict the Egyptian government for failing to assist leaders of the revolutions. These books include Al-Liṣṣ wa-al-kilb (1961; The Thief and the Dogs, 1984), Al-Summn wa-al-kharf (1962; Autumn Quail, 1985), Al-Ṭarq (1964; The Search, 1987), Al-Shaḥḥdh (1965; The Beggar, 1986), Mirmr (1967; Miramar, 1978), and Tharthara fawq al-Nl (1966; Adrift on the Nile, 1993). The Nobel committee praised the structure of Adrift on the Nile, in which members of Cairo’s intelligentsia assemble on a houseboat on the Nile and, in drug-induced stupor, ridicule bureaucracy and Nasser’s regime.

Mahfouz adapts psychoanalytical methods to disclose the inner lives of his alienated characters, who seek self-justification. Mahfouz uses the stream-of-consciousness technique. A character’s ruminations unveil his inner world. Mahfouz also subscribes to Proust’s use of interior monologue, which discloses a character’s associative reactions to a sensory stimulus.

The works produced during the 1970’s and the 1980’s also reflect on political issues. They also deal with quests; characters search for the father, for honor, or for political identity. Malḥamat al-ḥarfsh (1977; The Harafish, 1994) is an epic of the common people who are oppressed by poverty, but who also suffer from vices (pride, dishonesty, lust, greed) that are sources of cruelty and obstacles to greatness.

Mahfouz experimented with conventions of narration. For example, he used surrealistic techniques. In many stories, he used the narrative techniques of the Arabic tradition to which he is heir. These stories have a loose, episodic structure and rely on accumulation of details to produce a roundness of vision. For the most part, however, Mahfouz’s works are tightly constructed and offer a cohesively unified worldview. The beginning announces the principal themes that are woven throughout the text, and the end reiterates them.

Most Egyptians embraced Mahfouz’s works, either in printed form or in the films based on his stories. Mahfouz created filmscripts, as well as plays, out of many of his prose works, and some of his narratives reflect his experiences as a screenwriter. Cinematic techniques are evident in Afrh al-qubbah (1981; Wedding Song, 1984). His theatrical experiences also inform this work, which is presented in dialogue form.

Palace Walk

First published: Bayn al-qaṣrayn, 1956 (English translation, 1990)

Type of work: Novel

Egyptians prefer this volume of the trilogy, which is about a Cairo family, their social customs, cultural values, and political concerns.

Family conflicts parallel political turmoil in Palace Walk, which covers the period between November 10, 1917 and April 8, 1919. Great Britain opposed, at that time, Egypt’s request for independence. The novel focuses on the patriarch, Al-Sayyid (the master) Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a middle-aged merchant. In his comfortable home at Bayna al-qasrayn, the martinet imposes strict standards of behavior on his family, upholding traditional values, which are undergoing change. Al-Sayyid’s personality, however, has other facets. In his house, he forbids music, considered unreligious, but he is an expert on music. His new mistress is a singer. One son, Yasin, learns of Al-Sayyid’s philandering and is shocked to witness his father’s gaiety and singing. At the end of the novel, Al-Sayyid is shocked to learn that another son, Kamal, has inherited his fine voice.

Al-Sayyid married his wife, Amina, daughter of a sheikh, when she was thirteen. He trained her to submit to his rule, for he had failed to do so with his first wife, Yasin’s free-spirited mother. Grateful to be Al-Sayyid’s only wife, Amina considers welcoming him home at midnight her duty. She nevertheless resents his spending evenings out and suspects that he lives a different life with his friends.

Mahfouz, examining the rights of women, begins the novel from Amina’s point of view. Her tasks—caring for five children and running the household with the help of a maid and two daughters—are dull, but she finds solace in passages from the Koran, which are woven throughout the novel. Sequestered, she watches the male members of the family leave the house from behind the latticed balcony, which conceals the women from public view. For diversion, she tends to her rooftop garden and looks at the neighborhood and its minarets. She has left home twice in the past twenty-five years, veiled and accompanied by her husband, to visit her mother.

The major event in the novel involves Amina’s leaving the house. When her husband is away on business, she and her youngest son, Kamal, go to al-Husayn mosque. On their return, she is hit by an automobile, a symbol of scientific progress. Al-Sayyid, calm until her recovery, banishes her to her mother’s house. The sons visit her in secret. Her husband invites her back because of social obligations, arranging marriages for their daughters.

Palace Walk ends with jubilation in Cairo but sorrow for Al-Sayyid’s family. The nationalists victorious, Fahmy asks his father to forgive him for having defied his orders not to participate in the revolt. Fahmy then leaves to celebrate Sa’d Zaghlul’s return from exile. The British open fire on the demonstration, and Fahmy is killed. Students inform Al-Sayyid, who must go to face his wife’s grief as well as another challenge to his authority. Unlike his return in chapter 1, in which he receives respect, he is not expected at the coffee hour. He is disoriented when he hears Kamal’s song, and he realizes that the family disobeys his codes of behavior in his absence. Throughout the novel, the ingenuous, modern child, Kamal, who is the chief protagonist of the second novel of Al-Thulathiya, serves as a foil for the duplicitous father.

The Thief and the Dogs

First published: Al-Liṣṣ wa-al-kilb, 1961 (English translation, 1984)

Type of work: Novel

Mahfouz offers a psychological study of an idealistic revolutionary who refuses to adapt to change and must be judged a rebel and a thief.

Following Western conventions, time in The Thief and the Dogs is marked by the rising and setting sun. The novel begins on the morning Said Mahran is released from prison, after a four-year sentence for robbery, and it ends with his death approximately seventeen days later. This framework points to Mahfouz’s source, the case of Ahmad Amin Sulayman, a criminal who tried to kill his adulterous wife and her paramour. The police killed Sulayman on April 1, 1960.

In the exposition, Said walks from prison to his old home in Cairo, and, en route, he offers his self-justification in an internal monologue. Once home, he plans to demand two things: his books and Sana, his six-year-old daughter. He also plans to take revenge on Ilish Sidra, an associate who turned Said in and who then, after Said’s incarceration, secured everything that Said had—home, money, and his wife, Nabawiyya. While his neighbors greet him respectfully, the police, who are providing Ilish with protection, are hostile. Unfortunately, Sana has ruined his books, and she is startled when her father talks to her. Her look of rejection saddens Said.

Said visits Ali al-Junaydi, his late father’s religious counselor. The Sufi sheikh offers him food, advice, and sanctuary. Said accepts the hospitality and spends his first night of freedom at the sheikh’s house. Within the next three weeks, he returns there twice, after criminal deeds. The sheikh’s lessons in ethics enable the reader to judge Said’s acts. On Said’s last visit, a gathering of men chant verses. Mahfouz records a poem on the passage of time and the vanity of human pursuits, which suggests analogies to Said’s situation.

Wishing to be a journalist, Said goes to Rauf Ilwan, his mentor in both socialist ideologies and crime. Now living in a neighborhood that they used to burglarize, the editor hands Said cash but refuses to give the thief a job. Such treachery is unpardonable; Said must fight this dog as well.

Two people who live on the fringes of the city and of society help him to effectuate his plans. Nur, a prostitute, offers him shelter, food, and companionship while he is hiding from the police. Tarzan, café owner and pariah, gets him a gun. According to Said, fate and scoundrels foil his schemes. Rauf catches him breaking into his house. Said’s bullet misses its target and fells Rauf’s porter. Said kills an innocent man instead of Ilish, who has relocated. The police trap Said in the cemetery, where their dogs “hound him down.” In a final review of his ideals, he recalls Sana’s rejecting gaze. He renounces rebellion and succumbs beside a tomb. Said’s final reflections might be considered an allusion to the disillusionment of Egyptian intellectuals whose revolution, in July, 1952, failed.

Respected Sir

First published: Ḥaḍrat al-muḥtaram, 1975 (English translation, 1986)

Type of work: Novel

The protagonist’s mission to obtain the promotions that define his sense of respectability requires sacrificing his other interests to his career.

The first novel written in the ironic mode in Arabic literature, Respected Sir demonstrates how an individual’s character and family background may determine his or her achievements. The first chapter introduces the protagonist, Othman Bayyumi, as well as the key topics. Othman is among a group of new employees who are taken to meet the director general in his office. The only words that the director utters announce changes in the educational system, a major concern in the novel. He says that students currently receive diplomas, rather than primary and secondary certificates, so he is surprised to see that Othman has a certificate. Hired for the lowest position because of his lack of education, Othman is overwhelmed by this experience. He describes the office in flowery religious diction. Othman’s reverence for an ordinary office highlights the novel’s irony and warns the reader to keep an intellectual distance from Othman, who yearns to become director general.

Othman’s father wanted him to work rather than go to school. He considered his son educated once Othman knew prayers and passages from the Koran. The father, however, followed his sheikh’s advice and sent Othman to school. The best student in the neighborhood, Othman could not complete secondary school because both parents died, and he had to work. Three siblings, who link this novel to previous works, also died. One brother was killed in a demonstration, another died in prison, and his sister died of typhoid fever.

In painting the bureaucrat’s climb to the top and the politics of government hierarchy, Mahfouz draws on his experiences as a civil servant. Details from the author’s career are found in Othman’s tasks (preparing translations, writing a newspaper column), his interests (studying English and French), and his temperament.

Mahfouz is not sympathetic, however, toward Othman, even if they have things in common. Othman is an excellent worker and is promoted with the shifting of positions. The self-made man loses all sense of measure and fails to understand that stress may kill him before he reaches the top. In his ambition and pride, Othman eschews ethical principles.

As part of his goal to become director general, Othman’s desire to marry becomes an all-consuming pursuit. With the possibility of having a powerful position, he cannot marry his childhood sweetheart. He needs someone who can help further his career. Matchmakers, however, cannot find anyone from a good family who can marry him, because of his humble background. He treats a potential mate, a schoolmistress, with great cruelty. He fails to understand that his raping her, rather than bad luck or the unjust social order, causes her downfall. He marries Qadriyya, a prostitute, because prostitution is to be abolished, and he wishes to make her a respectable women. In middle age, he longs for children, so he marries a young civil servant with a bachelor’s degree in history. This woman, Radiya, is also an opportunist. When convalescing from a heart attack, he learns that she married him because of his prestigious job. He is stunned and loses his will to live, even though he has just been promoted to director general.


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