Naguib Mahfouz

Start Free Trial

Anton Shammas (essay date 2 February 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Shroud of Mahfouz,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, February 2, 1989, pp. 19–21.

[In the following essay, Shammas discusses Mahfouz as an Arabic novelist and considers his influence on Arabic literature.]

In the acceptance speech he sent to the Nobel Prize committee to substitute for his presence, Naguib Mahfouz asked the permission of his far-off audience to present himself as the son of two civilizations “that at a certain time in history have formed a happy marriage”—the civilization of the Pharaohs and that of Islam. Then he told an abrupt little story about each. After a victorious battle against Byzantium, he said, the Muslims gave back prisoners of war in return for a number of books of the ancient Greek heritage in philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. “This was a testimony of value for the human spirit in its demand for knowledge,” Mahfouz said, “even though the demander was a believer in God and the demanded a fruit of pagan civilization.”

Jorge Luis Borges, who might have envied this Egyptian descendant of Averroës the honor that had befallen him, would also have detected in this cryptic anecdote the whimsical tricks of repetition that history often plays in his own writings. Was Aristotle's Poetics, that wonderful “fruit of pagan civilization,” among these ransomed books? That would have probably been the first question to come to Borges's mind. Averroës, known to the Arabs as Ibn Rushd, was the philosopher and physician who, in the twelfth century in Islamic Spain, saved the Poetics from oblivion in his commentary on Aristotle—a book that would “justify him in the eyes of mankind,” as Borges says.

In the charming tale entitled “Averroës' Search,” Borges describes the failure of Ibn Rushd to translate into Arabic the two words mentioned at the beginning of the Poetics: “comedy” and “tragedy.” Circumscribed by Islam, where the word “theater” did not exist, Averroës could never have known the meaning of these two arcane words that pervaded the Poetics. Loitering over the riddle, he is distracted by “a kind of melody”—the noise of some children who are playing in the courtyard of his house in Cordoba. One is playing the part of the muezzin, the other is crouched motionlessly beneath him as if he is a minaret, and the third, abject in the dust, is the faithful worshiper. The “melody” of their noise does not connect with anything else in Averroës's mind. Later, at a friend's house, he listens to an Arab traveler who has been to China, where he attended a theatrical performance of sorts, without knowing what it was. The other guests do not seem to understand why such a large number of people would be needed in order to tell just one story—“a single speaker can relate anything, however complex it may be.” Averroës goes back to his house and writes:

Aristu [Aristotle for the Arabs] calls panegyrics by the name of tragedy, and satires and anathemas he calls comedies. The Koran abounds in remarkable tragedies and comedies.

“History,” Borges adds, “records few acts more beautiful and more pathetic than this Arabic physician's consecration to the thoughts of a man from whom he was separated by fourteen centuries.”

Averroës died on December 10, 1198. Naguib Mahfouz, 790 years later, celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday on the morning after the Nobel Prize ceremony of December 10, 1988. Mahfouz was born in 1911, the year that the first Arabic novel, Zainab (a name he also would use later), was being written in Paris, by another Egyptian writer, Muhammad Hussein Haikal. Forty years before,...

(This entire section contains 4023 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the first Arabic play had made its debut in Cairo.

Mahfouz published his own first novel in 1939, at the age of twenty-eight. Seven years later, when he started writing his masterpiece, “The Cairene Trilogy,” the Arabic novel was still far from having emerged as a mature form. In the twelfth century of Averroës's Spain, and simultaneously in Egypt, Arab culture was grappling with the texts of ancient Greece and was refining the art of storytelling of The Arabian Nights. Eight hundred years later, by the end of the nineteenth century, this literary tradition had already deteriorated and was not able to provide the “single speakers” with voices of their own. The storyteller of The Arabian Nights, in his Second Coming to the Orient, had to learn it all anew, from scratch, through Western eyes. And he came back single-handed—that is, one could say, without his left arm. The Arabian Nights has a polyphonic style of storytelling in which, as in a piano piece, the left hand provides a framing accompaniment that fills out the harmonic texture, a basic story, and lets the right hand carry out the melody of a subsidiary tale and then return to the bass and leave it again with another melody.

The “ground” is not always a framing story; it is often the evoked cultural and historical setting that gives a sense of local validity to a novel. Such a ubiquitous yet elusive cultural presence underlies Don Quixote, the presence of the lofty, yet impractical and vanishing world of chivalry in Spain at the turn of the seventeenth century. This world is conveyed, as it were, by Cervantes's left hand—a world of popular, knightly romances that he is drawing on and mocking at the same time. What makes the works of Gabriel García Márquez so different from those of his contemporaries in Arabic literature is, among other things, his ability to squeeze into Macondo the qualities that give the place both a local validity through its mastery of the Colombian “ground” (imagined as that might be) and the fictional validity of the stories he tells. This polyphonic style became homophonic in Arabic literature. Márquez, whose literary origins go back to Andalusia, can be seen as a more privileged Mahfouz: his storyteller came to him intact, with two hands, via Don Quixote. Mahfouz—and all other modern Arabic writers for that matter—are the bereft ones: their storyteller came back to them with an amputated left hand. A perfect Western revenge.

Why couldn't Averroës understand the meaning of tragedy and comedy; why couldn't he relate to the “melody” played in his courtyard by those children? Douglas R. Hofstadter, who in Gödel, Escher, Bach discusses the concepts of “figure” and “ground” in various contexts (mathematics, art, and music), could have given us a different, less Borgesian, answer. Hofstadter would contend that the same could have happened to Averroës had he lived until 1720 and listened to one of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas for violin. In music, especially in Baroque music, there is often a distinction between figure and ground, between melody and accompaniment—the melody is usually in the forefront of our attention, while the accompaniment (the harmony) is subsidiary in some sense. In a Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin, the accompaniment, or the ground, is not even there; it exists only in the cultural mind of the listener, who implicitly “plays” it while listening to the melody. How could Averroës, then, listen to the melody of “comedy” and “tragedy” if he had not known what the ground for these two figures is all about?

In a gesture that recalls Hemingway's in 1954, Mahfouz, who has left Egypt only twice in his life, did not show up at the Nobel Prize ceremony last December in Stockholm. He sent his two daughters to collect the award. Ian Wooldridge, who introduced the recent TV program on the 1988 Nobel Prizes (a TV special, produced by Turner Broadcasting for cable television), told the viewers from his chair at the Thousand-And-One-Guest-Banquet that followed the ceremony: “It's a great shame that our literature laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, can't be here tonight, but in his honor we have some music from his country, a taste of Egypt.” What followed were three seated Egyptians, in traditional dress, entertaining the white-tie audience with “some music.” The central “figure” was a traditional singer who also played the oud (the precursor of the lute), flanked by a drummer and a flutist who provided the accompaniment. The song was in praise of the faithful believer; how rich he is despite his poverty. At one point the camera focused on the face of the King of Sweden listening to this belated act of Arab revenge: the three children playing in the long forgotten Andalusian courtyard of Averroës were here now in his court. They had refined their art, but instead of playing the active roles of the faithful worshiper and the muezzin, they were providing merely a dying echo of the children's play. And, like Averroës “striving to imagine a drama without ever having suspected what a theater was,” there was the King of Sweden with what might have been the expression of the same effort on his face.

The history of the Nobel Prize “records few acts more beautiful and more pathetic” than these folk Egyptian singers, trying to “represent” their country's cultural spirit, especially if their music is juxtaposed with an “Orientalist” piece for cello played earlier during the ceremony—“Arab Village,” by Gunther Schuller. The flat, straightforward song of the Egyptian trio, performed during the banquet while everybody was being served the royal hors d'oeuvres, set the right note for the evening. What sounds like a nice piece of Egyptian folk music when played in a Cairene nightclub can only be kitsch when taken out of its setting and made to “represent” modern Arabic literature in a celebration that has been long overdue.

The same embarrassing reaction might occur when one reads Mahfouz's acceptance speech in its English translation. A virtuoso of multilayered, highly orchestrated storytelling, Mahfouz might have written another Faulknerian speech if he had wanted to (“I decline to accept the end of man”). Instead, he sent a rather trite speech, in which, at one point, he says to his listeners, Mahfouzian tongue in Egyptian cheek: “But what do you expect from one coming from the third world?” When the Israeli-Jewish writer Agnon won the award in 1966, it seemed that choosing an Arab writer for the Nobel would be just a matter of time. So this speech should have been drafted twenty-two years ago, yet it reads exactly like most of the novels and short stories that the copious Mahfouz has published after 1975 (at the rate of almost three books every two years). These are sketchy texts that sound as if they were written at random, desperately in need of a meticulous, compassionate editor.

The year 1975 marks also an important phase in Mahfouz's political involvement. In his weekly column in the daily Al-Ahram, he wrote that the Arabs must seek for peaceful ways to live with Israel. This was the first time that any Arab intellectual of his standing had broken the circle of consensus in Arab politics. Consequently, his books and the films whose scripts he had written or which were adapted from his works were banned in many Arab countries. And when in 1977 he was one of the few Egyptian intellectuals to adamantly support Sadat's initiative for peace with Israel, and later to endorse the Camp David accords, many Arab, and especially Palestinian, intellectuals felt that their god had failed. However, his reputation as the leading Arab writer hardly suffered.

It must have been “The Cairene Trilogy” particularly, published in 1956–1957, and the other works written before 1975, that the Swedish Academy had in mind when it said in its citation that Mahfouz won the award for “works rich in nuance, now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous.” When asked by the Reuters correspondent in Cairo for a comment on October 13, the Egyptian writer said: “Clarity is valuable, but ambiguity sometimes has its values too.” However, in his speech he chose to be utterly unequivocal on the Palestinian issue:

In the West Bank and Gaza there are people who are lost in spite of the fact that they are living on their own land; land of their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers. They have risen to demand the first right secured by primitive Man; namely, that they should have their proper place recognized by others as their own. They were paid back for their brave and noble move—men, women, youth and children alike—by the breaking of bones, killing with bullets, destroying of houses and torture in prisons and camps.

Mahfouz's fame as the leading Arab writer was acquired with the publication of his “Cairene Trilogy.” This work, fortunately, is not among the fourteen books by Mahfouz translated into English; it came out in a quite good Hebrew translation, though, some years ago. Even now, thirty years later, the “Trilogy” is seen by young Arab writers as a wall of China that stands in their way. Most of what has been translated from Mahfouz (except for the novel Midaq Alley perhaps) are works limited to the “figure”: it takes a great deal of charity on the part of the reader to enjoy these superb, albeit unaccompanied, melodies in their English translation. In the “Trilogy,” however, the ground bass also is abundantly present. Three generations of a Cairene family come to life through 1,500 pages. Besides being, in a way, the disguised intellectual autobiography of Mahfouz, the “Trilogy” also, as the Israeli critic Sasson Somekh has noted,

portrays the political scene of Egypt, and the daily life of the middle-class Cairene through a period of twenty-seven years (1917–1944). … The change of social patterns is not less admirably recorded. … But while the process of change is at the forefront of this work, the world of yesterday, that which is rapidly losing ground, receives no less meticulous a treatment. … The people of Cairo in the early twenties come alive before us, as do their habits, entertainments, songs, prejudices, dress and furniture.

Kamal Abd al-Gawad, of the second generation, and the central character especially in the second part of the trilogy, is Mahfouz himself in disguise, who creates the history of modern Egypt through the lives of three generations of the Abd al-Gawad family.

The first volume opens in November 1917 and covers a period of seventeen months, culminating in the rebellion of 1919 against the British. The effects of the Great War, the fraying of the old system of political control, and demonstrations against it by the supporters of the Wafd party, are part of the background for the slow-moving story of life in the house of a well-to-do Cairene family. The father, Al-Sayyid, is a Janus figure, the master of the double standard: every night he returns in the small hours from wild evenings of wine and women, expecting his submissive, worried wife, Amina, to be waiting for him at the top of the stairs, holding the lantern to light his way.

Amina is the prisoner of such expectations and of the huge house itself. She is confined within a shadowy world of spirits and later by the burdens of motherhood. Yaseen, her stepchild, a clerk in a school, is a rougher and more vulgar version of his father, and at times his rival in pursuing women. Her son Fahmi is a law student who, after a frustrating love affair, turns to politics, and eventually, at the end of the first volume, is shot dead in a demonstration. The second son, Kamal, a vigorous, imaginative child in the first volume, turns in the next volumes into a passive intellectual. To a certain extent he is not only Mahfouz in disguise but also seems meant to suggest the collective situation of Arab intellectuals toward the end of 1944; having left, or having wanted to leave, the old house of tradition, he now faces the modern Western forces and values that are both tempting and seem to require him to take determined action to change his world. The sudden exposure to new kinds of choice makes him retreat, a victim of his own inaction. A graduate of a teacher's college, he teaches English and contributes hackneyed articles on modern philosophy to literary magazines. He can no longer reconcile his inherited faith with his acquired knowledge, and finds himself drifting to atheism, much to his father's chagrin.

Kamal is juxtaposed, especially in the third volume of the “Trilogy,” with the third generation of the family, each of whose members wants to try out his own answers to the predicaments of the fathers. Two of his nephews—his sister's sons—choose separate, contradictory political careers: one finds refuge in the Muslim Brotherhood, the other in Communism. Yaseen's son opportunistically uses his homosexuality to develop relationships with high political figures, and so helps his relatives get better jobs. Though published in 1956–1957, the “Trilogy” ends in 1944, eight years before the revolution led by Naguib and Nasser.

Young Arab writers have found it difficult to break through the wall of China from the inside. A leading writer of the younger generation in Egypt once confided to the literary critic Muhammad Siddiq:

Before any younger writer sits down to write anything, he must make sure that Mahfouz has not already written that novel. And if he is lucky and Mahfouz hasn't done it already, that is still no guarantee that he will not have done so before the younger writer gets around to writing his.

It so happened that on the same day that Mahfouz's Nobel Prize was announced in October, the Roman Catholic Church announced that the Shroud of Turin, venerated by millions of Christians over the centuries as the burial cloth of Jesus, turned out to be a fake. It occurred to me, without for a moment implying that Mahfouz is a fake, that most Arab novels written after the “Trilogy” bear, in some way or another, the negative image of Mahfouz—an image, one might say, that inexorably filters through the shrouds used to cover the face of the Cairene Christ as part of a rebellion against him. Only three Arab writers have achieved the nearly impossible task of escaping Mahfouz's imprint, to my mind: the Sudanese Tayeb Salih in his Season of Migration to the North (1966), which was written in London (English translation published in the UK in 1970); the Palestinian Emile Habiby in his Pessoptimist (1974; the English translation was published in the US in 1982); and the Syrian Salim Barakat in his Fuqaha' al-Zalam (Sages of Darkness, to be published by PROTA, the Project of the Translation from Arabic), which was written in Cyprus and published in 1985.

In the interview I have mentioned, Mahfouz attributed his winning the Nobel Prize to hard work, good luck, and a French translation of his trilogy. Besides the fourteen English translations from his work, and the best study of him by Sasson Somekh (The Changing Rhythm), one might add to the list of credits the continuous efforts of several publishing houses in the West to render for English-speaking readers some specimens of modern Arabic literature. PROTA, founded in 1978 and directed by the Palestinian poet and critic Salma Khadra Jayyusi, through its scholarly translations did much to attract attention to modern Arabic literature, thus helping to provide an adequate “ground.”

I browsed through the translations of Mahfouz into English, and came across one of my favorite short stories, “Al-Khala',” translated into English as “The Wilderness” (in God's World, translated by Akef Abadir and Roger Allen, 1973), from his collection The Tavern of the Black Cat, published in Arabic in 1968.

It is the story of a minor tragedy about betrayal and revenge, one of Borges's favorite themes. Sharshara, who was banished from his Cairene neighborhood to Alexandria on the night of his wedding, after he had been forced by one Lahluba to divorce his bride, Zainab, is coming back now after twenty years, driven by the vengeance that has given him a reason to live. Surrounded by his thugs, he is heading for a showdown with Lahluba, the gang leader who robbed him of his Zainab, as well as his dignity and freedom.

Why did Roger Allen, an ardent promoter of Mahfouz and Arabic literature in the United States, and Akef Abadir, the co-translator of this story, translate the title “Al-Khala'” as “The Wilderness”? The Arabic word, which occurs elsewhere in the story, according to my Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary, means, among other things: emptiness; empty space, vacancy; open country; (and in certain phrases) under the open sky; outdoors, in the open air. In Mahfouz's story, and in my village in the Galilee, khala' means where the village houses end and the vacant lands begin, where human beings no longer have dominion. “The Wilderness” of the English translation adds, perhaps inadvertently (which is worse), a Christian touch to the original Arabic (“The voice of one crying in the wilderness. … / And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. / And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan.” Mark 1:3, 12–13). So the vengeful Sharshara, returning from his “wilderness,” his exile in Alexandria, to the scene of his humiliation, may become for some readers an inverted Christ figure of sorts, a man with a blood mission to settle the score with Lahluba the Pharisee.

But Sharshara is just another one-track-minded, simple thug. He is driven by blind revenge, the desire to restore his abject manhood and dignity, to kill Lahluba and get back his bride. He resembles neither Christ nor the vengeful St. George having a showdown with the dragon Lahluba. To impose Christian overtones on this character is to mock his private agony; and to turn his plight into kitsch by dispossessing him of his own ground. (Most of the translations of Mahfouz into English are done with the zeal of committees, but at times they show the ardor of a genuine lover. Either way their contribution hardly seems to justify the Nobel award. One hopes for better treatment for the “Trilogy.”)

The first sentence in the translation of “The Wilderness,” the sentence that should set the tone for the story, is, to say the least, sloppy and loose:

It would be a savage, bloody battle. Twenty years of patient anticipation and waiting would be expunged.

This is a faint paraphrase of the original's gasped-out rhythm:

Let it be a violent, savage battle, and let it quench the thirst of twenty years of patience, lurking and wait.

On the next page, the translation runs:

Treachery may succeed, but it won't expunge the revenge.

While the Arabic reads:

Surprising him might bring victory, but this won't quench my thirst.

So Sharshara walks on, and when he reaches his enemy's neighborhood he finds out that Lahluba has been dead for some years, and that his bride, Zainab, is now just a vendor of eggs at the souk. He sends off his gang to wait for him, and goes to see her. But it is over now. “All that's over and gone,” Zainab tells him. To get her back without a fight would mean getting her back with a loss of pride. Besides, her children are grown up now, and what's the point? The word khala' and its derivatives become more recurrent, until the final episode, when Sharshara has to make up his mind which road to take in order to meet again with his henchmen. Wishing to be left alone with his grief, he heads for the road—one would be tempted to say less traveled by, taking the empty path that passes through the vacant, open country. He does this, in the final sentence of the story, without the exhausted help of Christ or Robert Frost, and without knowing that a woman called Zainab had also been the heroine of the first Arabic novel, written in Paris the year Mahfouz was born:

So there was the road to the wilderness; and that's the one he took, into the wilderness. …

The ellipsis, otherwise the most popular literary device among modern Arabic writers, including Mahfouz, is here contributed by the translator. It expands the limits of the wilderness, just in case there is not enough room for Sharshara's grief.

Averroës could not know what comedy and tragedy meant; and eight hundred years later the translators of Mahfouz, who could, made a Christian farce out of Muslim Sharshara's little tragedy. Another subject for Borges.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Naguib Mahfouz c. 1911-2006

(Full name Naguib Abdel Aziz Al-Sabilgi Mahfouz; also transliterated as Nagīb, Nageeb, or Najīb Mahfūz) Egyptian novelist, short story writer, playwright, autobiographer, and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Mahfouz's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 52 and 55.

Generally regarded as modern Egypt's leading literary figure, Mahfouz is the first Arabic-language author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Best known for novels in which he creates psychological portraits of characters whose personal struggles mirror the social, political, religious, and cultural concerns confronting his homeland, Mahfouz first won respect during the mid-1940s for a series of novels set among the impoverished districts of Cairo. These works depict futility and tragedy in the lives of lower-class characters who contend with social injustices and the ineluctability of fate.

Biographical Information

Born on an unknown date near 1911, Mahfouz was the youngest of several children in his family. His father was a merchant in the medieval section of Old Cairo, a familiar setting in much of Mahfouz's fiction. Though surrounded by intense political strife during the 1919 Egyptian Revolution and subsequent nationalist protests against British rule, Mahfouz had a happy childhood. He eventually moved with his family to a modern neighborhood in Cairo, where as an adolescent he read widely and enjoyed adventure movies at the local cinema. While in high school Mahfouz studied philosophy and Arabic literature, falling under the influence of contemporary authors Taha Hussein, Abbas al-Akkad, and Salma Musa. Mahfouz began studies at the University of Cairo in 1930, where he earned a degree in philosophy in 1934. Upon graduation he enrolled in graduate courses in philosophy, but he left after only a year to pursue a career as a full-time writer. In 1939 Mahfouz published his first two volumes of fiction—Hams al-junun, a collection of short stories, and his first novel, Abath al-aqdar. During the same year he took an administrative position with the Egyptian government's Ministry of Islamic Affairs, where he was employed until 1954. Mahfouz maintained a prolific output of novels and short stories through the 1940s and 1950s. The first volume of his “Cairo Trilogy,” Bayn al-Qasrayn (1956; Palace Walk), received enormous public and critical approval, establishing Mahfouz as one of the preeminent authors of the Arab world. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the ascension of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser as the nation's leader, Mahfouz was appointed director of censorship for the Department of Art, a post he held from 1954 to 1959. During the next decade, he served as director of the Foundation for Support of the Cinema and continued to produce additional volumes of short stories and novels. His Awlad haratina (1967; Children of Gebelawi) generated considerable controversy upon its serialized publication in a newspaper in 1959. Denounced by Islamic fundamentalists as blasphemous, the work was banned in Egypt, though it eventually appeared in book form through a Lebanese publisher in 1967. Upon his retirement in 1972, Mahfouz devoted himself to his writing. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. He survived an assassination attempt by Islamic extremists in 1994, during which he was stabbed; those behind the plot were arrested and executed. Mahfouz's autobiographical writings are collected in Echoes of an Autobiography (1997).

Major Works

Mahfouz secured his reputation during the 1950s with his “Cairo Trilogy,” a series of novels chronicling the lives of a middle-class Cairo family as well as Egypt's society and politics from 1917 to 1944. These three works—Palace Walk,Qasr al-shawq (1957; Palace of Desire), and Al-Sukkariya (1957; Sugar Street)—encompass such topics as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the effects of modernization on cultural and religious values, and changing social attitudes towards women, education, and science. In later works Mahfouz made extensive use of such literary devices as allegory, symbolism, and experimental narrative techniques to explore political issues, social and cultural malaise, spiritual crises, alienation, and decadence in contemporary Egypt. Children of Gebelawi, for example, is an allegory in which Egypt's present-day social concerns are linked with those of the past. Mahfouz explores broad themes, including the nature of evil and the meaning of life, by modeling his characters on such figures as Adam, Satan, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed, and he ambivalently personifies science and technology as the modern prophets of humanity. Malhamat al harafish (1977; The Harafish) traces the changing fortunes of thirteen generations of impoverished Egyptians over some seven centuries. The term “harafish” is a medieval Arabic word that refers to subversive elements among the poor. Mahfouz describes how the lives of poor inhabitants in an Old Cairo alley community are affected by the shifting beliefs and morality of their clan leaders. In addition to his fiction, Mahfouz's influence on Egyptian literature expanded to several other areas. He has written on a wide range of topics for Al-Ahram, a leading Egyptian newspaper, and as a dramatist and scriptwriter has endeavored to elevate the intellectual content of theater and film in Egypt.

Critical Reception

Mahfouz is widely considered among the most important Arabic-language authors of the twentieth century. His “Cairo Trilogy” is regarded as a masterpiece of Middle Eastern literature. A revered literary figure among Egyptians and many Arabs, Mahfouz has also become the subject of lasting controversy for his treatment of Islamic religious themes in Children of Gebelawi. Though some critics find fault in the experimental forms of his later works, most praise the prose style and symbolism of his early works and the powerful depiction of social and political conditions in his native land throughout his oeuvre. Credited with popularizing the novel and short story in Arabic literature, traditionally overshadowed by poetry, Mahfouz is often compared to nineteenth-century novelists Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fedor Dostoevsky for the social realism that pervades much of his fiction.

Roger Allen (review date Spring 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Fountain and Tomb, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, p. 361.

[In the following mixed review, Allen discusses both the stories and the translation of Fountain and Tomb.]

Published by an act of providence at almost the same moment as the announcement of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, Fountain and Tomb is a translation of Hikayat haratina (1975). The title's literal meaning is “Tales of Our Quarter,” and the word quarter links the work with at least two others by Naguib Mahfouz (also frequently written Najib Mahfuz): the infamous novel Awlad haratina (“Children of Our Quarter”; 1959/1967; translated into English as Children of Gebelawi; see WLT 56:2, p. 398), and “‘Ushshaq al-hara” (“Lovers' Quarter”) from the short-story collection Hikaya bi-la bidaya wa-la nihaya (1971). As Shams al-din Musa shows in a recent article in Arabic for Afaq ‘Arabiyya (11, November 1988) on the “dimension of the quarter” in Mahfouz's fictional works, the use of the word hara in those works carries with it a strong symbolic resonance. The decision of the translators to alter the title is thus not only a substantial piece of interpretive license, but also a missed opportunity to link the present work with others in his oeuvre. The problem is somewhat compounded when the very word hara itself is wrongly translated as “alley” on pages 112 and 114. To be sure, it can have such a meaning; yet when the resulting sentence reads, “But I can cross the whole alley in fifteen minutes,” we can be reasonably certain that the hara being referred to is that larger symbolic entity “the quarter,” sadly missing from the English title.

Fountain and Tomb is a collection of stories which are told in numerical sequence from the perspective of a first-person narrator. At times and particularly at the beginning, the perspective is that of a child, but elsewhere there is a shift to a more adult vision. All the stories are short, some extremely so, almost like fleeting impressions. They present a picture of “the quarter,” a microcosm of Egyptian life during the earlier decades of this century (there are specific references to the riots which accompanied the British expulsion of the Egyptian nationalist leader Sa‘d Zaghlul in 1919). Many of the tales concern relationships between men and women: childhood loves, illicit affairs, arranged marriages, and family feuds. There is a string of tales in the core of the book concerning the futuwwat, the thug gangs which are so much a topic of the earlier Children of Gebelawi. The entire set of stories is framed by reference to the takiya, the Sufi retreat, which remains as much a mystery to the narrator at the end of the work as it was to the child who narrates its beginning.

Hikayat haratina is problematic from the generic perspective. Its first printing described it as “short stories,” but in subsequent publications it was characterized as “characters and situations” (shakhsiyyat wa-mawaqif). At some point between the appearance of the novel Qalb allayl (Heart of the Night; 1975) and Al-Hubb fawq hadbat al-haram (Love on Pyramid Hill; 1979) the work was redefined yet again as a “novel” (riwaya). On the basis of my own experience, one should not assume that the change was made with the author's knowledge or approval. In the introduction to Fountain and Tomb the book is said to be “a novel disguised as a collection of tales.” No reasons are advanced for this description (for which, even allowing for elasticity of novelistic definitions, I can find no justification in the work itself); it is merely one of a number of pieces of unsubstantiated interpretation to be found in the introduction, much of which should be read with extreme caution. What, for example, are the particular features of the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky which lead them to be singled out as models for “The Trilogy?”

The translation itself was awarded the 1986 Arab League Translation Prize. Apart from some minor infelicities close to the beginning, it flows along with considerable fluency, capturing the carefully nuanced style of Mahfouz very well. Thus, although Fountain and Tomb is clearly not one of the author's more outstanding contributions to modern Arabic fiction, it can provide Western readers with a “slice of life,” Egyptian style, which is pleasant enough to read.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Abath al-aqdar [The Absurdity of the Fates] (novel) 1939

Hams al-junun [The Whisper of Madness] (short stories) 1939

Radobis (novel) 1943

Kifah Tiba [The Struggle of Thebes] (novel) 1944

Khan al-khalili (novel) 1945

Al-Qahira al-jadida [The New Cairo] (novel) 1946

Zuqaq al-Midaqq [Midaq Alley] (novel) 1947

Al-Sarab [The Mirage] (novel) 1949

Bidaya wa-nihaya [The Beginning and the End] (novel) 1949

Bayn al-Qasrayn [Palace Walk: The Cairo Trilogy I] (novel) 1956

Qasr al-shawq [Palace of Desire: The Cairo Trilogy II] (novel) 1957

Al Sukkariya [Sugar Street: The Cairo Trilogy III] (novel) 1957

Al-Liss wa-al-kilab [The Thief and the Dogs] (novel) 1961

Al-Summan wa-al-kharif [Autumn Quail] (novel) 1962

Dunya Allah [God's World] (short stories) 1963

Al-Tariq [The Search] (novel) 1964

Bayt sayyi al-sum a (short stories) 1965

Al-Shahhadh [The Beggar] (novel) 1965

Tharthara fawqa al-Nil [Adrift on the Nile] (novel) 1966

Awlad haratina [Children of Gebelawi; also translated as Children of the Alley] (novel) 1967

Miramar (novel) 1967

Khammarat al-qitt al-aswad [The Tavern of the Black Cat] (short stories) 1968

Taht al-Mazalla [Under the Shelter] (short stories and plays) 1969

Hikaya bi-la bidaya wa-la nihaya (short stories) 1971

Al-Maraya [Mirrors] (novel) 1972

God's World: An Anthology of Short Stories (short stories) 1973

Al-Hubb tahta al-matar (novel) 1973

Al-Jarima [The Crime] (short stories and plays) 1973

Al-Karnak [Karnak Cafe] (novel) 1974

Hadrat al-muhtaram [Respected Sir] (novel) 1975

Hikayat haratina [Fountain and Tomb] (novel) 1975

Qalb al-layl [Heart of the Night] (novel) 1975

Malhamat al harafish [The Harafish] (novel) 1977

Hubb fawqa hadabat al-haram [Love on Pyramid Hill] (short stories) 1979

Shaytan ya iz [Satan Preaches] (short stories and plays) 1979

Asr al-hubb (novel) 1980

Nagib Mahfuz Yatadhakkar (memoirs) 1980

Afrah al-qubbah [Wedding Song] (novel) 1981

Al-Baqi min al-zaman sa ah [There Only Remains an Hour] (novel) 1982

Layali alf laylah [Arabian Nights and Days; also translated as The Night of a Thousand Nights] (novel) 1982

Ra‘aytu fima yara al-na‘im (short stories) 1982

Amam al-arsh [Before the Throne] (novel) 1983

Rihlat ibn Fattumah [The Journey of Ibn Fattouma] (novel) 1983

Al-Tanzim al-sirri (short stories) 1984

Al-A‘ish fi al-haqiqa [He Who Lives in the Truth; also translated as Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth] (novel) 1985

Yawm qutila al-za im [The Day the Leader Was Killed; also translated as The Day the President Was Killed] (novel) 1985

Hadith al sabah wa-al-masa (novel) 1987

Sabah al-ward (short stories) 1987

Qushtumur (novel) 1989

The Time and the Place and Other Stories (short stories) 1991

Echoes of an Autobiography (autobiography) 1997

Jake Morrissey (review date 19 February 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Sleep Walk,” in National Review, Vol. XLII, No. 3, February 19, 1990, pp. 51–52.

[In the following negative review of Palace Walk, Morrissey unfavorably compares the novel to the work of Charles Dickens, asserting that it “lacks the verve and structure that made Dickens so readable.”]

When the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988—the first Arab writer to be so honored—it wasn't owing to his world-wide reputation. In fact, in the United States, Mahfouz had virtually no reputation at all; few critics and fewer readers had ever heard of him. The New York Times reported that when the Swedish Academy of Letters disclosed that Mahfouz had been given the Nobel, those who had gathered in Stockholm for the announcement “dispersed quietly and quickly. One said later that she and others had immediately gone searching for copies of Mr. Mahfouz's writings in local bookstores. They eventually found a copy of a work first published in 1957 that was on a sale rack in a store that specialized in used books.”

U.S. publishers of the 78-year-old writer's works no doubt hope that situation will change. At least three of Mahfouz's books recently have been published in new editions, and William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny's smooth translation of Palace Walk, the first volume of the “Cairo Trilogy,” his masterwork, was published here last month. Soon American readers will be able to experience what the Swedish Academy called “works rich in nuance—now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous.”

Whether Mahfouz's books measure up to such praise is open to question, however. He has been called “the Dickens of the Cairo cafés.” Sadly, Palace Walk lacks the verve and structure that made Dickens so readable.

Palace Walk takes place in Cairo during and just after World War I. Unlike Dickens, who relished weaving disparate threads of the London social fabric into a coherent whole—as he did in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend—Mahfouz is content to focus on one family. Dickens's mastery of the dynamics of plot and motivation braid a richly hued carpet, full of deep color and captivating intricacy. Mahfouz satisfies himself with the literary equivalent of a rather bland needlepoint seat cover.

Admirers of Palace Walk no doubt will argue that Mahfouz is not really interested in telling a good yarn; he's writing about Egypt, and his characters are metaphors for parts of the Egyptian psyche. The argument is valid, but it begs the question: Without a framework that would compel the reader through the novel, Palace Walk is more like a well-written forced march than a pleasure trip.

Mahfouz seems fascinated by the details of his characters' lives, at the expense of all else. In this nearly five-hundred-page novel, dialogue is secondary to minutiae about the family's intellectual, moral, and spiritual lives. Mahfouz adheres to the diamond-cutting school of writing: he cuts and polishes his themes into facets that refract and illuminate. His vision is clear, his characters fully realized, his images lingering. What's lacking is a solid plot, the perfect setting to complement the stone he's cut. It's simply not there.

Perhaps the deliberate pace of Palace Walk reflects the period in which it is set: After all, in Cairo at the turn of the century, traditions were intractable, social reforms unheard of, male dominance unquestioned. Many women, for example, weren't allowed to be seen in public. (At one point in Palace Walk, when a young police officer who has seen one of the daughters at a window proposes marriage, her father, ignorant of what has happened, is thunderstruck. “How can this officer ask for the hand of Aisha despite the fact that no one has seen her?” he shouts. “No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me … me … me … me.”)

Mahfouz apparently isn't bothered by his inconsistent plotting. When a translator expressed concern over some repetition in one of Mahfouz's novels, Mahfouz is said to have laughed, pointed to the Nile and replied: “You see that great river. It rolls on and on. This is our culture. We love variations on a theme!”

The British writer John Fowles has written that Mahfouz gives readers “the rare privilege of experiencing a national psychology in a way that thousands of journalistic articles or television documentaries could not achieve.” Perhaps that is true. But for readers who are as interested in watching the evolution of a story as the evolution of a culture, they should pick up a Dickens, not a Mahfouz.

Amitav Ghosh (essay date 7 May 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Human Comedy in Cairo,” in New Republic, Vol. 202, No. 19, May 7, 1990, pp. 32–36.

[In the following essay, Ghosh provides an overview of Mahfouz's life and career as well as evaluating his contribution to modern Arabic literature.]


In Egypt, the news that the writer Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 was greeted with the kind of jubilation that Egyptians usually reserve for soccer victories. Even though the fundamentalists sounded an ominous note, most people in Cairo were overjoyed. Months later everybody was still full of it. People would tell anecdotes about how the good news had reached Mahfouz. Swedish efficiency has met its match in Cairo's telephones: the news had broken over the wires before the committee (or whatever) could get through to Mahfouz. He was asleep, taking his afternoon siesta (no, it was early in the morning, and he just hadn't woken up yet), when his wife woke him and told him matter-of-factly that somebody wanted to congratulate him for winning the Nobel (no, it was she who wanted to congratulate him, didn't you see the story in …).

The stories were on everyone's lips: tales of national pride and collective hope. Mahfouz has a large following in Egypt and is personally popular: he is everybody's slightly eccentric but successful uncle, a modest, generous, kindly man, who has spent over thirty years working as a civil servant. The rest of the Arab world was enthusiastic, too, including the people of some countries who had their own favorite contestants (it had long been rumored that an Arab writer would soon win the prize). The award to Mahfouz was clearly a recognition of the achievements of Arabic literature, and even if it was several decades overdue, the Arab world in general responded to it with pride.

It would have been interesting, at that moment of elation, if some enterprising pollster had taken it into his head to put two questions to a representative sample of the reading public in the Arab world. The first question being: “Do you think Naguib Mahfouz is the most interesting, innovative, or imaginative writer in Arabic today?” And the second: “Do you think that Naguib Mahfouz is the most appropriate candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature in the Arab world today?” It is my guess that the answer to the first question would have been largely “no,” and the answer to the second would have been generally “yes.”

In the gap between that “no” and that “yes” falls the award itself, and the extraordinary power it carries in countries like Egypt and India—old civilizations, trying hard to undo their supersession in the modern world. Once, in my own city of Calcutta, in the gaudy heat of May, stuck in a crowded bus in a traffic jam, I overheard an unexpectedly literary conversation. A sweat-soaked commuter, on his way back from a hard day's work, missed his grip on the overhead rail and dropped his briefcase on his toe. A dam seemed to burst: he began to complain loudly about the traffic, the roads, the fumes, the uncollected garbage. One of his neighbors turned to him and said sharply: “What are you complaining about? Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and wasn't he from Calcutta?” At this very moment someone stuck in a bus or a share-taxi in Tahrir or Shubra or some other traffic-logged part of Cairo is almost certainly saying the same thing about Mahfouz. Thus does Stockholm regulate the traffic in Calcutta and Cairo.

In the United States, Mahfouz met with another kind of approval on the occasion of his triumph. The second paragraph of the New York Times story on Mahfouz's Nobel, carried on the front page, quoted Israelis declaring Mahfouz's politics to be perfectly acceptable. His work, his concerns, and his subjects came a poor second to this other aspect of his newsworthiness.

For a prize of such power, the ordinary standards of judgment that apply to books are held in suspension. What matters is that the writer's work be adequately canonical, which is to say, massive, serious, and somehow a part of “world literature.” If Mahfouz won on these counts, his was the victory of the decathlete, achieved by a slow accumulation of points rather than by a spectacular show of brilliance in a single event. To date, Mahfouz has written some thirty-five novels and twelve volumes of short stories, as well as several plays and screenplays; he is said to be widely read in philosophy and French literature; and he is credited with introducing absurdism and the stream of consciousness technique into Arabic literature. Whatever your opinion about any particular book of his, there can be no denying the weight of Mahfouz's contribution to modern Arabic literature. Thus the general popularity of the award.


Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911. His father was a minor functionary in the government, and he grew up in the heart of the old city: the crowded district that lies beyond the ancient university of al-Azhar and the mausoleum of the Prophet's grandson, Sayidna Hussein. In the years of Mahfouz's childhood, it was an area where respectable families of modest means, struggling to put their children through school, lived above thriving little shops and businesses and looked out through their dusty windows at medieval mosques, hospitals, and religious schools. This is the world that Mahfouz has made peculiarly his own: a distinctively Cairene world of minor civil servants striving to make ends meet on their salaries, to push their children one rung higher on the civil service ladder while keeping up appearances against the pretensions of pushy grocers and arriviste café owners. No matter that this kind of person has moved out of the neighborhood (as did Mahfouz's family): their hopes and their anxieties remain much the same.

These are the people of Mahfouz's imaginative universe—a small, distinctive group within the tumult of modern Egypt. Rural Egypt, which occupied so much of the imaginations of Mahfouz's most illustrious predecessors and contemporaries, never intrudes on his world. Indeed, it is almost artificially excluded. His characters never even have friends or relatives in the countryside, as they almost certainly would in the “real” world. This needs saying, if only because Mahfouz's world is sometimes said to be a microcosm of Egypt. If this is so, it is surely only in that special sense in which the sansculottes of Paris were somehow a little more “the People” than the peasants of the Midi.

Much of the interest of Mahfouz lies in his avenue of entry into the world of his characters. He takes the most secret, the least accessible, route: the family. Of course, the family is one of the territories the novel has most successfully claimed for itself everywhere; all around the world there are novelists who, like Mahfouz, build their books on families and their histories, on the endless cycle of birth, marriage, and death. But in Mahfouz's hands, in the world of his People, this invitation into the family has an extra dimension of excitement.

In Egypt, and more generally in the Arab world, as in many conservative, traditional societies, the family is a secret, curtained world, protected from the gaze of outsiders by walls and courtyards, by veils and laws of silence. To be taken past those doors, into the forbidden space of failed marriages and secret desires, the areas that lie most heavily curtained under the genteel ethic of family propriety—and to be introduced into this by the most public of artifacts, a printed book—is to prepare oneself for the pleasurable tingle of the illicit. And once past that curtain, Mahfouz's reader discovers, with guilty delight, a quiet murmur of furtive gropings, dissatisfaction, and despair that confirms everything he has ever suspected about his neighbors. This is Mahfouz's particular talent: he has a fine instinct for discovering the fears, the prejudices, and the suspicions of his People, and serving them back to them as fiction.

In his hands, the intricacies of family relationships become a kind of second language, with which he demonstrates to his readers the dangers that lurk at the margins of their world. These are predicaments that they can all too readily imagine, since they form the nightmare Otherlife that gives their respectability its meaning. This is a world in which sisters become prostitutes to help their brothers become “respectable employees,” where fathers who drink encounter their sons in brothels, where ambition is always unscrupulous and young men who look above their station come to a sticky end, where boys who are allowed to stay out too late are plunged “deep into sin and addiction” and eventually end up in a region that can only be described as Mahfouz's Underworld.

That underworld is a landscape often encountered in his work, always sketched with portentous hints and suggestions, a region of pure fantasy, dank with the “odor of putrefaction,” whose inhabitants always drink themselves into stupors, smoke hashish, fondle bosomy singers, and traffic vaguely in drugs. It is through devices such as these that Mahfouz invites his reader to marvel at the decay of the world as it should be. It is a sentiment that his People are only too willing to take to heart, oppressed as they are by the prospect of poverty and social decline on the one hand, and on the other by the images of wealth that they associate with those who control money and power in their societies.

The predicament is not peculiarly Egyptian. I can think of at least two eminent writers in Calcutta whose plots and material are uncannily similar to Mahfouz's, though Mahfouz is the more skillful practitioner of the craft. This is the kind of fiction that grows out of the sensibility of literate, urban, “salaried employees”—who, caught between a vast sink of poverty and tiny, impenetrable enclaves of wealth, begin to look for some kind of meaning and authenticity in what they see as their own traditions of respectable gentility. That is their cruelest delusion, for their gentility has very little to do with the traditions of Egypt or India, Islam or Hinduism, and everything to do with Victorianism.

Much of Mahfouz's work seethes with the indignation that grows out of this particular sensibility, indignation at the corruption that allows the unscrupulous to grow rich while decent people labor to earn an honest wage. But indignation is about all it is. Its sources are not interesting enough to give it the fire of real rage or even the anger of outraged morality. Mahfouz has written some quasi-mystical parables, but he is not essentially a religious writer. Indeed, the Arab thinker whose name occurs most frequently in his work is Abu‘l ‘Ala al-Ma‘arri, a medieval freethinker and rationalist. And although Mahfouz has written political satires, he is not essentially a political writer, either. In his books politics and history generally serve as part of the background and mise-en-scène.

If there is something suspect, in the end, even about Mahfouz's indignation, it is probably because it never appears to be turned against his people's own ethic of respectability. His mother figures are impossibly good and forbearing, and girls who leave the sanctuary of the home and go out to work all too often fall prey to temptation. At its best, Mahfouz's work has some of the texture and the richness of detail of the nineteenth-century masters whose influence he acknowledges—Balzac, Tolstoy, Flaubert—but even at its bleakest and most melancholy (as in The Beginning and the End) his writing never approximates real tragedy. Its pathos seems to spring almost entirely from a sense of violated gentility. Even for a writer with Mahfouz's skill, it is hard to create tragedy out of the scramble for respectability.

It is in the observation of the small details on which the edifices of respectability are constructed that Mahfouz is really acute about his society. Those are the details that need footnoting in this selection of translations—not the “sights and smells of Cairo,” as his editors have all too predictably assumed. What the foreign reader needs explained is the real meaning of what it is to be a “salaried employee” in Egypt, the importance of the baccalaureate examinations, what it is to be an eighth-grade functionary. These are arcane and peculiarly Egyptian details, although they have nothing to do with the Egypt of the Pharaohs or Mamelukes, or with anything particularly exotic. But it is those details that make up the fabric of respectable, middle-class life in Egypt, and it is Mahfouz's singular gift that he is able to transform them into the stuff of fiction.


The American University in Cairo Press has long been doing a difficult and thankless job in making good writing in Arabic available in English translation. With Mahfouz's Nobel Prize, and the sale of rights to their translations, their efforts have been richly rewarded. It is to be hoped that more and still better translations will be forthcoming soon, so that a wider spectrum of modern Arabic writing will receive the kind of attention it deserves. The four novels published by Doubleday are revised versions of the original American University in Cairo translations. Two of them were written in Mahfouz's early “realistic” period. The Beginning and the End is the melancholy but compelling story of a family pauperized by a sudden death. Palace Walk is the first book of Mahfouz's Cairene trilogy, written in 1956–57, in which each book is named after a street in the old city. The trilogy, which charts the history of a Cairene family during the period between the wars, is a chronicle of the changes that occurred in Egyptian society over that period.

Palace Walk sets the stage for the later books; it is a depiction of what went before the changes, so to speak. The central figure in the book is a patriarch of rather extreme convictions: he has never once, in their decades-old marriage, allowed his wife to leave the house. This is a condition with which she is entirely satisfied, for the reveres her husband, except for one small thing—she longs to visit the mausoleum of Sayidna Hussein, which is down the road. One day one of her sons persuades her to venture out. She does, and for her pains she is struck by a motor car. (Why do such terrible things happen, in Mahfouz's work, to women who leave their houses?) Worse still, the wrathful patriarch, upon discovering her dereliction, packs her off to her mother's, where she languishes, wringing her hands, until he summons her back. In the end, however, the turmoil of Egyptian politics—the last part of the book is set in the period of the 1919 riots against the British presence in Egypt—catches up with the apparently invincible patriarch and leaves him a broken man.

The novel has the feel of the sort of stories people tell about the Old Days, when they want their children to marvel at how much the world has come on since then. In a sense, of course, it is exactly that: Mahfouz was a very young child in the years in which his book is set, and his family had already moved out of the old part of the city. There are some perceptive observations about the psychology of patriarchy—there is a wonderful scene, for example, in which the patriarch's son, a brave and ardent nationalist, finds himself reduced to a quaking heap by the tone of his father's voice. But the reader would be better able to savor those moments, perhaps, if Mahfouz's sympathy with the patriarch were not so patent, if the book were not so much pervaded by nostalgia for a time when Men were Men.

The other two novels, The Thief and the Dogs (1961) and Wedding Song (1981), date from Mahfouz's later period, which was less realistic and more experimental, and they are, frankly, awful. When the spirit moves Mahfouz to be technically adventurous, it also tends to push him away from his accustomed material, leaving him stranded in various exotic enclaves of society. Wedding Song is set among a group of raffish theater people who Drink, Gamble, Take Drugs, and Have Sex (the underworld, again). A particularly disreputable couple has a son who is an idealistic young man; appalled by the lasciviousness and the immorality of his parents' circle, he exposes them in a play before staging his own death. The Thief and the Dogs is about … well it's about an idealistic sort of fellow who becomes a thief because he is shocked by how rich some people are.

Unfortunately for Doubleday, and fortunately for English readers, the most delightful of Mahfouz's translated works, Midaq Alley, has long been available in a good translation by Trevor Le Gassick. It has recently been reissued by the Quality Paperback Book Club, and it is more worth reading than any of Doubleday's four. The novel is set in Mahfouz's familiar world—in a street in the old city—but it lacks the portentousness of some of his other work. It is written tongue-in-cheek, almost as self-parody, and it brims with moments of pure delight.

For instance: the homosexual café owner Kirsha—inevitably of dark and sullen aspect—is interrupted by his wife while entertaining a youth in his café. His wife marches up to the boy and screams: “Do you want to ruin my home, you rake and son of rakes. … Who am I? Don't you know me? I am your fellow-wife …” The boy escapes, and she turns upon her protesting husband and shouts, in a “voice loud enough to crumble the walls of the café”: “Shut your mouth! You are the … lavatory around here, you scarecrow, you disgrace, you rat-bag!” Among the awestruck spectators is the baker's wife, who regularly beats her husband. She turns to him now and remarks: “You're always moaning about your bad luck and asking why you're the only husband who is beaten! Did you see how even your betters are beaten?” But eventually Kirsha has his say as well. “Oh you miserable pair, why on earth should the government punish anyone who kills off people like you?” His son declares that he wants to leave home and live in a place where houses have electricity. “Electricity?” retorts Kirsha. “Thanks be to God that your mother, for all her scandals, has at least kept our house safe from electricity!”

The inhabitants of this alley are a world away from the mythologized patriarch and his family on Palace Walk.


The Nobel Prize has had an unhappy consequence for Mahfouz. Soon after the announcement, possibly as a result of the Rushdie crisis, he began to receive death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. At issue was a book he wrote in 1959 called (in its English translation) Children of Gebelawi. It was an allegorical novel, in which three of the principal characters were said to represent the prophets Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. The ‘ulema, the Muslim doctors of theology and religious law, declared Mahfouz's book to be offensive to Islam. The book was never published in Arabic in Egypt, and for a while Mahfouz stopped writing altogether. But there were more books in time, and the controversy was largely forgotten—until the threats began.

An epoch passed in the Middle East between the late fifties and the late eighties. There is a world of difference between a group of learned scholars pronouncing an anathema and the death threats issued by bands of young men barely out of college. The evolution of the Mahfouz controversy is one very small indication of how dramatically the Middle East has changed within the lifetime of his own generation.

In Mahfouz's youth, Islam had been largely sidelined as a political ideology. In Turkey, Ataturk, with the power of the army behind him, appeared intent on pushing everything religious into the wings. During his college years in the late twenties and early thirties, the principal intellectual influence on Mahfouz was a group of nationalists who had set themselves the task of creating a national culture for Egypt that would be distinctively Egyptian. The path they took lay in emphasizing Egypt's Pharaonic and Hellenistic roots, to the point of disavowing all connections with the Arab and Islamic world. It was a time when everything was thinkable in Egypt and nothing was blasphemy.

If Children of Gebelawi had been written in those years, it would probably have passed without comment: every writer in Egypt, it would seem, was writing an allegory of some kind. But the book was written in the late fifties, when the political and religious climate in the Middle East had been profoundly altered by the establishment of Israel and then by the Nasserite revolution in Egypt. In Egypt, Islam acquired a new vitality and assertiveness, and the religious establishment was keen to remind everybody of that fact. But even then the ‘ulema followed procedure in condemning the book. There were no calls for bloodshed or retribution: just a clear message that those who persisted in the intellectual habits of the thirties would now have to contend with the doctors of religious law and their followers.

But now even the learned doctors are being slowly consumed by the fires that were kindled at that time. They have not the remotest connection with the bearded young men who now speak in the name of Islam in Egypt: they have themselves been declared unbelievers, pagans—even the most learned of the shaikhs at al-Azhar, for centuries the theological center of Sunni Islam. In 1977 one of their number, Mohammad al-Dhahabi, a religious scholar and a minister of the government department in the Ministry of Religious Endowments, where Mahfouz worked for much of his life, was kidnapped and killed by a fundamentalist group called the Society of Muslims. At the subsequent trial, conducted by the army, the presiding general in so many words declared the ‘ulema incompetent.

The scholars' only recourse now is to call the preachings of the fundamentalists un-Islamic, as indeed they are by scholastic standards. The Society of Muslims have effectively scorned Muslim history: they have rejected all of medieval Muslim scholarship, including the great jurists who set up the four major schools of Islamic law, and they have also claimed the right to interpret the Koran. A century ago it is they who would have been counted the blasphemers, and any one of their current claims would probably have cost them their lives. They have, in effect, vacated the whole concept of Islam as we know it: for Islam is a history, as well as a doctrine and a practice. Yet today, for millions of Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere, it is they, and not the shaikhs of al-Azhar, who are the true Muslims.

The power of the fundamentalists has grown so phenomenally in Egypt over the last few years that they are now in a position to fight pitched battles with the police. Every so often they even claim to have “liberated” parts of Cairo and some other cities. Why, then, should these fundamentalists revive the charges brought against Mahfouz by their enemies, the learned doctors of religion? It must be the first matter on which they have been in agreement with them in several years. Mahfouz's book is evidently a pretext: their hostility almost certainly stems from his public support of the Camp David accords.

In responding to the threats against him, Mahfouz has shown an exemplary courage. Despite the ominous drift of the political life of his city, he has turned down the government's offer of bodyguards and has refused to change his life in any way. For the time being he appears to have faced down his enemies and shamed them into leaving him alone. In doing so, he has demonstrated the kind of heroism that is both the most necessary and the most rare in his volatile corner of the world: the quiet kind.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Beard, Michael and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993, 208 p.

Collection of critical essays on Mahfouz and his work.

Coates, Joseph. “Tyrannical Patriarch: An Egyptian Family Saga from Nobel-Prize Novelist Naguib Mahfouz.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 December 1990): 3.

Coates offers a positive assessment of Palace of Desire, noting that the novel is profoundly influenced by Western literary models.

———. “Nobel Winner Traverses a Cultural and Religious Gap.” Chicago Tribune (27 August 1992): 53.

Coates discusses Mahfouz's cultural assumptions in The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.

El-Enany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning. London: Routledge, 1993, 271 p.

Full-length critical study on Mahfouz.

Milson, Menahem. Najīb Mahfūz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, 304 p.

Milson explores Mahfouz's special interest in names and examines the personal philosophy expressed in his work and interviews.

Moosa, Matti. The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994, 322 p.

Provides a close reading of Mahfouz's early novels.

Mustafa, Farouk Abdel Wahab. “Nobel Novelist: Introducing the Work of Egypt's Masterly Naguib Mahfouz.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 January 1990): 1, 4.

Mustafa argues that Mahfouz's novels deserve a wider audience in this positive review of The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song.

Young, M. J. L. Review of The Beginning and the End,The Search, and The Beggar, by Naguib Mahfouz. Middle Eastern Studies 25, No. 1 (January 1989): 99–102.

Young surveys the major thematic concerns of The Beginning and the End, The Search, and The Beggar.

Additional coverage of Mahfouz's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, Vol. 89:2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 128; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 55, 101; Contemporary World Writers, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to World Literature; and Short Stories for Students, Vol. 9.

Gregory Cole (essay date May–June 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Conversation with Mahfouz,” in Africa Report, Vol. 35, No. 2, May–June, 1990, pp. 65–66.

[In the following essay, Cole explores the cultural influences on Mahfouz's writing and his growing popularity as an author.]

Teenagers playing dominoes and backgammon filled the cafés as I rushed down Misr' Adimah's tired, dusty streets toward the public telephone station. The smell of garlic, fresh molokhia, and parsley hung in the air.

It was a little after 5 pm, my appointed time to contact Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. A fellah, a bundle under his arm, was using the one working telephone. Anxiety filled me. I had one day left in Egypt to see Mahfouz. Now I felt like a character in one of his novels.

Cairo had changed since my last visit seven years ago. It now has a metro system and commuter boats plying the Nile, helping the beleaguered buses and trolleys move the city's teeming masses. (Officially Cairo's population is 12–13 million; many say, however, that it's more like 15–20 million.) I heard talk of a “New Egypt.” Development was apparent downtown and in the wealthy modern suburbs—new office buildings, stores, hotels, public works, and restaurants had sprung up.

Things, though, seemed little changed in Cairo's older quarters—Misr' Adimah (Old Cairo), Shubra, El-Khalifa, Saida Zenab. They're still poor and densely populated; housing is bad; much of the youth is idle for lack of work; and due to inflation, the poor seem poorer. The old city seemed to echo the theme in many of Mahfouz's novels, that in Egyptian society the ambitious inevitably rise to the top, while the underclass is permanently anchored to the bottom, no matter what currents move around them.

Naguib Mahfouz is an Egyptian hero—the first Arab to win a Nobel prize for literature, the opener of international doors for all Arab writers. After winning the 1988 Nobel prize, President Hosni Mubarak awarded Mahfouz Egypt's highest decoration, the Order of the Nile, while Mahfouz, who is also a columnist for Al-Ahram, finally got his own office at the famed Cairo daily.

The office was formerly occupied by the late Tawfik al-Hakim, Egypt's great playwright. To achieve literary status in the Arab world, one had to be a superb stylist or write poetry. There was a hesitancy to accept the novel—still seen as a new and unproven genre in Arab literature—and novelists into the ranks of the greats. Thus, when Mahfouz inherited al-Hakim's office, it seemed symbolic—that the Nobel winner and his forte, the novel, had been accepted into the bosom of Arab literature.

Mahfouz's works are part of university students' curricula throughout the Arab world. With all this status, however, Mahfouz is not a distant superstar. Egyptians speak of him like a beloved uncle or grandfather. Such feelings are understandable, for his works are imbued with enduring human values and universal concerns.

Approaching 80, Mahfouz is the grand, yet humble, chronicler of Egyptian life. His 38 novels and 12 volumes of short stories—26 of which were also adapted to film—encompass all of 20th century Egypt. Born of two civilizations, the pharaonic and the Islamic, and a son of the Third World, as he wrote in his Nobel prize lecture, Mahfouz seems a personification of Egypt itself. He has left Egypt only twice—once to Yemen, once to Yugoslavia—and only, as he says, “because of obligations.”

Despite his ill health (which prevented him from traveling to Sweden to accept the Nobel prize), poor hearing and eyesight, and a hectic schedule, he still makes time to enjoy communicating ideas to the press.

Mahfouz sits, scanning the papers on the second floor of the Aly Baba café in Tahrir Square. This is part of his daily program—up at 5 am, a cup of Nescafé, a light breakfast, and out of the house at 6 am to follow a fixed route to Aly Baba's, where he reads, meets friends, and conducts interviews before heading off for business, then lunch.

He has reduced his writing routine to one hour a day. “Because my eyes are weak, I must enlarge what I read. Now,” he says, laughing, “I must write only short stories.”

He speaks of Cairo's daily life and Egypt's problems by “direct writing”—his weekly column in Al-Ahram, entitled “Point of View.” Through his literary art, he will now “look at remembrance and the future. It is a philosophy suitable to an old man,” he says smiling.

Looking out the window at the bustling crowds, his face becomes more somber as he compares what he sees from the café now and what he saw in the past. “People are more serious and more sad now. Everything in life is difficult, especially for the intelligentsia. We all feel unsafe because of Egypt's economic troubles. It seems perhaps that all the rest of the nations are better off than we.

“The crisis,” he says, “began during the last period of Sadat.”

Apolitical, interested in people, not policies, Mahfouz treats politics in his literature as yet another evil plaguing man. His writing shows Nasser's land reform and nationalization plans throwing the lives of many Egyptians into chaos. That he should note that Egypt's current economic woes began during Sadat's era is not a criticism of Sadat—many of Mahfouz's books were banned in Arab countries because of his outspoken support for Sadat's peace treaty with Israel—but rather an observation of the effects of political and economic currents on individual lives.

By winning the Nobel prize, Mahfouz assured Arab prose and culture a future in Western nations. Modern Arab authors are finally receiving attention, while Arab literature, says Mahfouz, “will change the stereotype of the Arab in the West.”

Soon there will be 40 foreign-language editions of various Mahfouz titles licensed by his representative, the American University in Cairo Press. In the U.S., Doubleday has committed itself to publish several of his works. Last February, Doubleday released Palace Walk, the long-awaited English translation of Bayn al-Qasrayn, the first volume of “The Cairo Trilogy,” which Mahfouz considers to be his most important work. It will release the other two volumes in 1991 and 1992.

There is an ironic twist, however, to Mahfouz's new popularity in the U.S., which underscores the state of literature in Egypt. A best-seller or literary masterpiece can sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the U.S. But in Egypt, which has a population of 55 million, the maximum printing of a fine piece of literature, according to Mahfouz, is 10,000 copies. “My translated books have higher printings in the U.S. than in Egypt.”

Popular culture, he says, now enjoys a favorable position in Egypt because of the “power of TV and records.” Even the most remote Egyptian villages are getting color TVs and radios; mass communication and new technology have had a tremendous effect on Egypt.

“Literature, high culture,” says Mahfouz, “is in a crisis everywhere because of the victory of TV worldwide.” In Egypt, literature's troubles are compounded by the economic crisis.

Although the Arabic novel now flourishes in Egypt and in other Arab nations, writers lack a wide reading public in Egypt. With inflation causing a scramble to make ends meet, many Egyptians have neither the time nor the inclination to read novels. For others, the price of a novel, inexpensive by Western standards, makes it a major purchase.

Still, to the visitor, Cairo appears to be enjoying some signs of the beginnings of a cultural and “high-cultural” renaissance. The city lost its cultural heart, the famed Opera House, to fire in 1971; Egypt did not have the money to rebuild it. After a state visit by Mubarak to Japan in 1983, Japan donated $30 million for a new cultural center. In October 1988, the impressive new complex, the Cultural Education Center-Egypt Opera House, opened in Gezira. Ballet, opera, plays, and art exhibits once again have a home in Cairo. Tickets for foreign productions such as “Showboat” cost a maximum of $10, while tickets for local troupes never exceed $4. These low prices still represent a major outing to many Egyptian families.

In Cairo's Garden City, the Ministry of Culture spent $600,000 to open the Film Palace last November. (In the last 60 years, Egypt has produced 1,500 feature films, while Egyptian filmmakers currently shoot 42 movies per year, which attract audiences of up to 100 million throughout the Arab world.) The Palace offers three mini-theaters: two for features, one for documentaries. Two of the three double as film classrooms. Admission is free.

Unfortunately, it seems not as much can be done for literature, which is at the mercy of economics. Prose will enjoy a greater readership, says Mahfouz, “once we have achieved a higher standard of living than now.” As for the battle with TV, Mahfouz believes that any effective media network must understand that its responsibilities toward original works of literature do not include replacing them.

Mahfouz's hope of a higher standard of living may be realized. There is a ray of optimism in the often fatalistic certainties of Egyptian society. Egypt doesn't lack for resources, human and natural, but suffering from poor capital and a preponderant bureaucracy, it hasn't fully utilized them. With the private sector finally opening up in a more positive way (i.e. more Egyptian, rather than foreign, investment in domestic business projects) and Egyptian professionals returning home after migrating elsewhere in “brain drains,” there is hope for a “New Egypt.”

Cairo seemed to teeter on collapse seven years ago. Badly overpopulated, it was sadly neglected. Now it appears to be on the road to rejuvenation—new electrical, water, and telephone lines have been installed citywide, there is better health care, the transport system has been bolstered, and there are plans (pending money) to restore and preserve the city's historic districts.

Egypt is no longer an orphan in the Arab community; ambassadorial relations have been restored with most Arab nations in the last three years, while Egypt has been cited by The Economist magazine as one of the few Arab countries it can point to as an “emerging democracy.”

“We now enjoy a kind of freedom and democracy we haven't had in more than 35 years,” Mahfouz says. “There is now more goodness in policy. It is good, but we still want better.”

John Taylor (review date Summer 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End,The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1990, p. 266.

[In the following positive review of The Beginning and the End, The Thief and the Dogs, and Wedding Song, Taylor describes several reasons why American audiences cannot fully appreciate Mahfouz's work.]

The writings of the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, are unlikely to create strong first impressions on those of us approaching his work only through translations. First of all, there is the problem of translation itself. In terms of style, Mahfouz is famous for having brilliantly resolved the linguistic dilemma facing Arab writers, namely the choice between “classical” Arabic—rooted in the Koran and the magnificent corpus of pre-Islamic literature—and the exceedingly different spoken idiom of the people. Indeed, as the critic Ahdaf Soueif pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement (21–27 October 1988), Mahfouz has fashioned a language “that combines the resonance of traditional Arabic rhetoric with the racy eloquence of Arab speech; a version of Arabic that delights the ear tuned to the classics and yet is accessible to the most basically tutored of school-leavers.” Yet how can such nuances be rendered in English, a language notorious for the nearness of its spoken and written forms? Even the most sensitive translator will inevitably bludgeon the innovative craftsmanship of Mahfouz's prose.

Secondly, Mahfouz's fifty-odd novels and collections of short stories—he was born in 1911 and has been publishing since the late 1930s—reveal an astonishing evolution. The reader of just one of these three important novels simultaneously published by Doubleday, for example, can hardly gain a sufficiently broad impression of the author's pioneering contribution to Arabic letters. All three books must be read, and perhaps still others from among the several now available in English.

For if The Beginning and the End, written in 1942–43 and published in 1949, belongs to an early period in which through a series of outstanding realist novels Mahfouz examined the social forces coming to bear on modern Egypt and in particular on its middle class, a recent novel such as Wedding Song, published in 1981, illustrates the author's current interest in bold narrative experimentation. If the former, in its depiction of a Cairene family struggling to survive after the father's untimely death, reminds us of (say) Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy, then the latter novel adroitly employs four narrators to determine, from their disparate viewpoints, the truths and falsehoods expressed in a scandalous play written by one of them about himself and the three others, who are actors in it. Thus Wedding Song is in effect a play in four acts, about a play. The reader can only do his best to disentangle reality from the manifold curtains of illusion.

The Thief and the Dogs, first issued in 1961, displays still another of this protean writer's qualities. In a novella reminiscent of Camus's or Sartre's existentialist fiction, Mahfouz portrays Said Mahran's attempts after his release from prison, to get even with the three people who betrayed him: his wife, a former friend, and a now embourgeoisé newspaperman who had been a political mentor to him during their years as young revolutionary activists. As in the best examples of the genre, the ambiguous hero is at once repulsive in his deeds and attractive in his idealism; above all, the book poses fundamental moral questions that are continually reshaped as the suspenseful plot advances.

Perhaps some readers will find, especially in Mahfouz's earlier, longer fiction, that themes are too quickly introduced, even if subsequently deepened, or that characters are too immediately symbolic. Mahfouz has a philosophical bent of mind, and sometimes his ideas, their complexity notwithstanding, dominate passages that might have been devoted to more meticulous description or to subtle emotional evocation. Occasionally missing in his social panoramas is that rich variety of stylistic effect, ever in equilibrium, that one associates with a Henry James or a Thomas Mann.

Yet this initial ploy lies at the very heart of Mahfouz's art, which is one of quickly establishing his characters' souls as symbols, then of slowly revealing the hidden, contradictory dimensions within. Likewise the seemingly transparent moral predicaments confronting his protagonists gradually take on a disquieting opacity. If at first a few potential acts hold out hope to the characters, eventually even these options are removed or, better, exposed in all their desperate equivocacy. At the end of the reading, one is surprised at how black Mahfouz's world has become, rather as one can be surprised, having day-dreamed throughout the late afternoon, that the sun set long ago and that it is thoroughly black all around.

D. J. Enright (review date September 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Gloomy Clouds & Laughing Sun: Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Laureate,” in Encounter, Vol. 75, No. 2, September, 1990, pp. 43–46.

[In the following review, Enright considers the strengths and weaknesses of several recent translations of Mahfouz's novels.]

I shall consider these novels by Naguib Mahfouz in the order not of their publication but of my reading of them, which, it seems to me, is also the ascending order of their interest. It needs to be emphasised that what is being discussed is the novels as they appear in English translation.

The thief of The Thief and the Dogs (1961) is Said Mahran, released after four years in prison, and determined to take revenge on those who (he believes) betrayed him, notably Ilish Sidra and Nabawiyya, his former wife, now married to Ilish. Nabawiyya prompts one of the overflowings of stream-of-consciousness which crop up throughout: “How I wish our eyes could meet, so I might behold one of the secrets of hell! Oh for the axe and the sledgehammer!” Better it might have been had Said stuck to the axe or the sledgehammer, but someone provides him with a gun. It used to be said that “he was Death Incarnate, that his shot never missed,” but twice he contrives to kill some unfortunate bystander in mistake for his targets, consoling himself ingeniously with the thought, “As for your gun, it's obvious that it will kill only the innocent. You'll be its last victim.”

“Using theft to relieve the exploiters of some of their guilt,” an erstwhile friend once told Said, “is absolutely legitimate.” To what extent his burglaries were ever motivated or extenuated by social or political considerations is obscure. Some cryptic but clearly unworldly wisdom derives from a Sufi sheikh with whom he takes refuge—“Weak are the seeker and the sought,” “God's slave is owned by God alone”—but whose sayings have less effect on Said than they may have on the Western reader, likely to welcome a touch of exotic metaphysics.

“A world without morals is like a universe without gravity”: it is by killing his enemies that he will restore the world and enable himself “to die a death that has some meaning to it.” Said remains a blurred, grubby mixture of Robin Hood and Raskolnikov. His delusion that millions of people are on his side, all of them except “the real robbers,” his vision of himself as a kind of redeemer, as “good principles, consolation, the tears that recall the weeper to humility,” bear no relation to what we know of his actions. The claim in the introduction that the reader gains deep and authentic impressions of the values of Egyptian society in the wake of the revolution of 1952 is hard to trust, since everything is seen through Said's bloodshot eyes; and similarly the accompanying implication that society has corrupted him carries little weight. We have no intimation of Said uncorrupted. His ineptness arouses some sympathy in us, but severely curtailed, for he is a “case” rather than a character, and it comes as a relief, even a merciful release, when police dogs corner this mad one.

Wedding Song (1981) is more complex, more animated; somewhat in the manner of Akutagawa's “In a Grove,” the short story which inspired the film Rashomon, four characters give their own versions of the same events. The central figure, Abbas Younis, is the son of a once loving but now hating couple (to say of them, as the man does, that they have “become like two bare trees,” is exceptionally mild) who make a living by running a kind of brothel and gambling den frequented by actors and actresses. Abbas, an idealistic—or priggish—young man, believes that “Good will triumph”; his father opines that he is “sick with the disease of virtue,” a disease which is far from epidemic in the neighbourhood.

Abbas marries Tahiya, an actress with a past; she dies, and so does their child. He then writes a play, based on truth but riskily representing himself as the murderer of wife and child. What he has imagined—he contends—is theatrically stronger than what actually happened. “Inwardly, art is a means of expurgation, outwardly a means of battle, incumbent on men born and reared in sin and determined to rebel against it.” The play is enormously, if somewhat implausibly, successful; and it seems odd that Abbas isn't called on to help the police with their inquiries.

The company's leading actress observes jocularly, “We're living in times when sex has become a national pursuit.” Along with opium and alcohol, sex is certainly rife, though never “explicit.” Happiness shows itself only in fleeting memories of the past. Virtually everybody hates, fears or despises everybody else; and, not for the only time when reading these English versions, one is inclined to suggest that since Arabic and English are so different as modes of discourse, the reader should perhaps divide by two or three what looks much like histrionics, hyperbole, and rant. If Mahfouz's people really meant what they utter, they would have wiped one another out before the story began. His characters are larger than life, and yet debarred from much of it.

The metaphors are intriguing rather than illuminating. Believing that Abbas has killed himself, his mother remarks, “Evil is playing flute music for Abbas.” The fairly loathsome actor, Tariq Ramadan, muses that the loss of his mistress, Tahiya, has robbed him of his confidence and his trust in life: “What replaced them was madness—in the shape of love, which broke out of the dark corner of its lair, shook off the lethargy of long hibernation, and went to seek the food it had been missing.” Sinisterly high-flown language which has little to do with our apprehension of the man. What, one wonders, is the purport and the effect of the original Arabic? Like a woman, or so the saying goes, you cannot expect a translation to be both beautiful and faithful; but it can be both literal and untrue.

Finally, having left a suicide note, Abbas is preserved by some strange, indeterminate ecstasy. “Let its strength remain unfathomably in its mystery! Lo, its life-giving force marches forward, bearing with it the fragrance of triumph!” Conceivably, as Mursi Saad El Din proposes in his introduction, this sense of triumph is by no means illusory, and Abbas's power of transformation derives from his creative power as an artist. Had we seen more of his artistic creativity, we might not find it equally conceivable that grief and suffering have deranged him. At this point, and despite the faith that through the mediation of literature nothing is alien to us, we may suspect that a sizeable cultural divide precludes us from full understanding and sympathy.

While intensely miserable, The Beginning and the End (1949) is marginally more sober in utterance, in the tradition of “realism,” although nothing is left to the imagination where emotions are concerned, and the epithets still settle like a flock of raucous birds. In one sentence revolt is “boiling,” bitterness is “poisonous,” despair is “fatal,” a feeling of loneliness is “tortured.” On the death of the father, a minor official in the Ministry of Education, a Cairene family in the 1930s is reduced to poverty—relatively speaking a genteel poverty, but all the more painful in the loss of face and the humiliations it entails. The eldest son, Hassan Kamel Ali, is a work-shy ne'er-do-well and then a criminal; the younger boys, Hussein and Hassanein, find respectable jobs, the one as a school clerk, the other as an Army officer, but the need to keep up appearances consumes most of their earnings. The daughter, Nefisa, sinks into dress-making (as a hobby it was acceptable, but not as paid work: and here the metaphor is pointed—“Misery pierces our flesh as a needle pierces a piece of cloth”) and then into discreetly conveyed prostitution.

Rare flashes of humour break through the gloom, as when Hassan gorges himself at a wedding party (“He was at his greatest when he swallowed an entire pigeon, bones and all”), and also moments of shared happiness, arising from family affection and the kindly acts of neighbours. “Occupation! Independence!” exclaims the stalwart mother, obliged to sell most of their furniture. “I don't see the difference between them.” Political matters feature as quaintly as prostitution. “We must all be rich,” Hassanein says; to which Hussein replies, “And if this is impossible?” “Then we must all be poor.” “And if this is impossible, too?” “In that case,” Hassanein tells him, “we must revolt, murder, and steal.” Hussein concludes this basic account of human endeavour by remarking that mankind has been doing exactly that for thousands of years.

Mahfouz is an admirer of Thomas Mann, and this novel bears an obvious surface resemblance to Buddenbrooks, another story of “the Decline of a Family.” It is a far less sophisticated work, or, one should rather say, a much narrower one, for all its documentary merit. The Kamel Ali family are trapped; self-sacrifice cannot save them, any more than selfishness could be held responsible for their ruin; they trust in God, but are subject, it would appear, to Hardy's President of the Immortals. Nefisa's degradation will be the final straw: obsessed with his dignity, Lieutenant Hassanein advises her to drown herself, and then follows suit.

The struggles we witness are patently futile, the end will be at one with the beginning: which is why the nefarious antics of Hassan and the other denizens of the underworld actually bring some respite, if only because we don't have to feel pity for them. “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody Poor”: but to endure pity over 400 pages, however worthy its objects, is asking a lot.

How did Naguib Mahfouz come to be awarded the Nobel Prize? Palace Walk (1956), the first volume of his Cairo Trilogy, answers the question. It can hardly be a better, more restrained translation alone that makes this novel shine out so. At 500 pages, and barely covering the years 1917–19, it is Victorianly dense; and if perhaps the author dwells on things rather too long and minutely for Western sensibilities, leaving rather too little unsaid, it is credible, engrossing, even exciting. It is here, in the words of the Swedish Academy of Letters, that Mahfouz displays “an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind,” and displays that art richly.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a prosperous grocer and a strict paterfamilias, whose word is absolute law over his wife Amina and their three sons and two daughters. At home he is all “prudence, dignity, and gravity,” dreaded and feared in his own family. But only there. At nights, away from home, he is an exuberant boon companion, singer, story-teller, wit, fount of wisdom, drinker, womaniser, and universal favourite. He sees no great need to reconcile these disparate personalities; nobody is hurt by his behaviour, he reasons, and since he is more than usually devout in other, more essential respects, surely God will not hold his peccadilloes against him? “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” he murmurs, after feasting his eyes on the “prodigious bottom” of a female singer. He has elevated lust “to its purest and most delicate form”; and when he proposes to her that, by way of an overture, they should recite the opening prayer of the Qur'an, he is reasonably confident that God will pardon any hint of blasphemy. It was God who made men what they are—manly.

In which thought his wife, truly wifely, concurs: manliness involves tyranny, arrogance, and staying out late at nights. Amina is docile, long-suffering, affectionate—it was how God made women—and immensely proud of her brilliant husband. Her loving nature embraces infidels; she prays to God to watch over all people, “Muslims and Christians, even the English, my Lord,” though she would like the English to be driven out of the land as a favour to her son Fahmy, who isn't very fond of them.

Yasin, al-Sayyid Ahmad's son by a previous wife, aspires to emulate his father's flamboyant way of life, but lacks the style, nerve and gallantry of that “Lord of Laughter.” He shows little finesse in his love-making, falling on his inamorata “like a bull elephant crushing a gazelle.” He marries a girl with Turkish blood in her, who is used to more freedom than she can hope for in her new family. The marriage turns sour; Yasin is caught in the act with a black maidservant—not only a servant but black and over forty!—and divorce ensues. The peculiar humiliation is that Yasin isn't divorcing his wife but his wife is divorcing him. “There was nothing strange about a man casting out a pair of shoes, but shoes were not supposed to throw away their owner.” It is in such light asides that Mahfouz lets slip his personal views on manners and morals.

The year is 1919, and Fahmy, the second son, a law student, has joined the freedom movement. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, a temperate patriot himself but too grand to engage in political plotting, isn't spared indignity; while returning from an assignation one night, he is picked up by British soldiers and made to help in filling in a large trench dug across the road by youthful demonstrators. Disobeying his father's prohibition—al-Sayyid Ahmad's children “were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history,” their particular history prescribed by him—Fahmy is killed during a peaceful demonstration.

What effect these chastening events will have on the family and its head remains to be told. It should be said that much of the book is happy, albeit a domestic crisis arises when Amina, who had barely left the house since her marriage at thirteen years of age, twenty-five years before, takes the opportunity to visit a shrine while her husband is away on business. Pious as the outing is, and covered though she is from head to foot, she pays the price; she is knocked down by a car and fractures a collar-bone, the escapade comes to light, and al-Sayyid Ahmad turns her out of the house, temporarily. It stands to reason that a libertine will feel an inordinate concern for the females of his own family, and he even dislikes hearing the names of his daughters spoken outside the confines of the house. In this case it is a question of pride, of preserving total authority, but he knows what a good woman and wife Amina is. In one of Mahfouz's vivid metaphors—another has al-Sayyid Ahmad's eyes running over a woman's body “as quickly and greedily as a mouse on a sack of rice looking for a place to get in”—Amina visualises her husband with typical indulgence as “a mother cat which appears to be devouring her kittens when she is actually carrying them.”

The children want for nothing, except a degree of independence; their lives are constricted, but they are far removed from the unrelenting and predictable doom bearing down on the characters in the other books mentioned here. They quarrel and then make up, transient sorrows yield to passing joys, just as “in Cairo, during the winter, the sky can be gloomy with clouds and it even drizzles, but in an hour or less the clouds will have scattered to reveal a pure blue sky and a laughing sun.”

There are many incidental pleasures for the reader, as when a sheikh famous for his healing prayers, candour and wit upbraids al-Sayyid Ahmad for his lustfulness and, dangerously out of place in a merchant, excessive generosity. Discomposed by the first of these accusations, against which his repartee has for once proved ineffective, the grocer sees a chance to get his own back: if generosity is a fault, should he not reclaim the customary gift of rice, coffee and soap that he has just given the sheikh? “The gift to me is not excessive. Begin somewhere else, you son of Abd al-Jawad,” the sheikh replies. And when Fahmy announces that nationalist leaders plan to travel to London to lobby for independence, his mother is astonished. The English have been there so long, long before Fahmy was born, that they have come to be neighbours. How can the leaders go to the land of the English to ask them to get out of Egypt? “This is in very bad taste. How could you visit me in my house if you're wanting to throw me out of yours?” Amina's grasp of chronology is not too firm, and to mollify her son she grants that perhaps all will be well if they speak nicely to the great queen—she remembers her father talking about her—for after all she is a woman and no doubt bears a sensitive heart in her chest.

Mahfouz has a loving and intimate gift for portraying women, and the greatest, most refined pleasure stems from the females of the household: Amina (in whom docility doesn't rule out character), the beautiful golden-haired Aisha, and the big-nosed, sharp-tongued Khadija, edgy on the subject of her marital prospects, of whom Yasin observes that in communal life she resembles salt: it doesn't taste good by itself, but food has no taste without it.

The prize charmer is the small boy, Kamal—affectionate, puzzled, inquisitive, both comical and perceptive in his reflections on domestic and public affairs. He dotes on his sisters, why must they marry and go away? And why is it that their bellies swell up soon after? He thinks the British soldiers have handsome faces (“They look like Aisha!”) and enjoys playing with them in their camp. They treat him to chocolate and cups of tea, he listens respectfully to their singing and, being (like his father) no mean singer himself, entertains them in return. More conscious than his father of contrarieties and the need to reconcile them, he dreams of an Egyptian victory, followed by an honourable armistice which his foreign friends and Fahmy's friends will celebrate together with songs and sweetmeats. Fortunately he is still young enough to be regarded as an honorary woman, and therefore not accountable for his political naivety. God willing, he should grow into a fine man, just as long as manliness doesn't overcome him, with dimensions of intelligence and sensibility unknown to his father and brothers.

Kamal alone, though conscientiously one should throw in the history of Egypt too, is sufficient reason for us to look forward to the translation of the two remaining parts of Mahfouz's trilogy, which carry the narrative up to the end of World War II.

Aamer Hussein (review date 15 March 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Vagaries of Love,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 15, 1991, p. 10.

[In the following review, Hussein explores how Palace of Desire serves as a bridge between Mahfouz's earlier works and his later, more cynical prose.]

The severed head of Islam's most honoured martyr, Imam Al-Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson and a symbol of resistance to oppression for many Muslims, lies buried in a sepulchre in Cairo—or so tradition tells us. Kamal, the idealistic central figure of Palace of Desire, is an ardent devotee at the shrine, until an encounter with a more sceptical companion relieves him of his faith; the shrine, he is told, is merely an empty symbol.

The memory of this early loss of faith, seen as the prelude to all his life's ensuing tragedies, echoes throughout this magnificent account of Kamal's quest for truth in love, philosophy, art and politics, and it contains within it the novel's central dilemma: how can we live without belief, in love, God, truth or change? The ambivalent answer, found at the crossroads of a circuitous narrative route that traverses the highways of history and politics, is a summing-up of Mahfouz's vision. In a world that systematically deprives us of the armour of sincere belief, we must continue to have faith. The trappings of traditional religion and ritual are discarded in the search for a more abiding divine essence which binds us to a shared humanity; love is replaced by the memory of love, an abiding pain, unique in its manifestation, which nevertheless connects us to the suffering of multitudes; art must simultaneously find and sever its roots from a philosophy that questions its own secular and sacred conjectures. To lose belief is to strengthen belief.

Palace of Desire occupies a transitional place in Mahfouz's oeuvre, combining the sturdy realism of his early novels with the moral and metaphysical concerns of his terse, cynical later fictions. In Palace Walk, Mahfouz, writing in retrospect, brilliantly recreated the Cairo of his childhood, setting the stage for a family saga spanning several decades of Egypt's tumultuous twentieth-century history. In Palace of Desire, he locates a highly sensitive Bildungsroman, a portrait of the Egyptian artist as a young dreamer, at the centre of this often crowded stage Palace of Desire is also a palace of mirrors: parallels with Mahfouz's own life in the 1920s, the period here recreated, are discernible, and Kamal, the author's youthful reflection, can also be said to represent the growing awareness of Egypt's radical intelligentsia. His interior monologues (often ill-served by the gap between innovative Arabic idiom and its literal rendition into English), and his long debates with his sophisticated Cairene friends, provide metafictional dissertations, verging at times on the schematic, on philosophy, art, history and politics. However, Mahfouz's integrity never quite permits him to transform his hero into a spokesman for his own ideas or a symbol of his nation's struggles; Kamal's consciousness is both a mirror of the turmoil of his age, and the subjective meeting-point of public and private spheres.

This novel of ideas and history is also a lyrical meditation on the vagaries of love. In stark contrast to the coarser attitudes of his philandering father and brother, who frequently trade lovers in bawdy episodes reminiscent of Arab folklore, Kamal sees love as the crucial stage of his quest; his unrequited passion for an elegant, jaded daughter of the Egyptian haute bourgeoisie assumes a vast spiritual significance, becoming a gateway to the world of myth, legend and poetry which he yearns for. Desire is the catalyst that drives the dreamer to divest himself of the traditional garb of religious ritual, superstition and residual conservatism. Implicit in this phenomenology of love is the pain that follows. Reclaiming the secular metaphors of wine, women and song, in the tradition of the Arab and Persian mystic poets to whom the text alludes, he seeks refuge in oblivion, the final stage of his journey towards acceptance and self-knowledge.

In his search for narrative coherence, Mahfouz brilliantly combines the secret vocabulary of Islamic metaphysics, unknown to the pragmatists and war-mongers who earn his scorn, with the techniques of the European novel. Palace of Desire's tense conflation of naturalistic documentation and self-doubting modernism reflects Kamal's quest for lucidity; if, at times, his extreme and anguished self-awareness causes the reader to wonder how he could so easily fall prey to the traps of illusion, his occasional narcissism is constantly balanced by Mahfouz's detached insights and painstaking craftsmanship. Bricks and tiles discarded in the process of the novel's construction are reclaimed for a mosaic-pattern that eventually and effectively completes its initial project.

In a compelling sequence in the final section of the novel, Kamal, in deference to his father's failing health and wishes, finds himself once again at the sepulchre of the martyred Hussein; the empty monument is the tragic embodiment of his failed dreams. But the circular route of his voyage of discovery is merely a new beginning; there are no concluded journeys in Mahfouz's world, only new departures, bleak and fearful at the outset, but leading to illumination.

Menahem Milson (essay date June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Great 20th-Century Novelist,” in Commentary, Vol. 91, No. 6, June, 1991, pp. 34–38.

[In the following essay, Milson explores the contradictions in Mahfouz's career and work and traces his development as a writer of novels and short fiction.]

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who in 1988 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a man of contradictions. Well-versed in Western culture, he has never visited Western Europe or America. The most famous modern Arab novelist, on whom more has been written than on any other Arab writer, he is a man about whom relatively little is known. Although his works are deeply rooted in the milieu of Cairo's lower and middle classes, in his writing he has conspicuously avoided the use of the language these classes speak. And perhaps the most amazing contradiction is this: while Mahfouz is the most popular writer in the Arab world, his political views differ radically from those held by the majority of Arab intellectuals.

Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911, the youngest of seven children in a middle-class Muslim family which lived in a quarter of Cairo called Gamaliyya, part of the old section of the city whose roots go back to the 10th century. This traditional neighborhood, with its mosques, minarets, and bazaars, the most famous of which is the Khan al-Khalili, figures prominently in many of Mahfouz's works. In fact, Cairo, both old and new, is the locale of almost all of his novels and stories. For Mahfouz, Cairo is the universe.

It is a universe that has undergone many changes in his lifetime, political as well as social and cultural. At the time of Mahfouz's birth Egypt was still formally under the supreme sovereignty of the Ottoman sultan, although in fact it was a separate entity, having become virtually independent of Ottoman rule in the beginning of the 19th century under Muhammad ‘Ali, and then falling under the control of Great Britain in 1882. Upon the outbreak of World War I, Egypt was declared a British protectorate; but by the end of the war, Egyptian nationalists under the charismatic leadership of Sa‘d Zaghlul were clamoring for independence. When the British departed Zaghlul in February 1919, a rebellion broke out which eventually forced the British to grant partial independence; in 1922 the sultan Fu‘ad (great-grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali) declared himself king. The British continued, however, to exert much influence on Egyptian affairs and to maintain troops along the Suez Canal, until that residue of domination was finally removed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 when he nationalized the Canal and ordered the British out.

To Mahfouz, who was just a child at the time, the 1919 rebellion has remained the most crucial event in Egypt's modern history, and Sa‘d Zaghlul its foremost hero. A faithful supporter of Zaghlul's party, the Wafd, Mahfouz never forgave Nasser for banning this and all other parties and for suspending parliamentary life.

Culturally, the Egypt in which Mahfouz grew up was a place that had become open to Western influence more than a century before his birth, in the wake of Napoleon's invasion of 1798. European cultural influence became especially conspicuous under Isma‘il, Muhammad ‘Ali's Francophile grandson who in the late 19th century tried to turn Egypt into a province of Europe, and Cairo into another Paris. The Cairo opera house, modeled on the Paris Opera, was for a century (until it was ruined by fire in 1971) a monument to his relentless Westernizing zeal but also to the appalling gap between the Westernized upper crust and the masses.

Demographic change in Mahfouz's lifetime has been particularly dramatic. Before World War I, the population of Cairo was about three quarters of a million, of Egypt about eleven million. By the time Mahfouz was working on The Cairo Trilogy around 1950, the city's population had tripled to over two million. It has grown constantly since then, due largely to a massive influx of people from the countryside, to become today an exploding megalopolis of fifteen million.

Information on the personal life of Mahfouz is rather scanty; what we know comes mostly from interviews he has given over the years as well as from his works, notably The Cairo Trilogy.1 In these three novels, the character of Kamal comes very close to being the alter ego of the author—as a child in the first volume, as a high-school student in the second volume, and as a bachelor in his late thirties in the third.

Mahfouz's father was a government official who after his retirement became an employee in a store in the old Gamaliyya quarter. His mother, who gave birth after a very difficult labor, named the child in honor of the obstetrician who delivered him. (Her account of that experience seems to have made a deep mark; difficult labors are described in a number of Mahfouz's stories.) When Mahfouz was ten years old he suffered from a neurological disease diagnosed at the time as epilepsy. Although he lost a year of school, he overcame the illness without any lasting damage. An outstanding student both in scientific subjects and in Arabic composition, he was also an excellent soccer player; many years later one of his classmates said that Mahfouz was the fastest player he had ever seen, and that “if he had chosen a career in football instead of writing, he would have become a national champion.”

Already in his teens Mahfouz underwent two crises which affected him for life. At about fifteen he became infatuated with a girl a few years older than he, the daughter of one of the neighborhood's wealthy families. In an interview Mahfouz later reflected, “It was an experience devoid of any contact, due to the differences in age and social class.” But this adolescent love made a very deep impression on his life and work. Many pages of the trilogy describe the excitement and anguish of the enraptured Kamal.

His religious crisis was also severe. Brought up in an observant atmosphere at home, and in the very traditional neighborhood of Gamaliyya, Mahfouz was terribly upset in school to learn that, contrary to popular belief, the head of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn was not buried in the mosque that was the center of religious activity in his neighborhood and the most highly revered shrine in Cairo. Then, while in high school, Mahfouz read about Darwin's theory of evolution; the experience shook the very basis of his belief, and the idea of evolution has in fact become the core of his social thought as well as of his understanding of the history of civilization.

Loss of faith and the desperate effort to recover it are recurrent themes in Mahfouz's work. They form the main concern of the allegorical novel The Search (1964) and of The Beggar (1965), the story of a successful lawyer who loses all interest in family and work and embarks on a quest for the ultimate meaning of life. In both books the search ends tragically, in one case in murder and execution, in the other in madness.

Against his father's will and his older brother's advice, Mahfouz as a university student chose neither medicine, engineering, nor law but rather philosophy. During his university years he became better acquainted with Western thought, both classical and modern, and seems to have been influenced especially by Henri Bergson's philosophy of evolution and by the American pragmatists Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. While a student he also began writing short articles on philosophical subjects. In his first published work, an article entitled “The Passing Away of Old Beliefs and the Birth of New Beliefs” (1930), he argued that in the modern era religious faith was being replaced by new systems of belief, among them Communism and socialism. Yet socialism, whatever its attractions, would, he predicted, inevitably fail to fulfill its promise of an earthly paradise, while revolution would end up causing more harm than benefit. The suspicion with which, years later, Mahfouz viewed Nasser's revolution seems to have had its roots in these early attitudes.

Mahfouz graduated from the university in 1934 and was nominated for but failed to win a government scholarship to continue his studies abroad. He obtained instead a secretarial position in the university administration, then in 1939 a government post. Mahfouz remained a civil servant until his retirement in 1971, first in the Ministry of Culture where he served as chief censor of films, then as director of the department of cinematic art, and finally as a special adviser. Starting in 1936, he abandoned philosophy and gave himself over exclusively to fiction.

Even as a child Mahfouz had always been an avid reader. When he decided to become a writer he embarked on an intensive course in Western literature. He proceeded in a typically systematic way, preparing a reading list based on John Drinkwater's The Outline of Literature. Shakespeare, Dickens, Shaw, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Proust were all on his list; the non-English authors he read in English translation. Naturally he came to have his preferences: he does not especially like Balzac, Faulkner, or Hemingway (except for The Old Man and the Sea); he admires Melville, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Oddly, he does not like Dickens, to whom he is often compared. Shaw is a particular favorite, and he has a special place in his heart for Shakespeare. In recent years he has been reading as much as he can about the development of modern science and technology.

Two problems confronted Mahfouz as he embarked on his career as a writer. A gregarious man who recoiled from confrontation, he was troubled by the thought of acting as a social critic, of saying things people would not like to hear. The solution he hit on was to write allegorically, on more than one level of meaning. Allegory, indeed, proved especially useful under the oppressive political conditions in Egypt during the Nasser years of the 1950's and 60's. But allegory served not merely as a device for escaping harassment by the authorities, or even as a convenient way to avoid embarrassing social situations. Allegory has been Mahfouz's way of reading the world. For him, observed reality always contains a hidden, inner aspect; if his great desire as a young student of philosophy was to achieve certainty—“to understand the secret of being”—as a writer he found in allegory a way of approaching the same issue disencumbered of the need to arrive at theoretical solutions.

The second problem Mahfouz had to face was that of language. This, indeed, has been a vexing issue for every modern Arab writer. The reason is that Arabs speak in the particular dialect of their country or area, but they read and write literary Arabic, “the eloquent language” (al-fusha), the language of the Qur'an, of classical Arabic poetry, and of all serious literature. Spoken Arabic dialects vary greatly from one place to another, but all differ from literary Arabic, which is one and the same throughout the Arab world.

Certain conventional practices regarding the use of literary and colloquial Arabic have evolved in modern times. Newspapers, magazines, and news broadcasts are all in literary Arabic; only the captions of cartoons and jokes are colloquial. Serious theater is in literary Arabic, comic plays in colloquial. Movies, unless they are on historical subjects, are in colloquial Arabic.

For Arab writers of realistic fiction, the problem of language is especially acute. How to represent the mundane conversations of people who in reality speak in a colloquial dialect—and may well be illiterate to boot? Some novelists handle the problem by writing narrative in literary language and dialogue in colloquial; others choose literary Arabic exclusively. The latter is the path followed by Mahfouz, and he has been strikingly successful in representing in literary Arabic the speech of his characters, educated and illiterate alike.

If Mahfouz were a proponent of pan-Arabism, one could possibly construe his choice as a political statement—eliminating that which distinguishes Egyptians from other speakers of Arabic, stressing that which unites them. But Mahfouz has never been a supporter of pan-Arab nationalism; on the contrary, he has always firmly upheld the idea of a distinct Egyptian national identity. The primary reason for Mahfouz's decision lies elsewhere, in a particular quality of “eloquent” Arabic—namely, the notorious ambiguity of its vocabulary. This peculiarity, reflecting many centuries of semantic development, is regarded by some as a shortcoming, but for Mahfouz it has been a great advantage. Drawing freely on the wealth of cultural associations carried by literary Arabic (but absent in colloquial), he weaves a fabric whose texture suggests more than can be conveyed merely by narrative itself—a multivocal instrument for a multifaceted reality.

Although Mahfouz has made his name as a novelist, he began his literary career as a writer of short stories—not very successful ones. Many of these stories reflect a level of art markedly lower than that of the novels Mahfouz began to publish in 1939. But the stories also exhibit some of his special qualities as a narrator, as well as his unique capacity to convey complex human emotions in just a few words. The characters range from Turko-Egyptian aristocrats to lower- and middle-class Egyptians, students, prostitutes, the children of the poor. Most take place in contemporary Egypt, but some of the more philosophical tales are set in the ancient past.

Mahfouz's first three novels are likewise devoted to subjects derived from the age of the pharaohs but bearing on essentially modern concerns. His interest here was not so much historical as ideological, stemming from his concept of Egyptian national identity. Like other Westernized intellectuals of his time, Mahfouz considered that identity to be essentially neither Arab nor Islamic, but inherently and distinctly Egyptian, having its roots in the land and in the glorious civilization that had emerged from it. His first novel, The Irony of Fate (1939), a vehicle for Mahfouz's ideas on government, education, and moral behavior, is placed in the court of Khufu (Cheops), the pharaoh who ordered the building of the great pyramid of Giza, while in The Struggle of Thebes (1944), the conflicting attitude to the British, and to Western culture, held by modern-day Egyptians is reflected in the predicament of Mahfouz's hero, caught between duty to his people and his love for the fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the king of the Hyksos.

After these three historical novels Mahfouz abandoned his plan for a series of works tracing the history of Egypt from pharaonic to modern times and turned to the contemporary scene. Between 1945 and 1948 he published four novels describing various aspects of middle- and lower-middle-class life in Cairo and attentive to the political and cultural debates of the time. In one, The New Cairo (1945), the main characters are a prototypical group of students: an Islamic fundamentalist; a secularist/socialist; a supporter of the Wafd (the popular national party which, as already noted, Mahfouz himself has loyally supported ever since high school); and a cynical careerist who does not care about any ideal. Khan al-khalili (1946, not translated into English), which takes place during the early years of World War II in the Gamaliyya quarter where Mahfouz was born, chronicles the rivalry between a Communist and a hapless low-ranking official who is a proponent of cultural conservatism.

In 1949 Mahfouz published The Beginning and the End, the story of a Cairene family of the lower middle class whose father dies, leaving behind four children. The youngest of the three sons, an ambitious and vain character, enters the military academy in 1936—this was the same entering class, the first to be open to non-members of the Egyptian aristocracy, which as a matter of historical fact included Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and other future leaders of the Free Officers. Mahfouz's negative judgment on this character—the novel ends with his suicide—anticipates his view of the military men who would lead the revolution of 1952.

But the strongest character in the novel is the mother, who withstands all the troubles and hardships life brings and, like the land of Egypt to which she is compared, remains “silent, patient, and good.” This contrast between men and women runs through many of Mahfouz's books, whose male characters tend to be selfish, arrogant, vain, debauched, or utterly confused and lacking a sense of purpose in life, while the women often serve as models of selfless devotion to family and of perseverance, “the quality which makes it possible to endure life.”

Juxtaposition of mother and father is most conspicuous in Mahfouz's major novelistic achievement, The Cairo Trilogy, on which he worked for seven years and which he completed in the spring of 1952. (“This is not a novel, it's a calamity,” said his publisher on seeing the size of it.) First published in installments in a literary magazine, the book was eventually brought out in three separate volumes: Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957).

The story traces three generations of a Cairo family over the period 1917–44, giving a detailed picture of middle-class existence and a dynamic account of Egypt's major political and social developments. Against a background of home, bazaar, café, office, brothel, university, Mahfouz treats a multitude of subjects: Egyptian nationalism, family relations, love, the place of the writer in society, secular positivism versus religious faith, socialism versus Islamic fundamentalism.

The father, Sayyid Ahmad, the epitome of manliness and the very model of a traditional Muslim patriarch, is absolute ruler of his family and does not permit his wife or children to question his opinions and decisions. But while he imposes on his family an extremely strict code of behavior, he regularly spends the night drinking and merry-making with his friends in the company of women of pleasure. It is the mother, meek and submissive, who wins the love of her children, the respect of the neighbors, and the sympathy of the reader. Kamal, her indulged youngest, grows up to become an introverted and insecure man, emotionally paralyzed by (as he sees it) the struggle between his two selves: the “human,” or idealistic self, the self that is interested in philosophy, and the “animal” who satisfies his desires by regular visits to brothels. On another level, he is also torn by an inner conflict between the pull of traditional indigenous culture and the imported attractions of modernity.

The Cairo Trilogy established Mahfouz deservedly and uncontestably as the foremost Egyptian, indeed the foremost Arab, novelist. Taha Husayn, the dean of modern Arabic literature, greeted the work as “the greatest accomplishment in the field of the novel in the Arabic language in modern times,” and one which “stands well in comparison with any of the great novels in world literature.” With his reputation established, it was widely expected that Mahfouz would turn next to the new reality created after 1952 by the revolution of the Free Officers. But for a number of years he confined himself to film scripts, finally breaking his literary silence in 1959 with the publication of Children of Gebelawi. This book marked a break from the realistic mode. In the guise of a story about an old Cairo neighborhood, Mahfouz spins a tale of humanity under the aegis of the three great monotheistic religions and comments on the relations among science, religion, and political power. Children of Gebelawi has not been permitted to appear in Egypt in book form; it outraged Cairo's religious circles, and also touched a political nerve with its allegorical representation of the Free Officers as club-wielding thugs who brutally oppress the people.

In 1961 Mahfouz published The Thief and the Dogs, a milestone in the development of his own art and in modern Arabic fiction. Introducing to Arabic readers the existentialist themes of alienation, despair, loss of meaning, it also introduced the hitherto unfamiliar narrative technique of stream of consciousness. (In political content, too, this book was a powerful expression of disenchantment with the 1952 revolution.) The Thief and the Dogs was followed by a series of other short novels, similar in style and featuring characters similarly alienated, lonesome, forlorn. They include Autumn Quail (1962), The Search (1964), The Beggar (1965), Miramar (1967), Respected Sir (1974), and Wedding Song (1981). Between 1961 and 1981 Mahfouz produced 24 books: 14 novels, 9 collections of short stories, and a volume of sketches. Of them all, The Thief and the Dogs, reminiscent in some ways both of the Hemingway of The Old Man and the Sea and the Camus of The Stranger, remains the most powerful.

When the Nobel Prize to Mahfouz was announced in October 1988, a wave of joy swept through the Arab world. In Egypt the celebration was particularly intense, for the Swedish Academy's choice reaffirmed something Egyptians had known for decades. But the event did not pass without controversy. Amid the general acclaim for Mahfouz's triumph, some accused the Nobel committee of awarding the prize on the basis of politics rather than literary merit.

As we have seen, Mahfouz has never been an admirer of Nasser's revolution or autocratic regime. During Nasser's lifetime he voiced his criticisms in a covert manner, usually by means of allegory; later, after Nasser's death, more explicitly. To many Arab intellectuals, the position taken by Mahfouz toward this hero who defied the West and achieved national glory for the Arabs amounts to sacrilege. And compounding the sin is the fact that for a very long time Mahfouz has openly and unequivocally supported the idea of peace with Israel.

Some three years before President Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977, Mahfouz expressed the view that the time had come for the Arabs to negotiate peace with Israel; after Sadat's initiative, he took a firm stand in support of the Egyptian president. Even in the aftermath of Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon he did not change his attitude. In an interview which he gave to an Arab paper in 1984, and which was suppressed for two years, Mahfouz went so far as to say that military actions taken by Israel were necessitated by the fact that the Arab states had refused to make peace.

Thus, it is not surprising that many Arab and Egyptian intellectuals, while congratulating Mahfouz on the Nobel Prize in 1988, issued a caveat that this did not indicate an endorsement of his political views. As for Mahfouz himself, he has been nothing daunted by their criticism. When asked about the possibility that the Nobel Prize committee might have had considerations in mind other than the excellence of his work, he replied:

The Nobel Prize is granted by a Western nation and it is only natural that they cherish the values of their culture. Hence, when they grant the prize, they understandably prefer writers who cherish the same values. … I do cherish the best of the values of Western culture, primarily freedom.2

For some 60 years now, Naguib Mahfouz has been observing Egyptian society, recording what he sees in 52 volumes of novels, stories, and short plays, besides many screenplays. Without ever losing touch with Egyptian reality, on which his work provides a long-term running commentary, he has created an enduring and often exquisite body of art. No less valuably, he has brought into Arabic literature a whole variety of new narrative forms, borrowed from Western models but exploiting the full resources of the Arabic literary tradition, and in this way has helped make possible the renewal of Arabic writing in our time.

An eminent Egyptian critic, Raja' al-Naqqash, recently summed up Mahfouz's achievement:

Even if you read hundreds of books on Egyptian history and politics, you cannot understand Egypt unless you read Naguib Mahfouz. Naguib Mahfouz gives you the real taste of Egypt. He puts the keys to understanding the Egyptian personality into your hands, and then leads you into the hidden chambers of the authentic Egyptian spirit.

This is a true judgment, as true of Mahfouz and Egypt as a similar judgment would be of William Faulkner and Mississippi, or of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the inner world of Eastern European Jewry. And it is also true that Naguib Mahfouz ranks with these writers as among the great novelists of our century.


  1. See the Note on p. 38 for works of Mahfouz available in English. For convenience's sake I cite his books here by their English titles even where these differ from the Arabic.

  2. Another source of tension, in different circles, has been Mahfouz's attitude toward Islam. This came to the fore with Children of Gebelawi in 1959, and was raised again in connection with the Salman Rushdie affair. When, a couple of months after Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize, the death penalty was pronounced on Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Mahfouz spoke out clearly in support of Rushdie's right to express his views. (He also said he found The Satanic Verses appallingly offensive.) This triggered an angry response on the part of Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt, one of whose leaders pronounced the death penalty against Mahfouz himself.

David Castronova (review date 14 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Life along the Nile,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 12, June 14, 1991, pp. 410–11.

[In the following review, Castronova offers a positive assessment of Palace of Desire.]

This grand-scale novel of Cairo life in the 1920s—weighing in with the heft and detail of a nineteenth-century chronicle—is the second part of Nobel laureate Mahfouz's family trilogy about the middle classes between the wars. The books were first published in 1956–57, but are still news to most of us. They are copious reports from the Arabic world given humane depth and artistic harmony by a tolerant, witty, urbane observer of small scenes and large patterns. The first volume of the trilogy, Palace Walk, focuses on Ahmad al-Sayyid, a prosperous retail merchant whose tyrannical domestic regime, decorous business life, and late-night pleasures with cronies and lute girls provide the narrative with its tensions. A man with an infinite capacity for compartmentalizing and rationalizing, he bullies his way through life using custom, bits of the Koran, and his personal magnetism to keep things in order.

The second installment situates the rogue-patriarch against the background of deteriorating traditions, filial insubordination, and the rising tide of nationalism and resentment of British domination. While Palace Walk is principally set in the old neighborhood of narrow streets, coffee houses, stands of snack and drink vendors, and lattice-work balconies protecting women from the public sphere, Palace of Desire opens out and becomes a social study that encompasses the drawing rooms of merchant princes, the boulevards of the new part of town, and the challenges to Ahmad's small world of comfortable compromise. When the third volume appears next year in English, Mahfouz's chronicle will have reached World War II, the conflicts of liberated grandchildren, and the issue of communism in Egypt.

The title, Palace of Desire, refers to the alley where Yasin, Ahmad's grown son by his first marriage, has his household and conducts his updated, ironically presented version of the well-lived life, in his case a clumsy parody of the father's more discreet philandering. The young man—an “ox” to his adroit father—has damaged the family reputation by divorcing in a messy way and threatening family connections and dignity. Mahfouz makes him the most obvious victim of passion, a comic loser who moves from scandal to scandal.

The younger children and their mother Amina, a woman sequestered from the world and yearning to please the master of the house, fill out the family picture. As the chronicle resumes in this volume—a self-contained, entirely clear story by itself—we are reminded of the aspirations of son Fahmy, a young law student killed in a nationalist protest in Palace Walk. His ardor and idealism are passed on to his brother Kamal, a philosophy student whose desires distill the modern humanist program of political liberation, scientific progress, sustaining love, and beauty in the arts. While the father's coarse pleasures take on a pathetic aspect as he chases a young singer and keeps her on a houseboat on the Nile, Kamal pursues cosmopolitan Aïda, a Proustian heartbreaker who comes from the upper middle class and represents the unattainable. (Mahfouz, known for his admiration of Proust, offers interior monologues of Kamal's unrequited love and self loathing that read like heavy-handed imitations of Charles Swann's agonies.) Meanwhile Kamal's sisters have done the socially correct thing by marrying the elite Shawkat brothers, two lazy ciphers. Aisha is a slender, pliable girl who tolerates the domination of the wizened widow Shawkat; her plump sister Khadija—an assertive, caustic, insightful young woman—wants to be an autonomous self, a woman with her own kitchen within her mother-in-law's household. Mahfouz raises one in-law joke to an art form as he stages battles over who knew the recipe for Circassian chicken first and who is most deferential to an old lady. His treatment of the fat-thin issue is worthy of a French structuralist (one with a good prose style like Claude Levi-Strauss); it's a complicated debate about power, femininity and masculinity, the outward sings of inner worth and substance, the traditional order and progress. Altogether Mahfouz has a magnificent command of the customs and manners that add up to a culture and a people's desires.

This book's coloration and variety are achieved with grace and ease. You move through the pages, relishing the diversity and hardly realizing that you're contending with a bulky monster of a narrative. In creating his discrete Cairo scenes—the elegant or noisy or sordid quarters of the city, the conversations during Amina's coffee hour, or the patrician banter at Aïda's parents' gazebo—Mahfouz employs the classic, orderly articulation of the storyteller who knows his people inside out. There are no ellipses or experiments, just the familiar interior musings of characters who seem to think in bursts of emotion or rhetorical lights. This book, to be sure, has little to do with the techniques of the literary modernists. It is as clear and shrewd as the accounts of people's lives given by an inspired and trustworthy raconteur in a cafe. Mahfouz himself goes to his favorite cafe regularly to talk politics and listen to gossip.

Yet while the reader is on familiar Balzacian ground, it should be added that one ground is sometimes rather flat and predictable. The ideas as advanced by Kamal—about Darwin, nihilism, self-determination—are curiously dated. Mahfouz only springs philosophical issues to life if they are wordly or political. The exiled politician Sa‘d Zaghlul, a dynamic nationalist, is made into a powerful symbol of thwarted ambition, a counterpoint to the frustration in private lives. Aïda's brother is an image of decadence, a brilliant emblem of those whose values are Ottoman and detached from Egyptian national identity.

When the novel examines states of consciousness, metaphysics, and the history of ideas, it is sententious. Mahfouz is better on collisions than on musings. It's the wit, irony, and rich sense of incongruity in life that make Palace of Desire an important novel of civilization. Mahfouz has performed a great service to world literature by offering such a complexly ambivalent view of people. In our present period of vaguely focused curiosity and thinly veiled distrust of the Islamic mind and self, Mahfouz satirizes and analyzes without reducing the humanity of his characters. A splendid scene toward the end—with Ahmad recovering from a stroke and receiving visits from his pals and neighbors, the crude and ascetic—shows Mahfouz's gift: “They almost seemed like slivers of his heart.”

George Kearns (review date Autumn 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Fiction: In History and Out,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 491–93.

[In the following excerpt, Kearns praises Mahfouz's complex portrayal of a middle-class Muslim family in the 1920s in his “Cairo Trilogy.”]

Three and a half decades have passed since the publication in Arabic of Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece, “The Cairo Trilogy.” We owe to the 1988 Nobel Prize its appearance in English: the first volume, Palace Walk, last year; now the second, Palace of Desire; the final volume, Sugar Street, early next year. The trilogy recounts, with Tolstoyan assurance, the lives, marriages and disruptive extramarital passions of a Muslim family of the middling merchant class. Its patriarch is the extraordinary al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who leads two lives almost successfully walled off from each other. At home he's an austere tyrant, but abroad on nightly rambles through Cairo's pleasure districts a hard-drinking, witty and amorous companion. The focus is always upon one or another member of his family; ceremonial gatherings, conflicts and ritualized negotiations are minutely rendered. Politics and history accompany the family chronicle, usually as a dissonant music off in the middle distance, now louder, now almost forgotten, yet inescapable. Palace Walk is set against the British occupation of Egypt during the First World War, and ends in 1919 with the death of the family's second son, Fahmy, in an anti-British demonstration. Palace of Desire begins five years later, and ends in 1926 with news of the death of the family's political hero, the nationalist leader, Sa‘d Zaghlul. Mahfouz, with the most subtle and non-programmatic touch, makes private worlds resonate against the public. Sa‘d Zaghlul's death and our knowledge of the inevitable departure of the British suggest parallels to the decline in vigor and authority of the patriarch and the increasing independence of the sons, especially that of the idealistic, intellectual Kamal.

For the American reader, Mahfouz's writing produces a simultaneous double-reading. One gets caught up in this Muslim family's concerns. Scandals produced by the sexual obsessions of father and sons—leading to unfortunate, unruly marriages, divorces, mistresses and, for the teenage Kamal, the collapse of romantic enchantment—threaten the private stability of the patriarchal household, the public respectability all-important to its perilous social standing, indeed the stability of traditional Muslim structures themselves. Mahfouz is so absorbed in each scene, so effortlessly able to assume with the great story-tellers that the tale he is telling is the only tale worth hearing at the moment, that the reader, as it were, must become a member of the family. A family member, however, uncannily sharing all lives, those of the enclosed, oppressed women, as well as of the men on their nightly debauches in the pleasure districts and private houseboats on the Nile, where they drink forbidden liquors in the company of female “entertainers.” The reader is placed, one might say, in a super-patriarchal position, forced to worry about fine balances of power and manners which the males of the family seem recklessly intent on testing to the limits.

Yet immersed as we are in the world of one family and in the domestic, public and demimonde spaces of a Cairo struggling towards independence from British “protection,” we are necessarily outsiders as well. It is Mahfouz's minute observation of Cairo life that fascinates, the customs, practices and speech-patterns (like the constant quoting from the Qur'an) of a world only a few devoted Arabists would ever have experienced first hand. We observe thousands of formalities and gestures, so natural to those who make them, so distant from our ways. Here, for example, the twenty-eight-year-old Yasin has come to his father's store to beg permission for something he fully intends to do, contract a second marriage with Maryam, a woman who was beloved by his dead brother; who has been, moreover, tinged with scandal (she is thought to have flirted with a British soldier); and is now a divorcée. But forms must be observed:

With great courtesy he said, “Please grant me a little of your precious time. Were it not absolutely necessary, I would not have dared to trouble you. But I am unable to undertake a step without your guidance and consent.”

Not long after Yasin's questionable marriage, however, lust satisfied and the slightly-scandalous Maryam shut up in his house on Palace of Desire Street, he is back in the pleasure districts. Here he has picked up his father's mistress, the lute-player Zanuba, gotten drunk with her, and has brought her home, where Maryam is presumably soundly asleep upstairs. But Maryam intrudes upon the scene of seduction, hair-pulling and scratching escalate, and she strikes her husband with a slipper. In the midst of what could be a comic mêlée,

He shouted at her, “I never want to see you again.” Then he pronounced the irreversible triple divorce formula: “You're divorced, divorced, divorced!”

But the exoticism we experience is one offered by a guide unconcerned with our presence as tourists or travellers. Mahfouz, writing in the 1950s, was intent on holding up his modernizing realist mirror to Arabic readers. His energy and narrative confidence derive from the same sources as did those of the great realists in our tradition—George Eliot, Balzac, Joyce, the Mann of Buddenbrooks, even Lawrence. His power is not, as in lesser realists, a virtuosity aware that life can be represented with illusions of fullness and accuracy; nor a virtuosity that doesn't know what else to do with itself; but rather a moral trust that life should be represented, that a society ought to see and think about aspects of itself which through habit or choice it avoids or suppresses. What “The Cairo Trilogy” meant in the fifties, or what it means today to Egyptian readers, I cannot say. For the contemporary American, it rings with strong feminist sympathies in its critique of patriarchal tyrannies and in its representation of the restricted worlds of wives and daughters, as well as of the freer, but still pathetically limited lives of the spirited “entertainers” who age before our eyes as they grind out their commodities of sex and charm for al-Sayyid Ahmad and his cronies. Yet it is in no way a tract merely confirming our worst suspicions about Muslim treatment of women, for it offers complex and varied views of women's lives and powers within official structures.

At the end of Palace of Desire we observe the inevitable presence of modernization. The patriarch's authority is crumbling: he's been forced to “relax the rules” and allow his wife to leave the house to visit her married daughters or the neighborhood mosque. The sophisticated Europeanized younger set picnic by the pyramids, drinking beer and eating ham. The Enlightenment arrives as the nineteen-year-old Kamal, losing his Muslim faith, creates great scandal by publishing an article (in 1926!) on Darwin. I look forward to Sugar Street.

Michael Wood (review date 24 January 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Accidents of Life,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 24, 1992, p. 22.

[In the following review, Wood offers a positive assessment of The Search and draws attention to the Oedipal tone of the novel's plot.]

The sleazy hero of this very good novel [The Search] is placed somewhere between Double Indemnity and The Plague. The book has the well-paced plot of a film noir, and is also littered with delicately posed questions about moral, psychological and national identity. Some of its patterned contrasts—easy-going old Alexandria set against bustling Cairo, the virtuous, loving girlfriend against the rabid sexual temptress—are rather schematic, but they are not insistent, and the novel never tells us what to think.

The Search was first published in Arabic in 1964, and plainly reflects the Egypt of the Revolution and after. But there is a sense in which its real location, without ceasing to be historical, is actually any place where crime seems not only a short cut to big money, but the only route; and where big money is the only money that counts. Mahfouz's Egypt bears more than a passing resemblance to Raymond Chandler's California and Elmore Leonard's Florida, and his subject is not so much a world where crime and big money are what matter as the mentality which is unable to think otherwise. “Are you for the East or the West?” someone asks Saber. Mahfouz's hero. “Neither,” he says without thinking. “Then he remembered his plight, and said, ‘I am for war …’” He is for war because he cannot imagine peace, and yet peace is what he thinks he wants, even if it is only, in a phrase which echoes again and again in the novel, “peace of mind.”

Saber's plight is to have lost a mother and failed to find a father. His mother, a brothel-keeper in Alexandria, has been jailed and disgraced and has died, leaving as her only bequests a marriage certificate and a photograph of her long-vanished husband, said to be “a man of means in every sense of the word.” Saber is a personable and far from stupid young fellow, but he doesn't know how to do anything except spend money or hope for it, and the novel recounts his increasingly frustrated quest for his father, the focus of his great but flimsy expectations. Saber finally settles for what seems to him an irresistible alternative, the murder of his mistress's aged husband for his considerable quantities of money. “His mother had afforded him a brief life of luxury; when that inevitably collapsed, he had to find a father or kill.” “Inevitably” and “had to” are subtle signs that a man is here converting the choices and accidents of his life into a doom. It is true that Saber thinks faintly of working for a living, but only faintly. What is compelling is the way in which his murderously narrowed options seem both natural and appalling; a comment, I take it, on the difficulty of changing your life in Egypt, or anywhere else.

The plot has some elegant surprises, and many questions remain unresolved, particularly that of who is deceiving or misreading whom. “He always doubted women,” we learn of Saber, “and especially mothers.” When his mistress is at her most ruthless, he thinks she is “just like his mother.” In this context, the quest for the absent father looks like an attempt to deny the undeniable mother, and Saber's lapse into crime and complicity with his mistress looks like the mother's posthumous revenge, her signal that she was not to be escaped. But things are not easy. It's not just that Saber has an Oedipus complex, as a magazine speculates when his crimes have made him famous. All men have one of those. And his mother in any case wanted to free her son from her world, to release him into the moneyed air of men and fathers. It's more that Saber thinks he needs a father when he actually still needs a mother, when he will never get over her loss. The political overtones of this psychology are clear enough. The mother is the disreputable but affectionate and forceful past; the philandering father another version of the past, charismatic but irresponsible; Saber is the amoral, orphaned present, full of longing for “honour, freedom, and peace of mind.” There is hope for the present, but that hope is cruelly cancelled by the desperate Saber himself. He is capable of falling in love with a girl who actually could offer him a straight and workable future, and of winning her love in return. What he can't do is act on these feelings, tear himself away from a weakness which he is unable to see as anything other than an inheritance.

Christopher Dickey (review date 26 January 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cairo's Ancient Alleys,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, No. 26, January, 1992, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following positive review, Dickey praises the political background and insights in Sugar Street.]

Beggars groped for alms outside the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo. Their feet were bandaged, their skin mottled with dirt and disease. One gestured with the leprous stumps of his fingers. It was the eve of the Prophet's birthday, and behind the mendicants, visible through the wide, ancient doorways, were double lines of bearded men swaying, praying, dancing themselves into religious ecstasy. Even in the early afternoon the lights were on. The bare bulbs shined weakly, isolated and lost in the cavernous interior.

It was 1988, a few days after Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature, and as yet few tourists were making their way into his old Cairo neighborhood. Those who did venture beyond the Khan Khalili bazaar and the mosque discovered, here, a garbage dump, flies rising from it in clouds; there a police station, its 1950s architecture dingy with dirt as old as the pharaohs, its officers leaning idly on Cold War-era Kalashnikov rifles. And when a foreigner finally arrived among the ancient alleys for which Mahfouz named each volume of the trilogy that is his masterpiece—Palace Walk,Palace of Desire and Sugar Street—there seemed, at first, to be nothing but more dilapidation and dust.

Mahfouz's neighborhood, like so much of the Middle East, so much of Islam, is alien, impenetrable, even frightening for those who were not brought up in it. The language of the people who live there is largely inaccessible. Their history seems a blurred record of war and fanaticism. Their customs are suspect, their smiles incomprehensible. Who are these men watching passively through the iron grates on their windows? What are the children shouting as they pass in the street? What is that woman thinking who is dressed all in black, only her hands and face visible to the world? A stranger has no way to see behind these walls.

Only Mahfouz and a handful of other modern Arabic writers can show you, and very little of their work is readily available in the United States. Only after Mahfouz won the Prize was serious work even begun on a widely distributed edition of his complete “Cairo Trilogy,” and only this month is the last volume, Sugar Street, available in the United States. But it arrives in the stores at a critical moment. Set in the 1930s and '40s, first published in Arabic in 1957, it could hardly be more timely today.

Mahfouz is best known for his ability to illuminate in Dickensian detail the everyday life of the street in Egypt, but it is the everyday life of the mind that interests him most in this book. This novel about faith in politics and the politics of faith is sometimes difficult going. But for anyone puzzled by the long, often furious confrontation between Islam and the ideas of the West—a clash that played a key role in Saddam Hussein's rise and his failure to fall; the driving force behind turmoil in Algeria, murder in the Occupied Territories, and unrest in the wide, dangerous expanse of what was once Soviet Central Asia—the stories Mahfouz spins out along Sugar Street are essential reading. The conflict that has swept back and forth across the Old World since the 7th Century is reduced in Mahfouz to conversations among brothers and cousins in a family we have come to know intimately through the two previous books, friends who take us behind the walls along the dusty alleys.

Here once again is the merchant Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, no longer able to impose his will or to hold his liquor the way he once did. Where the first volume concentrated on his relationship with his wife and his older children, and the second book told the tale of his youngest son, Kamal, the third is devoted to the stories of the grandchildren.

As always, Britain's occupation of Egypt and the struggle for independence are major forces in the background, but the political romanticism that drives characters in Palace Walk and Palace of Desire has now been replaced by fanaticism on the one hand, fatalistic cynicism on the other. Kamal no longer believes in anything, while his adolescent nephews have embraced radically different—indeed, schematically different—views of the world. One is a Communist. One, the most successful within the decadent status quo, is the homosexual lover of a major figure in the country's mainstream politics. And one is a Muslim Brother.

In cafes and in brothels, around the hearth, in prison, and at funerals, these characters explore the hopes and the hypocrisies associated with major political movements in the Arab world over the last century. This book, concluded in the years just after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt and galvanized Arab nationalist sentiment, is full of the old pseudo-socialist and crypto-fascist rhetoric of those days. But the central debate is about the role of God and Man in society.

Ironically—because Mahfouz is no fundamentalist—the crucible of time has left the Muslim Brothers with the best lines and the most enduring message. The most of his career, Mahfouz has been under attack by self-appointed and self-righteous leaders in the mosques. His matter-of-fact portrayal of sex, drinking and drugs in an Islamic society and the sharp depiction of hypocrisy as an integral part of this pervasive, invasive faith do not sit well with the preachers. Often his life has been threatened. But, like Milton giving Satan the most moving speeches in Paradise Lost, Mahfouz gives his Sheik Ali al-Manufi the arguments that have sown seeds of war, revolution and conflict with the West for more than 1,000 years; the same high-tensile boilerplate that can be heard today in the souks of Amman, the Casbah of Algiers.

“Our religion consists of a creed, a code of law, and a political system,” the sheik begins. “God is far too merciful to have left the most troublesome aspects of human affairs devoid of any regulation or guidance from Him.” Later he will sharpen the edge of his statement: “Islam is a creed, a way of worship, a nation and a nationality, a religion, a state, a form of spirituality, a Holy Book, and a sword.”

But why, one of his disciples wants to know, have the unbelieving English (or Europeans or Americans) become so powerful? “Anyone strong believes in something,” the sheik responds. “They believe in their nation and in ‘progress.’ But faith in God is superior to any other kind of belief. It's only fitting that people who believe in God should be stronger than those believing in the physical world. … We need to revive Islam and make it as good as new. We call ourselves Muslims, but we must prove it by our deeds. God blessed us with His Book, but we have ignored it. This has brought down humiliation upon us. So let us return to the Book.”

Neither Kamal nor the Communist, nor, much less, the ambitious catamite is given such clear and compelling language. Indeed, the danger of fundamentalism is that in the context of an Islamic society, few more compelling ideologies exist, and with each setback faced by the Arab world, the message has spread and intensified. Israel's cataclysmic defeat of Nasser's army in 1967 proved to many that God had turned against his faithless followers.

Nor is gradual change less vulnerable to the preachers' politics. In the name of socialism and progress, the post-colonial regimes of the Islamic world crushed and co-opted all moderate, secular opponents. But they could not and would not shut down the mosques, and when they tried to open their system up to elections, the only effective opposition to the government carried the Koran to the polls.

Now, with leftist ideologies discredited everywhere in the world and only a vague notion of democratic process offered by the West as an alternative, radical Islam has more momentum than ever before. The coup in Algiers, the political machinations of King Hussein in Jordan or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the ruthless repression of violent Islamic movements by Syria's Hafez Assad or Iraq's Saddam Hussein often look like desperate holding actions in a slow, ineluctable retreat.

As the confrontation spreads and grows, Western governments, more often than not, are in a quandary about whom to support. Given the choice between Saddam Hussein and the possibility of a fundamentalist regime in Iraq after Desert Storm, Washington opted to let Saddam survive. For their part, some Islamists puzzle over how to reconcile their movements with the modern world. Iran's mullahs are feeling their way toward a new relationship with the West. Even a few members of Hizballah claim to see some potential for reconciliation.

But “the fundamental question is whether an Islamic civilization can live alongside a Western civilization,” said a spokesman for one of the most violent and powerful Iraqi Shiite organizations when I talked with him recently in London. Capitalism, human rights, even democracy may have their place in Islam, he noted, so there is not necessarily a conflict there. “but Islamic civilization is centered around God. Western civilization is centered around the human being.”

The quandary has changed little in the last 200 years. Mahfouz was not able to resolve it in Sugar Street, and hasn't since. But in the trilogy as a whole he does focus on the one force that transcends both God and Man in the Arab world the Family. In his work, ties of blood, friendship and loyalty are more powerful than the abstract ideas of Marx, Mohammed or Bergson.

Perhaps this seems sentimental, even maudlin, in light of today's cold-blooded geopolitics, but only because we in the West, with our atomized families and facile faith in laws, have often been so naive. In the real Middle East, ideology rarely wins out over the demands of the family.

Until recently, analysts in Washington and Moscow often utterly failed to understand this, fretting instead about whether a regime was “leaning” left or right. But with the lifting of the Cold War's fog, the outlines of the system are coming clear. The rulers of the Arab world may claim authority by divine right, descent from Mohammed, or in the cause of Baathist ideals. But most of them still govern by and for the clan: the House of Saud in Arabia, the Sabahs in Kuwait, Hashemites in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Takritis in Iraq. In a new Arab world where ideology has waned, old notions of “progress” are suspect and Islam is on the move, anyone interested in the region will have to delve into the relations of fathers and sons, sisters and brothers, to begin to understand it.

If you have a chance to look behind the walls on Sugar Street—or the palaces of Baghdad and Riyadh—what you discover are families.

Robert Irwin (review date 13 March 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Messages from Cairo,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 13, 1992, p. 23.

[In the following positive review, Irwin examines the dominant themes of Sugar Street.]

Sukkariya, or Sugar Street, is situated just inside the Zuweyla Gate, built by the Fatimids to protect medieval Cairo. Sugar, almonds and dried fruit used to be sold here. In Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Sugar Street, the third in his magnificent Cairo Trilogy dealing with middle-class life in Egypt in the first half of this century, Sugar Street is also the home of sharp-tongued Khadija, her indolent husband Ibrahim Shawnat, and their two sons Abd al-Muni‘m and Ahmad. The same broad highway which begins as Sugar Street, changes its name several times as it runs towards the northernmost gate of medieval Cairo, between the great mosques and the decayed Mamluke palaces. About half way in its progress north, this highway becomes known as Bayn al-Qasrein or Palace Walk. Palace Walk, which provided the title for the first volume of Mahfouz's Trilogy, is the home of Khadija's patriarchal father, the grocer Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his submissive wife Amina, his unmarried son Kamal, his widowed daughter, Aisha, and Aisha's daughter Na‘ima. The house of Sayyid Ahmad is on the very edge of the Gamaliya, an area of narrow little streets, shaded by overhanging wooden balconies, where tobacco, soap and imported goods from Syria were sold. (Mahfouz spent his earliest years in this quarter.) On the southern edge of the Gamaliya, the alley of Qasr al-Shawq takes a dog's leg round the buildings behind the Mosque of al-Huseyn. Qasr al-Shawq, or Palace of Desire, lent its name to the second volume of the Trilogy, and is the residence of Sayyid Ahmad's other surviving son, the sensual Yasin, his wife the ex-singer Zanuba, and their children, Ridwan and Karima.

All these homes, in the north-east corner of Cairo, are within easy walking distance of the Mosque of al-Huseyn, where the head of the Prophet Muhammad's martyred grandson is allegedly preserved. Sayyid Ahmad's wife, Amina, makes regular visits to this shrine to seek Huseyn's intercession and blessing. Huseyn is reverenced by her as the spiritual guardian of the neighbourhood. However, by the time Sugar Street opens, in or a little before 1935, it seems that this spiritual protection has been withdrawn and that the family of Sayyid Ahmad is now living under the shadow of a curse of unguessable origin.

This is a wintry novel about disappointed hopes, doubts, failing powers, death and bereavement. Those who wish to consider the inscrutable ways of providence may meditate on the fate of Aisha. This woman, who was a pretty, lively girl in the early part of the trilogy, has aged prematurely and lost both her looks and her spirits. When Sugar Street opens, her husband and two of her children have already died in a typhoid epidemic. In the course of this novel, even that which remains to her will be taken away. Her brother, Kamal, who is perhaps the central figure in the trilogy, featured as a lively and provocative student in the previous two volumes. However, he is now a poor fish. He still lives with his aging parents and works as a lowly school teacher without prospects of advancement. His sole but faint source of pride is his production of unoriginal articles popularizing the ideas of Western philosophers (Bergson among them). Kamal's youth was blighted by an unrequited infatuation, and it is all but certain that he will never marry. “You shrug off commitments so that nothing will distract you from your search for the truth, but truth lies in these commitments,” his brother Yasin ells him. A lost soul, Kamal struggles vainly to decipher the great secret (sirr), the mystery of life.

The architecture and the street life of the city they live in, which was so powerfully evoked in Palace Walk and Palace of Desire, seems, in Sugar Street, to be fading away and dissolving. Although the real population of Cairo grew enormously between the two World Wars, in this novel the streets seem to be less crowded, and the dead outnumber the living. Memories, internal monologue and debate now take precedence over lived experience, and pious ejaculations and snatches of old songs are woven together in a nostalgic threnody. Sugar Street draws most of its considerable power from the way in which it draws on and reflects back on the experiences of the two previous novels (which covered the years 1917–19 and 1924–27 respectively).

Naguib Mahfouz finished writing The Cairo Trilogy in 1952. A year later, it began to appear in serial form in the literary periodical, Majalla al-Jadida.Sugar Street, indeed, reads as if it was written with serial publication in mind. The loves and lusts of Sayyid Ahmad and his sons, which furnished so much of the narrative drive in the first two novels, feature only as matters for memory and regret in this third volume, and the short, mostly self-contained, chapters of Sugar Street, by contrast, offer selected episodes from time passing. Most chapters carry a message or moral of some sort. In one chapter, for example, Kamal and a friend take refuge in a shelter from a German bombing raid. The chapter ends with the comment that in “this brief moment of darkness, life had reminded careless people of its incomparable value.” Mahfouz's practice here and elsewhere makes one think of more traditional genres of Arab literature, in which incidents taken from life were used to illustrate an ibra, that is, “an admonition or exhortation by which one takes warning or example.”

Sugar Street is peopled with exemplary characters, the bearers of rival messages. Riyad Qaldas, Kamal's Coptic friend, speaks for Egyptian nationalism and the Wafd Party. Abd al-Muni‘m puts the point of view of the Muslim Brotherhood, while his brother Ahmad takes the Communist side. Sawsan, whom Ahmad will eventually marry, speaks for the new emancipated woman. There are even hints that the ancient Sufi Shaykh, Mutawali Abd al-Samad, who prowls the neighbourhood peddling talismans, represents a God who has lost His power to protect its inhabitants, and has even forgotten their names. Observing them all, Kamal listens and doubts everything. He even doubts his doubts. The philosophers and scientists whom he has read cannot fill the void left by the disappearance of his religious faith. It is hard to escape the feeling that Mahfouz is using the characters of Sugar Street to explore ideas and do his thinking for him. Together, Mahfouz and Kamal explore the subsistence of the past in the present, which is perhaps the key to the mystery of life. The valedictory mood of this novel even hints at a farewell to fiction. One of Kamal's friends suggests that “Rouge, manicures, kohl for the eyes, poetry and stories all fall in one category.” Another character argues that the only real value of fiction lies in the way it can be used to get political ideas past the censors. After the completion of the trilogy, Mahfouz produced nothing more until 1959, when Awlad Haratina (translated as Children of Gebelawi, 1981) pushed the inquiry about the contesting claims of faith and scientific doubt to a new and more controversial level. (Awlad Haratina has never appeared in book form in Egypt.)

The Cairo Trilogy's completion coincided with the Officers' Revolution of 1952, which was spearheaded by General Neguib and Colonel Nasser. It may be because of this that, despite the novels' predominant concern with the recapturing of time past, Sugar Street ends in 1944 with Kamal turning resolutely to the future and committing himself to political activity. Proust and Mahfouz both studied Bergson, but while Proust made a valetudinarian reading of the philosopher and took to writing in bed, Mahfouz, in the 1950s, seems to have committed himself to an Egyptian version of Bergson's rather woolly notion of élan vital. Thus, Kamal finally abandons his do-nothing egotism and embraces the ideas of his nephew, Ahmad; “I also see myself compelled to revolt against ideals I believe to be false, since recoiling from this rebellion would be a form of treason. This is the meaning of perpetual revolution.” Sugar Street is a marvellous novel, with many messages, open and concealed, for those who will be instructed.

Penelope Lively (review date 25 April 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Two Wars, Much Peace, but No Tolstoy,” in Spectator, April 25, 1992, p. 34.

[In the following review, Lively offers a positive assessment of Sugar Street, comparing Mahfouz to John Galsworthy.]

Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo trilogy, of which Sugar Street is the final volume, was completed in 1952. It reaches us 40 years late, giving an extra displacement in time to what is already in effect a sequence of historical novels. Palace Walk, the first volume, set the scene during the first world war and introduced the leading figure, the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad. At the close of Sugar Street he dies, as the Libyan campaign rages in the wings. Two wars, neither of them Egypt's wars, are dispassionately observed by the central figures of the novels, for whom the abiding concern is the domestic political scene and the continuing hated British administration. The trilogy is a political and social discussion of a crucial half-century. Appropriately, it signs off in the year of revolution.

It is also a family saga in the most traditional western sense. Proust, Tolstoy and Balzac are the names most frequently flung around in company with that of Mahfouz—all totally inappropriate to my mind. I thought of Galsworthy, reading Sugar Street. The central preoccupation is marriage—the expedient pairing of the young to the greater advantage of the families concerned. Furthermore, as we reach the 1940s, the reader is even more urgently in need of the old-fashioned cast list which is not supplied—indeed a family tree and street map of Cairo would not come amiss. We are into the third and fourth generation now, so that it is quite a struggle to keep track of who has begotten whom and what they are up to. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is in decline, no longer roistering in the coffee houses and the establishments of ill repute of an evening. The education of women is in the air. Ahmad, the young man who is a central figure of the novel, is a communist and works on a journal called The New Man, where he meets and marries Sawsan Hammad, the archetypal New Woman. But al-Sayyid Ahmad's wife Amina is still calling him ‘master’; the family still rises when he enters the room.

It has always been difficult to be sure exactly what Mahfouz himself thinks of his dominant character. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is appalling: tyrannical and self-centred. The household revolves around him; his word is law. His wife Amina is a superior servant who is never allowed to leave the house, even to visit her aged mother or to go to the mosque. At one point in an earlier volume he was displeased with her and threw her out; she was effectively destitute, and deprived of her children. Graciously, he reinstated her after a few weeks and, gratefully, she crept home to resume the life of a dutiful and uncomplaining Egyptian middle-class wife. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is the epitome of the dictatorial Victorian pater familias with the added dimension that he operates a double standard whereby the women of his family are effectively caged while he himself runs mistresses and makes sexual forays wherever his fancy takes him. I think his creator means to present him as an archaism and a monster, but every now and then there creeps into the narrative a disturbingly elegiac note, and al-Sayyid Ahmad appears as a majestic and even tragic figure. Then, I become uneasy.

The novel, of course, is not an Arabic form. Mahfouz has been called the father of the Egyptian novel; he has looked west—both for literary exemplars and for the intellectual influences which spill over into the fiction. Kamal, al-Sayyid Ahmad's son who is a worriedly introspective teacher by the 1940s, is steeped in Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Leibnitz and Bergson. And while Sugar Street, like its predecessors, is indeed a novel in the western mould, it carries overtones of eastern ancestry. It reads more like a sequence of connected scenes than narrative. Each chapter is self-contained, and to arrive at the next is to discover that a lot has gone on within the gap—crucial events which are tossed casually into a conversation. For dialogue is the dominating feature. Everybody talks, endlessly. Hence, I suppose, the determined analogies with the great Russians. All this dialogue can have its longueurs, it has to be said, and a good deal of attendant irritation. There is indeed a problem about effective translation of idiomatic speech, but it makes no sense at all to turn the language of young Cairenes into colloquial American: ‘Let me tell you a cute story.’ ‘You've gotten me into hot water …’ ‘Aren't his folks rather common?’

As an account of how thoughtful Egyptians were feeling and reacting in the 1940s, Sugar Street is absorbing. ‘Hopefully the war will polish off both the Nazi movement and Colonialism,’ thinks Ahmad. ‘Then I can concentrate entirely on love.’ In fact, he comes across as a fastidious fellow in several ways so I doubt myself if the expression ‘hopefully’ sprang to mind, but there we are—translation difficulties again. And possibly translation is at the root of another problem—the oddly lacklustre effect of prose which is after all describing one of the most vibrant cities of the world, and the most ebullient of people. The characters in the trilogy only achieve a sort of half-life for me. They never rise from the page; their speeches are almost interchangeable. And Cairo itself—that teeming, deafening, vivid city—is curiously absent. I am very glad to have read the novels. I feel that I know more about a time and a society in consequence of having done so, but as a literary experience it has been one of respectful interest rather than of excitement.

Naguib Mahfouz with Charlotte El Shabrawy (interview date Summer 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: The Art of Fiction CXXIX,” in Paris Review, Vol. 34, No. 123, Summer, 1992, pp. 50–73.

[In the following interview, Mahfouz discusses the role of politics and religion in his life and work, his attitude toward censorship, and his reaction to winning the Nobel Prize.]

Naguib Mahfouz credits Hafiz Najib—thief, jailbird, renowned cop baiter and author of twenty-two detective novels—with being his earliest literary influence. The ten-year-old Mahfouz read Najib's Johnson's Son on the recommendation of an elementary school classmate, and the experience, Mahfouz avows, changed his life.

Mahfouz's subsequent influences have been many and various. In high school Mahfouz became preoccupied with Taha Husayn, whose revolutionary critical work. Fil-shi‘r al-Jahili, provoked a hysterical reaction from conservative Asharite circles when it was published in 1926. In college Mahfouz read Salama Musa, who as the editor of the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida later published Mahfouz's first novel, and from whom Mahfouz says he learned “to believe in science, socialism and tolerance.”

In the years following the Second World War, Mahfouz retreated from his socialist ideals to a deep pessimism. He spent much of his time engaged in gloomy discussions of life and the purposelessness of literature with fellow writers ‘Adil Kamil and Ahmad Zaki Makhluf, on the lawn area by Cairo's Jala’ Bridge which they dubbed “the ominous circle.” In the fifties he experimented with Sufi mysticism, seeking in it answers to the metaphysical questions not addressed by science. These days Mahfouz appears to have settled on a philosophy which combines scientific socialism with a concern for the spiritual—a combination anticipated by the definition of fiction he advanced in 1945: Fiction is art for the industrial age. It represents a synthesis of man's passion for fact and his age-old love affair with the imagination.

Born in Cairo in 1911, Mahfouz started writing at the age of seventeen and has since written more than thirty novels. Until he retired from the civil service at sixty, he wrote at night, in his spare time—unable, despite his critical successes, to depend on writing for a living. His first published work, Abath al-Aqdar, appeared in 1939, the first in a series of three historical tales set in the time of the pharaohs. Mahfouz originally intended to expand this series into a thirty- or forty-novel history of Egypt in the style of Sir Walter Scott, but he abandoned the project to work on his contemporary Cairo novels, the first of which, Khan al-khalili, appeared in 1945.

Although much acclaimed in other parts of the Arab world. Mahfouz did not acquire a significant reputation in Egypt until the publication of “The Cairo Trilogy” in 1957. This three-thousand-page epic portrays life in middle-class Cairo between the world wars, and was immediately hailed as the novel of its generation. Mahfouz became known abroad in the late sixties, when a number of his works were translated into English, French, Russian and German. In 1988 Mahfouz achieved worldwide recognition when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now eighty, Mahfouz lives in the Cairo suburb of Agouza with his wife and two daughters. He avoids public exposure, especially inquiries into his private life, which might become, as he puts it, “a silly topic in journals and radio programs.” The series of meetings that made up this interview were held on a succession of Thursdays, each time at precisely eleven o'clock. The interviewer sat on a chair to Mahfouz's left, next to his good ear.

Mahfouz in person is somewhat reserved, but always candid and direct. He laughs frequently and wears an old-fashioned dark blue suit, which he buttons to the top. He smokes, and he likes his coffee bitter.

[El Shabrawy:] When did you start writing?

[Mahfouz:] In 1929. All my stories were rejected. Salama Musa—the editor of Majalla—used to say to me: You have potential, but you're not there yet. September, 1939 I remember well because it was the beginning of World War II, Hitler's attack on Poland. My story, “Abath al-Aqdar,” was published, a sort of surprise gift from the Majalla publishers. It was an immensely important event in my life.

Did writing and publication then follow easily?

No … though after that first publication a friend of mine, a writer, came to me and told me about his brother who owned a printing press. He formed a publication committee with some colleagues who had had a little success. We began publishing in 1943 with some regularity. We published a story of mine every year.

But you never depended on your writing for a living?

No. I was always a government employee. On the contrary, I spent on literature—on books and paper. I didn't make any money from my writing until much later. I published about eighty stories for nothing. Even my first novels I published for nothing, all to help the committee.

When did you begin to make money from your writing?

When my short stories were translated into English, French and German. “Za‘balawi” in particular was extremely successful and made me more money than any other story.

The first novel of mine to be translated was Midaq Alley. The translation was first published by a Lebanese named Khayyat. Neither I nor the translator made any money because Khayyat cheated us. Heinemann published it again around 1970. After that it was translated into French, and other translations of my work soon followed.

Could you tell us about the notorious Kharafish group? Who belongs to it, and how was it formed?

We first became acquainted in 1943: Mustafa Mahmud, Ahmad Baha al-Din, Salah Jahin, Muhammad Afifi. We would hold discussions on art and on current political issues. Kharafish means “hoodlum”—those types found on the fringes of demonstrations and who start looting at the first opportunity—they are the kharafish. Ahmed Mazhar [one of Egypt's leading actors] gave us the name. At first we used to meet at Muhammad Afifi's house. Sometimes we would go to a place called Sahara City, near the pyramids. Now we go to the film director Tewfiq Saleh's place because he has a balcony on the tenth floor, facing the Nile. There are four or five of us left.

Do you have much contact with the younger generation of Egyptian writers?

Every Friday evening I attend a session at the Casino Kasr el-Nil, to which new writers are invited. Many come: poets, writers, literary types. … Since I stopped working for the government in 1971 I have had more time for friends.

What role did the political situation prior to 1952 play in your life?

I was about seven when the 1919 revolution took place. I became more and more affected by it and more and more enthusiastic about the cause. Everyone I knew was for the Wafd Party and freedom from colonization. Later I became much more involved in political life as an outspoken follower of Zaghlul Pasha Saad. I still consider that involvement one of the most important things I have done in my life. But I've never worked in politics, never been a member of an official committee or a political party. Although I was a Wafdist, I never wanted to be known as a party member; as a writer I wanted the total freedom which a party member can never have.

And 1952?

I was happy with that revolution. But unfortunately it did not bring about democracy.

Do you think progress has been made toward democracy and freedom since the time of Nasser and Sadat?

Oh yes, there's no doubt about that. In Nasser's time one feared the walls. Everyone was afraid. We would sit in the cafés, too afraid to talk. We would stay at home, too afraid to talk. I was afraid to talk to my children about anything that happened before the revolution: I was worried they would go to school and say something that would be misinterpreted. Sadat made us feel more secure. Hosni Mubarak? His constitution is not democratic, but he is democratic. We can voice our opinions now. The press is free. We can sit in our homes and speak loudly as though we were in England. But the Constitution does need revising.

Do you think the Egyptian people are ready for full democracy? Do they really understand how it works?

In Egypt today most people are concerned with getting bread to eat. Only some of the educated really understand how democracy works. No one with a family has a free moment even to discuss it.

Have you had much trouble with censorship? Have you had to rewrite any of your manuscripts?

Not recently, but during World War II Al-Qawra al-Jadida and Radibus were censored. I was called a leftist. Censors called Radibus inflammatory because in it the people kill a king, and our king was still alive. I explained to them that it was simply a historical tale, but they claimed that it was false history, that the king in question had not been killed by the people but had died under “mysterious circumstances.”

Didn't the censors also object to The Children of Gebelawi?

They did. Even though I was at the time in charge of all artistic censorship, the head of literary censorship advised me not to publish the book in Egypt in order to prevent conflict with the Al-Azhar—the main seat of Islam in Cairo. It was published in Beirut but not allowed into Egypt. This was in 1959, in Nasser's time. The book still can't be bought here. People smuggle it in.

What did you intend with Children of Gebelawi? Did you intend it to be provocative?

I wanted the book to show that science has a place in society, just as a new religion does, and that science does not necessarily conflict with religious values. I wanted it to persuade readers that if we reject science, we reject the common man. Unfortunately, it has been misinterpreted by those who don't know how to read a story. Although the book is about ghettos and those who run them, it was interpreted as being about the prophets themselves. Because of this interpretation, the story was, naturally, considered shocking, supposedly showing the prophets walking barefoot, acting cruelly … but of course it's an allegory. It's not as though allegories are unknown in our tradition. In the story of “Kalila and Dimnah,” for example, a lion represents the Sultan. But no one claims that the author turned the Sultan into an animal! Something is meant by the story … an allegory is not meant to be taken literally. There is a great lack of comprehension on the part of some readers.

What do you think about the Salman Rushdie case? Do you think a writer should have absolute freedom?

I'll tell you exactly what I think: Every society has its traditions, laws and religious beliefs, which it tries to preserve. From time to time individuals appear who demand changes. I believe that society has the right to defend itself, just as the individual has the right to attack that with which he disagrees. If a writer comes to the conclusion that his society's laws or beliefs are no longer valid or even harmful, it is his duty to speak up. But he must be ready to pay the price for his outspokenness. If he is not ready to pay that price, he can choose to remain silent. History is full of people who went to prison or were burned at the stake for proclaiming their ideas. Society has always defended itself. Nowadays it does so with its police and its courts. I defend both the freedom of expression and society's right to counter it. I must pay the price for differing. It is the natural way of things.

Did you read The Satanic Verses?

I didn't. By the time it appeared, I could no longer read very well—my eyesight has deteriorated a lot recently. But the American cultural attaché in Alexandria explained the book to me chapter by chapter. I found the insults in it unacceptable. Rushdie insults even the women of the Prophet! Now, I can argue with ideas, but what should I do with insults? Insults are the business of the court. At the same time, I consider Khomeini's position equally dangerous. He does not have the right to pass judgement: That is not the Islamic way. According to Islamic principles, when a man is accused of heresy he is given the choice between repentance and punishment. Rushdie was not given that choice. I have always defended Rushdie's right to write and say what he wants in terms of ideas. But he does not have the right to insult anything, especially a prophet or anything considered holy. Don't you agree?

I see your point. … Does the Koran discuss insults or blasphemy?

Of course. The Koran and the laws of all civilized nations legislate against the vilification of religions.

Were you religious as a child? Did you go to the mosque with your father every Friday?

I was especially religious when I was young. But my father put no pressure on me to go to Friday prayers, even though he went every week. Later on I began to feel strongly that religion should be open; a closed-minded religion is a curse. Excessive concern with religion seems to me a last resort for people who have been exhausted by life. I consider religion very important but also potentially dangerous. If you want to move people, you look for a point of sensitivity, and in Egypt nothing moves people as much as religion. What makes the peasant work? Religion. Because of this, religion should be interpreted in an open manner. It should speak of love and humanity. Religion is related to progress and civilization, not just emotions. Unfortunately today's interpretations of religion are often backward and contradict the needs of civilization.

What about women who cover their heads, or even their faces and hands? Is this an example of religion contradicting the needs of civilization?

Head covering has become a style, a fashion. It has no more meaning than that for most. But I do fear religious fanaticism … a pernicious development, totally opposed to mankind.

Do you pray these days?

Sometimes. But age prevents me at present. Between you and me, I consider religion an essential human behavior. Still, it's clearly more important to treat one's fellow man well than to be always praying and fasting and touching one's head to a prayer mat. God did not intend religion to be an exercise club.

Have you been to Mecca?


Do you want to go?

No. I hate crowds.

How old were you when you married?

Thirty-seven or thirty-eight.

Why so late?

I was busy with my job and with writing. I was a government employee in the morning and a writer in the evening. My day was completely filled. I was afraid of marriage … especially when I saw how busy my brothers and sisters were with social events because of it. This one went to visit people, that one invited people. I had the impression that married life would take up all my time. I saw myself drowning in visits and parties. No freedom.

Even now, don't you refuse to attend dinners and receptions?

I never attend such events. I never even visit my friends. I meet them at the Casino Kasr el-Nil or at one or two other coffee houses.

Is that why you didn't go to Sweden to receive your Nobel Prize? Too many visits, dinners, parties … ?

No, not exactly. As much as I would have loved to travel when I was young, nowadays I no longer have the desire. Even a two-week trip would disrupt my lifestyle.

You must have been asked many times about your reaction to receiving the Nobel. Did you have any inkling beforehand that you would win?

None at all. My wife thought I deserved it, but I had always suspected the Nobel was a western prize; I thought they would never select an eastern writer. There was a rumor, though, that two Arab writers had been nominated: Yusef Idris and Adonis.

Did you know you were being considered?

No. I was at Al-Ahram that morning. Had I stayed half an hour longer I would have found out immediately. But I went home and had lunch instead. The news came across the tickers at Al-Ahram and they called my house. My wife woke me up to tell me, but I thought she was joking and wanted to go back to sleep. Then she told me Al-Ahram was on the phone. I picked up to hear someone saying, “Congratulations!” It was Mr. Basha. Now Mr. Basha sometimes plays jokes on me, so I didn't take him seriously. I went into the living room in my pyjamas and was just sitting down when the doorbell rang. Someone came in whom I assumed was a journalist, but he turned out to be the Swedish ambassador! So I excused myself to change … and that's how it happened.

Turning once more to your writing—do you work according to a regular schedule?

I have always been compelled to. From eight till two I was at work. From four until seven I wrote. Then from seven until ten I read. This was my schedule every day except Friday. I have never had time to do as I please. But I stopped writing about three years ago.

How do you come up with the characters and ideas for your stories?

Let me put it this way. When you spend time with your friends, what do you talk about? Those things which made an impression on you that day, that week. … I write stories the same way. Events at home, in school, at work, in the street, these are the bases for a story. Some experiences leave such a deep impression that instead of talking about them at the club I work them into a novel.

Take, for instance, the case of a criminal who killed three people here recently. Beginning with that basic story, I would go on to make a number of decisions as to how to write it. I would choose, for example, whether to write the story from the point of view of the husband, the wife, the servant or the criminal. Maybe my sympathies lie with the criminal. These are the sorts of choices which make stories differ from one another.

When you begin writing, do you allow the words to flow or do you prepare notes first? Do you start with a specific theme in mind?

My short stories come straight from the heart. For other works I do research first. Before beginning “The Cairo Trilogy,” for example, I did extensive research. I compiled a file on each character. If I hadn't done that I would have gotten lost and forgotten something. Sometimes a theme arises naturally out of the events in a story, and sometimes I will have one in mind before I begin. If I know beforehand that I want to portray a human being's ability to surmount whatever evil may befall him, I will create a hero capable of demonstrating that idea. But I also begin stories by writing about a character's behavior at length, allowing the theme to emerge later on.

How much do you revise and rewrite before you consider a story finished?

I make frequent revisions, I cross out a lot, I write all over the pages, even on the backs. Often my revisions are major. After I revise, I rewrite the story and send it to the publisher. Then I tear up all the old reworkings and throw them away.

You never keep any of your notes? Many writers keep every word they have written! Don't you think it's interesting to study a writer's process by examining his revisions?

It may well be, but it is simply not part of my culture to preserve notes. I have never heard of a writer preserving his early drafts. I have to discard my revisions—otherwise my house would overflow with useless paper! Besides, I have terrible handwriting.

Neither the short story nor the novel is part of the Arab literary heritage. How do you explain your success with these forms?

We Arab writers did borrow the modern concept of the short story and the novel from the West, but by now they have been internalized in our own literature. Many translations came our way during the forties and fifties; we took their style to be simply the way stories were written. We used the western style to express our own themes and stories. But don't forget that our heritage includes such works as Ayyam al-Arab, which contains many stories—among them “Antar” and “Qays and Leila”—and of course The Thousand and One Nights.

Do you identify with any of your characters?

Kamal from the trilogy represents my own generation—our ideas, our choices, our dilemmas and psychological crises—and so his character is, in that sense, autobiographical. But he is universal at the same time. I also feel close to Abdul Gawad, the father … open to life in all its aspects, he loves his friends and he never wittingly hurts anyone. The two together represent both halves of my personality. Abdel Gawad is very gregarious, loves art and music; Kamal is inhibited and shy, serious and idealistic.

Let's talk about a specific example of your writing: The Thief and the Dogs. How did you begin?

The story was inspired by a thief who terrorized Cairo for a while. His name was Mahmoud Suleiman. When he got out of prison he tried to kill his wife and his lawyer. They managed to escape unharmed, but he was killed in the process.

Had his wife betrayed him, as in the novel?

No … I created the story from his character. At the time I was suffering from a persistent and peculiar sense that I was being pursued, and also the conviction that under the political order of the time our lives had no meaning. So when I wrote the criminal's story, I wrote my own story along with it. A simple crime tale became a philosophical meditation on the times! I subjected the main character, Sayyid Mahran, to all my confusion, my perplexities. I put him through the experience of looking for answers in the sheikh, in the “fallen woman,” in the idealist who has betrayed his ideas for money and fame. The writer, you see, is not simply a journalist. He interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions and values. That is art.

What about the role of religion in the story? Is faith in God the path to true happiness, as the sheikh suggests? Is Sufism the answer the criminal is looking for?

The Sheikh rejects life as we know it. The criminal, on the other hand, is trying to solve his immediate problems. They are in two different worlds. I love Sufism as I love beautiful poetry, but it is not the answer. Sufism is like a mirage in the desert. It says to you, come and sit, relax and enjoy yourself for a while. I reject any path which rejects life, but I can't help loving Sufism because it sounds so beautiful … it gives relief in the midst of battle …

I have several Egyptian friends who consult Sufi sheikhs regularly, looking for solutions …

I wish them well. The real solution to their problems is in the National Bank.

What of Nur, the woman in the story? And women such as Nefisa in The Beginning and the End and Zohra in Miramar? These characters, although “fallen,” are clearly good-hearted, and appear to embody the only hope for the future.

That is correct, although I intended Nefisa also to demonstrate the consequences of dishonorable conduct in a typical Egyptian family.

Do you condone that type of punishment?

I, with most Egyptians, feel that punishment on that level is too severe. On the other hand an Egyptian man who does not respond the way Nefisa's brother did cannot continue to live in this society. Whether or not he wants to, he is obliged to kill the dishonored girl. He cannot escape it. And it will be a long time before this tradition changes, although its force has lessened somewhat recently, especially in the cities.

Abdul Gawad in the trilogy personifies the typical Egyptian male of the time. Is his type still common today?

Oh yes. Particularly in Upper Egypt, in the countryside … though an Abdul Gawad today would probably be less extreme. Isn't there a shade of him in every man?

Every Egyptian man, or every man?

I can't speak for other countries but it is certainly true of Egyptian men.

Things seem to be changing, though, wouldn't you say?

Things are beginning to change. The position of the woman in the household has become much stronger, mainly due to education, although there are other factors.

Who do you think should have the upper hand in the household? Who should make the decisions?

A marriage is like a company with equal partners. No one rules. If there is a disagreement, the more intelligent of the two should override. But each family is different. Often the power depends on money; whoever makes the most money has the most strength. There are no fixed rules.

In very conservative, traditional societies such as Egypt, don't women often have great power over men?

Certainly, and recent history proves it. Men with considerable political or military power will fall into the hands of strong women who influence their decisions. These women rule from behind the curtain, from behind the veil.

Why are the majority of your heroines women from the lower strata of society? Do you intend them to symbolize anything larger? Egypt, for example?

No. By writing about lower-class women I simply intended to show that during the period in which these novels are set, women had no rights. If a woman couldn't find a good husband or divorce a bad one, she had no hope. Sometimes her only recourse was, unfortunately, illicit behavior. Until very recently, women have been a deprived lot with very few rights … even basic rights such as freedom of choice in marriage, divorce and education. Now that women are being educated, this situation is changing, because a women who is educated has a weapon. Some critics see Egypt symbolized by Hamida in Midaq Alley, but I never intended anything of the sort.

What do you think of such critics, who interpret your work in terms of symbols?

When I first heard that Hamida symbolized Egypt, I was taken by surprise, even a little shocked. I suspected that the critics had simply decided to turn everything and everyone into symbols. But then I began to see resemblances between aspects of Hamida's behavior and aspects of the political situation. And by the time I had finished reading the article, I realized that the critic was right—that while I was writing about Hamida I was also subconsciously writing about Egypt. I think such symbolic parallels probably always come from the subconscious. Although I may not intend a story to convey a certain meaning which a reader sees in it, that meaning may nevertheless be a legitimate part of the story. A writer writes both consciously and subconsciously.

What is the subject closest to your heart? The subject you most love to write about?

Freedom. Freedom from colonization, freedom from the absolute rule of a king, and basic human freedom in the context of society and the family. These types of freedom follow from one to the other. In the trilogy, for example, after the revolution brought about political freedom, Abdul Gawad's family demanded more freedom from him.

What is the most difficult situation you have had to face in your life?

Most certainly it was the decision to dedicate myself to writing, thereby accepting the lowest standard of living for myself and my family. It was especially difficult since the prospect of money was dangled before me. … Around 1947 I was given the chance to work as a scriptwriter with the best in the field. I began working with Salah Abu Seif, [an Egyptian film director] but I gave it up. I refused to continue. I didn't work with him again until after the war when everything became expensive. Before that, I wouldn't think of it. And my family accepted these sacrifices.

Many prominent writers, especially in the West, are known for their decadent private lives—their excessive drinking, drug use, unusual sexual habits, suicidal tendencies … but you appear to be perfect!

Well. …

Perhaps that is your greatest flaw?

It is certainly a defect. But you are judging me in my dotage. In my younger days I did all those things. I drank, I pursued the gentler sex, and so forth.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Middle East, particularly in view of the Gulf War and continued violence?

At my age it is unseemly to be pessimistic. When you are young you can declare that there is no hope for mankind, but when you are older you learn to avoid encouraging people to hate the world.

But what about a conception of the hero? Heroes don't seem to exist in your stories, nor indeed in the stories of any contemporary Egyptian writer.

It's true that there are no heroes in most of my stories—only characters. Why? Because I look at our society with a critical eye and find nothing extraordinary in the people I see. The generation before mine, influenced by the 1919 uprisings, saw heroic behavior—the worker able to overcome unusual obstacles, that kind of hero. Other writers—Tawfiq al-Hakim, Muhammed Husayn Haykal, Ibrahim Abd al-Quadir al-Mazini—write about heroic types. But on the whole, our generation is very apathetic and a hero is a rare thing; you can't put a hero in a novel unless it is a work of fantasy.

How would you describe a hero?

There are many heroes in ancient Arabic literature, all of them horsemen, knights. But a hero today would for me be one who adheres to a certain set of principles and stands by them in the face of opposition. He fights corruption, is not an opportunist and has a strong moral foundation.

Do you consider yourself a hero?


Aren't you a model, for your children and your public, of one who stands by his principles in the face of adversity?

Yes, certainly. But I don't think of myself as a hero.

How, then, would you describe yourself?

Someone who loves literature. Someone who believes in and is sincere about his work. Someone who loves his work more than money or fame. Of course, if money and fame come, they are welcome! But they have never been my goal. Why? Because I love writing more than anything else. It may be unhealthy, but I feel that without literature my life would have no meaning. I might have good friends, travel, luxuries, but without literature my life would be miserable. It's a strange thing, but not really, because most writers are the same way. This is not to say I have done nothing but write in my life. I am married, I have children. Then, since 1935 I have had a sensitivity in my eyes which prevents me from reading or writing during the summer, so this has imposed a balance on my life—a balance sent down by God! Each year I must live for three months as a man who is not a writer. Those three months I meet my friends and stay out until morning.

And I haven't lived?

Robert Irwin (review date 13 November 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Journey in the Medieval Style,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Shah offers a negative assessment of The Journey of Ibn Fattouma.]

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz is best known for the three books of his “Cairo Trilogy” (first published in Arabic in 1956–57). Those novels sensuously recall the Cairo of Mahfouz's youth. The city's streets teem with lively and argumentative characters and there is a Dickensian confidence in Mahfouz's narrative. There are mystical undertones and hints of allegory in another masterpiece, The Thief and the Dogs (1961), but the metaphysical drama is played out in the streets of a vividly evoked Cairo, and the reader is still held in the grip of old-fashioned storytelling.

The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (first published in Cairo in 1983) is not like those novels, and is much less likeable. One of several allegorical and experimental fictions that Mahfouz produced in the 1970s and 1980s, this novel is a pastiche of the Rihlat, the famous travel narrative of the fourteenth-century Moroccan globe-trotter, Ibn Battuta. Mahfouz, speaking through Ibn Fattouma, apes the authentic medieval style, with its flowery metaphors and parallelisms, as in “days that brought me lessons and instruction also pushed me to the threshold of adolescence, so that the skies poured down fresh rains and places of interest manifested themselves in the light of fresh torch flares.” Ibn Fattouma shares the prudishness and commitment to Islam of his model and precursor, Ibn Battuta, but his descriptions of the places he visits lack Ibn Battuta's vivid particularity.

The lands that Ibn Fattouma visits are Nowhere lands, or rather Erewhon lands, places invented to illustrate certain political, social and religious alternatives. The descriptions are perfunctory, and what human drama there is tends toward the cerebral, as Ibn Fattouma broods over the merits of capitalist, communist and Third World societies, comparing their various blueprints with Islamic society—both with the ideal Islamic society promised by the Koran and with the less satisfying Islamic reality known to Ibn Fattouma from his youth. He reflects that there “is no evil I have come across in my journey which has not reminded me of my unhappy country.” Ibn Fattouma bids farewell to the reader before heading off on a final journey to Gebel, which is rumoured to be the location of a perfectly harmonious society. It seems possible, however, that Gebel stands for a perfection attainable only in death.

Ibn Fattouma's journey is not just a religio-political exploration, it is a journey through life, from birth to death. This is a seductive metaphor. As Ibn Fattouma puts it in the opening sentence of the novella, “Life and death, dreaming and wakefulness: stations for the perplexed soul. It traverses them stage by stage, taking signs and hints from things, groping about in the sea of darkness, clinging stubbornly to a hope that smilingly and mysteriously renews itself.” But as a character in Nabokov's The Gift debunkingly put it: “The unfortunate image of a ‘road’ to which the human mind has become accustomed (life as a kind of journey) is a stupid illusion: we are not going anywhere, we are sitting at home. The other world surrounds us always and is not at all at the end of some pilgrimage. In our earthly house, windows are replaced by mirrors; the door, until a given time, is closed; but air comes in through the cracks.”

Mahfouz is notoriously reluctant to travel abroad, and indeed it does not seem that he has travelled very far in this book, even in the imagination.

Rasheed El-Enany (review date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Mahfouz: A Great Novel and a Wanting Translation,” in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1992, pp. 187–89.

[In the following review, El-Enany discusses the various translation problems in Palace Walk.]

Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win international recognition when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. This recognition did not come all of a sudden; Western readers conversant in Arabic have long been familiar with the work of Arab authors (including Mahfouz) whose appeal extends beyond their national borders to reach the timeless core of human experience. Attempts to cross the language barrier in English go back to at least the 1930s and 1940s of this century, when works of fiction by such notable Egyptian authors as Taha Husayn and Tawfiq al-Hakim were translated (namely, An Egyptian Childhood and The Maze of Justice, respectively).

The first translation of a novel by Naguib Mahfouz (Midaq Alley) did not appear however until 1966, when he was already recognised as the leading novelist in Arabic. It was not until the 1970s when Arab affairs came to the fore of the international arena and Arab studies flourished in Western academic circles that the translations from Arabic gathered real momentum. Thus when Mahfouz became Nobel laureate there had already been 10 titles by him in English translation alone. In the short period since the prize three more titles have been added and more are known to be in the offing. Not a bad record at all. The greatest achievement for Mahfouz may eventually prove to be that he has made the breakthrough for Arabic letters to the ordinary Western reader. Before the prize his translations were published by small academic publishers and aimed mainly at students of Arabic and perhaps also those Western brave souls with an interest in exotic Third World cultures. Today he is published by Doubleday on both sides of the Atlantic and the day may not be far ahead when a lay reader with an Arabic novel in translation in his hand may be spotted on the London underground.

Palace Walk (Bayn al-Qasrayn in the original) is the first part of what came to be known since its first publication in Arabic in 1956–57 as “The Trilogy.” At that time Mahfouz had been writing novels for some 15 years without attracting the attention he merited. Since “The Trilogy” he has come to be regarded as one of the greatest writers in Arabic. Of over 30 novels. “The Trilogy” is to date regarded as his magnum opus and it is widely believed that the relatively recent availability of Bayn al-Qasrayn in French was instrumental in swaying the mind of the Swedish Academy.

The novel is written in the tradition of social realists and as such is on a par with the great European masters of the 19th century. It represents the culmination of one stage of Mahfouz's development; he started his novelist's career by writing historical romances. (Since “The Trilogy” he has been writing novels more akin in their style and spirit to the modernists. More recently still he has grown more adventurous with form, trying to draw inspiration from traditional Arabic narrative moulds rather than the European model he has hitherto relied on.)

“The Trilogy” is set in old Cairo during the period between the two world wars. It traces the life of three generations of a lower-middle-class Cairene family at an important moment in their nation's life. While characters are individually portrayed and their private agonies and pleasures brought to life before us, the sociopolitical panorama of Egypt under the British occupation is equally vividly portrayed—no other novel has documented this period of the country's history. The novel is also invaluable for its perspective (especially in the second part) on the agony of the author's generation oscillating between the mediaeval religious values of their society and those of the modern, scientific and godless world they have come to know about through their contact with European thought.


It is a great novel by any criterion. Not so unfortunately the present translation fails to capture the spirit of the Arabic text and does little justice to Mahfouz's style. What constitutes modern and spirited prose in Arabic has been rendered in a largely dated and stilted English register particularly so in the dialogue. Examples can be found on literally every page, but one will do here. Here is what Khadija says to her brothers trying to impress on them the importance of approaching her fearful father with regard to the subject of allowing their banished mother to return to her home: ‘If we're all content to keep silent and wait, days and weeks may go by while she's separated from her home and consumed by grief. Yes, talking to Papa is an arduous task, but it's no more oppressive than keeping quiet …’ (p. 212). This is not the idiom in which a girl who is hardly literate will speak; in fact, it is hardly the idiom in which anybody would speak. It is, however, the idiom which the translators use uniformly for every character and every situation. Part of their problem, of course lies, in a peculiarity of Arabic, namely the gap between the spoken and written versions. Mahfouz uses Fusha (standard literary Arabic) for his dialogue, which when translated literally would perhaps, in fairness to the translators, sound something like what we have just seen. But then the Arab reader is used to this, and habit redresses the gap on contact with the printed page. Moreover, Mahfouz has more and more consciously tried to bridge the gap between the two registers in his style by adopting structures and vocabulary common to both, with the result that there is nothing artificial about Mahfuzian dialogue.

Another major problem which faced the translators, and defeated them entirely is that of the high religious content of everyday spoken Arabic—something without parallel in modern secularised English. Generations of Western translators of Arabic texts have failed to deal satisfactorily with this obstacle, the present ones being no exception. Their failure stems from their inability to realise that God's apparent omnipresence in the Arabic tongue is of a purely linguistic (and therefore idiomatic) nature. They tend to regard it as an expression of a universal and deep-rooted sense of religiosity and as such a part of the cultural flavour of the text translated that ought to be preserved, partly because of their exaggerated sense of the ‘otherness’ of the Arab culture and partly because of the inadequate command which most Western Arabists have of colloquial Arabic. For the hapless reader the text becomes at best cumbersome and at worst totally incomprehensible. For example, Al-Sayyid Ahmad goes unannounced to visit a singer whose sexual favours he is after. She is taken aback to see him in her reception room: ‘The moment the woman's eyes fell on him she stopped in astonishment and shouted. “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful! You!”’ (p. 92).

There is no intrinsic value in the letter of the expression used by the woman and rendered literally by the translators. It is purely idiomatic and should have been translated into some English idiom expression surprise. It will help to look at the issue in question by reversing the situation (like the English interjection of irritation, ‘Jesus!,’ purely a linguistic quantity without any religious connotations and therefore if translated into Arabic will have to be rendered idiomatically—although there is no choice in fact because Arabic does not happen to use the name of ‘Jesus’ to express irritation).

After two lines, it happens again: al-Sayyid Ahmad runs his eyes lustfully over the woman's body and says: ‘I the name of God. God's will be done.’ This again is the letter of the Arabic which in the context of the situation does not seem to mean anything. The Arabic words are in fact a colloquial exclamatory phrase expressing admiration.

There are also straightforward mistakes here and there that are probably attributable to misreading. One example is ‘When a generous man like you cheats, it isn't really cheating’ (p. 90) which does not mean much. The Arabic in fact says ‘A generous man like you can be cheated but will not himself cheat.’ On the same page when al-Sayyid Ahmad refuses to accept from his mistress payment for goods purchased at his shop, he humorously asks his assistant to write in the accounts book: ‘Goods destroyed by an act of God.’ Or so the translation would have us believe. The Arabic in fact says ‘Goods destroyed by exposure to love,’ which is obviously more pertinent to the context.

One is finally left with the feeling that the translation would have benefited a great deal and been spared many pitfalls if it had been thoroughly revised by a native speaker of Arabic with a good command of English. Delight at the appearance in translation of such a major work by Mahfouz is marred by the injury it has suffered. One awaits with trepidation the appearance of volumes two and three and can only hope that it is not already too late to avoid the failures of volume one.

Gaber Asfour (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “From ‘Naguib Mahfouz's Critics,’” in Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, edited by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar, Syracuse University Press, 1993, pp. 144–71.

[In the following essay, Asfour surveys the critical reaction to Mahfouz's work.]

No contemporary Arab man of letters has managed to preoccupy our literary mentality as much as Naguib Mahfouz. His multilayered fictional world, with its complex set of relations and its elusive symbols, provokes unending arguments, lays the groundwork for interminable problems, and stimulates ongoing critical efforts aimed at discovering that world's constituent elements. As long as this fictional world remains a bearer of meaning, a generator of signification, it produces seemingly inexhaustible analytical activity, commentary, and interpretation. On their performative level, these activities may be identical, or they may be in conflict—they may differ or agree in terms of their goal or perspective, yet in the end they present us with a complex posture of commentaries and interpretations. In other words, they present a posture characterized by complexity, variety, and richness as much as by discordance, opposition, and contradiction.

Luwis ‘Awad has spoken of a “chorus of critics” that rings out with hymns of praise whenever Naguib Mahfouz publishes a new work; rivers of interviews and articles flood the newspapers, the magazines, and the radio waves. “I have never known a writer,” he said,

who has remained, throughout a good part of his literary career, so submerged, so undermined and neglected, for no obvious reason—and before whom all the avenues of glory have, again for no obvious reason, opened up all at once in the past five years—none except Naguib Mahfouz. Nor have I ever known a writer so well received by the right, the center, and the left—whose works are appreciated by traditionalists and modernists, and by those in between. Naguib Mahfouz has become in our country an established literary or artistic institution, like those many lofty institutions we read about without really knowing what goes on inside. Tourists may come, or be brought over, to view this institution along with the hallmarks of our modern civilization; yet even more wondrous, this institution, which is Naguib Mahfouz, is not only a government institution, drawing sustenance from official recognition, but a popular institution that people talk about spontaneously in cafés, at home, and in ordinary literary gatherings.1

Luwis ‘Awad said this in March 1962, more than twenty years ago. What can be said now, after all these years? Mahfouz's writing has gone on, and the admiration he receives has never flagged. Even when admiration for him was contested by opposing voices, we find its intensity has increased with the passing of the years. Thus, we now find before us more than twelve books in Arabic on Naguib Mahfouz and a huge number of books that discuss the Arabic novel or Arabic literature in general. We also find many special issues on Mahfouz in widely distributed periodicals and a noticeable collection of M.A. and Ph.D. theses on him, as well as innumerable articles not yet compiled in books. Add to all this a collection of plays, radio and television serials based on his novels or short stories—presenting us with more than one perspective on the interpretation of the same author—and two books by Hashim al-Nahhas, Najib Mahfuz ‘ala al-shasha (Naguib Mahfouz on the Screen) and Yawmiyyat film (The Diary of a Film), based on Al-Qahira al-jadida (The New Cairo). Were we to focus our study on Arabic criticism only, leaving aside criticism in or translated from foreign languages—and there is much of it (really worth a separate study)—we would encounter a unique quantitative and qualitative critical posture that has never been accorded to any other Arab novelist in our modern age.

In this unique situation the result of that single-minded vision that sees no one but Naguib Mahfouz in the novel, Tawfiq al-Hakim in theater, and Yusuf Idris in the short story? Single-mindedness may be a reason, but a partial one. The amount of writing on Tawfiq al-Hakim or Yusuf Idris or both has never approached either in quality or quantity that vast body of writing on Naguib Mahfouz. The increasing amount of writing, however, does not necessarily mean increased clarity; it may, on the contrary, render ambiguous what is normally considered clear and self-evident. As much as each new writing, or new reading, dispels ambiguities in the text and unfolds the intricacies of its codes, it draws attention to more ambiguities and hints at various other obscurities. It also stimulates more and more writing. The world of Naguib Mahfouz thus remains, in spite of all that has been written about it, in need of yet more disclosure and consequently of more writing and reading. Indeed, it may be said that the reason behind the unique status of Naguib Mahfouz's fiction is its inherent ambiguity. But what about the poetry of, say, Adonis (‘Ali Ahmad Sa‘id)? Is not his long poem Mufrad bi-sighat al-jam' (Singular in plural form) more ambiguous than the most ambiguous of Mahfouz's stories, those stories that were described once as mere “riddles and mysteries”? Yet does the available commentary on Adonis amount to even one-tenth of what has been written on Naguib Mahfouz?

The fictional world of Naguib Mahfouz is so complex, encompassing historical and realistic narrative, containing the partially symbolic that may infiltrate the dominant tone of a realistic work and the general symbol whose manifold meanings lead to more than one interpretation or become unified and revert to allegory. His fiction contains within itself different schools and trends, ranging from critical realism to existential realism to socialist realism, and including naturalism, surrealism, and the absurd. It is as if the fictional world of Naguib Mahfouz were a museum exhibiting all the doctrines and trends the novel has known or a laboratory containing all the theories and methodologies known to criticism, starting with historicism and ending with structuralism.

Leaving aside the comprehensive aspects of Mahfouz's world, it may also be said that his various heroes and heroines represent different sectors and character types of Egyptian society in their development and maturation from the 1919 coup d'état up to the infitah [literally, “openness” to the West]. Indeed, those protagonists exhibit a search for something better, a desire for redemption from the past. Their heated and enthusiastic protests, often sharp and relentless, reflect an audacity in attempting to reach at roots and a sincerity in unveiling the real cause behind the tragedy of Egyptian society. It is as though those protagonists, gathered in one fictional world, presented a well-polished mirror in which society could see its real reflection—“the auspicious future behind the restless present and the speedily waning past.”2

The world of Naguib Mahfouz reflects contradictory and complex circumstances—the social factors and historical traditions that worked hand in hand in defining the psychology of the sons of the petite bourgeoisie.3 Mahfouz depicts the identity crisis of those characters and the consequent indecisiveness and contradiction in their attempts at solving the problems of freedom and justice without forsaking their dream of the “eternal revolution.” How often they quote, in this respect, Kamal ‘Abd al-Jawad's remark in al-Sukkariyya. “I believe in life and people. I find myself obliged to follow their ideals as long as I believe that they are true, for to shrink from this is cowardice and escapism, just as I find myself obliged to revolt against their ideals when I believe that they are false; for to shrink from this is treachery. This is the meaning of eternal revolution.”4 And how often they identify Kamal ‘Abd al-Jawad with Naguib Mahfouz, an identification that leads to the notion that Naguib Mahfouz has excelled over his peers by virtue of his “awareness of the reality of cultural and historical circumstances, the nature of the social forces and their conflicts, and evolutionary movements in Egyptian society.”5

As for renovating intellectual content, the fiction of Naguib Mahfouz achieves a middle vision—and we are a nation of the middle—and in this respect it achieves an intellectual blend to which all the contending intellectual factions in the Arab world may be drawn. It is useful, in this context, to recall what Jafar, the storyteller, says in Qalb al-layl (Heart of the Night) about his intellectual project: that it is based on a philosophical stance, a social ideology, and a style of government. This project then becomes the basis for a political order that is “the legal heir of Islam, of the French Revolution, and of the Communist Revolution.”6 But if Naguib Mahfouz's fiction refers to this political order, it could indeed make him a writer “well received by the right, the center, and the left, by traditionalists and modernists, and by those in between,” as Luwis ‘Awad said. Such a project provides each faction with a portion of what pleases it and lures it into accepting this fictional world in the hope of gradually winning it over. Such an interpretation would lay a foundation for conflicting motives behind critical approaches to the world of Naguib Mahfouz. It would also bring to light those repeated attempts, on the part of some critics, to exert control over this world or to capture it in place within a certain intellectual system or systems. No matter how enticing this interpretation may be, it still circumscribes Mahfouz's world, transforming it into an “intellectual document,” while it raises doubts concerning the validity of such unanimous admiration among the various factions.

The critics' responses to the world of Naguib Mahfouz are widely discordant and chaotic. Luwis ‘Awad writes: “Naguib Mahfouz to me is one of those few writers in the literary histories of the East and the West who makes my blood boil whenever I read him, and I wish I could beat him soundly. And yet, at the same time, whenever I read Mahfouz, he makes me live for some time among the glories of man, and I say to myself, ‘There is no art above this art, no summit higher than this highest of all summits.’”7 The critic's response, in this context, is clearly contradictory because it vouchsafes the positive and the negative, both admiration and rejection.

Such a multitude of critics, however, can never form a “chorus,” to use Luwis ‘Awad's term. A “chorus of critics,” if it really existed, would have to adhere to a unified orchestration to guide its performance and to make their voices agree. The critics of Naguib Mahfouz lack such harmony. The voice of Muhammad Mandur, for example, will not harmonize with the voice of ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis, even though both speak about a petite bourgeoisie. Mandur's sympathies are with a class that “still clings to many of the highest virtues of humanity, particularly the sanctification of the family and the readiness to sacrifice for its sake,”8 while ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis's position demonstrates suspicion, restlessness, and a belief in the absence of leadership. While Mandur draws on the pronouncements of Gustave Lanson, ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis draws on various other pronouncements, mixing Christopher Caudwell with Roger Garaudy.9 Moreover, the voice of Mandur can never harmonize with that of Luwis ‘Awad, even when it comes close. And neither voice will harmonize easily with the voice of Yahya Haqqi, who follows the trail of the man in the artist, and who attempts to interpret his own feelings toward the artist he discovers. Those voices will not harmonize with Mahmud Amin al-‘Alim (whose voice differs considerably in tone from his Fi al-thaqafa al-Misriyya [On Egyptian Culture, 1955; with ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis] and his introduction to al-Anfar [Individuals] or Qisas waqi‘iyya [Realistic Stories, 1956], and which differs in degree in Ta‘ammulat fi ‘alam Najib Mahfuz [Meditations on the World of Naguib Mahfouz, 1970]).

What a distance there is between all those voices put together and that of Sayyid Qutb (the first critic to discuss Naguib Mahfouz, who initiated a debate about him with Salah Dhuhni over Kifah Tiba [The Struggle of Thebes], in al-Risala 44 and 45, 1944) or that of Ahmad ‘Abbas Salih (in his writings on al-Sarab [The Mirage] in al-Adib al-Misri, 1950, and on Naguib Mahfouz in general in al-Sha‘b, 1959, and al-Katib, 1966). Further, the notion of Anwar al-Ma‘addawi (the second critic to allot to Naguib Mahfouz a considerable introduction), whose readings stress “psychological performance,” differs from Rashad Rushdi's conception of Eliot's “objective correlative.” And Rashad Rushdi is, in turn, far from Latifa al-Zayyat. (Among the unmistakable paradoxes are her translation and analysis of the first complete collection in Arabic of T. S. Eliot's essays, which discordantly, adopt Lukács's pronouncements, and Rushdi's incessant talk of “the objective correlative,” which he forgets all about when it comes to application.

It is possible to add even more names of Egyptian critics to this list, yet the names are so many that one is apt to imagine that there has never been a critic in Egypt who has not written on Naguib Mahfouz.10 If we broadened the circle to include the rest of the Arab world, the voices would become even less harmonious, and the “chorus” would disappear altogether: the “road” to the world of Naguib Mahfouz would be transformed and Mahfouz's creations metamorphosed into a “tale without a beginning or an end.”

Considering its complexity and contradictions, the criticism of Naguib Mahfouz is an exemplary case for literary hermeneutics and metacriticism. This is a critical tradition that acknowledges both conflicting interpretations and internal inconsistencies in its critical pronouncements, giving rise to a need for further revision. The fictional works of Naguib Mahfouz say, in their own way, something about a world from which they are derived and to which they return. Then critics come along: one group relates these texts to a particular world; another group to a second world; and a third may make them transcend any particular world, thus shutting them up and denying them immanent reference to whatever is external to them. All such critics make different pronouncements about how the texts “speak.” Once we step into such a framework of diversity, difference, and discord among pronouncements on how the texts “speak,” the need for revision arises.

Revision here is founded on that kind of meditation that may discover some underlying systems to harmonize this discord. Revision is also based on a consideration of the internal relations of each system and on the recognition of its elements, just as it considers its compatibility with systems other than itself. Again, revision is based on the careful observation of how close, or how alien, such systems are to the texts of Naguib Mahfouz. This last revisionary activity, however, cannot take place unless we consider the texts of Naguib Mahfouz as constituting another system, independent of the critical systems. Such a revisionary process may imply, at first sight, that one word in the critical vocabulary can have two totally different meanings, neither of which can be grasped in itself without first referring it to its context. Consequently, one term may signify two conflicting elements, one in each system.

A critic may come along, Edward al-Kharrat for example, and tell us that “the art of Naguib Mahfouz is not fundamentally a realistic art” and that his characters—especially grandparents and parents—are “fixed major types that belong to the greater human types” because they “surmount all the spheres of reality.”11 Another critic, such as Mahmud Amin al-‘Alim, may equally assert the contrary, that the art of Naguib Mahfouz is drawn to those realistic spheres more than we can imagine and that his characters represent “mature social types” in whom individual psychological features blend into intellectual and social evolutionary processes.12 We thus find ourselves confronted with a situation in which critical pronouncements about the same literary utterance contradict each other, and so we must compare the critics' use of terminology.

The two critics use the term type to mean two totally different things. (It is also important to notice that both use the same term synonymously with archetype in more than one place.) Type (namat), according to Mahmud Amin al-‘Alim, is a fundamental concept in the discourse of “realistic” criticism.13 According to Edward al-Kharrat, however, type is a concept in discourse on myth, where the term archetype plays a vital role in the quest for the different manifestations of universal human images, something close to the submerged symbols in the human collective unconscious.14 It is possible to relate the opposition between the two meanings of the term to the conflict between two systems, in which the same term plays different roles. It is also possible to explain the opposition in terms of a certain inaccuracy in employing the term—that is, by saying that the two critics unfortunately use the same Arabic word for different foreign terms. In either case, we are bound to realize the need for a revisionary circle, so lacking in our critical activity, the circle of metacriticism and hermeneutics.

If we bypass terminology and move to the motivating value judgment behind the formation of type, we might be able to pose a group of questions about the way Naguib Mahfouz's art, according to al-Kharrat, transcends “the spheres of reality,” and about the way this same art, according to al-‘Alim, is bound by those very spheres. Al-‘Alim, who incorporates Marxist aesthetics, will not accept an art that indulges in the symbols of the ritualistic collective unconscious, apart from the spheres of reality, for this would mean an estrangement of reality and a falling away from realism. Al-Kharrat would cast angry looks at any art that indulges in realism without appeasing his craving for metarealism.

Such questions would naturally lead us to the constituent elements of two opposed systems of critical discourse and thereby afford us the opportunity to examine these two systems at the level of application. This opportunity would further lead us to review the evidence the two critics use to vindicate their opposed views of the relation between that same art and the spheres of reality. In the same vein, an examination of the two critics' logical structure would require us to examine the integrity of their principles, their ability to enable a system to explain most or all of the elements in the texts of Naguib Mahfouz.

We may examine al-Kharrat's concept of type based on statements of Jung, Frazer, and Northrop Frye, and that of al-‘Alim, in whose understanding of type many ideas are assembled, starting with Engels and ending with George Lukács on “reflection.” This step will enable us to determine how precise each concept is and how far it can function as a decisive critical tactic. Then we can pose other questions. Does type function as a general critical tactic, or does it succeed only with some texts and not with others? Why should the presence of type be the condition for a value judgment in the first place? Does it have to be type alone or should the other elements that constitute the critic's system also be taken into account? We can also question why al-Kharrat saw—in the same passage—something other than what al-‘Alim was able to see. And if both critics draw on Western critical discourse, why did al-‘Alim choose to adhere to the concepts of “realistic” criticism while al-Kharrat chose those of myth? Is it because of a difference in temperament or cultural mold, or is it because of a difference in social perspective and, subsequently, class position and affiliate on between the two critics? Furthermore, if we leave aside the critics and shift to the relationship of their critical discourse to the texts of Mahfouz we may also ask whether the opposition between the two concepts of type—as a constituent element—originate in the critics' systems, or if the literary utterance itself—Mahfouz's text—invites and indeed encourages such opposition in critical discourse. Which of the two critical discourses is closer to the literary discourse, or text?

If Edward al-Kharrat considers discourse [qawl] to be a mute voice, semi-unified, as it came to be defined in the 1960s, we should look for the reasons why the voice of al-Kharrat's discourse, despite his persistence and constant modification, is indeed mute. Then we find ourselves on the fringes of a struggle between ideologies—with both its deeper and its more superficial forms—reflected in the struggle of the critical discourse over the literary discourses. The struggle of the critical discourse, furthermore, corresponds to and reflects internal struggles at the various levels of Mahfouz's texts. These texts are undoubtedly not unilayered; nor are their relationships fixed. They have multiple centers and conflicting levels.

Critics are bound to ask such questions, explicitly or implicitly, before formulating their discourses on a literary work. But once critics have spoken out and their discourses are found to contradict, oppose, parallel, agree with, or even complement the discourse of colleagues, the entire critical discourse must undergo revision.

No other critical discourse is more persistent in its need for revision than the critical discourse on Naguib Mahfouz. Every time Mahfouz publishes a work, a torrent of studies and commentaries begin to flow, and as soon as he creates a symbol, such a variety of interpretations begin to cluster around it that both work and symbol turn into disputed territory over which critics fight like the Karamazov brothers. The revisionist's job in Mahfouz's case is not an easy one. They should not play the role of father Yanaros in Kazantzakis's The Fratricides and attempt a reconciliation between Marx and Christ;15 nor should they array themselves in judicial garments and start issuing convictions and acquittals. They should, in effect, search out any constituent elements, the relationships among which would create systems out of the apparent chaos of accumulated critical discourses. (Even though such a revision would normally claim to be unprejudiced, it must, of course, stake out a position toward its subject of study, or it would dissolve behind the illusion of pure objectivity or false practicality.)

Whatever the consequence of this revision, it should help reorganize the processes of reading a literary text. Just as this revision helps to deepen the reading processes and to enhance their development, it unveils—through the study of a particular case—the underlying conflicting systems, the totality of which forms what we call contemporary Arabic criticism. Such revision also discovers those basic spheres in which the contemporary Arab critic orbits, and which define his discourse, and guide his exposition of the literary discourse, and thereby govern his interpretation of the literary text.

The world of Naguib Mahfouz consists, on an empirical level, of a group of texts: his novels and short stories. No matter how numerous these texts may be, they form a meaningful context, a set of relations between constituent elements that permeate all the texts to such a degree that they become one major text. This one major text is characterized by a kind of internal regularity that does not undermine the variety represented by the multiple levels of the individual texts themselves. This internal regularity does not prevent the existence of conflicting elements in the totality; nor does it contradict the obvious manifestations of any particular text.

From this perspective, The Thief and the Dogs is compatible with al-Karnak, just as both are compatible with al-Qahira al-jadida (The New Cairo) or Abath al-aqdar (The Absurdity of the Fates). All these texts, furthermore, fit into one major net of relations that connects them with other texts, such as “The Trilogy,” Kifah Tiba (The Struggle of Thebes), or Children of Gebelawi. The distinctions among these texts are not so radical that they would shift us from one kind of totality to a contradictory one. The distinctions are typical of those differences that would exist among the various manifestations of a single totality activated within one system, a system that does not overrule the unique characteristics of all the works. If we draw a metaphor from contemporary syntactic studies, we can say that the various literary texts of Naguib Mahfouz are only surface structures set up and sustained by a deeper unifying structure that makes the particular texts one and the same text, with an internally regulated system.

Some critics of Naguib Mahfouz sense the presence of this system and refer to it with various names, such as “the vision of Naguib Mahfouz” or “the revelation of Naguib Mahfouz,” just as they call it “the fictional world of Naguib Mahfouz,” “the world of Naguib Mahfouz,” and so forth. Some associate the name with positive qualities, some with negative qualities. Some get carried away with metaphorical language and speak of an “aesthetic architecture” or “unity of rhythm,” or “basic features” or “fixed structures.” Yet whatever the name or metaphor, it indicates an understanding of a kind of “self-created system” that is the true cause of the totality or its underlying structure. Furthermore, their recurrent metaphors, borrowed from various fields (e.g., architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry), are attempts at capturing this elusive system from beyond the surface of varied texts. Thus “architecture” conforms, semantically, with “unity of rhythm,” and both confirm the existence of “basic features” and “fixed structures” that function as the constitutive elements of a totality made up of relations. This totality is “the fictional world” or whatever “vision” or “revelation” that world produces.

The difference between the words vision and revelation marks a difference in critical conceptions of the elements making up the world of Naguib Mahfouz. “Vision” leads us to “reality” and lands us on the shores of “realism,” as can be seen, for example, in ‘Abd al-Muhsin Taha Badr's Najib Mahfuz: al-ru ‘ya wa al-adat (Naguib Mahfouz: The Vision and the Means). “Revelation” leads us to the “symbol” and brings us into the presence of the “absolute”—for example, in the way George Tarabishi explains in Allah fi rihlat Najib Mahfuz al-ramziyya (God in the Symbolic Journey of Naguib Mahfouz). Both words herald the realization of a “unified world” and make us feel that it has a system of some sort. Thus we hear one critic say:

The fictional world of Naguib Mahfouz is a world unto itself, nearly the equivalent of the society outside. Its elements are causally related, each element deriving its own relative value from its relationship with the other parts, and its byways and back alleys lead onto its main street. All its events are regulated in a fixed frame that allots each event its due significance. In such a world, a personal whim may converge with a political treaty; for all that surrounds us has merged with a network of intellectual signs and ready-made stimulations.16

We hear another critic say:

The basic features of the world of Naguib Mahfouz have already taken shape. This is not to charge it with stagnation. No. For how transcendent is the variety of this world, how fertile and how deep is its unceasing renovation! And yet it is, in truth, a homogeneous world and remains as such from the first pulse set in motion in the first work till the last of his unpublished work, and even, in my opinion, in works not yet written. There are in this world major centers, fixities, and basic frameworks that compose its movement and that, no matter how renewed, evolved, developed, and deepened in thought, method or style, embrace a fundamental, integrated artistic vision—despite their continual development—from the beginning till that end that abides in many long years of deep and gratifying creativity.17

If we move beyond the surface level of the secondary metaphors or similes used in the above quotations (“byways,” “back alleys,” “first pulse,” “fixed frame,” “converge,” etc.) to the semantic core that magnetizes all those similes and metaphors, we find ourselves close to the system of which I have been speaking, without quite penetrating its code. The first quotation contains a hidden evaluative tone that sneaks into the sentences and that ascribes to the fictional world certain negative qualities, such as strict formalism leading to automation, but the second quotation contains an evaluative tone that is conveyed by impressionistic excitement (“how transcendent,” “how deep”) and that assigns this fictional world positive qualities (unity and variety). Both quotations assertively credit the world of Naguib Mahfouz with “internal regularity,” suggesting that the texts of Naguib Mahfouz proffer “an integrated vision of human life in whose integrity we are able to meditate on the constant and changing elements.”18

Such quotations bring us nearer to the primary function of Mahfouz's critics: that of viewing Mahfouz's texts as a whole, governed by a definite system with constitutive elements, manifold centers, and conflicting levels that relate the many axes of his world and bring the levels of his vision into harmony. A critic's understanding of this function is a realization of the principle that attributes aesthetic value to the notion of “unity in variety.” But unity in this sense is not the unity of spatially contiguous parts, works temporally consecutive, or texts externally accumulated. It is a unity that would lead those critics aware of it to the system lying behind all the texts of Naguib Mahfouz. We try to penetrate the surface of accumulated texts to the foundation of this unity without getting distracted by variety, and end up with compartmentalization. Instead, we should perceive variety in relationships that lead us to the “living unit” of a system, marked by restlessness rather than stagnation. In this way, unity emerges not as the sum of parts but as the result of combined relations, both among elements of a single text and among elements in all the texts.

The problem is that critics of Naguib Mahfouz stray from this primary function more often than they strive to attain it. It is not difficult to see how critics yield to a partial point of view, evolutionary and historical only in a narrow sense. Thus the texts are divided up and made spatially consecutive without merging into a regulatory, unified system.

One of the simplest forms of this partial point of view is the assumption of two totally different stages through which the texts of Naguib Mahfouz have passed. These two stages may be called realism and neorealism, or the static and the dynamic. Such a division implies contradictory conceptual dimensions on the diachronic plane, a radical change in temperament from one extreme to the other.

This division (which blurs the distinction between levels of the same system) places a group of Mahfouz's novels (such as al-Qahira al-jadida,Khan al-khalili, and The Beginning and the End) on a remote island opposed to another island of novels different in nature, topography, and inhabitants (such as The Thief and the Dogs,al-Tariq [The Path], and The Beggar). Apparently, we have no bridge to connect the two islands. There is no harm in pursuing the idea that the first island is an orderly, systematic, shipshape environment where everything fits in with everything else as in the architectonics of an arabesque—where everything is based on recording, description, and cold observation in which the passing of time is much like the falling away of the leaves of a calendar, one by one, hour by hour. We may further imagine the first island to be inhabited by “creatures who are stiff … cold, giving the impression that they resent excitement, and the second island to be tumultuous, roaring with motion, violence, and deep, exploding volcanoes, a setting where time and place commingle, an island inhabited by fiery creatures who speak a dense language in which, as Yahya Haqqi has said, behind every other word there is more than one possible meaning. We do not object, either, when another critic, Raja' al-Naqqash, repeats the same axiom, drawing on the artist and major critic Stephan Zweig, and tells us that the creatures of the first island, the static ones, move about “within the limits of the natural systems of their movement … without haste,” while the inhabitants of the second island, the dynamic ones, “bolt out shouting and yelling, consumed with fire in the arena of their whimsical passions”; they are “martyrs and suicides.”19

If the inhabitants of the first island in Naguib Mahfouz's fiction remind us of Tolstoy's characters, the dwellers of the second remind us of Dostoevsky's characters—if we are to believe Raja's al-Naqqash. And why not believe Yahya Haqqi when he suggests:

Artists can be classified according to temperament, I maintain, into two major types … : the dynamic type whose works reflect the glare of battles, and the static type that survives battle unaffected, free of excitement and revolt. Laying one stone on top of another patiently in the manner of an architect … Naguib Mahfouz, may God preserve him for us, is a perfect testimony to the difference in characteristics between the two types … for we encounter both types in him, and in both he has reached the degree of perfection in artistic expression.20

But if we believe Yahya Haqqi or Raja' al-Naqqash, there is a sharp division in the works of Naguib Mahfouz. His texts fall into two groups forming two isolated islands, two consecutive stages, which implies two contradictory temperaments for Naguib Mahfouz the man. Naguib Mahfouz would then be transformed into a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the important difference that Dr. Jekyll first unifies with his staticism, which lasts for a while and then dies only for Mr. Hyde to be resurrected in his stead, with his dynamism, or with “the whip with which he lashes his characters,” to use Raja' al-Naqqash's phrase.

The comparison between the static and the dynamic is intelligent and amusing. It is related, as a critical project, to the symbolic opposition with which critics explain differences in the temperaments of writers and to the formations of paradigms that oppose, for example, Apollo to Dionysus, cold intellectuality to blazing emotion, or clarity (the sun) to ambiguity (the moon). Yet such symbolic classifications, though amusing, “are too abstract and schematic to be of much help in the stylistic study of particular texts or authors.”21

This oppositional duality, if we consider again its manifestations in the texts of Naguib Mahfouz, is dangerous because, on one level, it makes us fancy, as do Yahya Haqqi and Raja' al-Naqqash, a sharp sense of change in the writer's vision of his world, as if it were an alternation from one vision to its opposite. On a second level, it diverts us from following the immediate struggle of the fictional world by making us track only the external successive alternation. On a third level, it diverts us from the fictional text to mere temperament. And on a fourth level, it directs us more toward the differences among the groups of texts than toward their similarities. As a result, we falsify the text instead of helping to realize its possibilities, dividing the fictional world instead of preserving its unity.

We may grant that a certain transformation takes place in the texts of Naguib Mahfouz, moving us from the static to the dynamic, if we wish to retain the two terms of Yahya Haqqi. Yet this transformation comes through, on the one hand, in the form of internal changes within one system and, on the other hand, like a struggle that breaks out among various diachronic and consecutive levels, in both individual and multiple texts at once. Hence, we can observe this struggle and these changes in all the texts of Naguib Mahfouz both in their horizontal and vertical succession. And what takes place in all the texts, as a totality, also takes place in each text separately. We are not confronted with “the static” in “The Trilogy” and then “the dynamic” in The Thief and the Dogs, but we encounter both in both texts. The difference between the two works does not come about because of an “artistic shift” from one school to another opposing school or because of the “historical overthrow” of one vision in favor of another. It is a difference in the way internal transformations and immediate struggles in one system manifest themselves, and this takes place within each text separately. These statements do not mean that history should be canceled out or that the transformations taking place in a writer should be denied; but they do require viewing the historical position and artistic transformations holistically, not partially, so that we do not divide the artist into compartments or force him to move from one position to another (without his really moving). They mean viewing his texts, in their totality, as a significant system, the significance of which cannot be grasped except through the unity of its texts (as a system).

It is important to realize the synchronicity of the relationship between the static and the dynamic and also to realize its development through time. The static, as a quality that comprises levelness and pairedness is not an absolute contrary utterly cut off from the quality of the dynamic. Nor are the two qualities transformed into attributes experienced in tension in the same text. This is why Luwis ‘Awad was able to realize a certain kind of tension—which he called an abyss or a chasm—terming it “the classicism of form” and “the romanticism of content” in The Thief and the Dogs. He also perceived in “The Trilogy” the same tension between classical form and what it hides behind its perfected façade, a content that is “as remote as it can be from classicism.”22 Similarly, Mahmud al-Rabi‘i has identified a conflict between dialogue and monologue in The Thief and the Dogs, as well as a conflict between the linguistic units that constitute the text's diction—that is, between the surface and depth of consciousness within it. He pointed out the necessity of simplifying those linguistic units in dialogue while complicating them as much as possible when dialogue shifts back to monologue. He also hinted at the necessity of polishing the diction and of trimming it on the outer surface while giving it free rein and power on the level of interiority.23

The two qualities, from this perspective, are but attributes of two different levels belonging to the same system. The manifestations of the relationship between these two levels are subject to regular transformations that take place within one comprehensive context. Hence, the static and the dynamic can be opposed, intersecting, or converging, on one axis or on many axes. In the final analysis, it all depends on the internal transformations taking place within one text; namely, the works of Naguib Mahfouz as a totality. As long as this one total text harbors fixed, unchanging elements, the attribute of regularity is present and that of totality takes shape. It is not the regularity of, say, a “wall” in a building but it is a regularity of levels and efficient fulcra in “the language” (al-lugha).

This partial point of view takes up even more dangerous forms than the dualistic form of the dynamic and the static. It is possible to observe these forms when we consider the literary trendiness imposed on the texts of Naguib Mahfouz. Considered from such an angle, his works are grouped in stages. The first stage starts with Abath al-aqdar (The Absurdity of the Fates) and ends with Kifah Tiba (The Struggle of Thebes); the second stage starts with al-Qahira al-jadida and ends with al-Sukkariyya; the third stage starts with Children of Gebelawi and ends with Tharthara fawq al-Nil (Chatter on the Nile); and so on. These stages succeed one another historically, starting with the first published work of Naguib Mahfouz and ending with his last one, as if the measure for these stages were succession in time, which would parallel another succession of sequential literary trends.

Each stage should be endowed with the attributes not of only one trend but of many discordant ones. The first stage, for instance, can be classified as romantic historicism, illusory vision, or correspondence to reality. It can also be labeled the historical stage solely. Or if the conditions of its membership can be expanded, it can include, besides historicism, “the struggle for liberation,” just as it can also be placed, finally, under the label of “symbol within the frame of history.”24 As for the second stage, it can be described as critical realism, social realism, photographic realism, or naturalism (as Luwis ‘Awad contends), or it may extend beyond realism (according to Edward al-Kharrat). Each stage is thus thought over and over until its texts are fit for accumulation and ready for insertion under three trends as remote from each other as naturalism is from critical realism.

Our present concern is not so much with the chaos of classifications as it is with the process of classification itself and its threat to the unity of texts. Emphasis on stages and on such methods of classification generates the same limited point of view. It fractures the living unity that holds the texts together and transforms it into accumulated heaps lined up horizontally, along which critics pass, as a train passes through one station after another. In such a case, it is only natural that critics will decline to linger at any group of texts not immediately situated on the lines of their railway, that is, at any group of texts that does not fit easily into their classificatory schema. Even if they do linger over these texts, the critics' concern will be to situate them: either they force them in under the same stage (consider the case of al-Sarab [The Mirage], located in the social stage) or they ignore their formal attributes altogether or flatten them by confusing, say, representation in Children of Gebelawi with symbols that get in the way. All that matters to these critics is that the texts should be piled into outwardly similar heaps, so that the historiographic journey of Naguib Mahfouz's work may proceed smoothly and the heaps of his texts may disembark, as travelers do, each at a different station. As long as the critics are concerned primarily with the differences in succession, they ignore similarities and look at the works only as an essence manifested in the “now.”

What Fatima Musa says, for instance, will not differ in essence from what ‘Ali Shalaq says. Musa maintains that Naguib Mahfouz “started off with the historical novel, which represents the romantic stage … then moved to the realistic stage … and, having exhausted the possibilities of the contemporary realistic novel, … he passed over to a new stage, which can be called metarealistic.”25 To both critics the texts accumulate into horizontally successive heaps; Naguib Mahfouz starts under a certain label, then moves on to another, then passes over a stage to a new one. But what are the persistent elements and the internal relations of the collective texts, and what is the vertical dimension in “the evolutionary stages of fiction”? All these questions must disappear when the texts are divided among piles forming disjointed islands and stations. Yet this disjunction will not prevent us from pointing out some styles that have progressed by discovering their roots in the past.

If we return to the logic of the division, we have to ask whether one novelist's work can be classified under all these categories, all these labels, and yet remain sound. Would these diverse labels (realistic, naturalistic, etc.) end up estranging the novelist's texts, transforming them into something like a dervish's rags? And if we consider that terms like realism are distillations of different systems, would it imply—if we accepted all these terms, the way they are applied to Mahfouz's works—that Mahfouz's career leads to one of two possibilities: a welter of discordant systems (in which case his works would lack value because they would lack cohesion); or a shifting, novelistic vision that sees the world in turn as do the realist (critical-documentary), the naturalist, the existentialist, and the absurdist (in which case his mind would lack soundness)? In that case it is not useful to say that “none of our writers compares with Naguib Mahfouz in his critical understanding of literary theories and his application of them in his works.”26 If this statement were true, Naguib Mahfouz would turn into a critic or a man of letters who writes novels based on all the available measurements and theories.

This division of Mahfouz's texts into stations through which critics pass is not just the result of a partial point of view. It is also the result of a historiographic rather than a historical point of view, one that looks at the works of a writer as things that develop with time. From this perspective, each movement made by the texts of Naguib Mahfouz would be a forward movement involving more craftsmanship and maturity in this worldview, as if he had started off as a child with Abath al-aqdar, grown into boyhood in “The Trilogy,” reached maturity in Children of Gebelawi, and become a wise old man in Malhamat al-harafish. This upward, evolutionary movement of Naguib Mahfouz may stumble a little or waver, yet it persists in its ascent on the ladder of evolution.

If we distance ourselves from the above fallacy of evolution, we discern its lack of a historical perspective, its tendency to measure a writer in years or according to the succession of his works, independent of any other measurements. Moreover, this point of view usually presupposes a starting point for the evolution: a zero point where the least evolved of all creatures reside. Yet this point is of no value except as a mere beginning. Consequently, the starting point has to denote the lowest literary point on the ladder of evolution and thus on the ladder of value. The end point on the scale, therefore, has to be the highest position on the ladder of evolution and, consequently, on the ladder of value. Following this logic, the texts of Naguib Mahfouz end up being arranged temporally according to a sequence based on a hierarchy, at the bottom of which reside the romanticism of Abath al-aqdar, whereas at its top there is the realism—or metarealism, according to some critics—of “The Trilogy.”

The first consequence of such classification and subclassification—the trap into which the “realist” critic falls once lured by the novelist—is a descent from the “realism of comprehensive revolution” to “the heart of the night,” where certainty does not amount to the 50 percent Abdallah speaks about in “Harat al-‘ushshaq” (“Lovers' Alley”) from Hikaya bi-la bidaya wa la nihaya (1971). The metarealist critic faces this dilemma when he is cunningly lured by the novelist into taking a seat in al-Karnak's café. Would the first, realistic critic disavow his previous position? Would the second, metarealist critic accuse Naguib Mahfouz of regression? Possibly they would. But the category of evolution would then be transformed into something vague and would thus become suspect.

The second consequence will be the problem of internal classifications for Naguib Mahfouz's evolving texts. Critics have given the basic stages names and made them into grades, one on top of the other. But what about the internal subclassifications within each grade? Here we might pause at the work of ‘Abd al-Muhsin Taha Badr, whose book on Naguib Mahfouz, despite the enormous efforts he exerted in it, furnishes us with a clear example of the pitfalls of such an evolutionary point of view. This book, Najib Mahfuz: al-Ru‘ya wa al-adat (Naguib Mahfouz: The Vision and the Means), presents us with an unfailing duality in which vision appears in sharp opposition to is means. Then both form another opposition to the duality of form and content, an opposition that leads us step by step to a definition of content that molds and then imposes form, then to a definition of form that follows by necessity and influences content. The content nonetheless remains separate and stands by itself. It is a vision, or the off-spring of a vision, whose roots begin to form during the stage of childhood (and can easily be derived from Mahfouz's statements about his own boyhood), roots that sprout and develop in the stages that follow. These roots will remain as the constant elements of this vision, where nothing changes except some minor parts that do not affect the whole, or some aspects of the means that become its container.

If we shift from this opposition of vision and means to the fictional texts of Naguib Mahfouz, we find them in a state of evolution on a ladder whose rungs represent various kinds of vision. (A fatalistic illusory vision exists here, an individualistic vision there, and finally, a realistic vision.) Naguib Mahfouz started with the lowest rung, in Abath al-aqdar and Radubis, and then moved up to the stage of connection with reality in Kifah Tiba—which in effect is a dispatch from ancient Egypt to modern Egypt—and then to al-Qahira al-jadida, which touches reality. Then Naguib Mahfouz further developed toward realism in Khan al-khalili and al-Sarab, and finally consummated his development with the realism of Midaq Alley and The Beginning and the End.

If we inquire about the real distinction between “connection with reality” and “toward realism” and ask whether this distinction bears any differential significance, the only answer we find is this meticulous care to classify the rungs of the ascending ladder from the lowest to the highest—that is, from illusory vision to realistic vision. Still, one will be quite surprised at the paradox toward the end of the book where the realism of Naguib Mahfouz turns out to be, in truth, an ethical idealism in which fate represents “the most influential of factors on action and characterization, while drive or instinct represents the influencing factor next to fate in importance.” Nothing remains for the social factor in the realistic stage, except a “marginal role, despite what many researchers have maintained.”27

If we return to the first presupposition of Badr's al-Ru‘ya wa al-adat, namely, the integrity of Mahfouz's vision, we find this integrity shattered and distributed over the rungs of the ladder of evolution, among the categories “illusory vision,” “connection with reality,” “toward realism,” and “realism,” which in the end gets lost. Moreover, the fictional world itself is divided among an antecedent vision, a content, and a form, or a vision that is a content separate from “form.” This division leads to a rupture of the relationship between vision and means and to the formation of a duality of opposites between constants and variables. If we accept the constants, we would deny Mahfouz's evolution, and the variables to mere incidental transformations in the vision.

Yet we do not encounter just a single vision in Naguib Mahfouz's works, but numerous evolving visions; otherwise, such oppositions as those set up between illusory vision and realistic vision would appear totally nonsensical. And if we accept Mahfouz's evolution, we must accept the validity of variables and deny the constants. Nonetheless, the constants would still remain as solid and as unaffected as blocks of stone, for Naguib Mahfouz has never experienced “a radical upheaval leading to a shift from one extreme to the other. All that happened was that his vision became deeper and more profound.”28

In either case, however, the struggle between constants and variables has disappeared, and the relationship between them has become more vague than ever. What is constant in the first case emerges in the second more like a Hegelian spirit that exists before the texts and manifests itself in them through the ascending rungs of vision: illusory, idealistic, and realistic. Then the constant becomes an absolute, which had been there since the days of his youth (which can be derived from Mahfouz's first statements, if not from his novels). This constant enables visions to replace one another, as train stations do before the eyes of a traveler. The variable in the second case becomes biological states that evolve, in stages, like a chimpanzee that has become a man. Each stage then has a different vision, with conceptual categories as distinct from one another as the head of the monkey and that of the human being. The constant then disappears altogether. And while vision in the first case turns into an absolute that is different from its graded manifestations in those piles of texts, the visions in the second case, become content clothed in different forms. If we recall the assumptions that content is directly associated with situation and that content is fundamental to vision, the result is an abundance of situations in the texts of Naguib Mahfouz or, rather, breakdowns that threaten the totality of these texts, which indeed will cause the whole totalizing system to scuttle away.

The text in itself cannot be described as constant or restricted to a single, solid meaning. It can become, in Edward Said's words, “a network of often colliding forces,” but a text also “in being a text is a being in the world.”29 Because the text exists in the world, it is only logical for its meaning to be reproduced for the benefit of the world. It is logical, too, that the interaction of its internal forces not take place in complete separation from a reader who, in his turn, exists in the world. The text is originally the result of an immediate contact between author and medium in a definite world. And once the author releases the text and allows it to circulate, it engages itself in other processes of production for the benefit of the world in which it now exists. Insofar as the text is attributed to its author, it is also attributable to those who have contributed to the production of its meaning.

We may dive into even deeper waters and turn to the epistemological and ontological nature of the text. As object, the text exists independently of our consciousness, starting with its printed pages and words, all the way through the signifiers contained in its pages. The text is therefore an object of knowledge manifested in a particular ontological entity. The independent existence of the text, however, harbors a paradox that does not destroy its independence but still delimits it. It thereby defines the processes of reading. It is an independent existence inasmuch as it is an object of knowledge. And this independence naturally influences the reader who perceives it. This perceiving reader, in turn, interferes by shaping the object of his perception (namely, the text) and thereby helps in determining its ontological and epistemological dimensions.

Hence, the text is at the same time independent of and tied to is reader. It remains both influencing and influenced, acting and acted upon. The production of meaning, then, becomes a process in which text participates as the primary agent of production and the reader, in the last analysis, takes part as a secondary agent. This process is then called a reading, as long as the reader does not, under any circumstances, sacrifice the read text, and as long as this text remains fundamental in directing the reading process.

Were the case to be reversed and the secondary to become primary, reading would then disappear and even turn into something negative. It would deteriorate gradually into mere reduction on the part of the perceiver who will neither read nor reduce. The logical outcome of such a reversal is the destruction of the text's independence and its transformation into an exhibition of political or social concepts or into an occasion for reviewing religious deliberations. The critical task would then shift from reading to a cluster of impressionistic processes that would start with a discussion of the work's effect on the psyche—consider it as a “psychological performance,” to use Anwar al-Ma‘addawi's term—pass through the process of extracting a group of ideas, and isolating them from the text, then end up focusing on religious or political reveries that, in effect, enable us to identify the critic and not the text. In all such cases, we fall away from reading and edge closer to reduction.

If we take all the above into consideration, we find ourselves faced with a twofold position on the criticism of Naguib Mahfouz, a position that oscillates between reading and reduction. Reading is thus a performance of the text and a production of its meaning. It is so definitely both that it makes reading into an articulation of the text, whereas reduction is an articulation of the critic speaking through text. Therefore, reduction is not a process in which text “articulates” but one in which the text is interrogated. Reading is a process of interacting levels in which the text achieves its internal struggle among the various elements whose relationships constitute its system. It is also a process in which the system of the read text contends with that of the perceiving reader, without either of them replacing the other, and in which both systems fall under the influence of larger and more comprehensive systems that intervene as influential factors in the reading process.

We thus identify three interacting levels in the reading process. The manner in which interactions occur among these levels and the outcome of their interactive relationships will distinguish one reading from another. These readings become types that can be described and analyzed. Reduction as a process is a different matter. In it the first level of the text dwindles until nothing is left apart from the critic's system—nothing but his or her critical theory or literary norms corresponding to a larger system (or a world view)—so that there arises, out of the correspondence, this process of interrogating the text to make it conform with the critic's system.

Still, whether it is a case of reading or reduction, the text always contains a constant drift from inside to outside—that is, from the inner world of the text—that actual domain in which reading, or reduction, is effected—to other extratextual terrain. It follows that the movement in the reading process never ceases to alternate between the text's inner system and other outer systems until meaning has been produced. On the contrary, movement in the reductive process is a direct one, and although it may have more than one direction, it remains predestined, starting from the same point to which it returns, with neither mediation nor complexity.

The drift from inside the text to its outside is natural as long as the text by its very nature as a linguistic artifact, makes reference to the world.30 Because each reading of the text must eventually relate to or interact with something outside the text, it becomes possible to admit that reading, though not innocent, does not negate the autonomous nature of the text. But there are two faces to reading's noninnocence: a negative one that relates to reduction and a positive one that relates to the act of reading itself. The positive aspect is associated with the reader's self, which functions actively in perceiving the text as an independent object of knowledge. It is also associated with the clash between readings, whereas the negative aspect amounts to denying the text's autonomy, thus immersing it in the chaos of reductions and the consequent negative implications of interrogating the text.

Among Mahfouz's critics, this interrogation of the text begins to manifest itself the moment they disregard the complex mediations between the text and the world, when they marginalize the relationship between signifier and signified or confuse the richness of signification and the poverty of intent. Then we find the text transformed into an intellectual document that becomes a testimony to the intentions of Naguib Mahfouz and a symptom among the signifying symptoms of his thought systems. The critic then describes not literary texts but ideas translated in an imaginative language. Such being the case, it is no wonder then to find critics speaking of “Naguib Mahfouz the politician” or searching for “national sentiments in the literature of Naguib Mahfouz,” “Egyptian national history in‘The Trilogy,’” “the crisis of political consciousness in Autumn Quail,” or even “singing and singers in the literature of Naguib Mahfouz.”31

The searcher for Naguib Mahfouz the politician will pause before Sawsan Hammad's speech in al-Sukkariyya and expound on its straightforwardness and gravity—the cunning of the plot and the elusive manner in which it expresses its opinion. This searcher or interrogator would then identify what Sawsan Hammad says with Naguib Mahfouz, and her statements become a pact by which Naguib Mahfouz has abided ever since he started writing and which expresses his opinions and thoughts. Naguib Mahfouz would emerge from the outset as a political writer, with a clear, historically defined opinion, a solid social position, and an intellectually comprehensive view, no matter how much it may appear to be clothed in narrative artifice or hidden in the cunning folds of his art. There would be no objection to such statements if they were the project of research carried out by a historian who manipulates the literary text, as a document, for definite historical rather than for literary purposes. Yet the literary text would end up being arrested and accused directly, charged with an emphasis on the image of the middle classes rather than that of the working and peasant classes in the course of Egypt's revolution.

Once we are involved in such a process of interrogation, it follows necessarily that we step into the circle of rectifying judgment based on the authority of secondary references, on the thought systems of the critic or interrogator himself. Here we oscillate between the negative and the positive as we begin to face inconclusive oppositions and contradictions. We shall find, on the negative side, one critic saying, “Naguib Mahfouz is the writer of the petite bourgeoisie, but he does not articulate the new social forces striving for self-assertion.” Therefore, Naguib Mahfouz “commemorates the tragedy of his own class, beyond which he cannot see.”32 In the same vein, we find another critic saying that Naguib Mahfouz views the world mechanically and that his view “reduces the world to some fixed laws, the discovery of which, it is claimed, would lead to the understanding of this world.” This critic concludes that Naguib Mahfouz “hits the surface but not the core” and that “besides not watching for movement and its incessant contradictions, he does not try to put the question in its correct, or possible, formulation and to ask why instead of how.” We are thus bound to find in the characters of Naguib Mahfouz “residual traces of the bourgeois mentality that fancies intellect as separated from science, science from intellect … both from man, and everyone from particular cultural circumstances.”33 All such statements lead us to a particular system of thought.

Yet it is possible for this same thought system to breed another opposing perspective leading to a judgment of positive value. Then we hear Mahfouz called “the best among writers to understand the middle class, the ablest in articulating its problems and exhibiting the intricacies of its life, enabled by his insight into its reality and deep understanding of its contradictions.”34 He becomes the writer who “intelligently perceived the nature of the middle class,” or rather, “the truth of his own cultural and historical circumstances” and “the nature of the social forces and their struggles and evolutionary movement in Egyptian society.” By so doing, Mahfouz enables us to “approach social phenomena perceptively and soundly.”35 We also find, in the same vein, other descriptive terms relating to “the progressivism of the idealist thinker,” designating his “radical” and “humanitarian” thinking. All are articulated with positive intentions.

We find a critic looking at the same document that was previously devalued and viewed negatively, confirming it positively, and claiming that the works of Naguib Mahfouz embrace “a significant progressivism in an oriental society whose passive dependency has grown out of proportion.” We find in the texts of Naguib Mahfouz “premises of a humanitarian credo whose progressively democratic role no one can deny, in an oriental, otherworldly society whose history knows no radical, democratic revolutions.”36 Yet we can still discern some opposition, even on this positive level. One critic may tell us about Naguib Mahfouz “the materialist, socialist writer,” but another will not hesitate to say to Naguib Mahfouz himself in the pages of periodicals, “The transition in your political history was from the Wafd to Marxism.”37

This last conflict soon leads to another contradiction, for the intellectual implication of Mahfouz's text can always be viewed from within a different system. We find Sayyid Qutb on the positive side, praising Naguib Mahfouz for the ethical religious content of his Khan al-khalili, which would make the novel an example of a type of thinking that believes in the sarcasm of fate, “the sarcastic fate towering over all,” that fate that “does not even take up a serious countenance in the moments of bitterest irony” because one “reads the story and then puts it down to open up the greater story of humanity, the story of impotent humanity in the hands of mighty fate.”38 In this context, Sayyid Qutb captured one symptom out of many in the same novel and wrenched out of it an ethical value—the same value that made him say about Kifah Tiba, “Had it been in my power, I would have put it into the hands of every young man and woman: I would have printed and distributed it in every house for free.”39 This same value induces Sayyid Qutb to affirm that “the critic in the Arab East rises not to reform the measures of art alone but to reform those of ethics also.”40 Indeed, it will induce him to salute Naguib Mahfouz for this inclination in al-Qahira al-jadida to “uphold principles at any cost, and to debase self-indulgence, social and ethical deterioration, filth and loose morality.”41

As we move within the framework of this ethical system to the negative side, we find critics who reproach Naguib Mahfouz for harassing his characters and invariably exposing them to the curses of life so much so that any sense of hope or note of optimism is almost extinguished. It is as if there were a curious enmity between Naguib Mahfouz and his characters. “I do not know the origin of this enmity within him,” says Muhammad Fahmi. “He treats them [his characters] so severely that even those rare sparks of happiness and contentment in his stories soon fade away unable to dispel the severity and gloom of their atmosphere.”42

The same ethical system repeats itself once more, on the positive side, after many long years. We once more hear statements that are but a continuation of the formal elements lurking in Sayyid Qutb, yet in more depth and profundity, in Muhammad Hasan ‘Abd Allah's al-Islamiyya wa al-ruhiyya fi adab Najib Mahfuz (Islam and spiritualism in the literature of Naguib Mahfouz). This book came out as an attempt to “reconstitute the logic of its writer's presuppositions by viewing recourse to God as man's only possible, even fated, solution in the face of the mysteries he was unable to resolve.”43 Hence, with such an attempt, Naguib Mahfouz is brought back to the domain of Islam, having almost been expelled from it. Yet the ethical problem persists. The search after the infinite is placed in opposition to the finite, and belonging is placed in opposition to uprootedness.

Thus the process of interrogating the text proceeds in search for “the religious character and the spiritual touch” (‘Abd Allah, 19) and tells us accordingly that Qur'anic sources “are more influential and more deeply presented in Abath al-aqdar than in its Greek mythological sources” (35). The Struggle of Thebes likewise yields “many of the features characteristic of religious life” (55). And in the profound ending to Midaq Alley, readers are made to pause before Radwan al-Husayni, the character who represents “the pious self-obligation on the part of the able toward the needy, the sound in mind and body toward the abnormal and disabled, and the disabled and the safely guided toward the misguided” (112). The stature of ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Shawkat then rises above that of Ahmad Shawkat, “for he is the productively fertile one whereas the latter is impotent and sterile” (184).

If such is the case, we should not be surprised that ‘Abd al-Wahab 'Ismail (in Mirrors) represents Sayyid Qutb himself. Yet ‘Abd Allah does not let the matter pass without setting up a new trial, for Naguib Mahfouz could have enriched this character “by looking at him from a humanistic standpoint. Even if he were against prejudice, the way he deals with this character betrays his prejudice against him” (131). Yet when Naguib Mahfouz's heart softened and the universe shrank before his eyes, “his spiritual inner tendencies truly took over, and he soared up high—a tragic bard bemoaning human destiny and ridiculing the vanity of man—finite, mortal man” (192). ‘Abd Allah's statements are not so different from those of Sayyid Qutb on fate in Khan al-khalili, an affinity that shows us that we are dealing with the constituent elements of one and the same system;

Regardless of the obvious ideological contrast, the search after the petit bourgeois issues and the search after spiritual values are in fact two facets of one and the same process, the process of interrogating the text. Inasmuch as this process destroys the unique autonomy of Mahfouz's texts, it also exposes them to distortion and causes them to lose that which is most intrinsic to literary texts, their literary nature. Such a process contributes in more than one way to the negative view of literature as mimesis, by reinforcing the implicit assumption that literature imitates ethical values at one time and social events at another. A critic speaking of spiritual values will not then differ from another telling us about the social issues of the petite bourgeoisie. In fact, neither critic will differ from Taha Husayn when he speaks of Midaq Alley as “a massive gospel” of great value because “it is a perfect sociological study, carried out as sociologists might have done through field-work, portraying the society under study accurately and investigating it thoroughly.”44

If we finally move from this interrogation of spiritual values, bourgeois affiliations, and well-researched sociological studies, we find that the text-document transforms with each interrogation—in the manner of Ovid's transformed creatures—so that its generator, Naguib Mahfouz, becomes at once an idealist, a materialist, and a reactionary. Then, on the one hand, his idealism becomes a humanitarian tendency and a mystic socialism; on the other hand, it becomes scientific socialism and Marxism. As for his progressive and reactionary tendencies, they are manifested in the uncovering of the contradictions of a particular class. What we get in the end, or even before the end, is nothing but the chaos of reductions.

I suppose, then, that this intellectual interrogation of meaning represents a fundamental component of all the extratextual systems in which the criticism of Naguib Mahfouz moves. This element may also lead us to be aware of structures in which certain traditionally inherited thought-forms wrestle with one another. And within them proponents of manifest meaning fight with the proponents of hidden meaning over the intent behind the text, and its plurality. The distortion of meaning leads to other thought-forms in the same structures of awareness. Certain forms of belief wrestle with one another and demand interpretation to fill in the gap between them and the text and to achieve a certain degree of congruity that will bestow on them a multidimensional validity. As far as these forms return us to the innermost depths of tradition, they also relate us to other contemporary forms of commitment.

This element of interrogation makes us aware that the criticism of Naguib Mahfouz cannot be viewed separately from the struggle between systems of belief outside it. It also leads us to a major dilemma that still confounds the critic of Naguib Mahfouz: how to achieve a balanced relationship between his reading self and the object of his reading. Such a problematic must be discussed in another place, for we have to start with an analysis of the types of reading, and I have yet to analyze all those types. In the course of that analysis will emerge the other, positive side of the complex tangle of commentaries, explications, and interpretations that constitute criticism on Naguib Mahfouz—the complexity, richness, and variety wrapped up within it.


  1. The essay from which this chapter was drawn was originally published in Arabic as “Qira‘a fi nuqqad Najib Mahfuz: mulahazat awwaliyya” Fusul 1, no. 3 (Apr. 1981): 161–79. Translated with permission.

  2. Luwis ‘Awad, Dirasat fi al-naqd wa al-adab (Studies in Criticism and Literature) (Cairo: Maktabat al-Anglu-Misriyya, 1964), 345–46.

  3. ‘Ali al-Ra‘i, Dirasat fi al-riwaya al-Misriyya (Studies in the Egyptian Novel) (Cairo: al-Mu‘assassa al-Misriyya al-‘Amma, 1964), 254.

  4. The first noticeable manifestations of the petite bourgeoisie in Mahfouz criticism appeared in 1954 in both the periodical al-Risala al-jadida and the newspaper al-Misri with Abd al-‘Azim Anis, who later wrote Fi al-thaqafa al-Misriyya (On Egyptian Culture) (1955), and Muhammad Mandur, who later wrote Qadaya jadida fi adabina al-hadith (New Issues in Our Modern Literature) (Cairo, 1958). The same elements later become the basis for full-length studies, as Ghali Shukri's al-Muntami (The Committed) (Cairo: Akhbar al-Yawm, 1964).

  5. Naguib Mahfouz, al-Sukkariyya (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1957); trans. in Hamdi Sakkut, The Egyptian Novel and Its Main Trends: 1913–1952 (Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 1971), 137. The statement in fact originates with Kamal's nephew Ahmad [eds.].

  6. Sabri Hafiz, “al-Ittijah al-riwa‘i al-jadid ‘ind Najib Mahfuz” (“The New Direction of Naguib Mahfouz's Fiction”) al-Adab (Nov. 1963): 19.

  7. Naguib Mahfouz, Qalb al-layl (Heart of the Night) (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1975), 131.

  8. ‘Awad, Dirasat, 346.

  9. Mandur, 73.

  10. Kamal Yusuf (whom I do not know, unless it is a pen name) has revealed some of the aspects in which ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis was influenced by Roger Garaudy in an important essay entitled “Nuqqaduna al-waqi‘iyyun ghayru waqi‘iyyin” (“Our Unrealistic Realist Critics”), Al-Risala al-jadida (June 1956): 14, 17. Meanwhile, Christopher Caudwell's three books: Illusion and Reality, Studies in a Dying Culture and Further Studies in a Dying Culture have had a marked influence on early Arab realist writing. Perhaps their influence is obvious in Luwis ‘Awad's Fi al-adab al-Inglizi (On English Literature) (Cairo: al-Hay‘a al Misriyya li al-Kutub, 1950).

  11. I should like to acknowledge how indebted I am to the valuable bibliography published by our colleague Ahmad Ibrahim al-Hawari in Masadir naqd al-riwaya fi al-adab al-‘Arabi al-hadith fi Misr (Sources of Criticism of the Novel in Modern Arabic Literature in Egypt) (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1979).

  12. Edward al-Kharrat, “‘Alam Najib Mahfuz” (“The World of Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Majalla (Jan. 1963): 27.

  13. Mahmud Amin al-‘Alim, Ta‘ammulat fi ‘alam Najib Mahfuz (Meditations on the world of Naguib Mahfouz) (Cairo: al-Hay‘a al-Misriyya al-‘Amma li al-Ta‘lif wa al-Nashr, 1970), 64.

  14. The history of the term type in realistic criticism starts with what Engels wrote to Margaret Harkness in 1888: “Realism to my mind implies, besides truth of details, the truthful reproduction of typical circumstances.” See Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), 46. The term was then tossed around among critics of realism until it reached full maturity, as a seminal concept, in the writings of George Lukács; and so it remained until it was obviously shaken by Brecht's attack, which was supported by Walter Benjamin.

  15. The “archetype” or al-namudhaj al-awwal, or al-mithal as translated by Magdi Wahba (Mu ‘jam mustalahat al-adab/A Dictionary of Literary Terms: English, French, Arabic [Beirut: Libraririe du Liban, 1974], 29), goes back to the Cambridge School of Comparative Anthropology and Jung's psychology. Jung's definition of the term was “the primordial image” or “archetype,” “an institution … or a process repeated throughout history, when fantasy manifests itself freely; thus it is a mythological institution. If we subject these archetypes to careful inspection, we shall discover in them the effects of typical experiences. They are psychic residua of numberless experiences of the same type.” Obviously these archetypes are not the products of one individual, but of all ancestors; and they are inherited as a priori determinants of individual experience. See Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934; reprint, London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), 8. And inasmuch as this criticism relates “symbol” and “archetype,” it distinguishes between “symbol” and “representation” and connects the former to myth on the basis that it merges into the archetype to project a different instinctive, universal image or to designate certain types of human behavior indicative of certain primeval forms of belief. For various applications of this criticism, see John B. Vickery, ed., Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1969), trans. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra as al-Ustura wa al-ramz (Baghdad, 1973).

  16. See Nikos Kazantzakis, The Fratricides, trans. Athena Gianakas Dallas (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964).

  17. Ibrahim Fathi, al-‘Alam al-riwa‘i ‘ind Najib Mahfuz (The Fictional World of Naguib Mahfouz) (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-Mu‘asir, 1978), 6.

  18. al-‘Alim, 6.

  19. ‘Abd al-Muhsin Taha Badr, Najib Mahfuz: al-ru ‘ya wa al-adat (Naguib Mahfouz: The Vision and the Means) (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafa li al-Tiba‘a wa al-Nashr, 1978), 9.

  20. Raja' al-Naqqash, “Udaba' mu‘asirun” (“Contemporary Writers”), Kitab al-Hilal (Feb. 1971): 183–84.

  21. Yahya Haqqi, 'Itr al-ahbab (The Aroma of Lovers) (Cairo: Matabi' al-Ahram, 1971), 84–85.

  22. See Stephen Ulmann, “Style and Personality,” in Contemporary Essays on Style, ed. G. A. Love and M. Payne (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1969), 161.

  23. ‘Awad, Dirasat, 361.

  24. Mahmud al-Rabi‘i, Qira‘at al-riwaya: namadhij min Najib Mahfuz (Reading the Novel: Excerpts from Naguib Mahfouz) (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1974), 15–16.

  25. See, respectively, Nabil Raghib, Qadiyyat al-shakl al-fanni ‘ind Najib Mahfuz (The Question of Artistic form in Naguib Mahfouz) (Cairo: al-Mu‘assassa al-Misriyya al-‘Amma li al-Ta‘lif wa al-Nashr, 1967), 17–18; Taha Badr, 151–52; al-‘Alim, 25–26; ‘Ali Shalaq, Najib Mahfuz fi majhulihi al-ma‘lum (Naguib Mahfouz in His Unknown Known) (Beirut: Dar al-Masira, 1979), 146; Sulayman al-Shatti, al-Ramz wa al-ramziyya fi adab Najib Mahfuz (Symbol and Symbolism in the Writings of Naguib Mahfouz) (Kuwait: al-Matba‘a al-‘Asriyya), 29–30.

  26. Fatima Musa, Fi al-riwaya al-‘Arabiyya al-mu‘asira (On the Contemporary Arabic Novel) (Cairo: al-Anglu-Misriyya, 1972), 27.

  27. Haqqi, 106.

  28. Badr, 451.

  29. Ibid., 72.

  30. Cf. Edward Said, “The World, the Text, and the Critic,” in Textual Strategies, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1979), 161–88; later included in The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), 31–53.

  31. See Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian Univ. Press, 1976), 36–37.

  32. See, respectively, Ibrahim ‘Amir, “Najib Mahfuz siyasiyyan min thawrat 1919 ila Yunyu 1967” (“Naguib Mahfouz the Politician: From the 1919 coup d'état to June 1967”), al-Hilal (Feb. 1970): 26–27; Fuad Duwwara, “al-Wijdan al-qawmi fi adab Najib Mahfuz” (“National Emotional Life in the Literature of Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Hilal (Feb. 1970): 100–109; Jalal al-Sayyid, “Tarikhuna al-qawmi fi Thulathiyyat Najib Mahfuz” (“Our national history in The Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Katib (Jan. 1963): 70–79; Hilal Ghunaymi, “Azmat al-wa‘i al-siyasi fi qissat al-Summan wa al-kharif” (“The Crisis of Political Consciousness in Autumn Quail”), al-Katib (Jan. 1963): 24–31; Kamal al-Najmi, “Ma' al-ghina' wa al-mughanin fi adab Najib Mahfuz” (“Singers and Singing in the Literature of Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Hilal (Feb. 1970): 128–35.

  33. Mahmud Amin al-‘Alim and ‘Abd al-‘Azim Anis, Fi al-thaqafa al-Misriyya (On Egyptian Culture) (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-Jadid, 1955), 154, 166.

  34. Ahmad ‘Abbas Salih, “Qira‘a jadida li Najib Mahfuz” (“A New Reading of Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Katib (Feb. 1966): 64–67.

  35. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Subhi, “al-Shakhsiyya al-ijabiyya fi adab Najib Mahfuz” (“Positive Characters in the Literature of Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Katib (Jan. 1963): 64.

  36. Hafez, 19, 21.

  37. George Tarabishi, Allah fi rihlat Najib Mahfuz al-ramziyya (God in the Symbolic Journey of Naguib Mahfouz) (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a, 1973), 66, 130.

  38. Raja' al-Naqqash, “Bayn al-Wafdiyya wa al-Marksiyya” (“Between the Wafd and Marxism”), al-Hilal (Feb. 1970): 40.

  39. Sayyid Qutb, Kutub wa shakhsiyyat (Books and Characters) (Cairo: Matba‘at al-Risala, 1946). See also al-Risala (17 Dec. 1945): 1366.

  40. Sayyid Qutb, “Kifah Tiba li Najib Mahfuz” (“The Struggle for Thebes by Naguib Mahfouz”), al-Risala (2 Oct. 1944): 892.

  41. Sayyid Qutb, “Khawatir mutasawiqa” (“Coherent Ideas”), al-Risala (27 Nov. 1944): 1044.

  42. Sayyid Qutb, “al-Qahira al-jadida” (“New Cairo”), al-Risala (30 Dec. 1946): 1441.

  43. Muhammad Fahmi, “Zuqaq al-midaqq” (“Midaq Alley”), al-Muqtataf (Dec. 1947).

  44. Muhammad Hasan ‘Abd Allah, al-Islamiyya wa al-ruhiyya fi adab Najib Mahfuz (Islamism and Spiritualism in the Literature of Naguib Mahfouz) (Cairo: Dar Misr li al-Tiba‘a, 1977), 450.

  45. Taha Husayn, Naqd wa islah (Criticism and Reform) (Beirut: Dar al-'Ilm li al-Malayin, 1956), 118.

Rasheed El-Enany (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Time and the Man: Four Egyptian Sagas,” in Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, Routledge, 1993, pp. 70–98.

[In the following essay, El-Enany explores Mahfouz's preoccupation with time and how it affects the individuals and communities in Mahfouz's “Cairo Trilogy” and Qushtumur.]

A preoccupation with time is at the centre of Mahfouz's work. A thought that has been uppermost in his writings has been how time affects the individual and the community and how human memory relates to external time. In this essay I have grouped together some novels in which time is a prime concern. The first three novels treated here are all romans fleuves in the sense that they are concerned with the examination of the changing conditions of life for individuals and society across a succession of generations in a given family. However, of the three it is only “The Cairo Trilogy” which is written on the grand scale associated with this type of novel, as established by such European masters as Balzac, Zola and Mann. The other two are romans fleuves of a lesser order, cramming too many events and characters into what are very short novels, and more inclined towards the quick reportage of change than in its detailed representation and the creation of a real sense of the passage of time. Qushtumur, the fourth and last novel dealt with in this essay, is not technically a roman fleuve. The reasons for including it here notwithstanding will be explained in the course of discussion of it.

Mahfouz has been explicit about his philosophy of time, which …, has been considerably influenced by the ideas of Henri Bergson. In the course of discussing techniques of dealing with time in the novel, he contrasts ‘logical time’ with ‘psychological time’ and comes out mostly in favour of the first. He insists on the historicity of time and argues that ‘time represents the evolutionary spirit of man; it perpetuates the human experience of life. Therefore, while it may mean extinction to the individual, it means eternity for the species.’1 In another statement he reaffirms the same point:

My contemplation of time and death has taught me to regard them with the eye of collective man and not [that of] the individual. To the individual they are calamitous, but to collective man a mere illusion. … What can death do to human society? Nothing. At any moment you will find society bustling with millions [of lives].2

But if Mahfouz views the relation between man and time as inevitably a tragic one on the individual level, he makes it amply clear that he believes it need not be so on the social level. Indeed, so optimistic is he about human progress that he does not preclude the possibility of a final human victory over time and death as the following extract suggests towards the end:

As long as life ends in disability and death, it is a tragedy. … Even those who see it as a crossroad to the hereafter will have to accept that the first part of it is a tragedy. … But the tragedy of life is a complex one. … For when we think of life as merely existence, we tend to see it only in the abstract terms of existence and non-existence. But when we think of it in terms of existence in society, we discover in it many artificial tragedies of man's own making, such as ignorance, poverty, exploitation, violence. … This justifies our emphasis on the tragedies of society, because these are ones that can be remedied, and because in the act of remedying them we create civilization and progress. Indeed, progress might ameliorate the original tragedy [i.e. death] and might even conquer it altogether.3

All the novels discussed in the following pages are metaphors of varying complexity and accomplishment embodying the author's view of time in relation to the individual and to society.


Having explored both the physical and social environments of Cairene society over a period of some fifteen years (1930–45 roughly) and having examined the tragic struggles of the individual against the trials imposed by that society on its aspiring but largely powerless children, Mahfouz wanted, as it were, to put the fragments together and trace the social tension between past and present back to a clear and definable point when it can be said to have started in earnest and which led to the situations in which we have seen his heroes faced with the necessity of a stark choice between two irreconcilable value systems. He thus came to write “The Trilogy,”4 going back in time to 1917, to the years leading up to the popular revolution of 1919 and continuing through three generations of the protagonist-family to stop at 1944, the temporal watershed which none of his novels up to “The Trilogy” had crossed. The symbolic power of the dates is self-evident. The novel begins in the middle of a world war and terminates with the end of another. The world is in the process of convulsive change and so is Egyptian society. Change is painful but inevitable. And change occurs in time which may be favourable to society, its benignity being embedded in the infinite hope attendant on its own infiniteness. Not so, alas, is time to the individual because here it is hopelessly finite and, as it inexorably advances, it can only hold the promise of death and decay. This novel is about time and man and the myriad nameless things that such a story would entail.

The 1,500 pages or so which constitute the three parts of “The Trilogy” are a powerful embodiment of Mahfouz's concept of time expounded above. At the end of the 28-year period spanned by the novel, the members of the ‘Abd al-Jawwād family are in a poor state indeed, their fortunes ranging from shattered hopes (Kamāl) and death-in-life (‘Ā'isha) to actual death (Fahmī). Conversely, the society to which these victims of time belong is seen at the end to be in much better shape than it was at the beginning: Egypt has survived two world wars partly fought on its soil and a revolution brutally put down by a great colonial power, has gained partial independence, and the national struggle which in Fahmi's generation had been limited to the issues of independence and constitutional government has been widened in Ahmad Shawkat's generation to include the issue of social justice as well. Thus while Fahmi, who was killed in the revolution, has been decaying in his grave for twenty-six years, Egypt has been steadily progressing on the course he and many other individuals died for.

Mahfouz allocates the first forty-seven chapters of Palace Walk (henceforth PW), roughly two-thirds of the book, to a description of the homely and the quotidian. We get to know all the members of the ‘Abd al-Jawwād family in no inconsiderable detail as we become familiar with the routine of their daily life. We see all the morning rituals: waking up, baking the bread, breakfast, the men going out to work or school and the women doing housework. We are also taken to the afternoon coffee gathering shared by all the family except the father. We see Fahmī on the roof professing his love to their next-door neighbour, Maryam; the father in his shop and in his rowdy gatherings at night with his friends and their singing mistresses; Yāsīn in his obsessive pursuit of Zannūba; the little adventures of the young Kamāl on his way back from school; the weddings of ‘Ā'isha, Yāsīn and Khadīja in succession. All this we see and much more. And it is this descriptive quality that gives the book, among other things, its documentary value. There is no other source, literary or otherwise, that records with such detail and liveliness the habits, sentiments and living environment of Cairene Egyptians at the beginning of the century.5 Without the novelist's loving and observant eye much about that period that no longer exists would have gone unrecorded forever.6

Interesting in itself as this detailed record of the homely and the quotidian is, it has another function, namely to prepare the scene for the shattering impact of the approaching revolution. The sheer space devoted initially in the book to this account of the quotidian creates a sense of timelessness about the protagonist family. We feel as if they have existed with their little happinesses and miseries since time immemorial and that they could go on like that endlessly. They probably feel the same. But they are wrong and so are we. They will soon learn, and we through them, that no human condition can go on immune from the transgression of time and that when history convulses, the lives of individuals crack and crumble.

When the British authorities exile Sa‘d Zaghlūl, having refused him permission to travel to Paris to air the nation's demand for independence before the peace conference at Versailles in 1919, the revolution erupts and martial law is enforced. From that moment the life of the family, like that of the whole nation, is never the same again. The novel reveals to us gradually the build-up of public events, and as the pace of action is stepped up, the inevitable convergence of public and private reaches its tragic conclusion. The afternoon coffee gathering formerly reserved for innocent chat and the usual bickerings among brothers and sisters is now dominated by talk of politics and accounts of demonstrations and violent confrontations with soldiers. Everyone has something to tell whether it is the 10-year-old schoolboy Kamāl, or the 19-year-old university student Fahmī, who is actively involved in distributing handbills and organizing demonstrations and strikes. Even the nightly pleasure gathering of the father and his friends is affected. On the night when Zaghlūl was exiled we are told that for the first time in twenty-five years their gathering ‘was mirthless and reigned over by silence’ (PW, p. 403). As the revolution escalates, the British decide to occupy the old quarter of al-Husayn (a focal point for revolutionary agitation) where the family lives. They camp right outside the family house. The household is thrown into confusion and for some time the family impose house-arrest on themselves because they do not know the intentions of the occupying force. ‘Abd al-Jawwād's family is thus made to embody the condition of the entire nation and historical danger is seen to be as close to the individual as the front door of his own house. The consequences of such menacing proximity materialize without delay when we see the fearsome and much-respected patriarch, ‘Abd al-Jawwād, arrested at gunpoint on his way home one night and forced most ignominiously to take part in refilling a trench dug earlier by rebels. Another consequence is the courtship of Maryam by a soldier. Her favourable response is witnessed and innocently publicized by the young Kamāl, a fact which breaks the heart of Fahmī, who loves the girl and would have been engaged to her but for his father's objection. Yet another consequence is the near-lynching of Yāsīn at al-Husayn Mosque when he is wrongly suspected by worshippers of being a spy for the British. These and many other small incidents bring home to the reader the true meaning of history (one not to be found in the annals of historians) as little units of time filled up by little units of people, the amalgamation of whose sufferings and deaths is what we later come to call a revolution or a war.

We all live through time, cataclysmic or ordinary, labouring under the illusion that its afflictions are things which befall others and not ourselves. Thus when the father learns of Fahmī's involvement in the revolution, he is shaken to the foundation: ‘Had the flood reached his doorstep?’ The revolution has had his support, financial and emotional, but when it comes to the involvement of one of his own sons, that is a different matter: ‘It was as if they were a race unto themselves, standing outside the domain of history. He alone was the one to draw the limits for them, not the revolution, not the times and not other people’ (PW, p. 483). But alas! Such pride, such heroic defiance can only be in vain. Fahmī is killed in a demonstration: ‘The times, the revolution and other people’ pushed him far beyond the limits set for him by his father. He has become an individual brick in the edifice of history.

Fahmī may die as an individual and his death may bring infinite grief to his father and mother, causing the first to relinquish for five long years his night life of pleasure and the latter to age beyond her years, but this is not his end. Not quite, according to Mahfouz's philosophy of time. When a person has exhausted his units of individual time, he must depart from the scene and allow his inexhaustible stock of social or collective time to be used on his behalf in absentia. Thus Fahmī dies, but the national struggle does not cease and society benefits from his death and that of other individuals. The novelist underlines this meaning by resurrecting Fahmī in the image of another revolutionary in the next generation of the family, namely Ahmad Shawkat, his nephew, born years after his death. Some twenty-five years after the death of Fahmī, his incarnation is sent to prison on account of his socialist views and active involvement in spreading them. Collective time has obviously carried the national struggle a step forward: the issue now is no longer just political freedom, but also social justice, and Ahmad Shawkat, like his old incarnation, is prepared to pay out of his individual time for the public cause. This is a moralistic view of the relationship between man and time and is at the very heart of Mahfouz's vision. There is no doubt that on the existential level he sees time as man's worst enemy and as such the battle against it becomes his first moral duty.7 The battle, however, is bound to be lost on the individual level since death is ineluctable. Our only hope in victory, then, is social or collective. Ahmad Shawkat sums it up neatly: ‘The common duty of humanity is perpetual revolution which consists in the persistent endeavour to realize the will of life as represented in its evolution towards the highest ideal’ (Sugar Street, p. 393; henceforth SS).

Time, however, does not need to call up revolutions, wars or any other form of historical cataclysm in order to inflict death and destruction on the lives of individuals. Cataclysmic time is only a heightened form of quotidian time, which is equally destructive. Cataclysmic time sees to those individuals who die in violent demonstrations, warlike actions, earthquakes, floods, etc., whereas quotidian time looks after those who die of old age, prolonged illness, accidents or for no comprehensible reason at all. Death, however, is only time's final and, ironically, merciful blow. What is really tragic is the time process in its daily unfolding as it leads up to death, i.e. the consciousness of the changing self and circumstances in time—ultimately, the consciousness that life is but death in progress. Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawwād is a good example. He is portrayed in almost superhuman terms. Physically a giant resplendent with health and beauty; an authoritarian patriarch at home, as much feared as loved; a successful merchant; an adored friend and lover; at once a libertine and a devout worshipper—a bundle of contradictions fused together in a harmonious and admirable whole that by just existing seemed temporarily to mock the very idea of Time. Temporarily, I said, because so things appear, until time claims its due. After a long process of gradual deterioration begun after the death of his son Fahmī and extending over a period of some twenty years (amply illustrated in the book), this paragon of strength and vitality is reduced to a disabled bundle carried home like a child from an air-raid shelter by his son Kamāl. The cycle is completed and the man has become child again: that night after this final humiliation, he dies.

Unlike cataclysmic time, which has no pattern and can kill someone like Fahmī at the age of 19 without overtaxing human comprehension,8 quotidian time seems to work according to some sort of pattern, or so embattled humans imagine. People usually expect, despite their awareness of the inevitable end, a reasonable allowance of time in which to grow up, mature and fulfil themselves in life up to a point, within their means and circumstances before the laws of mutation and decay claim them. But time does not always oblige. A pattern it may have, but patterns have exceptions, and time patterns are no exception. Thus ‘Ā'isha loses her youthful husband and her two young sons at one stroke. Typhoid does it. A few years later she loses her remaining daughter, who dies in childbirth within one year of her marriage. ‘Ā'isha's sanity, which barely withstood the first breach of the pattern, collapses at the second. Grief gnaws at her heart, and, still in her thirties, she becomes the living remnants of what not too long ago was an image of beauty and the love of life.

In real life death can seem quite accidental and totally without meaning except for the mundane affirmation of the fragility and transience of human existence. In Mahfouz, however, and contrary to received critical opinion, death is rarely so.9 Even when it looks most irrational, at closer view it will transpire that the author has imbued it with a subtle moral point. We have already seen examples of this in the deaths of Rushdī ‘Ākif in Khan al-khalili and ‘Abbas al-Hulw in Midaq Alley. The tragedy of ‘A'isha and her family here is yet another example. In the expository sections there is an insistence (which is sustained at intervals throughout the novel) on her beauty on the one hand, and her uselessness on the other: ‘She appeared in the midst of the family like a beautiful but useless symbol’ (PW, p. 24). She is also shown to be narcissistically obsessed with her beauty, always admiring her reflection in the mirror. She has a carefree temperament, singing or humming all the time in her beautiful voice and showing little interest in housework—all of which may appear to the ordinary eye to be sins of a venial nature. But not according to the stern ethics of Mahfouz. What makes matters worse is that she gets married to one of the Shawkat brothers. The two brothers are portrayed by the novelist as the epitome of idleness. Of Turkish descent, they are without education and without jobs (in fact they profess their contempt for work), but with enough income from property to provide for a decent standard of living. Their days and nights are spent at home in sleep or useless activities (such as playing music in the case of Khalīl, ‘Ā'isha's husband). Even the look in their eyes is repeatedly described by the author as ‘languid.’ Naturally, they display no interest whatsoever in the turmoil of public life. As they advance in age, they continue to possess good health and young looks: they are described as ‘the two amazing men who do not seem to change with time as though they stood outside its stream’ (Palace of Desire, p. 34; henceforth PD,). Considering her natural tendencies, it is no wonder that ‘Ā'isha, after marriage, ‘was submerged in Shawkatism up to her neck’ (PD, p. 183). Na‘īma, ‘Ā'isha's daughter, is depicted as a replica of her mother. Her beauty is that of a ‘pin-up girl’ (PD, p. 45), and her eyes ‘reflect a gentle and dreamy look washed in purity, a naivety and a sense of foreignness to this world’ (SS, p. 6). Like her mother, she is given, from her infancy, to singing and dancing and ‘uselessness.’ Now ‘standing outside the stream of time’ watching life go by and enjoying oneself no matter what, is an indulgence that real time might occasionally overlook, but, harnessed in the service of Mahfuzian morality, it would seldom pardon. Therefore the entire Khalīl branch of the Shawkat family is wiped from the face of the earth, while ‘Ā'isha, as a further punishment, is spared to muse upon her loss and die a slow death.10

One might wonder why not as well kill off Ibrāhīm Shawkat, Khalīl's elder brother who got married to Khadīja, ‘Ā'isha's elder sister. He is every bit as useless and as aloof from the ‘stream of time’ as his unfortunate brother. Is there a flaw, a measure of double standards in the Mahfuzian time-morality? Far from it. The system is exemplarily fair and the fact of the matter is that Khadija redeems Ibrahim and his branch. Ugly, energetic, responsible, totally committed to her family and above all ‘useful,’ she is a foil to her sister. Being the stronger party in the marriage, she imposes ‘Jawwādism’ in the heartland of ‘Shawkatism’ and she brings into the world two sons, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im and Ahmad, who are completely like her and unlike their father. She pulls her family back into ‘the stream of time’ and therefore survives and saves them.

We have seen that Mahfouz views time as ‘representing the evolutionary spirit of man’ and as ‘perpetuating human experience.’11 This of course is time only as conceived by collective or social man. On the social level Mahfouz has demonstrated to us how the death of the individual Fahmī was redeemed in time through the evolution of the social cause he had died for. It would appear then that collectively we are able to steal from time the victory we are deprived of as individuals. On closer inspection, it would appear also that Mahfouz thinks a measure of victory is possible even on the individual plane: through heredity, that is. Now much has been said about the influence of naturalism on the work of Mahfouz from Khan al-khalili and up to the novel under discussion.12 And much of this is doubtless true despite the novelist's own denials.13 It appears to me though, that by the time he reached “The Trilogy,” the author had forged a special brand of naturalism to suit his own scheme of things. Heredity in this novel is not merely a scientific factor that predetermines the fate of character, as would be the case in a naturalistic novel proper. Heredity here is also seen as a human defence mechanism against the ravages of time. It is a means of perpetuating the individual, if not in person then at least in character. Thus Khadīja with her combination of physical ugliness and redoubtable spirit is a perpetuation (after realignment: her father's strength of personality and sense of humour, but his enormous nose; her mother's agility and devotion to family duties, but not her delicate features) of what is best in her parents, ‘Abd al-Jawwād and Amīna. Yāsīn too (the most obvious example of naturalist influence in Mahfouz's entire output), with his physical beauty, lasciviousness and insatiable lust for life, is a perpetuation of his parents, ‘Abd al-Jawwad and his first wife, Haniyya. True, he inherits only the negative side of his legendary father's character, just as Khadīja inherits the positive qualities of her parents' characters without their physical beauty, but this is immaterial. Let the law of heredity wreak what havoc it will with noses and eyes and weaknesses of character and strengths! Let it produce the most motley combinations across generations! What matters is that it sustains us against the law of extinction. It allows us, as individuals, to perpetuate our lives from beyond the grave and in spite of time. The novel ends with the death of the matriarch Amina and the birth almost at the same time of Yāsīn's first grandchild: sorrow over the end of individual time is assuaged, if not neutralized, by hope in collective and hereditary continuation.14

Are the mutations of time totally against man as an individual then? Perhaps not. But this depends on perspective. One example is that of Fu'ād al-Hamzāwī, the son of ‘Abd al-Jawwād's assistant at the shop. He is the same age as ‘Abd al-Jawwad's son, Kamāl. They are classmates at school and friends outside, though Kamāl is the stronger party in the relationship as a reflection of the social gap between their two fathers. As schoolboys, Fu‘ad used to have Kamāl's old clothes as his father could not afford new ones, and when his studiousness qualifies him to join the respectable School of Law, ‘Abd al-Jawwād, always generous, undertakes to finance his education. Fu'ād ends up in the influential office of attorney for the prosecution and Kamāl as a primary school teacher. The family are hopeful that he will ask for ‘Ā'isha's daughter's hand in marriage and decide that they will in this case overlook his humble origins and condescend to accept. But he does not condescend. His high office and promising career have moved him up the social ladder and he can now hope for a more advantageous marriage than into the family of his old benefactor. He has done well, then, by the mutations of time. But of course the view from the other end of the perspective, i.e. that of ‘Abd al-Jawwād's family, is quite different. They seem to have done quite badly, and it is through their perspective that Mahfouz shows us the view. Similarly the fall from wealth and grace of the aristocratic Shaddāds—to such a point that Kamāl, whose love was once scorned by their daughter ‘Āyda, is later considered more than a match for her younger sister Budūr—can be seen in one sense as a positive mutation of time. But this is not the aspect from which the situation is viewed. Rather, Kamāl's meditations are centred on the tragic meaning of the fall. Mahfouz is obviously not blind to the fact that time's mutations can bring about positive results too in the life of individuals, but it is not this aspect that interests him. He wants to tell us about the ultimate horror of time, not its ephemeral kindnesses.

There is another aspect to the relationship between time and man, namely the relationship between past and present, which transfers us from the realm of metaphysical time to that of value-impregnated time. In other words the past-present duality is about what man does with the life quota allocated him by metaphysical time. The life quota assigned to individual man is naturally finite and all too short for significant achievement, but that assigned to man socially or collectively (i.e. as a species) is infinite and carries equally infinite possibilities for improvement. It is the duty of each individual to use his share of time to the best of his ability towards this objective, i.e. the betterment of the human lot. This moral concept of time is central to Mahfouz's vision as I have indicated before. It would be no exaggeration, indeed, to argue that the only source of hope in his work emanates from his view of man as a force endlessly active in a time continuum across individuals, generations, ages and cultures.15 Wherever he portrays man as an isolated human unit wrestling against the odds of time and space, the consequence is always tragic. ‘Tragic’ is indeed the word he uses to describe his view of life which ends in death for the individual. But, as we have seen, he stresses that while death is inevitable, it is incumbent on us (while we live) to fight social evils which are perfectly avoidable and which indirectly aid death in its perpetual victory over humanity.16 Now social evils can of course be remedied only in time. Not static time, but changing time. And change is about the tension between past and present—a tension whose arena extends from the soul of the individual to the full spectrum of society. This tension, of which we have seen various manifestations in previous works by the author, is much more profoundly explored in this novel.

The extension of “The Trilogy” across three generations provided the novelist with an excellent opportunity to explore this favourite theme of his through observing the mutation of values across generations, the time gap between different contemporaneous social classes, and the changing lifestyle concomitant with the changing value system. Through an intricate, multi-layered, multi-directional symbolic system so well woven into the robustly realistic texture of the novel, Mahfouz renders in artistic terms that have yet to be surpassed the dichotomy that his nation still lives today and will probably do so for a long time to come. The generation of the parents stands for the past. The father, as mentioned before, is a bundle of contradictions: a stern, authoritarian, much-feared patriarch at home, but a cheerful, witty, much-loved friend and businessman outside; a true believer and pious worshipper in daytime, but at night a devoted libertine given to drink, women and merrymaking. Yet, all these contradictions live inside him in a harmony worthy only of a god. The phrase is actually Mahfouz's own comment on his character.17 Nor should we think that he used the word ‘god’ lightly, for ‘Abd al-Jawwād is portrayed as in every way a god in his home. This is not only shown through the supreme, unquestionable and irrevocable authority that he wields over the fates of the members of his household, and through episodes like the banishment of his wife from his home after twenty-five years of total obedience, for once going out without his permission (a banishment which evokes the Fall and expulsion from Heaven). Not only through this, but also the narrative prose which persistently attributes to him epithets and qualities appropriate to Allah.18 In this context we should perhaps call to the mind al-Asmā' al-Husnā or the divine attributes of God in Islam whose contradictions are as wide as is the distance between ‘the Merciful’ and ‘the Compassionate’ on the one hand, and ‘the Tyrant’ and ‘the Vengeful’ on the other—compassion and tyranny both being attributes of ‘Abd al-Jawwād, incidentally. This supreme harmony, this peaceful coexistence of opposites in the character of the father is a masterly rendition of a culture at peace with itself, a protected and isolated culture with neither external influence nor inner conflict. Needless to say, the father has little education beyond reading and writing and the basic book-keeping necessary for his trade. A merchant and the son of one, he was born in the old quarter of Jamāliyya and was to die in it. Practically intelligent, witty and socially accomplished, his ignorance of life beyond his small world is endearingly illustrated when he asks his son Kamāl whether Charles Darwin (about whom the latter had published an article in a newspaper) was a teacher at his school (PD, chapter 33, passim). His generation represented the last bastion of the past in Egypt, the past when it reigned supreme, unchallenged and, like God, infallible. The harmony and freedom from conflict that he enjoyed is something that none of his children or their children will ever experience. Represented by Kamāl in the second generation, and his nephews Ahmad and ‘Abd al-Mun‘im in the third, they are the ones to live through a duality of values, through the schizophrenia created by the encroachment of the present on the past and of the ‘other’ on the ‘self.’

When the children discover the duality of their father's nature, i.e. that the ‘Divine’ is also human, that ‘God’ can laugh and drink and play the tambourine as well as fornicate, the discovery shakes them to the foundations. Yāsūn was the first to make the discovery and the scene where he peeps through the partly open door with unbelieving eyes at the unknown side of his father is rendered in epiphanic terms which strengthen the view of the father as symbolic of God.19 Years later, when Kamāl was grown up, Yasin let him in on his secret knowledge. This shocking revelation coincides with many other disturbing revelations that Kamāl has had. It was as if his world had been deprived of the last gravitational force that held it in place. From that moment on his soul was to wander lost in the infinite space of doubt and disbelief. His father now is just ‘another illusion’ (PD, p. 410), no longer possessing ‘the divine attributes that [his] bewitched eyes had seen in him in the past’ (PD, p. 412). At this point the symbolism almost comes up to the surface of the text as Kamāl addresses his father in his mind with these words: ‘But it is not you alone whose image has changed. God himself is no longer God as I worshipped Him in the past. I am sifting through His attributes to clean them from tyranny, despotism, coercion, dictatorship and the whole gamut of human instincts’ (PD, p. 412). Thus Kamāl discards his veneration for his father in the same breath as he discards the conventional, religious image of God. In his drunken delirium, he condemns parenthood and the family, ‘that hole in which stagnant water collects,’ and prays for ‘a homeland without history and a life without past’ (PD, p. 413).20 The father dies (years after this revelation) following an air-raid that his frail heart could not withstand. Minutes before his death, Kamāl had said by way of commenting on the effect of the air-raids on the old houses of Jamāliyya: ‘If our houses are destroyed, they will at least have the honour of being destroyed by the latest devices of modern science’ (SS, p. 264). What is really destroyed is not the old houses, but the old values of their occupants. The death of the father as a result of an act of modern warfare is a symbolic ending for a symbolic character. He is the once secure past ousted by Western modernity. His death in this manner is a forerunner of the death of another father/God figure and also at the hands of modern science, namely Gebelawi (correctly Jabālawī) of the author's next novel, Children of Gebelawi.

Amīna, the mother, is also an emblem of the past. The nuances of her portrait strengthen the symbolic dimension to her husband's, so that together they represent the past in its last secure days, the past as it will never be again. Her relationship with her husband, characterized by total and unquestioning acceptance of his authority, is itself an image of the stability of the value system that is the frame for this relationship. The imperturbable serenity of her temperament (much stressed by the author), like her husband's unique ability to accommodate his contradictions in a state of harmony, should be seen as another manifestation of the stability of the world-view behind it. By the time we reach the second generation, this stability is already shaken. This is conveyed by the completely different relationships that her daughters have with their husbands: in the case of ‘Ā'isha a relationship of equality, and in the case of Khadīja one where the woman seems to have the upper hand. In the third generation the values of the old world become almost unrecognizable as one of the grandchildren, Ahmad Shawkat, brings as wife into the family a working woman as much in contact with the reality outside the home as himself.

Illiterate, without any education except for an oral religious one steeped in superstition and received from her father (himself a man of religion), Amīna is obviously the representative of a culture that at the beginning of the century was not only almost totally religiously oriented, but happy to be so and unaware of an alternative. Like the culture she represents, she lived in complete isolation from the outside world, cocooned inside the old Cairo, or more accurately inside the walls of her home in old Cairo, where all she could see of the outside world was the view from the roof, which consisted of nothing but ‘the minarets of mosques and the roofs of adjacent houses’ (PW, p. 43). She believed in the jinn and did all she could to placate those of their species that lived in her home. In the author's words, ‘she knew much more about the world of the jinn than she did about that of humans’ (PW, p. 7). No wonder then that when, after twenty-five years of this protected, blindfolded life, she decides to venture out only as far as al-Husayn Mosque in the immediate vicinity, the contact with outside reality is catastrophic in its consequences: she is hit by a car and has a broken collarbone which confines her to bed for three weeks. A yet more serious consequence was her temporary exile by her husband/God as a punishment for tasting of the forbidden tree-of-knowledge-of-the-extradomestic. Just as the old ‘Abd al-Jawwad's death, many years later, was to come as a consequence of the encounter with the devices of the modern world (i.e. the bombers conducting the air-raid), the meaning of the car that hits Amina should not be lost either. It too is a device of the modern world, its symbolic value heightened by its relative rarity on the streets of Cairo in those days.21

Amīna's embodiment of a past isolated from reality and the true meaning of things perhaps has its fullest expression in the scenes where we become acquainted with her political views. She finds it improper conduct that Sa‘d Zaghlūl and his colleagues should travel to London to ask the British to get out of Egypt: ‘How could you go to visit someone in their house when your intention is to kick them out of yours?’ she argues (PW, p. 371). Eventually she wishes them good luck expressing her faith that if they knew how to talk to Queen Victoria, she, being a woman and therefore tender-hearted, would oblige with the desired independence. She did not know of course that Queen Victoria had then been dead for nearly two decades. Her naiveté is as charming for us as it was painful for her son Fahmī, who was involved with all his being in the national cause and dreamed of ‘a new world, a new homeland, and a new family’ (PW, pp. 373–4). When her younger son Kamāl, very close to her in his childhood, matures, he comes to reject her too, not as a mother of course but as a past value that he has outgrown. Her rejection is part of a wholesale discarding of the past. I refer here to the previously quoted monologue in which Kamāl announces his freedom from God and father. In the selfsame monologue he labels her ‘the ignorant gentleness’ as opposed to his father, who is ‘the ignorant roughness,’ and he calls himself ‘a victim of those two extremes.’ ‘Your ignorance,’ he goes on, ‘filled my soul with myths. You have been the link between me and prehistoric man. How I will suffer to liberate myself from your influence’ (PW, p. 413).

Suffer he does indeed and most of the second volume of “The Trilogy,” i.e. Palace of Desire, is devoted to an account of his suffering. Some of the most profound soul-searching ever rendered in Arabic prose is contained in this volume. And it is written with such intensity and immediacy and with a poetic quality that must be drawn from the admitted autobiographical link between Kamāl and his creator. As Mahfouz has often repeated, Kamāl's spiritual crisis was that of an entire generation,22 by which he meant his own generation. The crisis, as we have seen, consists in the now classic Mahfuzian conflict between old and new or past and present, that conflict which is a natural corollary inherent in the fluid state of time. Kamāl's dilemma results from his exposure to an influence that his parents' generation did not experience. This was mainly the influence of modern Western thought disseminated through the modernization of the educational system which had already taken root in the 1920s and 1930s when Kamāl was growing up. The gap between the two generations is probably best dramatized in the book in the famous scene in which Kamāl is taken to task by his awesome father for having published a newspaper article in which he expounded Darwin's theory of evolution. For the father the issue was crystal-clear: the Qur'aā says that ‘God made Adam of clay and that Adam was the father of mankind,’ and to publicize any views to the contrary was an act of denial of the faith. Kamāl, however, was well past all that. Outwardly apologetic to his father, his inner thoughts ran like this: ‘I will not open my heart again to myth and superstition. … Adam, my father! I have no father. Let my father be a monkey if Truth so wills’ (PD, p. 372). Apart from scenes like the above, conversations with intellectual friends like Riyad Qaldas and an endless stream of internal monologues, Kamāl's dilemma is delineated through two central relationships heightened by being endowed with a symbolic dimension. The first is his relationship with his parents, which I have already examined; the second is his unrequited love for ‘Āyda Shaddad. As we have seen, his relationship with his parents ends in his rejection of their symbolic value, i.e. as exponents of the past, even though he continues to love and respect them as parents. ‘Āyda, on the other hand, represents the alternative value system and lifestyle that he craves but cannot quite attain. She is the elusive present which he cannot reach far enough to embrace, and her rejection of him is as symbolic as his of his parents.

Critics have tended to regard both Kamāl's infatuation with ‘Āyda and her rejection of him in terms of social class. This is undeniably one level on which the relationship can be perceived. Kamāl is a commoner, the son of a small merchant who lives in the old popular area of Jamāliyya, whereas ‘Āyda is the daughter of ‘Abd al-Hamīd Shaddād, wealthy aristocrat and friend of the exiled ex-Khedive of Egypt, who lives in a great mansion in the new Cairo suburb of ‘Abbāsiyya. The unwritten social code would permit Kamāl to become Husayn Shaddād's (‘Āyda's brother) best friend, but marriage and the union of the families was a different matter altogether (not that Kamāl ever went as far as proposing to ‘Āyda, anyway). Another level on which the relationship can be viewed, and which is in fact an upgrading of the class level, is the cultural one. ‘Āyda, both personally and as a member of her class, does not belong to the traditional value system that Kamāl and his class live in accordance with. She and her class are, or at least so appear to the bewildered and infatuated eyes of Kamāl, emancipated from the past. To him she means modernity, Western modernity with the full plethora of associations that the term brings. Throughout there is an insistence on her Parisian upbringing and an opposition of what this means in terms of social behaviour to Kamāl's traditional upbringing. Unlike his mother and sisters who never step out of the house (and if they do, it is from behind a hijab (veil) that they see the world), ‘Āyda is a model of Parisian chicness who mixes freely with her brother's friends (including Kamāl) while he watches and ‘suffers the bewilderment of one steeped in the traditions of the Husayn Quarter’ (PD, p. 22). ‘Has her breach of observed traditions brought scorn upon her in your eyes?’ he says to himself. ‘No. Rather, it has brought scorn upon observed traditions’ (PD, p. 23). When he sees her parents walking towards their car, arm in arm, chatting casually like two equal friends, ‘not master and servant,’ he wonders, ‘Would you ever see your parents in this situation?’ (PD, p. 184). When Kamāl goes on a picnic to the Pyramids at Jiza with Husayn, ‘Āyda and their little sister Budur, he is shocked when they produce out of their lunch box pork sandwiches and beer, religiously forbidden food and drink that he has never tasted. Shocked as he is (as he also is when he discovers that ‘Āyda knows more about Christianity and its ritual than about her own confession and that she attends mass at her French school and learns hymns off by heart when she cannot recite a single verse from the Qur'ān), all this only serves to increase his fascination with her. This ‘light attitude towards the prohibitions of religion,’ sanctified by her very embracement of them, would from now on, he fears, become necessary credentials for him to admire any woman in the future (PD, p. 217). On that occasion he touches neither pork nor alcohol. Before long, however, his conversion completed, he would be taking pride in his atheism, announcing happily to his friends that he no longer prayed or kept the fast of Ramadan. Before long, too, he would be a customer at public bars and brothels. The process of his secularization was accomplished via a one-way journey from Jamāliyya to Paris via ‘Abbāsiyya.

‘Āyda is idolized by Kamāl. He places her on a pedestal and worships her unconditionally and without hope of response. In his fervid monologues he refers to her as al-Ma‘bud (the worshipped one), and often alludes to her in words and phrases imbued with religious associations.23 He sees her as pure spirit, is uncomfortable to see her eat and drink and unable to imagine her performing other biological functions or succumbing after marriage to such mortal changes as are brought about by pregnancy and childbirth. All this of course is in the eye of the beholder. The reader is occasionally able to see for himself through Kamāl's thick curtain of romanticization. Finally many facts are brought to the attention of the incredulous Kamāl by his more down-to-earth friend, Ismā‘īl Latīf. cĀyda, three years Kamāl's senior in age, generally maturer, more experienced and more sophisticated (as would be expected of a member of her class), is in reality as far as can be from Kamāl's idealized image of her. She has been looking for a suitable match among her brother's friends and when she finds one she does not hesitate to use the unwitting Kamāl to arouse his jealousy and urge him to move in the direction of marriage. She is cruel to her worshipper, carelessly hurting his feelings by mocking his rather large head and nose. Nor does she refrain from making his love for her a subject for ridicule in the family. Her realism is a foil to Kamāl's romanticism, her materialism to his idealism, her maturity to his adolescence, her arrogance to his humility, her sense of purpose to his fluidity, her exploitation to his devotion, and her indifference to his love. With her qualities, both positive and negative, and with the nature of the unbalanced relationship between her and Kamāl, she appears the perfect symbol of the ideal of modern Europe for whose sake Kamāl's generation rejected the past without succeeding, however, in attaining it. The agonizing situation is best summarized by the words of Riyad Qaldas to Kamāl: ‘You suggest to me the character of an Eastern man, torn between East and West, a man who has kept turning round himself until he became dizzy’ (SS, p. 227).

Kamāl's infatuation with ‘Āyda in his early youth is in my view not unrelated on the symbolic level to his infatuation with English soldiers as a child of some 10 years. When the soldiers are stationed outside the family house during the revolution, Kamāl is lured by their beauty: ‘their blue eyes, gold hair and white skin’ (PW, p. 462).24 He becomes friends with them and every day on his way back from school, he would stop at their camp to have tea and to chat and sing with them. When the revolution is over and the soldiers evacuate the area, the child feels sorry for the end of the ‘friendship which tied him to those superior masters who stood in his belief high above the rest of mankind’ (PW, p. 559).25 This obviously is an early manifestation of fascination with the ‘other,’ that in Kamāl's maturer days will take the form of admiration for the ‘beauty’ of the culture of those soldiers rather than their good looks. It is, however, a love-hate relationship. During an anti-British demonstration that he is caught in maturer years, Kamāl is puzzled by his own attitude: ‘In the morning my heart is inflamed with rebellion against the English, while at night the common spirit of human fellowship in pain calls for cooperation in the face of the riddle of man's destiny’ (SS, pp. 44–5). What he is referring to is his nightly readings in Western thought. The parallelism between the childhood episode referred to above and the central story of his love for ‘Āyda is not difficult to see: in both cases there is an innocent infatuation followed by a maturer disenchantment, though never a complete rejection. When in his middle age, Kamāl walks in the funeral of ‘Āyda without knowing, it seems a most cynical ending to a very romantic episode, all the more so because the ‘goddess’ of the past dies the second wife of an older man, having earlier been divorced by her aristocratic husband as well as made a pauper by her family's loss of fortune. What did Mahfouz want to say by that? Is it a tacit pronouncement on the sham of the old infatuation, on the depth of the chasm between inner illusion and outer reality? Or is it a pronouncement on the frailty of the alternative model? Or is it again just a lament over the vanity of human passion and the final mockery that Time has in store for the unwitting individual?

Kamāl's parents lived during the glorious, unassailable days of the past. By contrast, Kamāl's time was one of tension between past and present, a tension which paralysed him and served to consume his energy in contemplating life rather than living and changing it. Hence his futile celibacy, his bewilderment, his endless hesitations and doubts and his Hamlet-like inaction. The third generation, as represented by Kamāl's nephews ‘Abd al-Mun‘im and Ahmad, is, however, a generation of action. The two brothers are not internally torn between past and present like their uncle because the conflict is now externalized on the ground in society. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im, a Moslem Brother, believes that the solution for the troubles of individual and society lies in the return to the fundamentals of Islam: he is the past. Ahmad, on the other hand, sees the solution in the abandonment of old values and the adoption of science and socialism: he is the present. Both brothers are political activists taking risks for their separate causes and ending up in prison.26 It is Ahmad, however, who has the sympathy of Kamāl (and indeed the implicit sympathy of the novelist).27 I have argued earlier that Ahmad as a nationalist is an extension across time of Fahmi, who died prematurely in the struggle. Ahmad is also an improved version of Kamāl; he is what Kamāl could have been had he succeeded in freeing himself more radically from the past and from his romantic fixations. To prove the point, Mahfouz places Ahmad in a similar relationship to that which Kamāl had with ‘Āyda. His love too is directed towards the upper class, but his approach, unlike his uncle's, is daring and self-confident and when he meets with rejection, life does not stand still. His frustration is redirected towards a higher cause and is soon transcended.


“The Trilogy,” as we have seen, begins in 1917 and stops near the end of World War II, having been completed in 1952 shortly before Nasser's revolution. After the period of silence28 which occupied the best part of the 1950s, Mahfouz spent most of the following two decades criticizing the 1952 revolution and the new society it created—in much the same way as the novels of the 1940s had been dedicated to criticism of the old society. In 1982, however, twelve years after the death of Nasser, one year after Sādāt's and thirty years into the life of a revolution that had long spent its force, it occurred to Mahfouz, perhaps feeling the additional weight of years and the national frustrations which came with them, to review and update, through another roman fleuve, Egypt's relationship with time and to examine again the sorrows inflicted by the public on the private. There Only Remains an Hour documents the political history of twentieth-century Egypt from the time of the nationalist uprising against the British in 1919 down to the Camp David Accords and the Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979. It stops just short of the assassination of Sādāt in 1981,29 which is dealt with in a later novel (The Day the Leader Was Killed, 1985). Thus it can be argued that the novel is in a sense both a condensation and an updating of “The Trilogy.” Like “The Trilogy,” it is also a saga novel (though without the length associated with this type of novel), with the youngest generation reaching maturity during the Nasser era.30

The novel is written in simplistic symbolism, each of the characters standing for one or other of the political ideas or forces rife in Egypt during the last three-quarters of a century.31 Most important is the character of Saniyya, the grandmother, who represents the spirit of Egypt herself. She is shown in the symbolism of the book as impervious to the ageing process. Although by the end of the book she is well into her eighties (p. 171), she is still energetic with no sign of mental or physical deterioration, unlike her own children, who seem older than her.32 She lives in a house with a garden in the Hilwan suburb of Cairo, of which we are told that it had seen a few good days and suffered ages of decay (p. 6). Within a few pages of the beginning of the novel, it becomes obvious that the house and the garden stand for Egypt as a country in need of material progress and social welfare but constantly being deprived of the chance to achieve this goal. The house is shown to be in a rundown state from the outset—since Saniyya's early married years. Her thoughts run like this:

Food and clothing eat up all our earnings. What will become of this large house? It needs repairs and redecoration. And the garden: the trees no longer bear fruit; the shrubs are withered and sand has covered most of the soil. How it wants to be revived!

(p. 20)

Throughout her life, from her youth to her old age, Saniyya has had one single haunting dream: to renovate the house and garden. But generation after generation and one political era after another, her dream is shattered and her wait is indefinitely prolonged. One regime after another fails to deliver the promise of prosperity and Egypt, like the house, has to remain poor and dilapidated. Her final hope is centred on Sādāt's peace initiative which, he promised the nation, would bring prosperity with it. But this hope too is dashed, on the symbolic level in the novel as in reality. Rather than being brought back to life, the garden Saniyya is left with in the end looks like ‘a target in the aftermath of an air-raid’ (p. 187).

The novel is written in one long piece of continuous narrative: 190 pages without chapter divisions. It is as if the novelist wanted to delineate the history of modern Egypt as a flux of suffering and frustration, a homogeneous continuum of lost opportunities. The book ends bleakly with a family gathering in the old derelict house during a thunderstorm which underlines the tumultuous times Egypt is struggling through. As one turns over the last leaf of the book, suddenly the sense of prophetic doom implicit in the title dawns on the mind: THERE ONLY REMAINS AN HOUR. Mahfouz obviously believes that modern Egypt has wasted enough opportunities; that history's generosity is not boundless and unless something is done and done quickly, Egypt may be eternally doomed to a fate of poverty, backwardness and dependency. The sense of self-confidence in spite of difficulties and boundless hope in the future which characterized the attitude of the youngest generation at the end of “The Trilogy” has, in the intervening thirty years since its writing, been dissipated: Egypt has not been making good use of collective time.33


Before the Throne, … appeared one year after There Only Remains an Hour and showed Mahfouz still preoccupied with the fortunes of Egypt in time. Here, in a desperate attempt at understanding his country's hapless present, he is not content to trace it back to his usual starting point, i.e. the 1919 revolution, but goes back all the way to the beginnings of Egypt in time (some 3,000 years before Christ) and retraces his steps up to the assassination of Sādāt in 1981. Unlike the two novels examined so far in this chapter, Before the Throne is a work more concerned with the general than the particular, with the effect of politics on the public rather than the individual level. It speaks of pharaohs and kings and presidents, of conquests and defeats and revolutions, but seldom mentions the people who are the fodder for all these cataclysms—in other words, it is about collective, historical time and not its quotidian, individual manifestations.

This extensive historical investigation seems, however, to have done little to set Mahfouz's mind at ease and so he sets off again on another journey in time: The Day the Leader Was Killed (1985). Here Mahfouz is back within the confines of his usual period of investigation, i.e. from 1919 to the present day, the period to which he has been an eye-witness. The book is a novella of some ninety pages.34 The day of the title is 6 October 1981 and the leader killed is, needless to say, Anwar Sādāt. The story is told through a number of alternating internal monologues divided among three characters,35 namely Muhtashimi (the grandfather), ‘Alwān (his grandson) and Randa (the latter's fiancée). Although it is compact, the book can be seen as yet another roman fleuve where prominence is given to the first and third generations (grandfather and grandson), while the middle generation is shown only through the eyes of the other two. The monologues of the grandfather, contrary to those of the grandson and his fiancée, are rendered in poetic, evocative language and often sound like a dirge for times past and friends lost to death. But the story mainly documents the predicament of Egyptian youth during the Sādāt era, and through parallelism between the consciousnesses of the old and the young creates the sense of a continuum of national frustration across generations.

The grandfather is a kindly old man in his eighties but in good health and at peace with himself. During his long life he has been witness to the political life of the nation from the times of Sa‘d Zaghlul to those of Sādāt. On the symbolic level he seems to play here a role not dissimilar to that of the grandmother, Saniyya, in There Only Remains an Hour.36 He probably stands for the atemporal, all-encompassing character of Egypt, having survived many leaders and conflicting policies without ever being engulfed by any one current.

As for the grandson and his fiancée, they are revealed as two young people in love. They belong to the lower middle class and live with their respective families in the same block of flats. They are both graduates working in the same government office. They are both honest and morally upright, religious without fanaticism and full of the love of life. In short, together they seem to represent what Mahfouz believes to be the positive and generally moderate characteristics of the Egyptian personality. (It is interesting to note here the element of continuity between the grandfather's character and that of the new generation.) In their late twenties and having been engaged for many years, ‘Alwān and Randa are still unable to fulfil their dream of marriage. There is no way (we are shown) that they can afford to rent and furnish a flat under Sādāt's consumer-oriented infitāh or open-door economy, wild inflation and soaring prices. Their dilemma is all the more poignant because their moral rectitude restrains them from seeking a solution by devious means. Thus the engagement is broken under pressure from the girl's family and the high ideal of love is shown to have been ditched in a society where all values have become relative. The girl is married off to her wealthy boss—a sacrifice on the altar of economic necessity. Soon after, it transpires that the man only wanted her to use her beauty in his business-brokering. The old spark of dignity flares up again and she obtains a divorce. The young man, on the other hand, is nearly tempted to marry a much older, rich widow, but he withdraws in the last minute. In the midst of all this despair, Sādāt is killed and, in an artistically naive parallel action of rebellion, ‘Alwān attacks the corrupt executive who robbed him of his love and causes his death. Thus the simplistic parallelism of the plot serves to show the fall of the supreme head of a corrupt regime and of one of his distant satellites at the same time. However, it would be fair to say that the purpose of the novelist here (as it was in There Only Remains an Hour) is not so much to write good fiction as to record critically the features of an age.

Against the backdrop of this story, Sādāt's Egypt is described in scathing terms. To give a few examples, the infitāh economic policy has resulted in the Egyptians becoming ‘a deprived community amidst a circus of thieves’ (p. 21) and ‘many nations living in one country’ (p. 46). The individual, furthermore, is repressed: ‘the Nile itself is no longer able to show anger’ (p. 9), while the time is one of ‘nauseating catchphrases … between which and the truth is a gulf in which we have fallen’ (p. 17). ‘Lies fly in the air like dust’ when a presidential speech is broadcast (p. 47). Sādāt himself is ‘an actor manqué … dressed up like Hitler while his actions imitate Charlie Chaplin's’ (p. 47). On the other hand, a sense of nostalgia for Nasser's days seems the only comfort in an age without heroes or ideals, a nostalgia so strong it almost serves as a substitute for looking forward to the future (pp. 22, 43). The nation's initial sense of shock at the news of the assassination is shown soon to have given way to a sense of relief, almost glee. Comments among customers at a café run like this: ‘This is the punishment of him who thinks the country is dead. … In a moment the thieves’ empire has collapsed’ (p. 82). Indeed, while the novella ends with the death of Sādāt, this is not at all shown as cause for gloom or despair. On the contrary, the final thoughts of the young protagonist are very positive and seem to focus, as always in Mahfouz, on the promise held by the inevitable advance of time:

I was filled with a mysterious sense of anticipation, with unknown probabilities which promised to crush the fixity and monotony of things and to advance towards a horizon without boundaries.

(p. 82)


Unlike the three novels already discussed in this chapter, Qushtumur (1988) is not a roman fleuve in the technical sense: there is no observation of change through the generations of a family here. This technicality excluded, much remains which binds this novel to the other three. It too is about the changes in Egyptian society and their effects on individuals over a considerable stretch of time. But rather than approach his subject through the generations of one family, Mahfouz chooses to do it here through a quick review of the lifetimes of a group of friends, representing among them a cross-section of Egyptian urban society.

In Qushtumur (the author's last published novel to date), Mahfouz's obsession with time seems to have reached phenomenal dimensions. His output in the 1980s can perhaps be labelled, with few exceptions, as ‘a portrait of the artist battling against time.’37 This probably has something to do with the fact that the 1980s were also the eighth decade of the novelist's life. The process of reviewing his life and times which began in the 1970s with works like Mirrors and Fountain and Tomb is accelerated in the 1980s to reach a feverish, obsessive and highly personalized pace towards the end of the decade. The author appears to be labouring under a growing awareness of the approaching end and is no longer able to write about man's old foe with the detachment he evinced in works like “The Trilogy” and Respected Sir. There is now a desperate attempt at the remembrance of things past, at rummaging in the memory for times lost as actual time runs out, and there is a permeating nostalgia for places, events and persons whose existence now is purely in the memory. The three works published in rapid succession over a two-year period (1987–8), namely Tales of Mornings and Evenings,Good Morning to You and Qushtumur, are all set between Jamāliyya and ‘Abbāsiyya, the two parts of Cairo that witnessed Mahfouz's childhood and early youth. They all have a strongly reminiscent tone in which the novelist's own voice can often be discerned, and characters and events appear to be largely drawn from his personal recollections of the period.38 Together they are a homage to the past—a farewell gesture from a consciousness preparing for the final oblivion. I will deal here with Qushtumur and in chapter 6 with the other two.

Qushtumur,39 which gains its title from the name of the café in ‘Abbāsiyya where the characters of the novel habitually meet, is the latest Mahfuzian study of the space-time question. It is the outburst of an ageing consciousness horrified at the passage of time and the mutation of space, an outburst which takes the shape of a Proustian journey in the memory in search of times lost, since memory is man's only faculty capable of cheating time and arresting its continuous movement; for in life man is defeated by the alliance against him of time-space, but in the memory the more balanced battle of man versus time alone results in victory. Thus we can relive our happier and younger days at the very same time as spatial reality tells us that we are old and that our time is nearly up. The novel opens with a nostalgic, evocative passage:

‘Abbāsiyya in its bygone youth: an oasis in the heart of an expansive desert. In the east stood castle-like mansions and in the west small adjacent houses which took pride in their newness and their back gardens. Surrounded by vegetable fields, palm and henna trees and groves of prickly pears, it sank in a sweet tranquillity and an all-encompassing peacefulness, interrupted from time to time by the buzz of the white tram travelling endlessly along its route between Heliopolis and al-‘Ataba al-Khadrā'. And from the desert a dry breeze would blow over it, borrowing from the fields on its way their scents, thereby stirring in the hearts their secretly cherished loves. But40 in the evening a beggarly minstrel roams its streets, barefoot, goggle-eyed and wearing a threadbare jilbāb. He plays his rabab41 and sings in a harsh but penetrating voice: ‘I put my trust in you, O Time, but you betrayed me.’

(p. 5)

The first sentence of the novel is a compression of its entire meaning, the succeeding 150-odd pages being an elaboration of that sentence: ‘Abbāsiyya was once a youthful place but time has passed and made sure that its youth is now a ‘bygone’ fact. ‘Abbāsiyya of course is not an abstract place but a quarter of Cairo inhabited by many people and its ‘bygone youth’ is also theirs, and the whole novel is simply an act of resistance against time, undertaken by the only human faculty capable of it: memory. The memory here is that of the narrator, who is largely a persona for the novelist, and the whole tragedy lies in the but (But in the evening …), that but which is latent in the passage (as in the nature of things) from the first moment. The fact that ‘Abbāsiyya's youth is introduced as ‘bygone’ implies that the description that follows of the quarter as a piece of eternity whose beauty knows no withering and tranquillity no disturbance is merely a trick of recollection. It is as if the poor minstrel, with his shabby appearance and harsh voice which belied the idyllic description of the area, was the seed of mutation and decay dormant in that ephemeral heaven.

Qushtumur is the story of four inhabitants of ‘Abbāsiyya brought together by friendship from their primary school days, a friendship which transcended differences of temperament and class. Two of them came from the lower middle class (Ismā‘īl Qadrī and Sādiq Safwān), while the other two (Hamāda al-Halawānī and Tāhir ‘Ubayd) belonged to the aristocratic class. Their inclinations, on the other hand, varied between religiosity and doubt, capitalism and socialism, or complete nihilism. Their friendship, however, withstands all these differences and withstands too the test of time with all the changes that it brings about on both the public and private levels. The action extends over the now very familiar Mahfuzian period (give or take a couple of years): 1915 to the present day. All four characters enjoy equal attention from the novelist: there is no protagonist. We follow their growth from childhood games and the discoveries of puberty to the formation of religious consciousness and political affiliations. Later we follow their different fortunes in the arena of life: some succeed and some fail; some make families and some stay single; some get involved in political life and some stay aloof, etc.

Since the interaction of public and private is essential in Mahfouz's world-picture for producing personal tragedy, he chooses here, as he has often done, to reveal to us the fortunes of his four characters against the backdrop of Egypt's contemporary history from 1919 to the time of writing. Throughout, the novelist stresses the constant flow of time on both levels—public and private. This accounts for his avoidance of chapter or any other kind of division in the novel (just as he did in There Only Remains an Hour and for the same reason). He lets the prose flow from situation to situation, character to character and era to era without any formal interruption, aiming thereby at emulating the permanent flux of time both in actuality and in the memory, where time appears expansive and undivided.

There is nothing substantially new about Mahfouz's last published novel. It does not amount to much more than a variation on There Only Remains an Hour. All its characters are borrowed with only cosmetic changes from previous works and so are the public and private events. There is nothing new either in its view of man and society or in the author's reading of his country's socio-political history in the present century. Its value lies in none of all this, but in the gush of nostalgia which impelled Mahfouz to write it, in his desperate grip on time in the memory and in his attempt to take refuge from the inexorable flux of time in the permanence of place and human sympathy as represented by the café Qushtumur and the friendship that has held its four patrons together for so long and against many odds. This is a new and very recent note in the work of Mahfouz, which hitherto has offered no solace for the individual in his losing battle against time.


  1. Naguib Mahfouz, Atahaddath Ilaykum, Beirut: Dār al-‘Awda, 1977, pp. 150–1.

  2. ibid., p. 46.

  3. ibid., pp. 73–4.

  4. According to Mahfouz “The Trilogy” took some seven years to prepare and write, starting from 1945 to April 1952 when it was completed. Originally it was written as one piece with the title ‘Bayn al-Qasrayn,’ but Mahfouz's publisher rejected it on account of its excessive length. However, when what later came to be known as the first part of “The Trilogy” was successfully serialized in the then literary magazine Al-Risāla al-Jadīda (between April 1954 and April 1956), the publisher changed his mind and suggested to Mahfouz that he should divide the book into three parts with different titles. That was how the work became a trilogy. See Jamāl al-Ghītānī, Naguib Mahfouz Yatadhakkar, Cairo: Akhbār al-Yawm, 1987(?), pp. 98–9; see also Ghālī Shukrī, Naguib Mahfouz: min al-Jamāliyya ila Nobel, Cairo: al-Hay‘a al-‘Āmma lil-Isticlāmāt, 1988, pp. 105–6, 133.

  5. ‘Awdat al-Rūh (The Return of the Spirit) (1933) by Tawfīq al-Hakīm is an exception. But it does so on a much smaller scale than “The Trilogy.”

  6. For a detailed review of features of Egyptian life recorded in “The Trilogy,” see Fawzī al-‘Antablī, ‘al-Mujtama‘ al-Misrī Kamā Tusawwiruh Riwāyat Bayn al-Qasrayn,’ Al-Majalla, March 1958, pp. 99–106.

  7. This issue (i.e. existential obsession with the issue of death and the serious ethical pitfalls it can lead to) was explored in depth many years later in the tale of ‘His Majesty Jalāl’ in Harafish. The tale will be examined at length in ch. 6 of this book.

  8. Although cataclysmic time is usually quite haphazard in its infliction of death on individuals, Mahfouz appears somewhat reluctant to allow totally fortuitous death a place in his fiction. Thus though Fahmi's death occurs accidentally in a political demonstration, the portrayal of Fahmī's character suggests that there is something inevitable about it. He is a sad, introverted character, too idealistic, too absorbed in the public cause, too alienated from his family and too heartbroken by his disappointment in love to survive. There is a sense of doom hanging over him so that, when he is killed, it does not come to us as a complete surprise. It is as if the novelist, aware from the beginning of the fate of Fahmi, could not help but prepare us for it. Now all this seems to be in conflict with the twist of irony implicit in Fahmi's death: he had survived many dangerous confrontations only to be killed in a peaceful, authorized demonstration. Mahfouz wanted to show a random death with a purpose. It does not quite work.

  9. See the previous note. An exception to this generalization can perhaps be found in some of Mahfouz's short stories.

  10. Cf. Matittyahu Peled, Religion My Own: the Literary Works of Najīb Mahfūz, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1983, pp. 109–18. Peled offers the most detailed and best-argued interpretation of the ‘Ā'isha episode to date. Somehow, though, he seems to arrive at the far-fetched conclusion that by extirpating her branch of the family Mahfouz was pointing out the necessity of uprooting the Turkish element in Egyptian society, an argument that is difficult to uphold as ‘Ā'isha was neither Turkish nor foreign!

  11. See the opening paragraphs of this chapter.

  12. After “The Trilogy” (where heredity plays a major role) naturalism seems to vanish from the work of the author without a trace. But then after “The Trilogy” much else was to undergo change in the work of Mahfouz as I hope this study will show at a later stage. One of the best naturalistic readings of “The Trilogy” is presented by Luwīs ‘Awad in two articles: ‘Kayfa Taqra’ Naguib Mahfouz' and ‘Bayn al-Qasrayn’ included in his book Maqālāt fi al-Naqd wa al-Adab, Cairo: Maktabat al-Anglu al-Misriyya, n.d., pp. 355–73.

  13. See ch. 1, p. 19.

  14. The symbolism of the situation is only general because Amīna is not the biological mother of Yāsīn.

  15. This vision is particularly obvious in Children of Gebelawi, an allegory of man's struggle to survive with dignity from the time of Adam to the present. It will be discussed in ch. 6.

  16. See Atahaddath Ilaykum, pp. 73–4 (quoted in full earlier on in this chapter, see p. 71).

  17. ibid., p. 157.

  18. A few examples are: ‘This was her father's irrevocable will. She could only submit, nay she had to be pleased with it too. For mere acquiescence was an unforgivable sin’ (PW, p. 183); ‘Everything in this house was blindly subject to the boundless domination of a supreme will, more akin to religious hegemony’ (PW, p. 272); ‘my father makes no mistakes; he is infallible’ (PW, p. 311); ‘Her father—her worshipped father, has so ordained; he whose ordainments could not be revoked. God's will be done!’ (PD, p. 265).

  19. See Palace Walk, ch. 39, passim. This archetypal scene drawing on the Biblical scene where Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge is evoked twice again in Mahfouz's next novel, Children of Gebelawi (discussed in ch. 5). The first is when Adham (i.e. Adam) tries to enter the forbidden room where the deeds of the estate are kept, and the second when ‘Arafa (i.e. Science) attempts the same. In the two latter cases the transgressors on the secrets of divinity are caught and punished, whereas Yāsīn's stolen ‘knowledge’ remains ‘unknown’ to the supposedly ‘all-knowing’ God/Father, thereby affirming the breach of his divinity.

  20. Here Kamāl is very much reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man who, in his search for a personal truth, also rejects ties of the family, Ireland and Catholicism. For an engaging comparative study of the development of both characters and the influence of Joyce's work on Mahfouz's, see Nevine Ibrahim Ghourab, ‘The Influence of Three English Novelists, John Galsworthy, D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce on some of the Novels of Najib Mahfuz,’ unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cairo University, 1987, ch. 3, passim.

  21. Compare Chatter on the Nile, where another car accident forces reality on the escapist inhabitants of the boathouse and shatters for ever their dream world.

  22. Atahaddath Ilaykum, p. 62.

  23. Here are some examples. On first hearing his name uttered by her lips, Kamāl feels like crying out ‘Zammilūnī! Daththirūnī!’ (‘Wrap me up! Cover me with my mantle!’) (PD, p. 22)—the famous words attributed to the prophet Muhammad, who felt feverish after first receiving the Revelation from Gabriel (in the Qur'ān the Prophet is referred to as the ‘Muzzammil’ and the ‘Muddaththir’ (see the opening verses of Suras LXXIII and LXXIV)). He also refers to the house of the Shaddads where she lives as ‘manzil al-wahy wa mabcath al-sana’ (the place where revelation descended and light emanated) (PD, p. 26)—stock phrases again associated with the history of the Prophet. Elsewhere Kamāl draws an image from the Gospels, referring to an event which pre-dated the beginning of his love for ‘Āyda as having occurred ‘before the Holy Spirit had descended on him’ (PD, p. 81).

  24. Compare the words of the narrator (as child) in the semi-autobiographical Fountain and Tomb: ‘English patrols became a familiar sight to us. We would stare at the soldiers in astonishment trying to reconcile what we hear about their brutality with what we see of their smartness and the beauty of their faces’ (‘Tale 15,’ p. 34).

  25. The significance of Kamāl's childish experience is enhanced by his eldest brother Yasin's similar experience. Yasin is stopped one day by a soldier who asks for a match to light a cigarette. Yasin obliges and the soldier thanks him. Here is how his feeling is rendered after the encounter:

    He walked towards the house reeling with joy. What good luck! An Englishman—not an Australian or an Indian—had smiled at him and thanked him! An Englishman—that is to say a man who figured in his imagination as a model of the perfection of the human race. He might hate the English as all Egyptians did, but in his heart of hearts he respected and venerated them as if they were a super-human species. A man from that species had smiled at him and thanked him.

    (PW, pp. 452–3)

  26. We might recall here that the two brothers, with what they respectively stand for, had made their first appearance in the work of Mahfouz in New Cairo, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im as Ma'mūn Radwān, and Ahmad as ‘Alī Tāhā.

  27. For an exposition of the techniques used by Mahfouz which betray his sympathy for Ahmad see my article, ‘Religion in the Novels of Naguib Mahfouz,’ British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Bulletin, vol. 15, nos. 1 and 2, 1988, pp. 21–7.

  28. See ch. 1, p. 25.

  29. Although published after the assassination of Sādāt (1981), the novel must have been written during his lifetime, as it makes no mention of the event.

  30. In spite of these similarities, it must be stressed that, while “The Trilogy” is a great novel, There Only Remains an Hour is mainly of documentary value and before long will only be of interest to social historians. Unlike in “The Trilogy,” no character or situation in this novel is of interest in itself, but only for what it points at.

  31. As in New Cairo and “The Trilogy” we have here the two usual characters standing for the religious right (Muhammad Burhan) and the secularist left (‘Azīz Safwat). We also have a representative of the nonconformist, amoral type (‘Alī), again a descendant of New Cairo's Mahjūb ‘Abd al-Dā‘im. An additional type here is the corrupt beneficiary of the 1952 revolution (Sulaymān Bahjat).

  32. As such Saniyya harks back to the first such type created by Mahfouz, i.e. Tūtishīrī, the royal grandmother in The Struggle of Thebes (see pp. 40–1).

  33. My discussion of this novel is mainly taken from my article ‘The Novelist as Political Eye-witness: a View of Najīb Mahfūz's Evaluation of the Nasser and Sādāt Eras,’ Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 21, 1990, pp. 72–86.

  34. The following analysis is largely taken from my article cited in n. 33 above.

  35. The technique was used earlier by Mahfouz in two novels: Miramar and Wedding Song. The points of view there were four as opposed to the three in this novel. There is an element of innovation here, however, in the constant oscillation of the point of view among the three characters. In the earlier novels each character gave its full account of the event in a single piece.

  36. He also has links with the royal grandmother Tūtīshīrī in The Struggle of Thebes and ‘Amm ‘Abduh, the houseboat caretaker in Chatter on the Nile: all are manifestations of a recurrent archetype in the work of Mahfouz representing generic perpetuity against individual transience.

  37. Works which are concerned with time in a major way during that period include Nights of the Arabian Nights (1982), There Only Remains an Hour (1982), The Day the Leader Was Killed (1985), Tales of Mornings and Evenings (1987), Good Morning to You (1987) and Qushtumur (1988).

  38. This is a quality which they share with earlier works of reminiscence such as Mirrors and Fountain and Tomb. In fact, some characters from those works reappear under a different guise in the more recent ones.

  39. My discussion of Qushtumur is partly dependent on my article, ‘Naguib Mahfouz wa al-Zaman al-Dā‘i‘ fi Qushtumur,Al-Hilāl, December 1989, pp. 8–12.

  40. The italics are mine.

  41. A jilbāb is a loose, ankle-long garment, while a rabāb is a primitive, single-stringed instrument.

Roger Allen (review date Winter 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Sugar Street, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 203–04.

[In the following review, Allen discusses the third book in “Cairo Trilogy,” Sugar Street, and describes how the trilogy has developed since the first book, Palace Walk.]

Those readers in the Western world who have enjoyed the process of being introduced through Naguib Mahfouz's great family saga to the life and culture of Egyptian society between the two world wars will need little incentive to follow the tale to its conclusion in the final volume of The Cairo Trilogy under review here. Al-Sukkariyyah, the third novel in the series, originally published in 1957 and now translated as Sugar Street, rounds off the narrative in a manner common to all realistic sagas such as this, neatly tying up most of the loose ends. The family patriarch, Ahmad ‘Abd al-Gawwad, dies one night during an air raid. Secular universities have now opened, and men and women attend the same classes. The patriarch's grandsons have both become involved in the politics of opposition in Egypt as it endeavors to cope with the short-term issues of war and foreign occupation and the more long-term matters of political systems and contemporary morality. As this novel and the trilogy end, both grandsons are in prison: one as a communist, the other a member of the Muslim Brethren.

The situation in Egypt before the 1952 revolution can hardly have been more effectively symbolized; and yet, in an echo of Henry James's dissatisfaction with such unreal mirrors of “reality,” Mahfouz also chooses to leave the political dimension open and unresolved—a decision the prescience of which he cannot have fully realized at the time of writing. Al-Sukkariyyah was completed in April 1952, just months before the revolution, but was only published some five years later when Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir (Nasser) was establishing himself as a major Third World leader. Whatever may have been the vagaries and practicalities of publication that Mahfouz had to face with such a huge manuscript, the appearance of his trilogy of novels could hardly have been better timed to suit the political moment.

Mahfouz's trilogy was the topic of much attention at the time of his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, and its publication in English translation has done much to bring it a broader reading public. In this context, however, it is important to note first that the work represents a middle stage in the literary career of a novelist who continued to develop his craft into the 1960s and beyond, and second, that the chronological gap between the publication of the trilogy and the award of the Nobel Prize is thirty-one years. I have explored some of the issues raised by this situation in a lengthy article in Edebiyat (New Series, 4:1, pp. 87–117). Suffice it to say here that, even within the context of the trilogy, Al-Sukkariyyah shows a development in technique over the two volumes previous to it (translated as Palace Walk [1990] and Palace of Desire [1991]), most especially in its use of dialogue and modes of conveying introspection.

The English translation has succeeded to a substantial degree in conveying most of the narrative qualities of what is, from a contemporary perspective, a very traditional piece of fictional writing (whence the possibility of making the rather silly references to Mahfouz as the Dickens/Balzac of Cairo). There is, however, one area in which, in my view, the English versions of the three novels do not succeed: their titles. In an era in which the “Orientalism” debate has served to make us more aware of the often negative effects caused by the ways in which cultures picture one another, the decision to use literal translations of the names of Cairo streets and districts as titles for the English versions of the novels without due consideration being given to their impact in the target culture needs, I believe, to be vigorously challenged. Why must one translate the names of streets in Cairo and not those of, say, Paris or Berlin? The question becomes particularly urgent when the Western reader is confronted with English titles that are laden with the most inappropriate allusive potential, such as Palace of Desire and—perhaps the most problematic of all three—Sugar Street (whence my preference for the Arabic title in this review).

In the case of the third novel in the trilogy the problem is compounded by the utter inappropriateness of the cover. It shows a period photograph of Sulaiman Pasha (now Tal‘at Harb) Square, one of the focal points of the nineteenth-century quarter of Cairo known as Isma‘iliyya, built as a copy of the street plan of central Paris. Readers of the novel will, of course, be aware that it is set in one of medieval Cairo's older quarters. Fortunately, they can now assess for themselves the sheer incongruity of the image to be found on the cover by consulting a recent photographic essay on Cairo by Peter Theroux, which, acknowledging the title of Mahfouz's novel, includes a picture of the street called al-Sukkariyyah (National Geographic Magazine, April 1993, pp. 58–59).

With the publication of this third volume in The Cairo Trilogy, teachers of world literature can rejoice in the fact that Mahfouz's period masterpiece is now available complete in English translation. However, one may perhaps be allowed to express the hope that the availability of it and other works of modern Arabic fiction will participate in the process of fostering a change in some of those very cultural attitudes in the West that have impinged upon the manner in which it has been presented to a Western readership.

Nabil I. Matar (essay date January 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Homosexuality in the Early Novels of Nageeb Mahfouz,” in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 26, No. 4, January, 1994, pp. 77–90.

[In the following essay, Matar discusses the controversy surrounding the homosexuality and homosexual issues that Mahfouz portrays in several of his novels.]

Upon the publication of Midaq Alley in 1947, Nageeb Mahfouz became the first writer in modern Arabic to present in his fiction a depiction of the homosexual protagonist. A few years later, Mahfouz completed Sukariyya in the “Trilogy” (published however in 1957), in which he again portrayed homosexual relationship. No other writer had dealt with this topic since the Renaissance of Arabic literature in the 19th century, and only a few have touched upon it since Mahfouz.1 Mahfouz's choice of homosexuality is noteworthy because the topic is deeply objectionable to the Islamic tradition in which the novels and their author are rooted. In the Koran (7: 80–81), as well as in the Hadiths of the Prophet, in the writings of the early Caliphs and of medieval jurists, there is repeated consensus that homosexuality is a sin, and that the homosexual is a deviant who will meet with divine punishment: “If you find anyone committing the deed of Lot,” the Hadith of the Prophet states, “kill him and the other upon whom the deed is done” (al-Dhahabi 55; see also Sha‘aar 119 and Yahfoofi 171).

As a result, when Midaq Alley reached the Egyptian and Arab public, there was an outcry against the novel's inclusion of homosexual characters. Writing in December 1947, Mohammad Fahmy found the crude portrait (“without retouch”) of Kirsha “somewhat perplexing” (Fahmy 178); Seyyed Qutb, one of the intellectual pillars of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, was unhappy that there was “so much perversion in the alley” (Qutb 181); Adeeb Muruwwah, the Lebanese critic, found the presence of the homosexual “offensive to good manners” (Muruwwah 182). Mahfouz had anticipated such a reaction, but he believed that as a writer, fiction gave him the unique opportunity for exploring this topic. He knew that homosexuality would unleash the fury of critics and theologians alike, and as a result, he completely avoided in those novels the use of the Arabic word for homosexuality, “luwat.” Instead, he used the English word: in Midaq Alley, there is a deranged man who pronounces judgement on characters and events. Having learnt English in his youth, he often paraded his knowledge of the language by spelling words to his audience—including “HOMOSEXUALITY.” Neither the word nor the topic was acceptable in Arabic fiction, but Mahfouz deliberately chose to explore it.2

In the first novel, Mahfouz echoed Islam's condemnation of homosexuality by uniformly using the word “shudhudh” (perversion) for homosexuality. For him, as for the religious tradition, it was a heinous and unnatural act. As he developed in his intellectual career, however, Mahfouz began to view homosexual behavior with sympathy: although homosexuality remained in his view a form of perversion, it was no longer horrible or Satanic. In a daring gesture, Mahfouz also broadened his perspective: while Midaq Alley focused exclusively on the active partner in the homosexual act, Sukariyya (Sugar Street) turned to the passive partner/s too; while the youth in the first novel was a mere prostitute, in the second novel, the passive partners have depth and character.

This transformation in the depiction of homosexuality was a result of Mahfouz's artistic development. The writer, Mahfouz explained in one of his essays on literature, has a choice between two kinds of Realism through which to present his novel. There is Traditional Realism which has “its basis in life. You describe life and extract from it its messages. The story begins and ends by depending on life and its alleys with all their interfusions” (al-Jumhuriyya 19). This mode of realism, continued Mahfouz, is inert: it is descriptive not argumentative, passive not analytical. And it is this Realism that governs the crude and unsympathetic depiction of Kirsha in Midaq Alley.

The other kind of Realism is the New Realism: this Realism employs ideas to “inspire writings and direct the author to a reality which is used as a means of expression. I present intellectual meanings in a completely realistic fashion” (al-Jumhuriyya 19). This mode represents the artist in dialectic: ideas confront external truth and give shape to it. The literary product is thus not a document of history or of events, but as Mahfouz stated in 1970, “a document of the writer himself” (Hilal 42).

Although Sukariyya belongs to the phase of Traditional Realism, there is evidence that Mahfouz approached the homosexual protagonists in this novel with specific “intellectual meanings” in mind. Like Ibsen and Shaw, Mahfouz believed that the artist should challenge public morality and norms: for such a task, the Traditional Realist was unsuitable because he was restricted by the values and religious goals which society itself projected. Differently, the New Realist began with principles which might well be unacceptable to his readership, and in order to present them, turned to fiction. The New Realist was the critic; the Traditional Realist was the chronicler.

Significant in this context are two articles that Mahfouz wrote in 1931 and 1934 in which he examined the concept of truth in Plato and the idea of criticism in Immanuel Kant. Evidently, it was from those two philosophers that Mahfouz derived his theoretical definition of New Realism. From Plato he learnt that “deeds are a result of knowledge, and knowledge is a result of ideas” (Ma‘arifa 851). Fiction thus began with a priori ideas and then turned to the external world for content: from the interaction between ideas and evidence emerged the characters of the novel. The creation of art started with an intellectual perception that then embodied itself in human action, and Realism was a truthfulness more of ideas than of action (Assiyasa al-Usbu‘iyya 7–15).

Mahfouz believed that the artist should approach the world with ideas or “intellectual meanings” since only through them would he be able to evaluate universal truths. The presentation of homosexual characters by Mahfouz was thus not the product of art imitating life, but of specific and daring ideas on homosexuality finding content in Cairo and receiving form through the “wily art” of the story (al-Idha‘a 26). These “meanings” stemmed from his desire to infuse toleration into religious culture: Mahfouz is one of the most religiously conscious novelists of Egypt (Kilpatrick 182), and in presenting homosexual protagonists as active and integrated members of society, he shows the tension between theological doctrine and human reality. Although the homosexual figures in the novels defy moral and religious values, none of them meets with divine retribution; on the contrary, all do well. Perhaps in God's scheme of the world, Mahfouz suggests, there might be a place for the homosexual.


Kirsha is a coffee-shop owner, tall, thin, approaching fifty, with darkish face and sleepy eyes. He is married, has fathered six daughters, all of whom are unhappily married, and a single corrupt son. As events unfold in the novel, Kirsha is shown successfully seducing a youth working at a store. Mahfouz portrays the seduction in terms of money and desire: Kirsha is wealthy and the youth is poor; the youth is handsome, and Kirsha lusts for him. There is no psychological subtlety or depth about the youth: we are not told whether he had indulged in homosexual activity before his seduction; whether he was a known bedfellow to men; indeed, he remains nameless and serves as a passive object of Kirsha's lust, only glimpsed at night in the coffee-shop. Mahfouz is more interested in the seducer than in the seduced and does not try to generate any sympathy for the latter. The youth is artistically and humanly dispensable: he appears and soon disappears, leaving no trace behind him. Clearly at the time of writing the novel, Mahfouz was uncomfortable with his socially objectionable topic.

The dynamic of the homosexual relationship for Mahfouz is financial need. Such a dynamic is morally unacceptable in the alley, and thus, once seduced, the youth is referred to as the “raquee” (brazen) (78), while Kirsha's homosexuality itself is also described in terms like “shudhudh” (perversion) and “ithm” (sin), an “old evil” as Sheikh Darwish, the alley dervish, ecstatically calls it (89).3 But much as Mahfouz objects to homosexuality, and much as he is conscious of the sociological background to this seduction, he does not treat homosexuality as the exclusive product of class tension, of the humiliating relationship between rich and poor. Mahfouz recognizes that there is an important factor pertaining to physical inclination: homosexuality is an inborn sexual condition that is not a matter of choice. Certainly that is how Kirsha views it: he is not able to overcome it, he does not want to change it, and he curses the “government” for prosecuting men like him (39). For Mahfouz, and much as society is responsible for the poverty that leads to homosexual prostitution, it is human nature that is responsible for homosexual desire.

The successful seduction of the youth makes Mahfouz focus on homosexuality in its social environment. Initially Kirsha had felt shame about his sexuality and had been apprehensive about inviting youths to his coffee-shop, but after he is exposed, he no longer cares about the “wagging tongues,” and freely practises his “sin” (63). Significantly, Mahfouz is showing how Cairene society tolerates homosexual behavior: Kirsha is not driven out from the alley, nor does his business suffer. He is morally condemned, but he is not harmed in his person or property: on the contrary, he so enjoys status and security that he introduces the youth to his customers at the coffee-shop. He also develops a rationale for his homosexual activity: to those who taunt him, he answers in “his customary way: You have your religion, I have mine” (39). As the religious ideal is believed in Islam to be inborn in man (“fitra”), so Kirsha audaciously suggests is homosexuality.

On the marital level, Mahfouz draws an intriguing portrait of the homosexual in a bisexual relationship: Kirsha's wife cannot hate her husband and always tries to help him when he falls into his evil ways. As a wife, however, she is proud of her husband's sexual prowess, of his status in the alley, of his power over other coffee-shop owners. Kirsha is the ideal husband except after midnight: and for that, the “devil” (65) incarnated in the youth is to blame. For all his “misdemeanors” (46) and “misconduct” (63), Kirsha is her husband, and with him she has shared life and children (64–65); if only she does not have to share his bed with a youth; if only he sticks to his hashish addiction rather than the “other hashish” (66).

Although Mahfouz does not present the wife in sympathetic terms, indeed, like the youth she remains nameless, he does show her enduring under tremendous pressures which finally explode. One night, she lunges at the youth and nearly strangles him to death. Then she pours on him her shame and frustration in curses and obscenities. There is humiliation, depravity, and destructiveness in Kirsha, but his wife cannot leave him as he cannot leave his seductions. She is, of course, completely dependent on him for her survival: she is helpless and can only scream and shout, but even that, she has to do carefully: if she exceeds his patience, he can easily divorce her, and then she will find herself an outcast. She tries to fight him, but knows that she has no alternative but to endure.

Before scandalizing her husband, however, Kirsha's wife appeals to Sheikh Ridwan Husseiny for help. The religious figure in her view is the only one who might influence Kirsha. Mahfouz now turns to the delicate task of viewing homosexuality from the religious perspective: and religion, according to Mahfouz, is more important in the trilogy than in any of his other novels (Issam Mahfouz 7). The Sheikh, he tells us, has known of Kirsha's proclivity but has ignored it. Now he is asked to help, and uncomfortable as he is about inviting for the first time a “fasiq” (profligate) (80) into his ascetical cell, he calls Kirsha to him: better, he thinks, is the man who enlightens a “fasiq” than he who “sits with a believer” (80). The dialogue between the two leads to no concrete change, but Mahfouz uses it to explore the tension between instinct and law.

Sheikh Ridwan blames homosexuality on the devil (81). He echoes the Arabic proverb: when a man and a woman meet, the devil is sure to be between them. All sexual evil comes from the devil, including perversion: it is the devil that has invaded Kirsha's life and led to this “filthy practice” (82). And the devil is, as is the case for Kirsha's wife, none other than the degenerate youth. After this reprimand by the Sheikh to Kirsha, Mahfouz turns to examine a key idea in Islam: the principle of “hidaya”-guidance to the straight path. The scene inside the cell becomes one of a scholastic discussion on the relation of divine will to human failure. In a room sparsely furnished except for holy books, beads, and floor pillows, an old devout worshipper who has endured hardship is pitted against a degenerate drug dealer who lusts for delicate youths. The dialogue between the spiritual and the perverted starts with the Koranic verse which the Sheikh had earlier pondered: “You cannot lead aright whomever you wish; it is God who leads whomever He wishes” (80). The Sheikh urges repentance: “Turn in repentance to your Lord” (83). Kirsha takes those words as his cue and repeats to the Sheikh the Koranic dictum that everything is from God: “This is God's will” (84), the implication being that those who find the right path are not necessarily doing so of their free choice but of divine authority. The Sheikh retorts: only when man does not obey the devil, will God enlighten him; the human will must oppose the devil in order for God to act. Kirsha responds by turning the logic back at the Sheikh: because God has not guided him, he cannot oppose the devil, and thus he cannot but do what he does. When God and the flesh clash, there is an impasse. As Kirsha leaves the holy cell, he pleads with the Sheikh:

All men do many things that are dirty and this is one of them. So leave me to find my own path (“hidaya”). Don't be angry with me and please accept my apologies and regrets. What can a man do to control himself?


Once Kirsha steps outside, he curses the people, the alley, and the Sheikh. His homosexuality is an integral part of himself: if the Sheikh cannot accept the sin, then he should, like the alley, try to accept the sinner.

With such a view of homosexuality, Mahfouz allows Kirsha to continue in his life the way it is. Kirsha is one of the few protagonists who is unscathed at the end of the novel. Others fall, die, run away, disappear into prison; Kirsha remains consorting with his youths, quarrelling with his wife, and enjoying his hashish. Through him, Mahfouz defines the social parameter to homosexuality: first and foremost is that much as Islam condemns homosexuality, the Muslim society of Egypt seems to tolerate it. Such dichotomy between human activity and divine doctrine appears as early in Islamic history as the Abbasid period when the poets Abu Nuwas and Hammad Ajrad lavishly described their homosexual activity; the dichotomy stunned western travellers to the Ottoman empire in the 16th and 17th centuries after they observed open “sodomy” among the Turks.4 Obviously, the ways of man are different from the laws of God. Secondly, Mahfouz recognizes homosexuality as an inborn tendency in human nature. Of course, it is a sin and a deed of the devil, but by dramatizing Kirsha's inability to change his ways, Mahfouz seems to adumbrate the position that homosexuality is a ‘natural’ condition and not a deviance which social behavior can correct. Homosexuality is not a matter of choice, but of being. Thirdly, there is a certain crudeness in Mahfouz's presentation of homosexuality: Kirsha lusts, the youth succumbs—that is all there is to homosexuality. In Midaq Alley Mahfouz finds no emotional content in homosexual relations and does not recognize “love” as a homosexual possibility; indeed, when Darwish spells “HOMOSEXUALITY” in English (89), he does so in order to contrast it with “love” (89). In his first treatment of homosexuality, Mahfouz viewed it simply as sodomy—a view that was shared by his offended critics.


In Sukariyya, Mahfouz moves to a more sophisticated portrait of homosexuality than in Midaq Alley.5 Significantly, he does not change his primary view: homosexuality remains perversion, but now beauty and love are associated with it. Furthermore, in this novel, homosexuality does not remain an act of mere seduction, but extends into a tender relationship. And for a writer like Mahfouz, who throughout the trilogy portrays heterosexual love as hypocritical or unsuccessful—indeed, there is not a single love relationship that ends happily—it is curious that the love between Ridwan and Hilmi is harmonious and fulfilling. This is the only love in Mahfouz's early novels that is not self-centered, that is sincere, and that endures.

Ridwan and Hilmi are friends: they study together, spend nights together in preparation for exams and aspire for political careers. Both do not like girls, are very conscious of their physical beauty, and dress handsomely and fashionably. Again circumspect, Mahfouz does not go into sexual details but tries to emphasize the self-consciousness of his protagonists: they are innocent dandies who find in each other all they need in a human relationship: warmth, security, and hope. As they study together, there is understanding and reciprocity that is lacking in heterosexual couples. Their portrait is one of the most genteel in the trilogy.

The relationship between the two youths allows Mahfouz to reflect on the inception of homosexuality in human behavior. Mahfouz is ambiguous about the exact point when youthful attraction turns into homosexual desire. The youths are described as enjoying each other's company, as sleeping in the same bed, and kissing each other when they meet. All these are not uncommon actions for the young in the Middle East. Furthermore, in the poverty of Mahfouz's Cairo, where many families share the same bed, and in a Mediterranean society where male physical intimacy is normal, the youths' closeness to each other does not suggest at first sexual desire. It is only later, when they become companions of a known homosexual politician in Cairo that their sexual orientation is clearly revealed. Homosexuality for Mahfouz is inborn: it is not a result of parental mistreatment or absent role models. Ridwan and Hilmi love each other first as friends, and then as sexual partners.

Hilmi leads Ridwan to Abdurahim Pasha Isa, a powerful old politician in Cairo. The purpose is for them to establish contact with a man who can help them move from law school to politics and then advance them in their careers. Pasha Isa is a known homosexual:

“I've heard a lot about him. Does he live up to his billing,” asks Ridwan, Mahfouz still not using the term homosexuality.

“And more,” answers Hilmi.

“But he's an old man.”

“That's hardly significant, for he's an important man who is debonair and influential.”


At this point, homosexuality prevails at the level of power. The two youths are emotionally fulfilled in each other and seek the Pasha only for social improvement. In this triangle of homosexual passion and worldly ambition, blunt self-interest intrudes. Mahfouz, however, does not credit this ambition to homosexuality: it is not because they are homosexuals that they try to reach their goals by sexual means. In the novel, many characters try to fulfil their plans by using equally objectionable means. Whether one is homosexual or not does not make much difference when self-interest is at stake.

Abdurahim Pasha Isa is worlds apart from Kirsha in that he is a confirmed homosexual who has never married. Mahfouz presents unambiguous homosexuality through him. As an only child, he had been mischievous, not a recluse, but a socially healthy teen (61–62), perhaps like the two youths he entertains. When Ridwan and Hilmi meet him, he is a man of literary taste, humor, and wit. He makes no secret of his admiration for the beautiful dandies, kisses them on meeting, and keeps as his servants a tall strong gateman and a rosy-cheeked driver. He has an insatiable appetite for youth and for intellectual discourse, and ranges with Ridwan and Hilmi from music and Um Kalthoum, to political strategy, Egyptian writers like Shawki, Hafez, and Manfalouti, and poetry (63–64). He also offers them, poor as they are, good food and alcoholic drink. But whatever mutual self-interest appears in this situation, it is overshadowed by the total absence of any degradation. The threesome share a common sensitivity and meet in ideological propinquity: “An endearing spirit and a soul that's sincere and pure are what really interest me,” the Pasha declares (61).

What is important for Mahfouz about this relationship is its discretion, something that Kirsha never cared for. Mahfouz prizes privacy in homosexual relations and views openness as vulgarity. Indeed, the homosexual relation that remains private enjoys emotional content—thus the attachment between the two youths is never exposed even to their parents. With the Pasha, the meetings take place in the deep of the night, and when there are public occasions, the youths and the Pasha behave in polite restraint. By so conducting himself, the Pasha helps them rationalize homosexuality: he tells them to separate the public and the private and to “Set your sights on being industrious and fair. Then you'll be free to do what you want in your private life” (62). He assures them that homosexuality will not stand in the way of their political advancement if they behave accordingly. It is significant in this context that all the homosexual characters depicted by Mahfouz involve themselves in politics: Kirsha had an active past, and during elections in the alley, the campaign took place in his coffee-shop. The Pasha is a political paragon, and Ridwan and Hilmi are the aspirants: “He is,” says Hilmi, “a senior statesman and we're novices” (59). They are to learn from him.

The Pasha-youths relation evokes hints of Plato's Symposium with which Mahfouz had been familiar as early as 1931. Pasha Isa is the teacher, Hilmi and Ridwan are the pupils who are won over by his affability and wit. Unlike Kirsha who ‘buys’ the youth, the Pasha appeals to Ridwan through intellect and charm: “So let's study together,” he tells him, “Why not? I'd find it delightful to review an introduction to general law or some Islamic law … You must understand everything” (65). The relationship between teacher and pupils does not rest on physical desire only but seeks broader goals both in literature and in politics. Pasha Isa enjoins Ridwan to be “industrious. I advise you not to lose sight of your duty or your ideals” (64): he will guide the youth through the maze of ideologies and lead him to true patriotism for Egypt. Significantly, Pasha Isa is a politician of integrity and unwavering nationalism. His public role is inspiring and confirms for the pupils their anti-British position—the measure of patriotism then.

Mahfouz, however, does not ignore the gain which the pupils reap from their relationship with the Pasha: both are appointed in government offices at a rank above their peers, and Ridwan uses his connection with the Pasha to get his father quickly promoted. Furthermore, internal tension cannot escape homosexuals even in this harmonious relationship: after Ridwan succumbs to the Pasha, he begins to brood on his “perversion,” something he had not done during his innocence with Hilmi. In both Midaq Alley and Sukariyya, homosexuality generates unease: in the former novel, there is conflict between Kirsha and his wife and sometimes with the alley occupants; in Sukariyya, there is psychological tension as Ridwan feels “compelled to conceal the controversies raging in his own soul, where they would remain a terrifying secret that threatened him … Who had divided human behavior into normal and deviant?” (123). In neither novel is the conflict/tension resolved or resolvable.

For Mahfouz, homosexuals are active members in the social and political fabric. Whether inside the alley microcosm of despair or inside the palaces of Cairo, whether among the poor or the rich, the crude or the cultured, the homosexual protagonist is there. Between Midaq Alley and Sukariyya, Mahfouz expands his vision: he retains his definition of homosexuality as a perversion and a sin, but then through his gentle portrayal of Ridwan and Hilmi, he urges understanding without necessarily associating that with approval.

This “intellectual meaning” is a powerful challenge to the audience of Mahfouz. The fact that Mahfouz discusses homosexuality at all and the fact that there is neither divine retribution nor social punishment of the homosexual reveals Mahfouz's perception of the bewildering tension between religion and instinct, divine will and human will. Mahfouz clearly finds homosexuality perplexing from a religious viewpoint, but on the artistic level, he deliberately presents the homosexual protagonist at the outset of the stories: it is the homosexual who moves the narrative forward. In Midaq Alley, Kirsha dominates the community: as owner of the coffee-shop where the alley inhabitants meet, all the events that occur in the novel begin under his roof. For Mahfouz, the homosexual protagonist enjoys social power, and because of that power, he gives direction to events and movements. In Sukariyya, Pasha Isa is at the center of political changes that are transforming Egypt and thus affecting the two youths and their families.

Condemned by religion, homosexuality thrives in alley and palace alike; although a “perversion,” it gives shape to artistic creation. For Mahfouz, homosexuality is an “intellectual meaning” which imbues Realism with paradox and which challenges both society and the critic.


  1. I have found a few references to homosexuality in Arabic fiction: in At-Tatleek by the Algerian writer Rasheed Bu Jadra and in one of the short stories in Arkhas al-Layali (mid 1950s) by the Egyptian writer Yusuf Idrees. In Leo Africanus, Amin Maalouf included a reference to homosexuality in his fictional panorama of medieval Cordoba. Homosexuality remains a taboo in Arabic society: in 1990, Yusuf Shaheen, one of the most capable directors in Arabic cinema, finished a film, “Iskandariyya Kaman … wa Kaman” in which he addressed, according to one critic, “the problem of homosexuality with audacity” (Al-Moharer, no. 119, 5 June 1990). An interesting indication of change, however, was the appearance in that year of Huda Barakat's novel, Hajar-u-Dahik in which the protagonist of the novel is a homosexual (London: Riad El-Rayyes, 1990). The novel won the Critic's Award for the Novel. I am grateful to Dr. Nazek Saba Yared of Beirut University College for drawing my attention to this novel.

  2. Critics of Mahfouz have ignored the treatment of homosexuality in his novels: even students of social issues have been reticent about this topic. See Abdul Muhsin Taha Badr, Al-Ru‘ya wal Irada (Nageeb Mahfouz) (Beirut, 1958); Sasson Somekh, The Changing Rhythm (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973); Hilary Kilpatrick, The Modern Egyptian Novel (London: Ithaca Press, 1974); Ibrahim al-Sheikh, Mawaqif Ijtimai‘yya wa Siyasiyya fi Adab Nageeb Mahfouz (Cairo, 1987); Nageeb Surour, Rihla … fi Thulathiyyat Nageeb Mahfouz (Beirut, 1989).

  3. All the references will be to the translation of Midaq Alley by Trevor Le Gassick (London: Heinemann, 1975). I shall quote the Arabic when necessary; the page numbers in parentheses refer to the Heinemann edition.

  4. Some of the tales in the Thousand and One Nights (compiled in the 14th century in Cairo) introduced homosexual protagonists: “Male homosexual activities were a part of life, and though they might be distasteful to some, they existed” (Bullough 229). For the Ottoman allusions, see Rycaut 33, and Osborne 81.

  5. All references will be to Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street, trans. William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

Works Cited

al-Dhahabi, Hafiz Shams ul-Deen. Kitab ul-Kaba‘ir. Beirut: Shiite Publishing House, n.d.

Badr, Abdul Muhsin Taha. (1958). Al-Ru‘ya wal Irada (Nageeb Mahfouz). Beirut: Dar al-Tanweer.

Bullough, Vern L. (1976). Sexual Variance in Society and History. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Fahmy, Mohammad. (December 1947). “Zuqaq al-Midaq” in Al-Muqtataf. Quoted in full in Ali Shalash, Nageeb Mahfouz: Al-Tareek wal Sada. Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1990, pp. 177–179.

Kilpatrick, Hilary. (1974). The Modern Egyptian Novel. London: Ithaca Press.

Maalouf, Amin. (1988). Leo Africanus. Trans. Peter Sluglett. New York: W. W. Norton.

Mahfouz, Issam. (1988). “Nageeb Mahfouz: Nobel Laureate 1988.” An-Nahar (11 December), p. 7.

Mahfouz, Nageeb. (November 1931). “Aflaton wa Falsafatuho.” Ma‘rifa 7, pp. 851–55.

———. (1934). “Fikrat-ul Naqd fi Falsafat Kant.” Assiyasa al-Usbui‘yya (14 April), pp. 7–15.

———. (1957). Interview. Al-Idha‘a (31 January), p. 26.

———. (May 1962). Interview. Al-Jumhuriyya (Cairo), p. 19.

———. (February 1970). Hilal: Special Issue on Nageeb Mahfouz 78, pp. 42–47.

Muruwwah, Adeeb. (March 1948). “Zuqaq al-Midaq” in Al-Adib. Quoted in full in Shalash, Nageeb Mahfouz, 181–183.

Osborne, Francis. (1650). Political Reflections upon the Government of the Turks. London.

Qutb, Seyyid. (February 1948). “Zuqaq al-Midaq” in Al-Fikr al-Jadid. Quoted in full in Shalash, Nageeb Mahfouz, 179–181.

Rycaut, Paul. (1668). The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, London.

Sha‘aar, Marwan Mohammad. (1990). Al-‘Alaqat al-Jinsiyya fil Islam. Beirut: Dar al Nafa‘is.

Somekh, Sasson. (1973). The Changing Rhythm. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Yahfoofi, Suleiman. (1984). Daman ul-Jins fil Islam. Beirut: Ad-Dar al-A‘Alamiyya.

Dick Davis (review date 24 June 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Romance of the Masses,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1994, p. 25.

[In the following mixed review, Davis argues that The Harafish's distinctly Middle Eastern qualities may make it difficult for Western readers to understand.]

The Harafish is a translation of a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, first published in Arabic in 1977. As the translator, Catherine Cobham, tells us in a prefatory note, “The meaning … of harafish is the rabble. … In the novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless.” In not translating the title, and so keeping it undomesticated by English, Ms. Cobham has wisely signalled to us the fact that the novel differs in many ways from what we might expect to find in a Western novel.

The book draws for its material on the ancient clan system, prevalent in many Middle-Eastern urban settings until well into the twentieth century, whereby groups of young men organized themselves into vigilante groups to protect their own neighbourhood, keeping out rivals and administering a rough justice within the area they controlled. The ethos of such groups involved, ideally, a kind of manly chivalry that inspired many folk-tales of local heroes, their struggles to become clan leader, their fights against outsiders, their munificent generosity and populist justice. The system's abuse—a clan leader could easily turn from being the chivalrous defender of the poor into an autocratic tyrant—were also part of such narratives. Various writers (Iran's best known novelist, Sadeq Hedayat, is an example) have had recourse to this folk tradition in their own works.

Mahfouz uses the tradition not only for the content of this novel but also for its manner. It is told in brief episodic fragments, presents its characters largely as epic types instead of individualized and self-conscious psyches, and, rather than hesitating to employ the formulaic (which in a Western novel is seen as cliché and therefore to be avoided), rejoices in it. Similar characters and situations recur in different generations: the would-be hero destroyed by drink and lust; the brother who disappears, only to return a rich man; the scheming whore; the poor but honest mother left to raise her sons alone; the good brother paired with the ne'er-do-well brother, and so on. To criticize such formulae for not being naturalistic is to misunderstand the genre out of which they spring, and is almost as inappropriate as criticizing the Odyssey for the same reason.

A factor likely to make some Western readers especially uncomfortable is that, as is frequently the case in tales of masculine virtù, women come out of the narrative poorly. Each generation has its hero destroyed by lust, and sentences such as “Her beauty … was the embodiment of his odious weakness,” or “Something screamed at him such beauty was created to destroy him” are common. A damning feminist critique of the novel would be easy to carry out.

If one must have a twentieth-century Western parallel, the crowded proletarian frescoes of Diego Rivera are perhaps a closer analogy than the English novel—especially the novel of manners and its modern descendants. Mahfouz's style here (and it is a mark of his great talent that this is by no means his only style), like Rivera's, hides its sophistication behind a faux-naïve explicitness in order to convey, with a great wealth of circumstantial particulars, what is essentially a recognized and uncomplicated myth of the nature of the lives of the poor. But the teeming masses in Mahfouz's book serve as backdrop to a very un-Western myth of the proletariat.

For the masses as a whole, in The Harafish, there is little hope, and what little there is comes about only when a great man identifies himself with their sorrows and hardship. This happens rarely, because power is seen essentially as Ibn Khaldun saw it in the fourteenth century; it is a familial matter, seized by the poor and lowly whose hardiness enables them do this; but, once achieved, power and wealth corrupt each generation further until they are irrecoverably lost. Mahfouz's novel describes “[a] lineage eroded by debauchery, crime and madness,” as one of his characters puts it. The struggles of the occasional idealist to reassert the ancient integrity and simplicity are doomed to failure. The poor exist as the reservoir from which new leaders come and to which failed leaders return, but in themselves they are beyond salvation. True, the novel ends with a possible promise of a restored golden age of justice, but it is a dramatic flourish that flies in the face of everything the narrative has insisted on up to this point.

Catherine Cobham's translation is fluent and reads easily, but the reader is constantly confronted by the different conventions subsumed in the all-encompassing term “novel.” The narrative technique, in its hyperbole, bluntness, unashamed use of stereotype, and particularly in its deliberate avoidance of the telling psychological and individualistic detail which is virtually the hallmark of the Western novel, can seem disconcertingly brash. The language often seems more appropriate to the translation of a saga or a folk epic than of a novel. This is not the translator's fault; what is one to do with a sentence like this, describing a wedding-night, “She marvelled at his virility, succumbed to the heat of his passion and yielded to him as if to fate”? Nothing, except to reproduce it as it is, but what in an epic might seem unexceptionable can strike the Western reader as embarrassing in a prose narrative about urban family life. We have to remain aware of the folk idiom on which Mahfouz is deliberately drawing, and what would presumably be an easy transition for Mahfouz's original audience, who were cognisant whether consciously or unconsciously of his models, can be a more difficult one for the reader of English. As so often with modern fiction from the Middle East, superficial similarities to a Western tradition (here we seem to be promised a generational saga à la Galsworthy) can mask profound differences which require the Western reader's active imaginative sympathy to overcome.

Francis King (review date 2 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “More Incident than an Egyptian Soap,” in Spectator, July 2, 1994, p. 35.

[In the following review, King offers a mixed assessment of The Harafish.]

The finest achievement of Naguib Mahfouz is his Cairo trilogy, written in the late Forties and early Fifties and in my view the greatest work of realistic fiction to be produced since the War. No doubt it was this trilogy which led one Western critic to call him ‘the Balzac of Egypt’ and another ‘the Dickens of the Cairo cafés,’ and the Committee of the Nobel Prize for Literature to make him its laureate in 1988.

Inevitably, after the award of the Prize, a novelist whom the reference books had up to then ignored became world-famous. No less inevitably some critics lost their heads—with Edward Said declaring hyperbolically in the London Review of Books: ‘He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola and a Jules Romains.’ Had it not been for the Nobel Prize, it seems to me unlikely that The Harafish, first published in Arabic in 1977, would now be appearing in English. It is inferior not merely to The Cairo Trilogy but to at least half-a-dozen of Mahfouz's other books.

Whether the choice of the author, the translator or the publishers, the English title of this novel is unlikely to attract the prospective reader and will certainly not inform him of what to expect. In Arabic al-harafish originally meant the rabble or the riff-raff. Subsequently it acquired the less derogatory meaning of hoi polloi, the common people, the masses. A clan of Mahfouz's common people live in what the translator calls ‘an alley’; and it is with the history, through many generations, of one family, the al-Nagi, in this alley that the book concerns itself.

Mahfouz begins with the story of Ashur, a ‘child of sin’ adopted by a blind reciter of the Koran, who first works as a donkey-boy and then, through an act of dishonesty, becomes extremely rich and powerful and so a legend among his local harafish, whom in the manner of an Egyptian Robin Hood he subsidises and defends. His descendants—‘a lineage eroded by debauchery, crime and madness’—are less admired and loved; some are even hated. Some murder siblings or wives; some marry prostitutes; some commit adultery; some cheat their business partners; some take to drink or drugs. One is a homosexual voluptuary.

As the book moves from one generation to another, the enormities tend to repeat themselves. Mahfouz, a highly sophisticated writer, clearly intended to write of his obscure family as though he were composing an epic about a royal house. Essentially, therefore, the narrative is a simple one, with one ‘And then’ succeeding another; with characters presented as models of either rectitude or depravity; with little attempt at psychological subtlety; and with scarcely any reference to the events—slumps, revolutions, invasions, wars taking place elsewhere in Egypt.

Subordinate to this story but always vivid is the picture that Mahfouz gives of the urban poor of Egypt. The years pass, but little changes. At one point the community is decimated by the plague, at another it faces famine caused by a drought. When not slaving away at their humdrum occupations, its males solace themselves with fornication, drink and hashish.

As though he were speaking through the lips of some itinerant storyteller in a Middle East souk, Mahfouz seems deliberately to opt for clichés. Thus, people do not die, but join their Maker or give up the ghost. Women have delicate features like flowers opening, are the embodiment of lethal beauty, look as fresh as a flower, feel the sweet wine of motherhood flood through their veins. It is the sublime nectar of life which courses through men's veins—when they are not abandoning themselves to the caresses of pleasant dreams. A love scene reaches its climax with:

She marvelled at his virility, succumbed to the heat of his passion, and yielded to him as if to fate.

In The Cairo Trilogy one is constantly amazed by the energy, breadth and vividness of the author's imaginings. In this book one is similarly amazed. As seductions, illegitimate births, suicides, murders, brawls and thefts crowd one on the other, one decides that a whole team of hacks at work on an Egyptian soap-opera would have difficulty in coming up with such a profusion of melodramatic incident.

This is not a great novel, nor even a good one. But it certainly grips the attention.

Bruce Allen (review date 10 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Troubled Tribe of Cairo,” in Chicago Tribune Books, July 10, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following negative review, Allen criticizes Mahfouz's prose style in The Harafish.]

Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz, the preeminent Arabic language novelist of his time, was born in Cairo in 1911 and remained largely unknown in cultures outside his own until receiving the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Only a few of Mahfouz's more than 40 books of fiction had previously reached us in English translation. Since the Nobel, English-speaking readers have been treated to such colorful and distinctive novels as Midaq Alley,The Thief and the Dogs,The Beggar and, most notably, his masterly Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk,Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, 1956–57), a vast and compelling portrayal of a star-crossed Muslim family that displays both Tolstoyan breadth and Flaubertian concentration and precision.

There's nothing limited or local about Mahfouz's art. He's a sophisticated analyst of the convolutions of personality and personal interrelationships, and a virtuoso storyteller with a positive genius for plotting. Many of these qualities are strikingly present in The Harafish, which was originally published in Arabic in 1977 and echoes Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy in its focus on the linked fates of a single family's several generations.

The family is that of Ashur al-Nagi, a foundling who rises to become “clan chief” in his impoverished Cairo neighborhood. A gentle, naive giant, Ashur dedicates his life to improving the lot of the local “harafish” (roughly, the poor, or common people) and sets a standard for selfless duty to others that succeeding generations fail to uphold.

In 10 compact “tales,” each of which covers huge chunks of time in swift, elliptical segments, Mahfouz traces the increasingly deranged and often criminal histories of the al-Nagis. Ashur's son Shams-al-Din, lured by visions of “a life of ease,” abandons his father's vigilant social concern virtually without knowing he's doing it. His son Sulayman, determined to match the wealth of the family he marries into, misuses public funds. So it goes, down through the decades. (“The harafish said that the Nagi family had become like actors in a tragedy … as a punishment for their betrayal of their mighty ancestor”).

The tribe of Ashur, which keeps losing and regaining “the power of the clan chief,” is disgraced by the likes of Wahid the One-Eyed, a self-deceiving monster of appetite, and the luckless Galal, a lazy sensualist redeemed by love, then cruelly denied the fulfillment of his desires.

A bold attempt to reverse the downward momentum of the tribe's fortunes ends tragically. Then, out of “a lineage eroded by debauchery, crime, and murder” emerges another Ashur—whose impressive physique and simple passionate decency seem to signify that his revered forebear is born again to redeem the sins of the al-Nagis and bring justice to the harafish.

Mahfouz's plain storytelling is effectively shaded by symbolism. The cart that the al-Nagi men traditionally drag through the alley is a vivid image of life devalued and imperiled but carrying stubbornly on. And the towering minaret erected by Galal stands for years thereafter—like its unloved builder himself—as “an alien presence among the people of the alley.”

The novel boasts several brilliant sequences and characterizations. There is the powerful tale of Samaha, who betrays his clan chief and must spend the balance of his long life in hiding and in disguise, and that of Rummana and his cold, avaricious wife, a memorably Zola-like pair, unable to live either together or apart. Most memorable of all is the story of the beautiful, domineering Zahira (“she believed she was the clan chief in a woman's skin”), whose fatal attractiveness to men ruins several lives and influences her own violent fate.

The spareness and economy with which these tales are told would impress even more were it not for the awkward banality that continuously crops up, especially in the novel's first 50 or so pages. Melodramatic overstatements and vacuous oversimplifications (“Laughter and tears are equally the stuff of fate”) have the unfortunate effect of making Mahfouz sound, here and there, rather like Khalil Gibran. But The Harafish can be enthusiastically recommended to readers who already admire Mahfouz's fiction and to those who seek the satisfactions, too rarely available these days, of well-crafted, realistic narrative focused on character in action and culture in conflict.

Amit Chaudhuri (review date 21 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “On Holiday,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 14, July 21, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following review, Chaudhuri explores the parallels between Palace Walk and The Harafish.]

Naguib Mahfouz made his name with his trilogy of Cairo life—Palace Walk,Palace of Desire and Sugar Street—first published in Arabic in the late Fifties. At first glance, The Harafish, which was originally published in 1977, bears little resemblance to, say, Palace Walk. The latter is a story of a family in an ‘alley’ in Cairo in the first half of the 20th century, and is told in a straightforward chronological manner that seems to owe something to the 19th-century European novel. The Harafish is more rambling, less realistic (without being ‘magical’), telling the mythic story of the descendants of the heroic Ashur-al-Nagi and covering births, weddings, murders and entire generations, sometimes in the course of a chapter. It is set in a time that for the most part appears to be medieval, given its plagues, dervishes and clan chiefs, but occasionally edges towards the modern with the appearance, for example, of a police inspector.

There are, however, superficial resemblances between the better-known earlier work and the later novel: among them, an appetite for weddings and an interest in stories that explore the interrelationships in a large family. But there are deeper affinities between the books that are perhaps central to Mahfouz's work and, indeed, his genius: the questions his writing raises obliquely about what in his vision is native and rooted and what the result of his contact with Western culture, about the ways these strands of foreignness and rootedness animate his work, and give rise to the superb amoral moralism of his characters.

Western influence, especially that of the 19th-century novel, is evident in the most obvious way in the style and form in which Mahfouz's major novels are written—with a strong, gradually unfolding narrative, told from the viewpoint of a near-omniscient narrator, the story always clearly pitched socially and historically. The same biographical note that appears at the end of each of his books, under the rubric ‘About the Author,’ admits as much in a bland, unrevealing way: ‘A student of philosophy and an avid reader, he has been influenced by many Western writers, including Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and, above all, Proust.’ A quote on the jacket from Edward Said, writing for the London Review of Books, says: ‘He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romains.’ While this may be apposite, and worth pointing out, it skims over the way in which contact with a dissimilar Western culture shapes, and differentiates, the colonial novelist. For Mahfouz, one suspects, writing has not simply been a business of putting Egyptian subject-matter into a Western form, of pouring an Arab wine into a European container he happened to inherit. The contact with, rather than just the influence of, Western culture runs through his work in more subtle and less easily identifiable ways. The strong, onward-moving story does echo the 19th-century narrative, but also, in its solidity, hints deceptively at a cultural rootedness from which Mahfouz's sensibility actually estranges us.

The main character in Palace Walk is Al-Sayyid Ahmad, a merchant and shop-owner, who has one wife, Amina, three sons, one of them by a former wife whom he has divorced, and two daughters. The sons and daughters (except for the youngest son, Kamal) are at that stage of their lives when marriage is a major preoccupation; for the daughters, romances bloom and dissipate through the slats of windows; all that the women, it seems, know of the world is the view of the alley through the window, though a sense of the greater world comes to Amina from glimpsing the minarets that constitute the skyline. This sense of the house's feminised, constricted interiority, a house which for Amina is a universe, is beautifully evoked in the first chapter, where she is shown waiting for her husband's arrival:

She continued to watch the road and listen to the people chat until she heard a horse's hoof-beats. She turned her head toward al-Nahhasin Street and saw a carriage slowly approaching, its lamps shining in the darkness. She sighed with relief and murmured, ‘Finally …’ It was the carriage of one of his friends, bringing him to the door of his house after their evening out before continuing on as usual to al-Khurunfush with the owner and some other friends who lived there. The carriage stopped in front of the house, and her husband's voice rang out cheerfully: ‘May God keep you.’

She would listen lovingly and with amazement to her husband's voice when he said good night to his friends. If she had not heard him every night at about this hour, she would have not believed it. She and the children were accustomed to nothing but prudence, dignity and gravity from him. How did he come by these joyful, jesting sounds, which flowed out so merrily and graciously?

Also swiftly evoked in this passage, through a series of contrasts and impressions, are the man's status as head of his family, his personality, his wife's timid but unquestioning acceptance of him, and the nature of her largely imaginary relationship with the outside world. The man, we discover, is a god and tyrant at home, and at work a respected and honourable merchant. His private life includes regular visits to the voluptuous courtesan and singer, Zubayda; as head of the family, he hardly speaks to and constantly tyrannises his wife. He also interferes with and thwarts his children's desire to marry people of their choice.

The lives of the characters are inseparable from their faith—each of them quotes the Koran whenever they have the opportunity—centred on social custom, and structured around the family unit, which is both oppressive and life-giving. No alternative lifestyles are suggested, there are no heroes who rebel against the ‘system.’ In the process of reading, we marvel at how natural and humane, in spite of everything, the ‘system’ is simply because of the ways in which it holds people together; we understand that Al-Sayyid Ahmad's amoralism, because it is an acceptable part of the larger culture, is a natural and indispensable part of his personality, rather than something to be repressed. Mahfouz makes no comment on what would seem to be the amoral constituents of his culture's idea of morality, including them without any kind of underscoring in his picture of Cairo society because they are a natural part of it, and thus our acquaintance with this world entails a rethinking of what is ‘moral,’ and a reconsideration of the fact of cultural ‘difference.’

Interestingly, though, the ‘naturalness’ of this world, which makes us empathise with its characters, is also what distances us from it and gives us a vantage point on it, because the ‘naturalness’ is a deliberate literary effect and Mahfouz's moral detachment the result of his distance from his characters. It is as if when he writes about them he is appraising them as an outsider would, although the only thing that conveys his distance is the ‘naturalness’ with which his world is described and his lack of direct comment on it. And it is in this deliberate suspension of judgment, which is not simply an artistic or novelistic policy, but an acknowledgement and appraisal of his culture's ‘difference,’ that we feel the profound impact of Mahfouz's contact with Western culture, a contact which turns him into both chronicler and outsider.

In a sub-heading, Mahfouz calls The Harafish (the word, according to a translator's note, means the ‘common people’) an ‘epic,’ and his chapters ‘tales’; together they read like yarns spun for the pure pleasure of storytelling, with plots and sub-plots that go everywhere, unconstrained by the requirements of verisimilitude. One has a sense of the novelist on holiday, picking up the thread of a story and then doing with it more or less what he likes. The novel begins with an account of a blind man taking into his house an abandoned child, whom he hears crying in the dark. The child grows up to be Ashur-al-Nagi, a saintly and physically powerful person: ‘Right from the beginning, Ashur responded to the beauty and radiance in the world, to the harmonies of the sacred anthems. He grew huge like the monastery door, tall and broad, with arms as solid as the stones of the old city wall and legs like the trunks of mulberry trees.’ Ashur takes up a job as a stable-hand and, one day, notices his master's daughter, Zaynab: ‘He glanced for a few brief moments, and regretted it immediately. His remorse grew as a hot flame burnt through his chest and innards and settled in his groin, blazing with unbridled desire.’

The rest of Ashur's story is, briefly, that he marries Zaynab, finds happiness, has two sons, marries another woman, Fulla, who is a courtesan in a bar, finds happiness again, has a son, survives a plague by fleeing with Fulla and their son to a cave on the outskirts of the town, returns to a deserted alley, occupies a rich man's empty house, and becomes the clan chief as the ‘harafish’ return. In spite of Ashur's extraordinary tale and his often extraordinary actions, his saintliness and humanity are never in doubt either to the reader or to the harafish. One day Ashur mysteriously disappears, never to return, and then Mahfouz begins to unfold, or invent, the story of Ashur's descendants, who either live up to his ideal or fail to, until the last ‘tale’ in the book tells us of the life of the latest descendant, once more called Ashur, who shares some of his forefather's qualities. In the process, we have witnessed murders, deceptions, noble aspirations degenerating into questionable impulses, betrayals by both husbands and wives, lust, on both sides, for sex and power, and the characters' will to survive.

In some ways, Mahfouz reminds me not so much of the 19th-century European novelists as of certain Indian writers such as Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, the author of Pather Panchali, a writer who chronicled, with great affection and in great detail, scenes from his early life in a village, and used ‘naturalness’ to set up an inner tension in his work which conveyed the poignancy of his distance from the culture he described. Like Mahfouz, Banerjee, too, wrote of a pre-liberal bourgeois world, where the effects of the colonial or Western middle-class culture were still largely unfelt: a world of customs, superstitions, gods, large families and poverty. But Banerjee himself had already emerged into another world, in which, through the impact of colonialism, a new, native middle class was being created; and the most powerful sense of the distance between this new world to which Banerjee now belonged, and the old one he was writing about, came from the ‘naturalness’ with which he described the old world and the lack of judgment in his writing. As in Mahfouz, the ‘naturalness’ was a literary effect which put the old world in perspective, and indicated, without actually saying anything, that the writer was a part of a historical process which, ironically, was taking his beloved subject-matter further and further away from him.

J. M. Coetzee (review date 22 September 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Fabulous Fabulist,” in New York Review of Books, September 22, 1994, pp. 30–33.

[In the following positive review of The Harafish, Coetzee explores Mahfouz's use of Arabic and Western literary techniques, calling him “a great middleman” between the two traditions.]


When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the slumbers of the Arab Near East were rudely broken. First Egypt and then the whole of the region was forced to turn away from Turkey and toward Europe. A body of secular European ideas—those that had inspired the French Revolution—broke through the barrier separating Islam from the West setting off a crisis which has not to this day been resolved.

Even before 1798 the Islamic world had a place in the field of Western scholarship and myth, that Edward Said has called Orientation knowledge of Islam, true and false as an armature of power. Islam on the other hand knew land cared to know little about the West. It had nothing to show that could be called Orientalism a view of the West through the eyes of Eastern arts and sciences. In the century and a half that followed a variety of Western concepts and institutions identified as crucial to the modern outlook were taken over in Islamic countries. Much of the unsettledness of the region today results from a failure to find ways of domesticating such essentially secular concepts as democracy liberalism and socialism.

The underlying question is whether a culture can become modern without internalizing the genealogy of modernity that is without living through the epistemological revolution, in all its implication, out of which Western serence grew. “The new outlook [in the Islamic world] is modern in a way, but it is a mutilated outlook,” writes the critic Daryush Shayegar. Modern perspectives and institutions have been absorbed but only in a “truncated” way. Internally the Islamic world is still “trailing behind modernity.” Octavio Paz makes a comparable diagnosis of the woes of Latin America, I am American democracies continue to falter because they have taken over democratic form, without the “critical and modern intellectual current” out of which Western democracy grew.

One of the forms the Islamic world imported from the West has been the novel. As a storytelling genre, the novel, particularly the realist novel, comes with heavy intellectual baggage. Originating from a satire on medieval romance (Don Quixote). it concerns itself not with exemplary lives but with individual strivings and individual destiny. Toward tradition it is hostile: it values originality, self-generation. It follows the mode, of the scientific case study or the law brief rather than the hearthside fairy tale. It prides itself on a language bereft of ornament. On the steady, prosaic observation and recording of detail. It is just the kind of vehicle one would expect Europe's merchant bourgeoisie to invent in order to celebrate its own ideals and achievements.

The first Western style novels in Arabic appeared a century ago. The genre has particularly flourished in Egypt, with its comparatively durable civil society and firm sense of national identity. There the great middleman has been Naguib Mahfouz, born in 1911 and crowned with the Nobel Prize in 1988. Though Mahfouz may receive less attention in Arab letters today than he did in the 1950s and 1960s. it was his example above all that spurred the advance of the novel in Arabic, from Morocco to Bahrain.

Mahfouz is above all a novelist of Cairo, and specifically of medieval Cairo, an area of about one square kilometer in the heart of the huge Cairene megalopolis (present population: 16 million). As a child, Mahfouz recalls, he had stood at the window of the family house in the al-Gamaliyya quarter watching British soldiers trying to halt the street demonstrations of 1919 (the scene is replayed in Palace Walk). Though his family left al-Gamaliyya when he was twelve, its alleys, with their blend of social classes, have remained the center of his fictional world. “In the same alley,” writes the Egyptian novelist Gamal al-Ghitani, “one could easily find a mansion surrounded by a beautiful, spacious garden and right next to it the modest house of a merchant. In the vicinity there would be … a tenement for dozens of poor people.” (Since the 1930s the quarter has been in a decline, however, and the poverty of the alleys is now unrelieved.)

The novels of Mahfouz's realist phase, notably Midaq Alley (1947) and The Cairo Trilogy (1956–1957), use al-Gamaliyya as a setting with meticulous accuracy. With Children of Gebelawi (1959), however, Mahfouz's concern with verisimilitude diminishes and the alleys of the quarter acquire some of the fabulous quality of the streets of the Baghdad of The Thousand and One Nights.

Mahfouz's realist novels concentrate on city people. There is no trace of the peasantry or the countryside: his city-dwellers seem not even to have country relatives. If he opposes the city to anything, it is to itself at an earlier stage of its growth, not to the village. He deals particularly with people of limited means trying to keep their heads above water in hard times, doing their best to maintain middle-class standards of conduct and appearance.

The narrowness of focus that results has been criticized by the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, who sees these standards as having loss to do with Egyptian tradition than with Victorian respectability. This reading, which suggests that Mahfouz's heart lies with anxiously imitated (and soon to be outdated) Western models, misses what, in his darker mode, Mahfouz has to say about the ethic of respectability. The Beginning and the End (1949), for instance, which explores the self-sacrificing efforts of a petit-bourgeois family trying to finance the climb of one of its sons into the Egyptian officer class, and the subsequent efforts of that son to hide his shameful social origins, is as bleak and relentless as anything in Dreiser.

Mahfouz's reputation rests—and rightly so—on the solid achievement of The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk,Palace of Desire,Sugar Street), which when it appeared was at once recognized as setting a new standard for the novel in Arabia. The trilogy traces the vicissitudes of two generations of a middle-class Cairo family from the revolution of 1919 to World War II.

The trilogy's leisurely pages record the gradual emancipation of women, the decline of religious adherence among the middle class, and the growing prestige of science and of Western cultural forms in general. Among a cast of vivid characters the grocer al-Sayyid Ahmad stands out: at home a forbidding tyrant over his wife and children, but on his evenings out gay and spontaneous, a wit and bon viveur, an accomplished singer and generous lover of women of the demi-monde. His docile and devoted wife is so obedient to his will that for a quarter of a century she barely leaves the house (and then, when her children persuade her to sneak out, suffers a humiliating accident, as if to prove him right). Among their children Yasin is passionate but clumsy, trying to imitate the way of life of his bull-like father but succeeding only in becoming an anxious parody; Khadija constantly snaps at her more beautiful sister Aisha, spies on her, denigrates her, yet is bound to her with a love intensified rather than diminished by her jealousy; and Kemal (coeval with Mahfouz himself) is a brilliant and adored son, and later a troubled young nationalist intellectual.

In style and narrative method, the trilogy (completed by 1952 but not published for another four years) and its predecessor, The Beginning and the End, grew out of a methodical study of the Western novel that Mahfouz undertook as a young man. They follow the soberer masters of Western realism—Galsworthy and Thomas Mann rather than the more mercurial Balzac or Dickens—but at their best they rise above the scrupulous chronicling of family fortunes and the dissection of moeurs to an unwavering yet compassionate unveiling of the lies that people—particularly middle-class people—find it convenient to live by, with a sureness that reminds one of Tolstoy.

Like Salman Rushdie, Mahfouz has had a serious brush with Islamic religious authorities. The fact that he has emerged unscathed testifies to greater political savvy on his part, to a readiness to make symbolic concessions where necessary. The occasion of conflict was his novel Children of Gebelawi, serialized in Al-Ahram in 1959 but never published in Egypt as a book (it appeared in integral form in Beirut in 1967).

Children of Gebelawi, set like several other novels in a single Cairo alley, is a complex allegory that functions on both religious and political levels. As a religious allegory, it starts with the founding of a great estate by the godlike al-Gebelawi, and recounts the betrayal of his trust by his younger son, Adham or Adam, the subsequent building of the alley, and the efforts of a series of four heroic leaders, the first three corresponding to Moses. Jesus, and the Prophet Mohammed, the fourth a modern man, a scientist, to wrest back the destiny of the alley and the common folk who live there from the gangsters who have taken control. The political implications of the book were made clear by Mahfouz in a 1975 interview. The gangsters who run the alley correspond to Nasser's army officers: “The question which … bothered me was: are we moving toward socialism or to a new kind of feudalism?”

Not surprisingly, Children of Gebelawi was attacked for heresy. Out of respect for religious feelings. Mahfouz declined to contest the ruling of Al-Azhar, the highest Islamic institution in the country, proscribing the work: he argued that it would be unwise to alienate Al-Azhar over a relatively minor matter when its support might be needed against what he called “the other medieval form of Islam,” that is to say, the growing fundamentalist movement.

This compromise seemed to head off a confrontation with the religious authorities. In 1988, however, the award of the Nobel Prize brought renewed pressure for the book to be published in Egypt. When, shortly thereafter, the storm burst over Salman Rushdie. Children of Gebelawi was coupled with The Satanic Verses, and Mahfouz was pressed to make public statements on the position of the writer in Islamic societies. He spoke openly in favor of freedom of speech and condemned Khomeini's fatwa on Rushdie. Fundamentalists counterattacked, accusing him of “blasphemy, apostasy, and Freemasonry,” and a fatwa was pronounced on him by the mufti of a fundamental-ist group: “Mahfouz … is an apostate. Anyone who wrongs Islam is an apostate. … If they do not repent, they must be killed.” There can be little doubt that behind this attack lay resentment against Mahfouz's support for a form of co-existence with Israel, which he had first expressed in 1975 following the Yom Kippur War.

The 1960s were dark times for Egypt. As Nasser's regime became more repressive, disillusionment set in, particularly among the country's intellectuals. Mahfouz expressed his own distress—somewhat obliquely—in such novels as The Thief and the Dogs (1961). Adrift on the Nile (1966), with its attack on the frivolity and escapism of Egyptian upper-class society, aroused Nasser's ire because of its parodic elements; publication was allowed only after interventions on the author's behalf. After Egypt's defeat in 1967 the environment grew distinctly uncomfortable for doubters, and Mahfouz could no longer count on patrons like the then minister of culture. Tharwat Ukasha, to protect him. Nasser's death brought relief; in Al-Karnak (1974)—published, it must be said, only after Nasser's excesses had already been criticized by Anwar. Sadat—Mahfouz documented the more gruesome practices of Nasser's secret police.

Mahfouz has never been a full-time writer. Between 1934 and 1974 he was employed in the civil service, for part of that time as head of movie and theater censorship. After retiring in 1971 he joined the editorial staff of the prestigious daily newspaper. Al-Ahram, and it was there in 1975 that he wrote recommending that the Arab states should seek a way of co-existing with Israel. Subsequently he openly supported the Camp David accords. He was the first major Arab writer to take such a position; as a result his books were for a while banned in some Arab countries. In his newspaper articles he also expressed his distaste for Sadat's economic policies, which led, in his view, to the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer.

Despite this honorable if cautious record of independence. Mahfouz has been criticized for falling behind the times. In the view of the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, for instance, Mahfouz has not resolved the tension between his aim of chronicling the rise to power of the class he knows, the older petty bourgeoisie, and a nagging sense of duty particularly after the 1967 war to give expression to willer ethical and political concerns. Khoury suggests that Mahfouz's turn away from realism toward symbolism and allegory has been a symptom, on a literary level, of a loss of contact with the classes really at the center of social struggle in contemporary Egypt. Similarly the retreat from the complex, socially significant women characters of his realist period—like the unattractive Nefisa in The Beginning and the End, who is ready to submit to poverty and spinsterhood for the sake of her brother's career but unable to overcome her need for sex, and is therefore doomed to humiliating contacts with men who use her and then jeer at her, and who refuse to pay her—to the more stereotyped women of his later work has been seen by feminist commentators as a defensive reaction to a newly assertive feminist movement.

To Khoury and others who have criticized his turn to allegory and symbol. Mahfouz has responded that, while in the 1950s he felt it appropriate to write in the manner of European realism, he thereafter “lost interest in the individual as an individual” in a specific, concrete historical milieu. In his subsequent work he exploits a more concentrated, more poetic, but also less “modern,” fictional language than his European masters provided.


By itself, the title of the sixteenth in Doubleday's admirable series of Mahfouz's novels. The Harafish, is enigmatic. The word harafish is Arabic, but has fallen out of use in the modern language. In medieval times it meant the mobile vulgus, the poor of society in their more volatile and threatening aspect. Thus the Arabic title Malhamat al-harafish could be—and has been—Englished as “The Epos of the Rabble” or “The Epic of the Riffraff.” Yet neither “rabble” nor “riffraff” is fair to the harafish as we see them in the book: they are volatile, certainly, but they are also fundamentally fair minded and responsive to benevolent leadership. For her translation, Catherine Cobham retains the Arabic word, nothing that Mahfouz uses it for “the common people in a positive sense” (for which concept English, one may observe, lacks a specific yet down-to-earth word. Why?).

The Harafish is set in one of the alleys of old Cairo. It deals with the life of the common people, but more specifically with the leaders of the gang—or “clan”—who generation after generation run the affairs of the alley. The first of the clan leaders is a humble carter named Ashur. In a dream Ashur foresees a plague that is about to hit Cairo. He retreats into the desert with his wife and child; when the plague is over he returns to the decimated city, takes over an abandoned mansion, and redistributes the wealth it contains to revive the economy of the alley. A year in prison only boosts his reputation among the poor: as Ashur al-Nagi, Ashur the Survivor, he comes home to a hero's welcome, takes over as clan chief, and establishes a golden age, “restraining the powerful, protecting the rights of the humble breadwinners, and creating an atmosphere of faith and piety.”

Then one night Ashur mysteriously disappears. The merchants are delighted, but their relief is short-lived. In a series of battles with neighbouring clans. Ashur's son Shams al-Nagi establishes the preeminence of the al-Nagi clan; and under its new leader the harafish continue to prosper and live in justice.

With the third al-Nagi, Sulayman, however, the dynasty starts its decline. Sulayman diverts to clan members protection money that had previously been distributed among the poor; the people of the alley suffer while the clan grows rich. As for Sulayman's sons, they fail to understand that prosperity—their own and that of the alley—depends on the power and prestige of the clan. They devote themselves to making money; the chieftainship leaves the al-Nagi family, and soon the clan has become more an exploiter than a protector of the common people. (As they shift between these two roles, the clans of Mahfouz's old Cairo are, in essence, little different from gangs in the ghettos of any great city today.)

For three more generations the downward slide of clan and alley continues. The harafish live in idleness and poverty, despairing that the days of Ashur will ever return. The chieftainship passes to Galal, a gloomy tyrant who uses bribery and extortion to build himself a huge, art-stuffed mansion, then hires a necromancer and devotes himself to attaining immortality. The covenant of Ashur has been betrayed; the clan system, mutter the harafish—who double as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the actions of the powerful—has become “one long-standing calamity.”

Famine strikes Cairo. The merchants hoard food; when the harafish rebel, the clan strikes back, punishing them, protecting the wealthy. Against this tumultuous background a humble descendant of Ashur. Fath al-Bab, lights the spark that sets off an explosion of popular violence. The clan is vanquished, its leader driven out, and Fath al-Bab installed as the new chieftain. He tries to end the predatory ways of the clan and return it to the road of service; but his followers murder him, and the harafish sink back into their “deep sleep.”

Meanwhile, in an obscure corner, a young man named Ashur, third son of Fath al-Bab's nephew, is growing up. Meditating on his mythical ancestor, and the ways he managed to reconcile power and virtue, he is vouchsafed a vision. He challenges the clan, and in a rather unbelievable episode the harafish rally spontaneously to his banner.

The harafish, the overwhelming majority of the populace, had suddenly joined forces and prevailed over the clubs and long sticks … The thread holding things in place had been broken. Anything was possible.

As their new leader, Ashur transforms the harafish “from layabouts, pickpockets, and beggars into the greatest clan the alley had known.” He imposes heavy taxes on the rich, establishes a popular militia, creates jobs, founds schools. “So began an epoch in the history of the clan which was distinguished by its strength and integrity.”

The summary I have given of Mahfouz's book conveys little of its flavor. The Harafish is not a novel but a sequence of linked tales. The tales do not have a common hero, although they can be said to have a common victim: the suffering people. For his narrative models Mahfouz has gone back to indigenous oral storytelling. In this sense the book is part of an enterprise in which Mahfouz is only one participant (perhaps taking his lead from such younger Egyptian writers as Gamal al-Ghitani): to redefine modern Arabic prose fiction, building upon its classical and folk antecedents, distancing it from the conventions of Western realism it had earlier embraced. The titles of two of Mahfouz's books, written later than The Harafish, clearly suggest this return to traditional forms: The Night of a Thousand Nights (1982) (not yet translated into English), and The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983).

Western readers of The Harafish may have trouble with the huge cast of ephemeral characters with unfamiliar names, and with the story's thoroughly traditional preoccupations with ancestry and inheritance. Halfway through, in the chapters on the “bad” al-Nagi generations, they may begin to lose track of (and perhaps cease to care) who married whom and begat whom. At such moments it may be salutary to recall that oral cultures—or cultures with a strong oral substratum—remember far more copiously than cultures that use writing. (Writing was invented, after all, to cope with the impossibility of remembering everything.) In oral cultures the training of memory is integral to education; in a world of plug-in electronic memory, by contrast, we are reaching a point where all that an educated person needs to remember is where the computer is.

The prose of The Harafish may seem formulaic, but there is no doubt that Mahfouz draws strength from the formulas. At the emotional high points of his earlier realist novels, particularly in his descriptions of falling in love—something that happens very often in his world, where boys and girls brimming with sexual vigor have few opportunities to meet, and must fall back on the lightning of the occasional charged glance, followed by weeks of erotic musing and fevered plotting—Mahfouz lapses too easily into what the philosopher Galen Strawson calls “the fioriture of classical literary Arabic”—the fluttering heart, the blood afire, etc. In its storytelling context, however, the old language comes back to life with surprising crispness.

He … noticed her for the first time at the Feast of the Dead. … She was slim, with sharp features, well-proportioned limbs, a smiling face, and she exuded life and femininity. He felt a surging desire to be joined to her. Their eyes met in mutual curiosity, responsive like fertile earth. The scorching air the heavy sighs of grief, the fragrance of cut palm leaves, basil and sweet pastries for the festival fused with their secret desires. He inclined toward her like a sunflower. The death all around spurred him on.

By any computation, the chronology of The Harafish must cover several centuries. In the book, however, there is no evidence of changes in the outside world influencing the closed-off existence of the alley. It is not so much a question of the alley sealing itself off from Egyptian history as of Mahfouz ignoring or wishing away the tyranny of historical time. Even in the days of the first Ashur, for instance, people are building houses with sheet-metal roofs and applying to the authorities for licenses to sell liquor; thirteen generations later nothing in the detail of their daily lives has changed, and the agencies of the modern state, particularly the police, remain remote, alien, predatory forces.

The Harafish is built around the lives of a succession of strongmen, some of whom give in to private vices or the temptations of luxury, some of whom keep a vision of greatness before their eyes like a lodestar. The fortunes of clan and common people rise and fall with the fortunes of their leaders. What the clan seeks is a powerful general; what the people need is a protector, a man of justice. The clusive combination of strength and political farsightedness on the one hand, and justice and compassion on the other, constitutes that quality of “greatness” which is the theme of Mahfouz's book, and makes it into a fable of Egypt's search for a just ruler.

Mahfouz's concern to link private virtue with civic justice, his interest in character and his indifference to systems, give his political thought a refreshingly simple if old-fashioned cast. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss him, on the evidence of books like The Harafish, as willfully blind to today's world. It is rather the case that as a social thinker the later Mahfouz has become more interested in salvation than in history. There are two contending tones to be heard in The Harafish. One, poignant and elegiac, emerges in the second Ashur's meditations on a world in which the get-rich-quick methods of his businessman brother Fayiz seem to be rampant.

At night he still went to the monastery square, wrapped in darkness, guided by the stars … He sat down in al-Nagi's old spot and listened to the dancing rhythms. Didn't these men of God care about what happened to God's creatures? When would they open the gate or knock down the wall? He wanted to ask them … why egotists and criminals prospered, while the good and loving came to nothing. Why the harafish were in a deep sleep.

It is telling that while Fayiz is allowed to scoff at the conservative ways of the alley, he is given little chance to speak for his chosen life of “brokerage” and “speculation,” that is to say, for the methods of modern capitalism: he is soon killed off, and we are told that his fortune has been based not on business at all but on the crime of murdering rich men and taking their money.

The other tone—less true, perhaps—is to be heard in the fairy-tale ending: in the ascendancy of Ashur, the eclipse of the bourgeois “notables,” the awakening of the harafish, and intimations that the day of revelation is at hand.

[Ashur] looked at the great door [of the monastery] in astonishment. Gently, steadily, it was opening. The shadowy figure of a dervish appeared, a breath of night embodied.

“Get the flutes and drums ready,” the figure whispered … “Tomorrow the Great Sheikh will come out of his seclusion. He will walk down the alley bestowing his light and give each young man a bamboo club and a mulberry fruit. Get the flutes and drums ready …”

[Ashur] jumped to his feet, drunk on inspiration and power. Don't be sad, his heart told him. One day the door may open to those who seize life boldly, with the innocence of children and the ambition of angels.

The Harafish is not only largely about men and their fortunes, but sets before itself a particularly male ideal. Nevertheless, there are several amusing seduction scenes (Mahfouz's men, are rarely a match for the wiles of women), while the most striking, and certainly the most lively character in the book is Zahira, mother of Galal. Restless in the role of dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, she uses the liberal divorce laws of Islam to rid herself of a succession of unsatisfactory husbands, only to be murdered in a deus ex machina ploy that leaves one wondering whether her author had not begun to be disturbed by the question of where the trajectory of this furious, volatile, and ambitious woman might not take her.

As for the translation, speaking as someone who does not read Arabic I can only say that Catherine Cobham's version reads both authoritatively and fluently. My one quibble is with certain colloquialisms whose American connotations sit uneasily with the faintly (and appropriately) archaic English of the rest. I have in mind phrases like “cover my back,” “son of a gun,” “getting stoned,” “call girl”—which surely depends on the existence of telephones—and “The world's our oyster.” Calling the campaign for justice mounted by one of the better clan leaders a “crusade” is also, perhaps, an unfortunate word choice.

The text is punctuated with fragments of Persian poetry—songs wafting down the alley from the nearby Sufi monastery—that have been left untranslated. This decision seems to me contentious but probably correct: the harafish of yore would have understood the Persian no better than would Mahfouz's readers in Cairo today.

Roger Allen (review date Autumn 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Harafish, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, p. 874.

[In the following positive review, Allen praises the English translation of The Harafish.]

The Harafish is an English translation of Malhamat al-Harāfish (literally “The Epic of the Harāfish”), which was originally published in Egypt in 1977. In 1975–76 I was on sabbatical in Egypt and had been in contact with Naguib Mahfouz several times concerning my translation of his earlier work, al-Marāyā (1972), which was eventually published in English in 1977 as Mirrors. I can vividly recall one telephone conversation in which he told me that he had just finished a work about the “harafish” and was very happy with it. Subsequent comments by Mahfouz indeed make it clear that this is his personal favorite among all his works; it has certainly been at the top of his translation desiderata following his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1988 (see WLT 63:1, pp. 5–9).

The Harafish belongs to that group of fictional works by Mahfouz that make use of the allegory of “the quarter” (in Arabic, hārah) and its inhabitants as a means of investigating many of the larger philosophical issues that have been abiding concerns of the author ever since he abandoned an academic career in philosophy for creative writing in the 1930s. Awlād hāratinā (1959, in book form 1967; Eng. Children of Gebelawi, 1981) and Hikāyāt hāratinā (1975; Eng. Fountain and Tomb, 1988)—originally published as “short stories” but now designated as “novels”—are two previous examples of what Rasheed El-Enany in his recent study Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning terms “episodic novels.” However, although these works share structural similarities with The Harafish, it is the resort to allegory in order to explore the complexities in the moral life of the community that really serves as their primary characteristic.

The Harafish is full of characters and events and follows the fortunes of “the quarter” and its inhabitants through many generations. Against the constant backdrop of the dervish monastery from which emerge the melodies of mystical Persian verse, we follow—and it is not always an easy task—the careers of members of the al-Nagi family, beginning with their founder ‘Ashur, who, after providing the community with moral guidance and a secure existence, “disappears.” It is the task of his successors to continue his mission, and the varied success they have is the focus of what becomes a very complex narrative web. It is not long before one feels the need for the kind of list of “dramatis personae” which precedes the text of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

In discussing the somewhat fragmented and wayward course of this narrative, some critics have suggested that The Harafish is indeed a landmark in Mahfouz's output, in that he manages to produce a work of modern fiction that blends the generic purposes of the modern novel with the structures of more traditional indigenous narrative types. While suggesting that such a view needs to be explored further (and illustrated) before I personally am convinced of the value of this work, I would observe that it clearly presents a problem in the context of a translation into English, or at least one that carries no introduction to explore such possibilities.

The English version of Mahfouz's novel is thus left to survive on its own merits, and it is too early as yet to say what its reception will be. My own views expressed above lead me to expect that The Harafish will not be received with anything like the welcome that greeted the English version of the “Trilogy” (see e.g. WLT 68:1, p. 203). That said, however, I must go on to point out that Catherine Cobham's translation is excellent from every point of view: the language and flavor of the original text have been well transferred, and the resulting English version is a pleasure to read. Western readers are now presented with a Mahfouz work that is more “local” not only in content but in form as well. The Harafish will certainly test their tolerance, and I for one look forward to assessing the results.

Matti Moosa (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Historical Novels,” in The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt, University Press of Florida, 1994, pp. 21–53.

[In the following essay, Moosa evaluates Mahfouz's importance as a writer of historical novels and examines the dominant themes of his historical fiction.]

Mahfouz began his literary career when he was in high school, producing essays on different subjects together with short stories. He began to write novels while in college, but these first efforts were not publishable. Through the effort and encouragement of Salama Musa, however, he eventually had several historical novels published. Mahfouz relates how this happened. During one of his visits to the office of the magazine al-Majalla al-Jadida, Musa asked him whether he thought that there was a chance for the novel to succeed in Egypt. Musa believed that since most Egyptian fiction writers were influenced by Western ideas and techniques, it would be difficult to produce a genuine Egyptian novel. Perhaps, he thought, a student from the Azhar (an Islamic religious institute, now a university) could write an authentic Egyptian novel, because Azharite students were not influenced by Western culture. Mahfouz responded that although the novel in Egypt was still in its infancy, he himself had ventured into the genre. Surprised, Musa asked him whether he really wrote novels; Mahfouz answered that he did. Had they been published? No, he said, adding that he was not sure they were worthy of publication. Musa asked him to bring the novels along on his next visit. On his return, Mahfouz presented him with three novels, one of which was entitled Ahlam al-Qarya (Village Dreams). After reading them, Musa told him that although he had a gift for writing fiction, the novels were of poor literary quality and unfit for publication. But, by constantly reminding Mahfouz of his talent, Musa motivated him to write a novel of better quality.

Mahfouz found his subject matter in the ancient history of Egypt, which, he says, he aspired to recreate in fictional form as Sir Walter Scott had done with the history of his country. To achieve this aim, he chose forty themes for historical novels that he hoped to complete in his lifetime, but he finished only three before discovering that he was more interested in social realism. He brought Salama Musa the manuscript of his first historical novel, entitled Hikmat Khufu (The Wisdom of Cheops). Musa found this title unappealing, retitled it Abath al-aqdar (Ironies of Fate), and published it as a separate issue of al-Majalla al-Jadida for September, 1939. Two more historical novels followed, Radobis (1943) and Kifah Tiba (1944).1

Some writers have exaggerated Mahfouz's importance as a writer of historical novels. Ahmad Haykal says that Abath al-aqdar is considered “the true beginning of the nationalistic historical novel. It does not teach history, but tends to glorify it. Its objective is to deepen the feeling about the glorious Pharaonic past.”2 In fact, this work was not the beginning of the nationalistic historical novel nor of the Egyptian historical novel; yet Mahfouz deserves a prominent place among the writers of the historical novel in Egypt, especially those who, as he did, graduated from the Egyptian University.

To the best of our knowledge, the first Arab writer of historical novels was Salim al-Bustani (d. 1884), whose novels Zenobia and Budur took their themes from Arab history.3 But the writer who more than anyone else in the Arab world popularized Islamic history through fiction was Jurji Zaydan (d. 1914), a Lebanese Christian who lived most of his life in Egypt. A prolific writer, he produced more than twenty novels whose themes came from Islamic history, from the time of the Prophet of Islam to the Ottoman coup d'état of 1908, including several dealing with Egyptian history.4 His purpose was not only to popularize Islamic history, but to teach it. Subordinating history to fiction, he made his characters vehicles for what he considered his most important task, portraying the historical events of their time.5 Nevertheless, he cleared the field for those who succeeded him, affording them the opportunity to concentrate more on their characters' behavior in the context of different historical situations.6

This trend toward human analysis in the historical novel reached a high point in the works of Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid, Ibrahim Ramzi, Ali al-Jarim, Muhammad Said al-Uryan, and Ahmad Bakathir. More than Zaydan, these writers concentrated on the development of characters and the extensive analysis of their social, political, and cultural milieu. For example, al-Uryan's Ala Bab Zuwayla (At the Zuwayla Gate, 1945), which deals with the Mamluks' struggle for political power, analyzes the behavior of the common people in the context of historical events and compares favorably with Zaydan's al-Mamluk al-Sharid (The Escaping Mamluk), which relates the escape of a Mamluk from a plot devised by Muhammad Ali Pasha (d. 1849), viceroy of Egypt, to eliminate the Mamluks.7 Writers like al-Uryan used the historical novel not for teaching history, but for a dynamic examination of complex social and political issues underlined by a human message.

This trend in the Egyptian historical novel took on another dimension in the writing of a new generation of novelists like Muhammad Awad Muhammad, Adil Kamil, Jamal al-Shayyal, Ibrahim Jalal, and Naguib Mahfouz. Most of them were university graduates who had been greatly influenced by the trends of the Western historical novel and by the Egyptian novelists already mentioned. They were deeply concerned with portraying social and political movements and the various problems of their time. More important, they sought similarities between events in the ancient and contemporary history of Egypt, offering the historical novel a new nationalistic connotation. They tried to analyze the different aspects of individual personality and human nature. To them, relating a historical story was a way to inculcate a moral lesson. They strove to unravel the mysteries of the human soul in a historically objective and faithful manner. Prominent among them was Mahfouz, who more than any of the others used the historical novel to study human nature. He gave it a new dimension by tackling vibrant themes from Egypt's ancient history, some of which were reflected in the surge of nationalism, whose aim was to liberate its people politically, socially, and culturally from foreign domination. For this reason, some Egyptian critics maintain that Mahfouz's Abath al-aqdar (Ironies of Fate) condemns and ridicules kings for their despotism while it praises the common people for their fortitude.8


Abath al-aqdar, Mahfouz's first historical novel, draws its theme from an ancient Egyptian legend. As the title indicates, fate plays a central role in the novel, manipulating the characters like puppets. The novel revolves around the struggle between the powerful will of the pharaoh and omnipotent fate and ends with the victory of indomitable fate over the recalcitrant pharaoh.

Khufu (Cheops, 2680 B.C.), king of Egypt during the fourth dynasty of the old kingdom, builder of the great pyramid at Giza, had been told by the renowned soothsayer Dedi that after his reign the throne would pass not to one of his sons but to Dedef, the newborn son of the high priest of the temple of the god Re. Disturbed by this prophecy, Khufu led a contingent of his palace guard to urge the high priest to vow loyalty to himself and, placing the state above his love for the newborn child, to kill him. But the high priest, having received the same prophecy, attempted to save the child by arranging for him to escape with his mother and Zaya, a faithful maidservant, and killed himself just as Khufu arrived. Meanwhile, Khufu had killed another newborn child and his mother, erroneously believing that they were the ones intended by the prophecy, and returned to his capital, Memphis, feeling pleased that he had saved the throne for his sons.

Unluckily, Dedef, his mother, and Zaya lost their way in the desert. Zaya, who could not have children of her own, abducted Dedef, leaving his mother alone in the desert, but was soon captured, first by rebel tribesmen who carried her and the child to Sinai, then by the pharaoh and his men, who took them back to Memphis. Claiming that Dedef was her son, she began looking for her husband and was told she would find him among the workers who were building the great pyramid. On reaching the site, she learned that he had died but was assured that the compassionate Khufu had ordered that she and her son should receive state support. Eventually she married the construction superintendent and moved to his palace with Dedef, who grew up among Khufu's household.

Dedef entered the military academy, where he won the confidence of the pharaoh and the crown prince, who later made him an officer in his private bodyguard. Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with a beautiful girl, supposedly a peasant, who he discovered was the pharaoh's daughter, Princess Mer Si Ankh, already (to his dismay) engaged to the governor of Sinai. After saving the crown prince from an attacking lion, Dedef was promoted and commissioned to lead an expedition to Sinai to subdue some rebellious tribesmen. Dedef invaded Sinai and brought back many captives, including an old woman who claimed to be an Egyptian, not an enemy. Feeling sorry for her, he successfully entreated King Khufu to give her freedom and took her into his own household. When the captive woman reached the palace, she recognized her old servant Zaya, who had kidnaped her son; she recognized Dedef, for in fact she was his mother. She related to her son the old prophecy that he would succeed the pharaoh on the throne.

Meanwhile, the crown prince was plotting to get rid of his father, who he thought had occupied the throne for too long. Dedef got wind of the plot, set himself to guard the old pharaoh, and killed some of the would-be assassins, among them the crown prince. The pharaoh showed his gratitude by designating Dedef as his successor, to the exclusion of his own sons, and giving his daughter, Mer Si Ankh, in marriage. When the pharaoh learned that Dedef was the child designated by the old prophecy to succeed him, he did not feel angry but rather submitted to the irresistible power of fate. The prophecy had been fulfilled, in spite of his power and authority. The novel ends with the pharaoh on his deathbed, observing that more than twenty years ago he had declared ferocious war on fate and defied the gods. At last, he confesses, he has been humbled by the gods.9

From this summary, it seems clear that Abath al-aqdar is based on an ancient legend, most likely derived from James Baikie's book Ancient Egypt, which aimed to inform the reader about daily life in ancient Egypt by describing the journey of a ship that sailed over the Nile to Thebes. Mahfouz used some of the same Egyptian names appearing in it, and in fact, some of the descriptions of the pharaoh's family and his personal character are almost identical in both works.10 But he altered the old prophecy about the pharaoh's successor to make the action more dramatic. In Baikie's book, Khufu was succeeded by his son the crown prince, then by the latter's son; after that, power was transferred to the three sons of the priest of Re, who successively fell heir to the throne. Furthermore, the legend as related by Baikie does not show whether Pharaoh Khufu attempted to get rid of the priest's three sons. Baikie's account of this folktale is similar to that given by the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted. According to Breasted's account, based on the papyrus original, Khufu felt bored one day and asked to be entertained by his sons, who related to him tales of past times. One of the sons, Prince Harzazef, told his father that there was in his kingdom a magician who could do even greater marvels than the men of the past whose wondrous works the sons were relating. Summoned by Khufu to appear before him, the magician performed miraculous deeds. In response to a question by the pharaoh, the magician said that the three children soon to be born by the wife of a certain priest of Re had been begotten by Re himself, and that they would become kings of Egypt. Upon hearing this prophecy, Khufu became sad. The magician, who thought that there was no reason for the king's melancholy, assured him that his son would reign, then his grandson, and after that one of these three children.11

In essence, Abath al-aqdar is a conflict between man and fate. No matter what man does, he is subject to an inexorable and mysterious external power controlling his actions. It defies his will and manipulates him like a puppet. In this context Khufu represents man, trying unsuccessfully to defy fate and subjugate it to his own will. He was the omnipotent ruler of Egypt who tried to achieve a great miracle by building a massive pyramid that symbolized not only the will of divine Khufu but also the collective spirit of Egypt, an extension of his own omnipotent will. He was sure of his majestic power, which no man could defy. But he was not aware of that mysterious external power, fate, until he discovered that whatever he intended could be foiled by events for which there was no logical explanation. He learned belatedly that it is futile to defy fate.

Thus, when Khufu first heard from the soothsayer Dedi the prophecy that a stranger, not one of his sons, would succeed him, he began to investigate the relation of man with fate. He asked the sage Khomini whether fate could be avoided if man acted beforehand to protect himself. Khomini's answer was that according to the Egyptian wisdom transmitted from times of old, man's precaution cannot dispose of fate. This sounded pessimistic, and Khufu, not convinced, turned next to his crown prince, who responded with a serious look that indicated that he, too, believed man cannot defy fate, no matter what precautions he takes. Khufu smiled and told the men, in effect, if fate is what they say it is, then there can be no meaning to the creation, life, and the dignity of man. In fact, there is no distinction between work and idleness, strength and weakness, rebellion and subservience. But, the pharaoh said, fate is no more than a false belief, not to be held by mighty men.12

Events proved Khufu wrong, however; despite his might, he could not prevent fate from determining his life, and on his deathbed he acknowledged the futility of his actions. More than twenty years ago, he said, he had commanded a contingent of soldiers to kill an unknown infant who he believed was to succeed him to the throne. Instead, he killed another infant by mistake. Ironically, he found himself protecting the stranger infant, whom he allowed to marry his daughter and proclaimed as his successor. He thought that he had overcome fate and secured the throne for his sons, but now found himself humbled by the gods, who “slapped my pride.”13 This last statement by Khufu is significant, for it raises the question of whether fate is mere coincidence, that is, sheer luck, or the determinant action of a divine power operating beyond man's will.

Since Mahfouz is a Muslim, raised in a strongly religious family, it is most likely that fate here has an Islamic connotation. According to Islamic tradition, man's actions, both good and evil, are absolutely decreed and predestined by God, and everything that has been or ever will be depends on his divine will and foreknowledge. Yet one cannot overlook the biblical and mythological parallels in Mahfouz's novel. In the book of Exodus, the pharaoh tried to get rid of the newborn Hebrew males by ordering them to be thrown into the Nile. Moses would have met the same fate had his mother not placed him in a basket and floated it on the river, from which it was lifted up by the pharaoh's daughter; even more ironically, he became her adopted son. He might well have become pharaoh if God had not called him to save his own people. In Mahfouz's novel, Dedef not only escaped the pharaoh's effort to destroy the male child prophesied to occupy his throne but was raised by the pharaoh, married his daughter, and succeeded him. In Greek mythology, of course, the legend of Laius and Oedipus has some similarity, however remote, to the theme of this novel. But the manner in which Mahfouz tackles the theme and portrays his characters, indeed his whole outlook, is essentially Islamic. He even uses Islamic terms in a pre-Islamic setting, for example, sahaba (companions) for Khufu's retinue, and the Quranic term hawari (apostle) to describe his army commander.14

In fact, the novel abounds with detailed descriptions of situations and dialogues that reflect the author's ideas and imagination, particularly when he discusses the pharaoh's family gathering, his library, his hunting party, and the educational system in Egypt. Much of this description may seem redundant and puerile, but Mahfouz intends it to endow the events of the novel with a sense of authenticity. We should remember, however, that he is writing a historical romance, not a reconstruction of the ancient history of Egypt.15 Even if he should intend to represent the historical facts in fictional form, he faces great difficulty in placing them in their proper perspective. The theme of this novel derives from a myth handed down from the time of Khufu in the old kingdom, but there is little specific information about how this pharaoh lived, thought, or communicated. Thus, it was inevitable that Mahfouz should inject his own ideas into the narrative through the different characters and the events they experience, cloaked with a veneer of historical facts.

Khufu is not only the divine ruler of Egypt whose authority no man may contradict, but a warm and considerate person who loves his family and cares for his friends. At the outset of the novel, Mahfouz presents him as a fully developed character, relating his different traits and characteristics. We first see him reclining on his golden sofa, in a room overlooking the spacious orchard at Memphis. He wears a silk gown whose golden hem shimmers in the rays of the setting sun. He seems relaxed, supporting his back with a cushion stuffed with ostrich feathers and resting his arm on a silk cushion embroidered with gold. A halo of pharaonic glory graces his forty-year-old features. Khufu enjoys family gatherings, in which he feels relaxed after the toil of the day. His eyes roam among his sons and companions as he contemplates the progress of the building of the pyramid, which he intends to be a miracle for his people.16

One writer suggests that Mahfouz is describing the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid of The Arabian Nights rather than the divine pharaoh.17 If this is true, he has utilized one ancient fantasy to represent another. In fact, his vision of the pharaoh's life is similar to those provided by other twentieth-century writers about the ancient civilization of Egypt, although somewhat embellished. According to Egyptologists, the pharaoh lived in a royal palace surrounded by pools and lakes, which provided coolness and recreation, and graced with pleasure gardens where he could enjoy some relaxation. Although he was considered a god, he often became tired and bored and had to be entertained; in Mahfouz's novel, Khufu is diverted by his sons and the old soothsayer Dedi. Apart from the daily business of the state and the strict official etiquette, the pharaoh did have some private life. He enjoyed the company of his closest advisors, sons, and courtiers. He often relaxed beside one of his favorite wives while slaves anointed their feet. Despite his luxurious life, Breasted writes, the pharaoh was not a despot like the Mamluks of Muslim Egypt.18

Mahfouz describes a conversation between Khufu and his chief architect Mirabo, in which the pharaoh asserts that divinity is nothing but power. The chief architect responds that divinity is also mercy and love.19 It seems doubtful that Khufu conversed with anyone about divinity or even tried to define it. According to historical accounts, the pharaoh believed himself to be the sublime god of both state and people. One of his titles in the old kingdom was the good God, and he was so reverenced that no man dared refer to him by name.20

Mahfouz seems also to inject his own ideas about art and woman's nature into this dialogue between Dedef and his step-brother Napha:

Napha: Do not make an effort to explain or apologize, I know what you mean. This is the third time today that I was likened to a woman. This morning my father told me that I am unpredictable like a young woman. Likewise, an hour ago the priest Shelba told me that I am like a woman, easily overcome by emotion. And here you tell me that I am just like your mother. What am I, then, a man or a woman?

Dedef (laughing): You are a man, Napha, but with tender soul and feeling. Do not you remember that Kheni said once that the artists are a cross between males and females?

Napha: Kheni believes that art requires a borrowing from femininity. But I don't doubt that woman's sentiment greatly contradicts that of the artist. For by nature woman is selfish and seeks only what will fulfill her vital ambitions. But the artist has no objective except to fathom the essence of things, which is beauty. For beauty is the unraveling of the essence of things, which brings it into conformity with the rest of created beings.

Dedef (laughing): Do you think that by this philosophizing you can convince me that you are a man?

Napha (with a defiant look): You still need proof? If you do, then know that I am going to be married.

Dedef (surprised): Is it true what you say?

Napha (laughing): Would you deny me marriage?

Dedef: No, Napha, but I remember that you once made our father angry because you showed no interest in marriage.21

This cannot be the conversation of two people in the old kingdom. There is little doubt that Mahfouz, who was greatly concerned with subjects like art and beauty, is speaking here. He had written about the nature and philosophy of aesthetics, and his ideas are reflected in this dialogue.

Mahfouz's description of the construction superintendent's quarters at the pyramid site makes it sound like a government office in Cairo or any other modern city. After the maidservant Zaya, who had kidnapped the infant Dedef, returned to Memphis, she sought out her husband and was told that he could be found among the workers who were building the great pyramid. She reached the site and found the office of the superintendent in an attractive building of moderate size. After the sentry at the door admitted her, she entered a large hall where various officials sat behind their desks. The walls were covered with bookshelves filled with papyrus scrolls. When the soldier motioned, she passed through another door to a smaller room, more beautiful and richly furnished; in the corner the superintendent sat behind a magnificent desk. He was plump and of medium stature. He had a noticeably large head and a short, fat nose, a large mouth, and fat cheeks like two small waterskins. His bulging eyes were covered by heavy lids. He looked arrogant as he was doing his business. He sensed that someone had entered his office, but did not raise his eyes to see who it was. When he had finished what he was doing, he finally raised his eyes and looked haughtily at Zaya, asking:

“What do you want, woman?”

Frightened and perplexed, Zaya answered in a disturbed and feeble voice, “I have come looking for my husband, my lord.”

He asked her, in the same tone, “Who is your husband?”

“A worker, my lord.”

The superintendent struck the desk with his fist and said sharply, while his words echoed as if in a vault, “What is the reason that he is not working and causing us trouble?”

Zaya became more frightened and did not answer. He kept looking at her round, bronze-colored face, her honey colored eyes, and her tender youth. He found it painful to see fear come over that lovely face. He may have acted arrogantly to demonstrate his authority, but he had a kind heart and tender feeling.22

We leave the reader to decide whether this can be accepted as an imaginative description of an ancient Egyptian office and the behavior of a superintendent under the pharaoh Khufu. To me, it seems more appropriate to a modern Hollywood movie. In fact, the novel abounds with similar examples of inappropriate and outlandish descriptions that contradict the notion that Mahfouz has taken his account from the ancient history of Egypt. Even the writing of a historical romance like this one requires a certain degree of perspective.

Mahfouz presents the educational system under Khufu, for example, as almost identical to that of his own youth. At the age of five, the male child enters elementary school, where for seven years he is taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, religion, ethics, and patriotism. Then he is transferred to an institution equivalent to the secondary school in modern Egypt. According to the novel, when Kheni and Napha finished their secondary schooling, Kheni entered the University of Ptah to further his studies of religion, ethics, and political science, hoping to find a religious or judicial position, while Napha joined the Khufu Institute of Fine Arts because he liked to draw; other students, like Dedef, joined the Military Academy to specialize in the art of war.23 Fantastic as it may seem, the most obvious historical inaccuracy in this novel is the mention of horses and chariots, unknown in Egypt during the time of the old kingdom. The horse was introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos (shepherd kings), who invaded Egypt in 1788 B.C. and were expelled in 1580 B.C. It was during this period that the Egyptian armies began to use chariots on a large scale. The reference to people using gold and silver coins provides another example of Mahfouz's carelessness about historical facts.24 In the old kingdom, barter was the primary means of exchange, although gold and copper rings of fixed weight were used in some transactions and circulated as money. We shall not mention here other historical inaccuracies in the novel, for Mahfouz is not being judged as a historian; but, as we have said earlier, the writing of historical fiction requires careful attention to the known facts.

Mahfouz's central theme is that man's actions are subject to an omnipotent fate. It is in this context that we must understand both the prediction about the stranger who would succeed to the throne and Khufu's ultimate failure to overcome fate. Ironically, he found himself protecting and supporting the very man he tried to kill after hearing the prophecy. The novel has many shortcomings in both form and content; indeed, Mahfouz himself called it “kid stuff.”25 Nevertheless, it marks the end of his obscurity as a novelist and the beginning of a long, busy career during which he refined the writing of the Egyptian novel and gradually won recognition as a leader in his craft.


Mahfouz's second historical novel, Radobis, focuses on a love that is totally subject to fate. Whereas in Abath al-aqdar fate is depicted as a strong external power opposed to the will of man, in Radobis it is an uncontrollable force emanating from the very depth of man's soul.

In essence, the novel is a romance whose theme, the love between Pharaoh Mernere II and Radobis, is not coincidental but determined by fate. The setting is the southern city of Abo; the occasion is the festival of the Nile, which attracts crowds from every corner of Egypt. Mahfouz describes in detail the people awaiting the pharaoh's arrival; their conversation previews the events and characters of the novel. Looking over the crowd, a man whose appearance shows his upper-class status dolefully remarks that many such festivals have been celebrated and many pharaohs have attended them, but all have gone as if they never existed. They have gone to rule another world better than the present one, he adds, and all people will one day follow them to that world. He wonders aloud whether future generations will remember him and the crowds celebrating the festival of the Nile, as those present remember others who have come before. He wishes that death did not exist. Another says philosophically that death is as natural as life and questions the value of immortality when people cannot satisfy their hunger, stop growing old, or even attain love. Such statements may reflect the skepticism of Mahfouz, who apparently could not find an answer to the whole question of existence. The pessimistic view taken by this character reflects the innermost sentiments of a perplexed soul.

The people then talk about the pharaoh, observing that he is tall and handsome like his grandfather Mehtemsauf. He is a valiant warrior, expected to invade the north and south to bring them under his dominion. He is young and rash and indulges in carnal pleasure. He is a spendthrift who loves luxurious living. He has always been in need of gold, silver, and other valuables to satisfy his taste for luxury. Inevitably, he has come into conflict with the priests, as he coveted the temples' wealth in order to build more palaces, plant more groves, and gratify his sensualities. The priests oppose his confiscation of this property on the grounds that the temples' land had already been appropriated by his forefathers. In the pharaoh's opinion, the priests wrongly regard the temples' large estates as their personal property, and he is entitled to use them to build palaces and mausoleums as his forefathers did. The conflict has polarized relations between the pharaoh and the priests, especially the priest of the city of Memphis and the high priest and prime minister Khnum Hotep, and rebellion appears imminent.

Suddenly there appear four Nubians carrying a magnificent litter worthy of nobles and princes. In it the beautiful Radobis leans on a cushion, carrying in her right hand a fan made of ostrich feathers. Her eyes glow with a soft and dreamy look, cast at the far horizon. The crowd, apparently spellbound, seems about to forget the pharaoh and the celebration of the festival of the Nile. In a passage which recalls The Arabian Nights, Mahfouz introduces the sorceress Dam, whom he describes as old, stooped, and toothless, with unkempt white hair, a long hooked nose, and long yellow nails. Leaning on a heavy cane, her eyes flashing with terror, she plows through the crowds to reach the litter, seeking to tell Radobis her fortune, but is stopped by a slave. Thus, we are left temporarily in suspense as to what fate has in store for this beautiful woman.

The events of the novel begin to build after the celebration of the festival of the Nile and culminate in the pharaoh's meeting with Radobis—by sheer coincidence, according to an Egyptian legend. After returning to his palace, the pharaoh decides with his prime minister to solve the question of the temples' estates by adding them to the possessions of the crown. With this vexatious matter settled, he begins to relax, walking through the royal garden. Radobis likewise returns home after the festivities, totally enthralled by the young and handsome pharaoh, and takes off her clothes to cool herself in her private pool. Suddenly, an eagle flying over her palace snatches her gold-rimmed sandal and drops it in the lap of the pharaoh, who wonders about its owner. His chamberlain, Sofkhatep, knowing Radobis and her captivating beauty, encourages the pharaoh to seek her out, while his army commander, Taho, tries to dissuade him because he himself is desperately in love with her. Eventually, the pharaoh meets Radobis, and they fall madly in love.

The eagle's snatching the sandal is based on Egyptian folklore, according to which eagles, liking beautiful young women, snatched them up and flew them to the top of the mountains. In Radobis's case, the eagle snatched her sandal instead. That this event leads to the pharaoh's meeting and falling in love with her is not accidental. Fate in this case is not, as most people in Egypt think, a coincidence or sheer luck, but action predetermined by the gods. In essence, it is an expression of an Islamic concept, much like what we have seen in Abath al-aqdar. Mahfouz's concept of fate is clearly expressed by the royal chamberlain, who tells the pharaoh that the term coincidence has been misused by people who, like a blind man, probe their way in the dark. Every happening in this world, whether trivial or significant, is undoubtedly associated with the will of the gods. They do not create events for their own amusement but have a definite purpose in mind.

Thus, the political destiny of the young pharaoh becomes connected with his love adventures, as designed by the gods. On the surface, this love story appears to be no different from many others occurring throughout history, even down to the present day. But the political fate of Pharaoh Mernere II, and indeed the fate and the well-being of the Egyptian state, hang in the balance. Not only does the pharaoh love Radobis to the point of losing his sanity, he is willing to sacrifice himself and Egypt to make her happy. His love overwhelms his will. There is an unfathomable force within him that drives him mad and, in spite of himself, toward this woman. He is so infatuated that he cannot even accept the fact that Radobis is a high-society prostitute; he cannot believe that when she was young she fell in love with a sailor who later deserted her, or that she habitually sold her body until their fateful meeting. Consumed by passion, the pharaoh lavishes everything on Radobis.

At the same time he abjectly neglects his wife Nitocris (also his sister), who has swallowed her pride and suffered silently from the pharaoh's love affairs. The priests are no less angered by his behavior, feeling he has deprived them of their possessions and neglected the affairs of the state to cater to his mistress. The priests and the prime minister, unhappy at seeing the divine pharaoh in the clutches of a cheap woman, begin to spread detrimental rumors about him. The prime minister, having lost favor, approaches Nitocris, pretending to hope that she may be able to alert the pharaoh to the growing resentment against him. The pharaoh meets with her, but on discovering that her purpose is to discuss his relations with Radobis, he becomes furious, accusing his wife of jealousy, and refuses to change his ways.

He dismisses his prime minister and appoints the chamberlain Sofkhatep in his place, preparing for a showdown with the priests. But the only forces he can rely on to crush them are the royal guard and an insignificant garrison at Beja. Egypt has no regular army, and the pharaoh cannot form an army except in case of war. He and Radobis concoct a plan to solve this problem: they contact the governor of Nubia, asking him to send a message indicating that the Me‘sayu tribes have rebelled. Thus, he can prepare for war against the alleged rebels, though in reality he has found a pretext to overcome his opponents.

Pharaoh tries to implement his plan during the festival of the Nile the following year. Reading the message from the governor of Nubia, he orders all governors to return to their provinces to marshal military forces. But the priests discover his plot and invite the chiefs of the supposedly rebellious tribes to offer their allegiance to the pharaoh. Believing he has been betrayed by his own messengers, he continues with his plan, but the priests instigate the people, now in full rebellion, to attack his palace. Not wishing to shed the blood of his guards, he goes out alone to meet the crowd with great courage and dignity. One of the leaders, fearing the people may lose their mettle and retreat, wounds him fatally with an arrow. The pharaoh asks to be moved to Radobis's palace; Nitocris assents, and he breathes his last in the arms of his beloved Radobis, who then ends her life by taking poison.26

As in Abath al-aqdar, Mahfouz does not strictly follow history; he is writing a romance, not a historical novel. At first, he sets the time of the action as “four thousand years ago.” Later he says that the events of the novel took place toward the end of the sixth dynasty, which marked the end of the old kingdom. But in fact, the sixth dynasty ended in 2475 B.C., while the old kingdom lasted until 2300 B.C.27 Moreover, the history of ancient Egypt reveals nothing about Mernere II beyond the fact that he reigned for only one year near the end of the sixth dynasty. There was a Queen Nitocris toward the end of the sixth dynasty, but she had no connection with Mernere II. Her name appears in the Turin papyrus and in Greek sources, but the stories about her beauty and the assertion that she was the builder of the third pyramid are most likely apocryphal.28 Further, there is no evidence of a priests' rebellion throughout more than a hundred years of the sixth dynasty, a period of relative peace. Mahfouz appears to have used historical figures and events out of context in order to create a framework for his novel.

The love between the pharaoh and Radobis is heartfelt, characterized by complete commitment and devotion. It is a purified love, made impeccable by the gods, even though Radobis lived in luxury and offered her body to men of high position, among them the army commander Taho. When she could no longer submit to him, he called her worthless and ugly, adding that she was merely a frigid woman with a beautiful body. Likewise, the crowds who had been spellbound by her physical beauty, knowing she had had many lovers, doubted she knew true love. They were wrong. Radobis had kept her true and pure love for the only man worthy of it. Thus, when she met the handsome pharaoh, she refused to come to his palace, lest she become simply another of his concubines. She preferred to remain in her palace to offer him her soul, having given only her body to other men. To demonstrate her complete spiritual metamorphosis, Radobis visited the temple of the god Sotis to be purified from her former carnal life and to devote her love to the pharaoh and surrender her heart, which no other man had possessed. Fate finally tied her to her true love.29

The pharaoh, no less a paragon of sublime love, looks like Shakespeare's Romeo rather than a divine Egyptian monarch. Although at first he is portrayed as a reckless young man who relishes sensual love and luxury, there is no indication that he is an out-and-out philanderer; he seems to lead a quiet family life, and to be devoted to his wife/sister Nitocris. In fact, only after he meets Radobis does he begin to act as a supreme lover, forgetting (or perhaps Mahfouz himself forgot) that he is divine. He does not even find it demeaning to return her gold-rimmed sandal and confess that he had thought her portrait, drawn inside it, was only a fantasy until his eyes fell upon her face. Only then, he says, did he learn the awesome truth that beauty, like fate, takes man by complete surprise.

Shocked by the pharaoh's sudden appearance at her palace, Radobis cannot believe her eyes. She rises, bows to him with utmost respect, and motions to him to sit on her couch. From that moment on, he submits his entire will and being to her, saying that hence-forth madness shall be his emblem.30 This is the manifestation of absolute love, transcending his divine status and his throne. Yet it is tainted by selfishness on the part of the pharaoh, who is so blinded by love that he abdicates his responsibility to his people and his state in order to lavish the resources of his kingdom on the woman who has captivated his heart.

To some people, this kind of love may seem highly sentimental and exaggerated. But only a few decades ago Edward VIII of England gave up the throne for a twice-divorced commoner who was not even an English citizen, and he lavished on her whatever he could get from his friends, his royal estate, or the British government. Whether or not he claimed to be divine, Pharaoh Mernere II was after all a mortal who like other men in Egypt craved love and companionship. He may have been rebelling against the Egyptian tradition that had forced him to marry his sister Nitocris, or perhaps, unhappy in this marriage of convenience, he had found in the ravishingly beautiful Radobis an answer to his unrequited love.

Whatever the reason may be, love is the theme to which Mahfouz devotes the largest portion of this novel. He portrays Radobis as the happiest woman in Egypt, the one who captures the heart of the pharaoh. Although she has no title, she rules him. On finally meeting Queen Nitocris, she asserts confidently that the real queen is not the woman who marries a monarch and sits on the throne, but the one who occupies the throne of his heart. Nitocris must have felt great pain to have such a woman as her rival; she must also have felt weak and embarrassed.31

The reader who expects to learn something about the history of Egypt in the sixth dynasty will be disappointed. The setting and characters in the novel are subordinated to Mahfouz's real purpose, the analytical study of man's nature and his reaction to his circumstances. This is why at the beginning the Egyptians appear occupied with the questions of life, death, and especially life after death. This interest is also manifested in the prayers of the priests, the sermon the pharaoh gives at the altar, and the songs of the people in the street. Mahfouz expresses in great detail how the Egyptian people lived and behaved. He seems concerned more with Pharaoh the man than with Pharaoh the monarch, more with Radobis the true female than with Radobis the high-society prostitute.

Here they (and we) face an extremely tense situation, marked by psychological conflict. Most conspicuous is the pharaoh's conflict with himself as he succumbs to an irresistible love. He is also at odds with his national duty, which must be sacrificed if he is to pursue adventurous love with a woman of questionable worth. It is the conflict between the pharaoh's private and public lives that leads him to a tragic end. And through it the characters become vibrant, looked upon more as complex beings whose behavior reflects the good and evil sides of man's nature. They seem to express their innermost sentiments with no dissimulation or duplicity.

Thus, when the pharaoh faces Nitocris, he acknowledges his behavior and his love for Radobis, while the queen advises him to act more prudently. He responds that prudence in the present instance would be a sham, worthy only of a weak person. But no matter what justification of his actions he offers, still he realizes that he has let down the very faithful wife who stood by his side during hard times. When the crowds surround and attack the royal palace, the pharaoh refuses the protection of his private guards and withdraws to offer his last prayers before the statues of his parents. In his hour of agony, the human pharaoh turns to his wife and apologizes for having wronged and humiliated her. He feels sorry that he has foolishly made her life miserable. Then, in great astonishment, he asks how all this could have happened. Could he have followed a different course in life and avoided falling in love with another woman? He realizes that he has been overwhelmed by an extraordinary madness, and that he no longer has the will even to repent what he has done. He goes on to philosophize that reason can remind men of their insignificance and stupidity but it cannot remedy their defects. Finally, he asks Nitocris whether she has seen a more tragic state than his. In his agony, he cannot find words to express his misfortune. He concludes that madness is and will ever be, as long as there is life.32

Here stands Pharaoh the man, frail, weak, and sorrowful. This is the way Mahfouz wanted him to be, in order to depict vividly the shortcomings of human nature, the deficiency of human reason, and the futility of man's actions. Here stands man, face to face with fate, over which he has no control. Here also is the pharaoh whose false claim of divinity is destroyed by circumstances that transcend his will and expose him as an ordinary man who, although a king, has become a captive of his own nature.

Like Mahfouz's earlier novel, Radobis has some historical inaccuracies, such as references to the use of horses and chariots. Mahfouz provides an interesting but lame excuse for these lapses. He states that he submitted Radobis to a literary contest for an award established by the lady Qut al-Qulub al-Damardashiyya. The award committee liked the novel, but had found historical inaccuracies in it. A member of the committee, the prominent Egyptian writer Ahmad Amin, summoned Mahfouz and, questioning him, found that he knew a great deal about the pharaonic history of Egypt. Noting that the novel described chariots pulled by horses, which had been introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos long after the sixth dynasty, he asked, “Why did you make this historical error?” Mahfouz says he offered only a generalized rationale: he had thought the chariots and horses would offer the royal procession he portrayed a touch of grandeur and glory, which he felt the dramatic situation required. He closes by saying that he ignored this simple historical fact in order to create some artistic persuasion.33

Finally, let us note that some analysts believe that in this work Mahfouz meant to criticize the condition of Egypt under the monarchy through the medium of a historical novel. Some have even suggested that the profligate and irresponsible King Farouk is the model for Pharaoh Mernere II. As the ancient people of Egypt under Mernere II revolted against him for his dissolution and extravagance, they argue, the Egyptians in our time revolted against Farouk.34 Although Mahfouz wrote this novel during Farouk's reign, he denies that he had in mind any such analogy to the contemporary situation.35 Evidently these analysts have read too much into the novel, which on its face contains nothing to suggest a comparison between Mernere II and Farouk.


Kifah Tiba (The Struggle of Thebes, 1944), the third and last of Mahfouz's historical novels, is essentially an epic portraying the struggle of the southern city of Thebes against the Hyksos, whose eventual expulsion gave Egypt independence from foreign domination and set it on the way to becoming an empire. Unlike his earlier novels, in which history is subordinated to the philosophical treatment of fate, Kifah Tiba is focused more directly on events set in a specific time and place, while the love story between Pharaoh Ahmose and the daughter of the Hyksos king seems to be of secondary importance. Nevertheless, Mahfouz does not strictly adhere to the historical facts and even finds himself forced to manipulate them in order to support his own convictions about certain matters, such as Ahmose's distribution of land, which has no basis in fact. He may be forgiven for not following history precisely, however, because the original source materials on the Hyksos and the Theban dynasts who fought against them are deficient and confusing. For example, the novel has Apophis as the Hyksos king and Sekenenre as the ruler of Thebes; but the Hyksos had more than one King Apophis, and the Thebans had more than one Sekenenre. (As we shall see later, Mahfouz is writing an epic of ancient Egyptian nationalism that prefigures the struggle of the Egyptians in modern time against British imperialism.)

It is interesting to note that Mahfouz once said he was inspired to write Kifah Tiba when he saw the mummy of Sekenenre full of wounds at the Egyptian Museum.36 Thus, he tries to portray an Egyptian king who heroically fell in battle while defending his country against foreign occupation forces. The king lost the battle, but not the war. Although Mahfouz does not identify this Sekenenre, he must be Sekenenre Ta‘o II (the Brave) who suffered a violent death. While fighting the Hyksos, he was hit with an ax and club and fell to the ground. His enemy struck him on the head, fracturing his skull and jaw. Looking at his distorted face, one wonders what tremendous pain this valiant monarch endured. No doubt Mahfouz was moved by the ghastly sight of his mummy, which may well have inspired him to write this novel.

In 1788 B.C., toward the end of the middle kingdom, Egypt was suffering internal political and social chaos. As the nobles gained more power, the pharaoh lost a great deal of authority and prestige. Whatever progress the Egyptians had made in the past was by now lost. With no central government to exert power, Egypt became vulnerable to foreign invasion. About 1750 B.C. certain hordes of Asiatic origin, commonly called the Hyksos, invaded the Nile delta. By about 1675 B.C., they had brought the whole country under their domination, except for Thebes in the south. After almost two hundred years of struggle, the Thebans under Pharaoh Ahmose I finally managed in 1580 B.C. to expel the Hyksos. Thus, Egypt regained its sovereignty and started on its way to becoming an empire.

Mahfouz's novel is divided into three parts. The first deals with the occupation of Egypt by the Hyksos, who under King Apophis reduced the native rulers, the Sekenenres, into mere vassals and took over their capital, Thebes, in the south (upper Egypt). By way of asserting his authority, the Hyksos king Apophis sends a messenger to Sekenenre II, ordering him to get rid of the hippopotami in his pool because they are disturbing his sleep. He further warns Sekenenre to replace the worship of the god Amon with that of the Hyksos god Set, and to recognize his authority over Thebes. Sekenenre refuses and leads his army northward to fight Apophis. The Theban army is defeated, Sekenenre is killed in battle, and the enemy mutilate his body. Sekenenre's family escapes to Nubia, and the Hyksos become the lords of all Egypt.

The second part begins ten years after the defeat of Sekenenre. Sekenenre's son Kamose is busy marshaling a huge army to fight the Hyksos and regain sovereignty over Thebes. The crown prince Ahmose is sent on a reconnaissance mission to explore the situation in Egypt. Disguising himself as the merchant Asphenis, and using every possible means, even bribery and deception, he manages to reach the governor of Thebes and finally the court of the Hyksos king. He succeeds in recruiting men who support his family and carries them in the lower deck of his ship to Nubia to join the army in exile. While carrying out his mission, however, Ahmose falls in love with Amenerdis, the beautiful daughter of King Apophis. In token of his love, he gives her a heart-shaped emerald with a white chain, which the princess greatly cherishes.

In the third part of the novel, the Theban army under Kamose invades upper Egypt and liberates its cities, but his family refuses to enter Thebes until all Egypt has been freed. The Hyksos retreat to the north, and men from the liberated cities join his army. Kamose loses his life in battle, and Ahmose succeeds him as commander. Among the captives taken by the Egyptians is the Hyksos princes Amenerdis. Brought before Ahmose, she treats him with contempt and threatens to kill herself. Meantime, Ahmose attacks Avaris, the Hyksos capital in the delta, and cuts off its water supply. The Hyksos negotiate an agreement with Ahmose by which they are to evacuate Avaris, leave Egypt, and hand over thousands of Egyptian captives in exchange for Amenerdis. Ahmose agrees, but he visits the princess before releasing her. When she learns that she must decide whether to stay or leave, she confesses her true love to Ahmose, but they both realize it is a hopeless love. Finally, she chooses to depart, placing her national duty over her love. She takes with her the heart-shaped emerald from her lover, leaving only the white chain in his hands. With her departure the saga of an unrequited love comes to an end.37

In Kifah Tiba Mahfouz does not treat the abstract concept of fate as either an external force controlling man's will or an internal force emanating from man's inner being. Rather, he concentrates on the Egyptians' struggle against their oppressors, the Hyksos. In his previous novels, historical events appear only in outline and are of secondary importance; in this novel, the historical material constitutes the central theme, while the love story between Ahmose and the Hyksos princess occupies a secondary place. Indeed, this love episode is superimposed on the central theme, and it could be dropped without affecting the structure of the novel.

Mahfouz admits that while he was writing Kifah Tiba (1937–38), his major concern was the Egyptian national question, that is, the Egyptians' struggle to overthrow the British, who had occupied the country in 1882.38 The British had proclaimed Egypt a protectorate during World War I but rescinded the protectorate in 1922 and recognized Egypt as an independent sovereign state, though they kept it tied to their own interests. Thus, when Mahfouz wrote this novel, Egypt was no longer under direct British control, but it was weak, governed by a dissolute, irresponsible king and a band of self-seeking politicians. There was, however, a minority of national leaders who wanted to free their country from the grip of the British. The Egyptians' national struggle culminated in the revolution of 1952, when young army officers overthrew the monarchy and took control of their country. It is in this context that Kifah Tiba should be read and understood.

Mahfouz explains that when he was writing the novel Egyptian nationalism was ablaze, and there were many people who saw a real continuity from the pharaonic period to the modern history of Egypt. The pharaonic age, he says, was the brightest spot in the history of Egypt, in contrast to the present age of decadence, humiliation, and indignity caused by British imperialism and the control of the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy. Some members of this aristocracy could trace their heritage back to the Mamluk period; others were members of the royal family or descendants of Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Until the revolution in 1952, the Turko-Egyptian aristocrats occupied high positions in Cairo government and looked upon the native Egyptians as inferior. Although they became to some extent Egyptianized, they were not completely integrated into the society; in race and language they remained alien to Egypt and never hesitated to collaborate with the British to promote their self-interest. A separate social caste, they looked down upon the Egyptians as subhuman peasants who deserved to be preyed upon.

Mahfouz was aware of the implied comparison between the Hyksos and the British in this novel but says he was unaware of another analogy between the Hyksos and the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy until a non-Arab writer brought it into focus. Apparently, this writer stated that Mahfouz was writing of a utopia in which Egypt would be liberated from the control of the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy and not just from British authority. Mahfouz says that he liked this analogy because “in reality, I was seething with anger against the British and the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy, while I was writing a genuine Pharaonic novel in which the British and the Turko-Egyptians had no part.”39 Be that as it may, the reader who has some knowledge of the contemporary history of Egypt will surely discern the connection between the Egyptians' national struggle and the events of the novel.

What gives more credence to this opinion is that Mahfouz himself was one of those nationalists born before World War I who witnessed the transformation of the national movement into a political cause, represented in the struggle involving the royal palace, the Wafd party, and British imperialism. His generation was able to define and analyze the problem of Egypt's relations with the British but could not resolve it. Apparently, through the medium of fiction, Mahfouz finally found a solution to his political frustration and that of Egypt. As the ancient Egyptians had been able to expel the Hyksos after almost two hundred years of occupation, the modern Egyptians may likewise expel the British and topple the Turkish aristocracy, though heretofore such events had been only a novelist's dream.

This thought, however, does not seem to have been uppermost in Mahfouz's mind. It is not clearly stated in the novel. We can comprehend it when we see how the Hyksos looked upon the Egyptians, who they thought should be treated as a subject people. We can also comprehend it from the manner in which the Egyptian characters thought of themselves, their national destiny, and their attitude toward the Hyksos. Thus, we come to realize the extent to which the Hyksos symbolized the ideas and attitudes of the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy toward the indigenous Egyptians. A Hyksos general tells his king, “Truthfully, lord, the fallahin (peasants) have no stamina. Truthful is he who said that if you want to make use of the fallah, starve and whip him.”40 In another instance Ahmose of Abana, on meeting his namesake Prince Ahmose (disguised as the merchant Asphenis), tells him that the Egyptians are slaves who should be whipped and fed with the crusts cast to them. The king, ministers, judges, officials, and landowners are all Hyksos. Power is in the hands of the white people (the Hyksos) who wear dirty beards; the Egyptians, who formerly owned the land, are now slaves in their own land. Prince Ahmose asks whether there are many like him who feel outraged because of the inequities inflicted upon the Egyptians. Ahmose of Abana answers that there are such men, but they suppress their outrage and suffer humiliation, like any weak person who has no means to defend himself.41

We learn more about the Hyksos as white lords and the Egyptians as brown-skinned slaves from the confrontation between Pharaoh Ahmose and the beautiful Hyksos princess Amenerdis. Enraged when she refers to her people as masters and the Egyptians as slaves, he tells her that she is arrogant and does not know what she is saying. If she had lived a century earlier (presumably before the Hyksos occupied Egypt), he says, her father would not have become king, and she would not be a princess. Ahmose reminds Amenerdis that her people came from the cold northern deserts to seize his country's sovereignty. They fancied themselves masters of Egypt and regarded the Egyptians as peasants, feeling superior because they were white and the Egyptians were brown-skinned. But, says Ahmose, justice will take its course, and the true masters (the Egyptians) will regain their lordship and shake off the yoke of servitude. Whiteness will be the mark of those who live in the cold northern regions, and brown skin will become the emblem of the true masters of Egypt, who have been purified by her sun.42 Thus, the novel is permeated by the racial conflict between the Hyksos and the Egyptians, whom they hated and despised as inferior.

This contemptuous attitude of the Hyksos toward the Egyptians resembles that of the aristocratic Turko-Egyptians in modern times. The Egyptian writer Yaqub Sanu points out that the Turkish officials exacted taxes from the poor, helpless Egyptian fallah by the use of the whip.43 In Muhammad Timur's short story “Fi al-Qitar” (On the Train), published in al-Sufur, June 7, 1917, as the passengers are discussing how best to educate the fallah, one comments that the best means is the whip, which costs the government nothing, while education is costly. Mahfouz, fully aware of the humiliation of his own people by their foreign masters, seeks through Hyksos characters to show that the Turko-Egyptian aristocrats of his time harbor similar contempt toward the Egyptians. This theme is further accentuated in his novel al-Qahira al-Jadida (The New Cairo).44

Beneath the portrayal of the characters and the battles the Egyptians fought to liberate their country from the Hyksos lies Mahfouz's national sentiment. He realized when he wrote this novel that his people were not the masters of their own country, let alone their destiny. They lacked the military power to rid themselves of British authority and were even so weak they could not eliminate the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy who preyed on them. Thus, he used the medium of fiction to vent his gripping frustration and release his nationalistic sentiments, for he could say about the Hyksos what he could not say about the British or the Turko-Egyptian aristocracy without exposing himself to retribution.

In fact, both the Hyksos and the Egyptians are stereotyped, and so is the conflict between them. In Mahfouz's mind, they represent an absolute dichotomy between good and evil. The Egyptians stand for light and truth, the Hyksos for darkness and falsehood. The Egyptian army is the army of truth fighting a holy war against the forces of falsehood. Although in numbers and equipment it is no match for the Hyksos, it prevails because truth is on its side. Indeed, if the god Amon is with the Egyptians, who then can defeat them? Realizing that his enemies are stronger, Sekenenre appeals to the god Amon for help, in words that parallel those of the Prophet of Islam before he fought against his enemies the Quraysh at Badr: “Worshipped lord, help us overcome this adversity and grant your children victory. If you fail them today, your name will never be mentioned in your resting place, and the doors of your holy temple will forever be closed.”45

Mahfouz portrays Egyptian kings as god-fearing, noble, brave, civil, just and peace-loving. They are the moving spirit of their people. Their subjects are likewise brave; seldom is a coward found among them. They are also tall, handsome, brown-skinned like their predecessors, and very proud of their heritage. In brief, they are paragons of every human virtue (8,11,26). Not so the Hyksos. They are white-skinned, short, pudgy, cowardly, ignoble, unjust, barbarous, and bloodthirsty. Mahfouz cannot see anything aesthetic about the statue of the Hyksos king which has replaced the statue of Sekenenre; it looks lifeless, representing a short, pudgy person with a massive head, hooked nose, and long beard (92). The Hyksos are avaricious men who love gold enough to betray their national cause for it. When Ahmose goes into occupied territory disguised as the merchant Asphenis, he finds the borders tightly guarded and the gates closed before him. The chief guard responsible for the safety of the borders refuses to let him pass. But when Ahmose offers him gold, the guard lets him pass safely, and the whole northern country is opened to him. Even the Hyksos princess takes a precious necklace from Asphenis, ostensibly to buy it, but does not pay for it (92–95).

In war the Hyksos are depicted as more savage than courageous, killing innocent women and children mercilessly and indiscriminately. When Ahmose tightens the siege against Thebes, they inhumanely use Egyptian women and children as shields. The valiant Egyptian soldiers, shocked beyond belief at seeing the bare bodies of women and children tied to the city walls while enemy soldiers stand behind them, sarcastic and defiant, determine to storm the city knowing that some of the women and children will be killed but thinking it better for them to die than to become slaves to Apophis. As they begin their attack, they can hear the loud and desperate cries of the women begging them to strike and avenge their humiliation by the Hyksos and praying that the lord will give them victory (143–45). In contrast to the savage Hyksos, they treat their avowed enemies with magnanimity and tolerance. When they retake the city, appearing determined to kill the invaders who have usurped their land—especially the chief of police who whipped the Egyptians, and the unjust judge of the city—Ahmose advises his men not to do so, because killing is against their sacred traditions. He reminds them that they are well known for their respect of women and for not punishing helpless captives of war. “The truly virtuous man,” he says, “is he who adheres to virtue while he is in a state of outrage and anger” (151–53).

Further evidence of the savagery of the Hyksos is their killing of the Pharaoh Sekenenre. In the heat of battle, he is hit by a spear and falls to the ground, seriously wounded. Instead of taking him captive, the Hyksos soldier strikes him on the head with an ax, then others gang up against him and mangle his body with their spears (35–36). At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo the contorted face and jaws and the deep holes in the mummy's skull betray the brutal manner in which this valiant pharaoh was killed. This Hyksos savagery is contrasted with Egyptian magnanimity, represented in the duel between Ahmose and Khinzir, the bravest of the Hyksos, who had killed Ahmose's grandfather. Before their combat, each boasts of his own prowess and the bravery of his people, mocks his enemy, and threatens him with death. The actual conflict demonstrates their skill and dexterity. When Khinzir hits Ahmose's head with the tip of his sword, the Hyksos joyfully shout victory slogans. But when Ahmose strikes Khinzir's shield and knocks him to the ground, no cries of victory are heard in the Egyptian camp. Declining to take advantage of his foe, he magnanimously casts aside his own shield to fight Khinzir on even terms. Surprised, Khinzir shouts that such an act is worthy only of noble kings. The fight continues and Khinzir falls to the ground, having suffered two mortal blows. Ahmose and his men are now in a position to mutilate the body of their fallen enemy, as the Hyksos did to Sekenenre. Instead, he draws near and praises the strength and bravery of Khinzir, who, breathing his last, says that King Ahmose has spoken the truth, and that no Hyksos man will ever be able to challenge him again. In a final act of compassion, Ahmose picks up Khinzir's sword, places it beside his body, mounts his horse, and returns to camp (131–34).

In portraying the Egyptians and the Hyksos as symbolizing the strife between good and evil, civility and savagery, reverence and tolerance, Mahfouz perhaps inadvertently injected his own sense of values into the novel. Human history, both ancient and modern, is full of savagery and inhumanity. One has only to skim the pages of the Old Testament to realize how ancient people treated each other in time of war. Neither the history of the Arabs, before or after Islam, nor the history of Western countries is free from atrocities. The absolute dichotomy between good and evil permeates most of Mahfouz's novels. Perhaps it is a manifestation of his frustration and that of his generation because of the power of their British and Turko-Egyptian masters, who like the ancient Hyksos regarded the native Egyptians with utter contempt. He finds no redeeming virtue in those who preyed on his own people, whether in ancient or modern times.

Mahfouz also injects his own understanding of socialism into the Egyptian society under Ahmose, describing his distribution of land to the peasant farmers in something like a sharecropping transaction. Although there is no historical evidence to support it, he superimposes this socialistic idea on the narrative as part of his vision of the utopian city of his dreams. Quite possibly he was not sufficiently courageous to openly embrace the idea of land distribution at a time when the British grip on Egypt was strongest, and when most of the land was owned by wealthy aristocrats. After he wrote Kifah Tiba, however, his proclivity for social reform became stronger.46

In the light of Mahfouz's dogmatic moral dichotomy, setting forth the Egyptians and the Hyksos as symbols of good and evil, the love episode between Ahmose and Amenerdis appears pale and tenuous, and it cannot be expected to mitigate the long hatred between the Egyptians and the Hyksos. It is from the very beginning illogical and indeed impossible, given the circumstances that surround it. That Ahmose, disguised as an obscure Egyptian merchant, and the Hyksos princess should fall in love at first sight is absurd. And how are we supposed to believe that Ahmose, of the divine blood, could ever think of loving an enemy princess, unless he has forgotten about his own royal status and the Egyptian tradition that deified him?

Mahfouz makes this love relationship even more implausible when Amenerdis stands before the newly crowned Pharaoh Ahmose as a prisoner of war. Instead of appealing to him in the name of love to show mercy, she turns arrogant and hostile, even threatening to kill herself if he should touch her. During this unemotional dialogue, they both recite the glorious deeds and traits of their people. Their talk, more a diplomatic negotiation between the representatives of two sovereign peoples than a passionate, tender declaration of love, ends with an agreement by which the Hyksos are to release the Egyptian prisoners of war in exchange for the princess. Thus, this contrived and implausible love relationship ends with the lovers' separation. The only consolation for Ahmose is the recognition that he has put responsibility to his country above love.47

The novel teems with historical characters, most important of whom are the three pharaohs, Sekenenre, Kamose, and Ahmose, and the old queen Tetisheri, mother of Sekenenre. The three pharaohs personify Egypt and its people. They are the very soul of Egypt; without them the Egyptians can accomplish nothing. They possess sublime traits and are preeminently suited to lead their people. The Hyksos characters, in contrast, possess no redeeming virtues; in fact, Mahfouz does not even give names to the Hyksos minor characters and refers to them only in the third person.

Of all the women in the novel, Tetisheri is most important. She appears as a lovely and charming lady, the proud matriarch of the line of kings and queens who inherited her dainty features. To the royal household and the Egyptian people, Tetisheri was called the Holy Mother, a symbol of the pharaonic traits of solemnity, courage, and fortitude. In Mahfouz's portrayal, she is the collective consciousness of the Egyptian nation, a second goddess Isis. After her husband's death, she left the throne to her son and his wife but retained some influence, acting as a counselor to her son Sekenenre the Brave, whose mutilated body she may have seen being carried from the battlefield to the palace. She was the moving power and spirit behind the war of liberation, and it was on her advice that Ahmose launched his final assault against the Hyksos. She was, as Mahfouz portrays her, in her sixties, yet still beautiful and active. She possessed all the dainty features of the pharaonic royal family, especially the slight protrusion of her front teeth, which fascinated the people of southern Egypt. She was a highly educated woman who read much about history, especially the accounts of Khufu and the Book of the Dead. In brief, she was the symbol of the indomitable spirit of Egypt. It is no wonder that the inhabitants of southern Egypt deified her, calling her the Holy Mother. She appears throughout the novel as the symbol of fortitude and determination, showing no sign of human weakness until Thebes is finally liberated from the enemy. Upon hearing the news of victory, she becomes excited, and her heart begins to beat rapidly. Carried in her litter to the palace, she rests in great serenity, surrounded by the female members of the royal family. After she regains some strength, she manages to sit upright and looks compassionately on the ladies, apologizing to them in a feeble voice for her show of weakness. She asks to kiss each one of them, as if she has a premonition that her end is near.48

As in the two earlier novels, Mahfouz describes the events in Kifah Tiba with so much detail that it diverts the reader's attention from the central theme. Some of these details are superfluous and boring. The army's march to the front, for example, is portrayed as if it were a hunting expedition (28). When Sekenenre meets with Tetisheri to seek her advice about the demands of the Hyksos king, Mahfouz even notes that he sits at her right hand, while his wife sits at her left, and that Tetisheri kisses him on the left cheek and his wife Ahotpe on the right (18). There are also lengthy, often repetitious dialogues between Ahmose and the Hyksos princess, most of which turn into disputes between the pair, who brag about the noble traits of their own people. Finally, there are meticulous descriptions of battles, soldiers, armaments, and the manner in which these battles were fought, down to how many chariots and horses and captives were involved (118–21).

From a historian's point of view, Mahfouz appears to have adhered more closely to the facts than he did in the previous novels. He uses pharaonic and Hyksos names the same way as Egyptologists. Given that the available historical evidence, especially about Ahmose, is meager and confusing, Mahfouz has succeeded in giving the common reader a fictionalized picture of the struggle between the Egyptians and the Hyksos. Yet the main question here is not historical integrity so much as plausibility. Does present-day Egypt resemble that of the pharaonic period? Are the Egyptians of today similar to the people in the time of Sekenenre and Ahmose? Naguib Mahfouz seems to believe that they are, and that the passage of time and the many foreign invasions have not affected them greatly. Not even the Arab conquest could affect the pharaonic features of Egypt; the conquerors imposed their religion (Islam) and their language on the Egyptians but could not convert them to Arabism. They were and are still pharaonic Egyptians, with the traits of the ancient culture. Indeed, Mahfouz so firmly believes that the two cultures have mingled that in his address to the Nobel Prize Committee, he called himself the product of two civilizations: pharaonic and Islamic. He explicitly avoiding saying that the latter is the exclusive civilization of Egypt.49 In brief, Mahfouz, like a number of Egyptian writers, is a leader of the movement that has claimed that by history and culture Egypt is more pharaonic than Arab. This movement was very lively and strong until the rise to power in 1954 of President Jamal Abd al-Nasir, who propagated Arab nationalism in Egypt and gave it a great impetus in the Arab countries. It is in this pharaonic context that Mahfouz's historical novels should be read and appreciated.


  1. Fuad Dawwara, “Rihlat al-Khamsin,” 13–17, and “al-Wujdan al-Qawmi fi Adab Naguib Mahfouz,” 102–103; Abd al-Muhsin Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 90–91, 151; Ghali Shukri, Naguib Mahfouz min al-Jamaliyya ila Nobel, 10, 98; Sasson Somekh, The Changing Rhythm, 60–64; Muhammad Amin al-Alim, Ta‘ammulat fi Alam Naguib Mahfouz, 26–32; in an interview by Mamun Gharib in al-Bayan (January 1989), 193, Mahfouz admits that he read only one story by Scott and was not influenced by him.

  2. Ahmad Haykal, al-Adab al-Qisasi wa al-Masrahi fi Misr, 256.

  3. For a full analysis of Salim al-Bustani's novels, see Matti Moosa, The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction, 122–46.

  4. For a detailed discussion of Jurji Zaydan and his novels, see ibid., 157–69.

  5. Ibid., 158–59.

  6. Mahmud Hamid Shawkat, al-Fann al-Qisasi fi al-Adab al-Misri al-Hadith 1800–1956, 143.

  7. For further analysis see Ibid., 180–86.

  8. Al-Alim, Ta‘ammulat fi Alam Naguib Mahfouz, 27; Taha Wadi, Madkhal ila Tarikh al-Riwaya, 87; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 151–52; and Sulayman al-Shatti, Al-Ramz wa al-Ramziyya fi Adab Naguib Mahfouz, 35–40.

  9. Naguib Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 1966. See Somekh, The Changing Rhythm, 200–201; Muhammad Hasan Abd Allah, Al-Islamiyya wa al-Ruhiyya fi Adab Naguib Mahfouz, 31–34; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 156–63; and Matityahu Peled, Religion, My Own: The Literary Works of Najib Mahfuz, 29–36.

  10. Baikie, Ancient Egypt (1912), trans. by Naguib Mahfouz as Misr al-Qadima (1932), 5–8, 32–33; Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 5–25; Fatima Musa, Fi al-Riwaya al-Arabiyya, 35.

  11. James Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, 122–23; see also Baikie, Ancient Egypt, 36–37; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 154.

  12. Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 23; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 157–58.

  13. Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 255.

  14. Abd Allah, Al-Islamiyya wa al-Ruhiyya fi Adab Naguib Mahfouz, 31–38.

  15. Farouk Shusha, “Ma al-Udaba: Naguib Mahfouz,” 19–20.

  16. Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 5–24. See this tale in Wallace Everett Caldwell and Mary Francis Gyles, The Ancient World, 75.

  17. Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 184.

  18. James Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, chap. 5, describes the official and private life of the Pharaoh, especially Khufu, and shows particular interest in the development of the hieroglyphic script, the rise of a class of educated scribes, and the establishment of a library that housed numerous papyrus documents on every discipline of learning known at that time.

  19. Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 10.

  20. Breasted, A History of Egypt, 74.

  21. Mahfouz, Abath al-aqdar, 112–13.

  22. Ibid., 61–62.

  23. Ibid., 74, 78.

  24. Ibid., 151; Breasted, A History of Egypt, 97–98, 222–34. For other inaccuracies, see Somekh, The Changing Rhythm, 61, n. 3.

  25. Dawwara, “Rihlat al-Khamsin,” 22.

  26. Mahfouz, Radobis. For a detailed analysis, see Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 189–229, and Peled, Religion, My Own, 41–50.

  27. Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 190.

  28. Breasted, A History of Egypt, 143, 598; Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphics (reprint, Peter Berdick Books, 1990), 112.

  29. Mahfouz, Radobis, 84–85.

  30. Ibid., 74, 77; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 215–16.

  31. Mahfouz, Radobis, 122.

  32. Ibid., 20–21. Cf. Shawkat, al-Fann al-Qiasi, fi al-Adab al-Misri al-Hadith, 201; and Abd Allah, al-Islamiyya wa al-Ruhiyya fi Adab Naguib Mahfouz, 50–53.

  33. Sabri Hafiz, “Naguib Mahfouz,” in Naguib Mahfouz: Atahaddath Ilaykum, 90–91.

  34. Hamdi Sakkut, The Egyptian Novel and Its Main Trends, 1913 to 1952, 72–73; Somekh, 62; Dawwara, “al-Wujdan al-Qawmi fi Adab Naguib Mahfouz,” 103; al-Alim, Ta‘ammulat fi Alam Naguib Mahfouz, 27; Ahmad Muhammad Atiyya, Ma Naguib Mahfouz, 125, 158; Fatima Musa, Fi al-Riwaya al-Arabiyya, 37; Wadi, 88; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 189–90; and Abd Allah, al-Waqi‘iyya fi al-Riwaya al-Arabiyya, 200.

  35. Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 189–90.

  36. Musa, Fi al-Riwaya al-Arabiyya, 39.

  37. Mahfouz, Kifah Tiba. See also Peled, Religion, My Own, 57–66.

  38. Hafiz, “Naguib Mahfouz,” in Naguib Mahfouz: Atahaddath Ilaykum, 86–87.

  39. Ibid., 88–89; Sakkut, 73–74.

  40. Mahfouz, Kifah Tiba, 82.

  41. Ibid., 76.

  42. Ibid., 157, 171.

  43. Moosa, The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction, 54–56.

  44. Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 257, 276.

  45. Mahfouz, Kifah Tiba, 32.

  46. Hafiz, “Naguib Mahfouz,” in Naguib Mahfouz: Atahaddath Ilaykum, 86–87.

  47. Mahfouz, Kifah Tiba, 156–157, 162–171; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 252, 258, 268–269.

  48. Mahfouz, Kifah Tiba, 15–16, 194; Badr, Naguib Mahfouz, 260–61; Abd Allah, Al-Waqi‘iyya fi al-Riwaya al-Arabiyya, 57–59.

  49. See Mahfouz's address to the Nobel Prize Committee in no. 59 (January 1989): 10–14; and Milton Viorst, “Man of Gamaliya,” 33.

Mary Ann Weaver (essay date 30 January 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Novelist and the Sheikh,” in New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 47, January 30, 1995, pp. 52–69.

[In the following essay, Weaver considers the impact of religious and political events on Mahfouz's life and career—particularly the attempt on Mahfouz's life in 1994.]

Naguib Mahfouz, the Arab world's only Nobel Laureate in Literature, leaves nothing to chance. There is a precision and an economy about him, and he measures his daily life down to the minute. Thus, on the afternoon of October 14, 1994—as he had done every Friday afternoon for seven years—the eighty-two-year-old writer left his apartment building in the Agouza section of Cairo at exactly ten minutes before five, and walked outside. It seemed to him unusually quiet that afternoon as he glanced around the street—a rather ordinary, rather characterless block, where old houses of ochre and beige are interspersed with taller, concrete buildings from the nineteen-fifties, and where there are shops of all kinds, offices and apartment buildings, and, usually, traffic jams and noise.

A small, frail figure, he walked slightly stooped, assisted by a cane; his face was half obscured by heavy dark glasses. (His eyes were failing and sensitive.) He was somewhat irritated, he later recalled, because he did not immediately spot Dr. Fathi Hashem's waiting car. Fathi, a forty-eight-year-old veterinarian, had been picking him up every Friday afternoon for seven years to drive him the ten minutes or so to the Kasr al-Nil, a fashionable café overlooking the Nile, where every Friday evening for thirty years Mahfouz had met with like-minded writers, intellectuals, and disciples. The “Friday sitting” had become a ritual for him.

“The moment I saw him, I jumped out of the car, walked the few feet to where he stood, and gave him my arm,” Fathi told me as we sat, with a group of friends, at the Mahfouz table at the Kasr al-Nil café a few weeks afterward. “I opened the right front door of my car for him, he sat down, and I closed the door. Everything seemed normal—except for the lack of people. At least, at first.”

Fathi went on, “It was only as I circled the car that I saw the young man approach. He went directly to Mr. Mahfouz's side of the car; I assumed that he wanted to shake his hand, as many people do. The right front window was open, and Mr. Mahfouz extended his hand. It was only when I got into the driver's seat that I noticed that Mr. Mahfouz's body was shaking. I thought the young man was shaking him, and I screamed, ‘What are you doing? Are you mad?’ It was the only eye contact I had with the man. When I shouted, he hesitated, and for a few seconds his eyes locked with mine. I couldn't see his face, only his forehead and his eyes—they were aggressive and afraid at the same time. He had very dark skin, not like us.” Fathi encompassed the table with a sweep of his hand. “Then, in an instant, the young man turned and ran. It was only then that I saw something brown lying on Mr. Mahfouz's shoulder. It was the handle of a knife.” He paused for a moment, then added, “The blade was still in his neck, on the right side.”

Mahfouz was conscious, but he said nothing as Fathi leaned over and carefully removed the knife. He threw it out of the car, onto the street, and then placed his hand directly over the wound, which was dangerously close to the central carotid artery.

Realizing what had happened, Fathi began shouting for help. People began to appear: bawabs, or doormen of sorts, from the apartment buildings, who were dressed mostly in turbans and long, flowing djellabahs; customers from a corner sandwich shop; guards from the Police Hospital, across the street; and a few bearded young men dressed in Western shirts and trousers.

Keeping his right hand on the right side of Naguib Mahfouz's neck, Fathi backed his car out of its parking place, and sped, in reverse, to the main gate of the Police Hospital, some fifty yards away. “It was five minutes total,” Fathi told me. “For everything.”

When they reached the hospital, Mahfouz asserted, quite emphatically, that he wanted to leave the car unassisted, and Fathi complied. The moment he removed his hand from the author's neck, however, Mahfouz began bleeding copiously. The doctor who admitted him later recalled a small, frail man, a diabetic with a heart condition, nearly blind and nearly deaf, holding his hand to the right side of his neck. “He said, ‘There's a bit of blood here. You might want to look at it. I also have some coldness in my arm.’ The moment he removed his hand, blood spurted all over, yet he remained calm. He sat in a chair and waited. In ten minutes, we took him into surgery, for a five-hour operation.”

Mahfouz had left behind him, outside the hospital's towering concrete walls, in the streets and alleyways, an increasingly cacophonous crowd of bawabs and neighbors, street venders and hawkers, café patrons, and merely curious passersby, who now mingled with hundreds of uniformed police. Their voices rose and fell, and they flailed their arms—sometimes so violently that turbans came unwound. Mahfouz had spent an entire lifetime documenting just such scenes—of chaos and confusion, of contradiction spliced with chicanery, of situations in which nothing is what it appears to be—as he perfected the novel form in Arabic literature. He had presented in close, rich detail the intricacies of life in the margins and in the alleyways; his often idiosyncratic characters, from the lower and middle classes, argue over matters of justice and injustice, expectation and disillusionment, and belief in God. His portraits of the city, though they are often compared to Dickens' portraits of London or Zola's of Paris, are pre-eminently Cairene, as his characters struggle, caught between an uncertain future and the weight of the past.

When Mahfouz's friends heard of the stabbing, they rushed to the Police Hospital, and so did his wife and his two daughters. Like most Cairenes, they were all stunned by the news. It would become the most controversial act of violence in Egypt in years.

There are many versions of what happened, some of them absurd. But the key questions remain: If it was in fact an assassination attempt, why Naguib Mahfouz? Who was responsible? And, perhaps as important, why did it happen just then? The government was quick to blame the Gama‘a al-Islamiya, or the Islamic Group, which is the strongest member of a network of militant underground Islamic groups that have been attempting for the past two years, through violence and stealth, to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak's secular government. (By late last October, when I arrived in Egypt, both the Islamists and the regime had raised the stakes in their increasingly vengeful warfare to a new height. The militants had accelerated attacks on foreign tourists, Coptic Christians, security forces, Cabinet Ministers, and the police. The government had responded brutally.)

Within an hour of the attack on Mahfouz, the government announced—to everyone's sheer astonishment—that an arrest would be made that night; the following morning, seven young men were arrested, and an eighth was killed by police gunfire. One skeptical Cairene told me that the police action reminded him of Claude Rains's saying, “Round up the usual suspects.” Ultimately, sixteen alleged Islamic militants were tried by a special, in-camera military court. (A number of these courts have been set up by Mubarak, and Amnesty International has described them as consistently conducting “grossly unfair trials.”) Some of the defendants were charged with attempted murder, others with the illegal possession of explosives and arms—and all of them with membership in Gama‘a. Every defendant denied the charges. Earlier this month, the court sentenced two of the defendants to death—against which there is no appeal—and two others to life imprisonment.

Mahfouz had openly criticized the violent tactics of the underground Islamic groups, as he had openly criticized the tactics and, in many cases, the policies of the Mubarak government. He first came to the Islamists' attention more than thirty years ago, when Cairo's powerful religious institution, al-Azhar, which is generally regarded as the Oxford of Islamic learning and thought, had judged one of his books, Children of Gebelawi, to be heretical. The novel is filled with allegorical characters who resemble figures from the Koran and the Bible, and describes the complex relationship of a group of Cairo slum-dwellers with their various prophets and with God. After being serialized in the prestigious daily newspaper al-Ahram, the novel was banned, and no publication of it—indeed, no mention of it—was officially permitted in Egypt for thirty-five years. Then, in 1988, Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize. It was something that completely disordered his exceedingly orderly and exceedingly private life.

The following year, when the furor over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was sweeping the Islamic world, and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a warrant for Rushdie's death, the blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman—who is currently standing trial in New York, on charges of, among other things, conspiracy to assassinate President Mubarak and to bomb various New York landmarks—reportedly told a journalist that Rushdie was not unlike Mahfouz: in the Sheikh's opinion, both were heretics. “Islamic law calls on these people to repent, and if they do not, they will be killed,” Sheikh Omar was quoted as saying at the time. “If this sentence had been passed on Naguib Mahfouz when he wrote Children of Gebelawi, Salman Rushdie would have realized that he had to stay within certain bounds.”

When I asked a senior Egyptian security official if in his view this amounted to a fatwa—or religious opinion—justifying Mahfouz's death, he said that he wasn't sure but that that was the way it had been interpreted, and Egyptian militants had threatened to assassinate the author on the October anniversary of his receiving the Nobel. What was even more important, the official added, was that Sheikh Omar was the spiritual mentor of Gama‘a.

“I haven't believed the government's version from the very start; I think they have the wrong man,” one of Mahfouz's closest friends told me one afternoon a week or so after a mysterious and dishevelled young man—with fair skin and an Islamic beard—had “confessed” on nationwide television to stabbing Mahfouz in what he claimed was a “kidnapping” attempt gone awry. He later retracted the statement, and most Cairo intellectuals I spoke with found the “confession” more amusing than edifying. Although the young man was sentenced to hang, it is unlikely, given the secrecy of the court proceedings, that the many puzzles surrounding the stabbing will ever be solved.

“It is indeed bizarre,” a Western diplomat said to me one afternoon. “It is certainly not the usual modus operandi of the Islamic Group—they have never resorted to the use of primitive weapons in their attacks. Why use a kitchen knife, which requires a great deal of skill, when the chances of success are far greater if you use a gun? This was an extremely amateurish act, and Gama‘a is not an unsophisticated group. So does this mean that the movement is splintering even more, and that we're now seeing the emergence of still more fanatic groups? We have got to assume, in the absence of a smoking gun, that the attacker came from the Islamic underground. But a key question is: What does it mean?”

Naguib Mahfouz was born in a warren of ancient alleys in the heart of Islamic Cairo, behind the al-Hussein Mosque, in the neighborhood of Gamaliya, in December of 1911. His father, a minor civil servant who later became a business manager for a merchant in the bazaar, was highly traditional, and highly distant from his youngest son; his mother was doting and became his closest friend. His childhood was often lonely but otherwise unremarkable. After attending Islamic elementary schools and a secular high school, he entered Cairo (then King Fuad I) University, and in 1934 he graduated with a degree in philosophy. He remembers that period, which coincided with the anticolonial movement against the British, as the happiest of his life—as “the golden age of patriotism … when the times themselves were listening to you,” he wrote in his 1961 novel The Thief and the Dogs.

Until 1971, all his works were written late at night, for he spent his days as a government bureaucrat: as an official film censor, an adviser on the arts, and a minor functionary in various ministries, including the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

A private, timid man who married late in life, Mahfouz is a strong believer, a bit of a mystic, and a Fabian socialist of the most passionate sort. By the late nineteen-fifties, social realism had become the defining characteristic of his work. His well-ordered, punctilious daily life was the antithesis of the world he created in his books—some forty books, over forty years. The world of his characters was unsettled and difficult, informed by history, and pervaded by an overwhelming sense of loss. His “Cairo Trilogy,” which was largely responsible for his receiving the Nobel, is a family saga tracing three generations and spanning both World Wars. In it he tackled not only religious and political themes, which are his normal forte, but prostitution, drug addiction, and the degradation of the urban poor. In 1979, when he was among the first to support the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the “Trilogy” and a number of his other works were banned in much of the Arab world.

As the years went by, his novels became increasingly hard-edged and stark, and the failures of contemporary Egypt were his stage. “We live in a repugnant age of slogans,” one of the characters in a novella entitled The Day the President Was Killed laments. “And between the slogans and the truth is an abyss, into which we have all fallen and lost ourselves.” Published more than a decade ago, the novella has all the elements of Mahfouz's prophetic fictional world: the decline of the Egyptian system; the emergence of an authoritarian state; a middle-class urban family torn apart by economic stagnation and uncertainty; the sexual tensions of a young couple in a society in which men and women are kept strictly apart; the rise of corruption, and of Islam, as the almost inevitable result of a system that seems to be spiralling out of control. As he follows one disillusioned young man through his day on October 6, 1981—the day that President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by members of a militant, underground Islamic group—Mahfouz melds illusion and reality through the eyes of his protagonist, Ilwan, and flashes of memory leap about in time. Unable to marry because he cannot find a well-paying job or buy or furnish an apartment, Ilwan, who graduated with honors in philosophy, shares a cramped, dingy room with his grandfather, who lived through the Revolution of 1919, in which Egypt was meant to come of age. Now Ilwan sits in a coffee-house, and begins a monologue:

We are a people more acclimatized to defeat than victory. It is just a Mafia which controls us—no more, no less. Where are the good old days? … My pride wounded, my heart broken, I have come to this café as a refuge from the pain of loneliness. … How many nations live here side by side in this one nation of ours? How many millionaires are there? Relatives and parasites? Smugglers and pimps? Shi‘ites and Sunnis?—stories far better than “A Thousand and One Nights.”

One evening, three and a half weeks after the attack on him, Mahfouz agreed to meet me at the Police Hospital. Security was tight when I arrived at the main gate of the hospital—a large, sprawling complex of glass and chrome—accompanied by one of Mahfouz's friends, a poet named Naim Sabry. Only after passing through a metal detector, presenting identity cards, and having our bags searched twice were we permitted to enter the grounds. We found Mahfouz in his room, on one of the upper floors, with his wife and daughters. A nurse sat at the entrance to the room, and outside the door three security men in plain clothes fidgeted with their Kalashnikovs.

As Mahfouz greeted us, with a weak wave of his hand, I was astonished at how frail he was and how small he seemed—far smaller than his five-foot-three frame. Dressed in a navy-blue robe and pajamas, he sat, slightly stooped, on a wooden chair between two single beds. Speaking in halting English, he asked me to sit on the bed to his left, because he was deaf in his right ear. He had lost a great deal of blood, and had required numerous transfusions. “Concentration tires me,” he said, “so don't expect much.”

I began by asking Mahfouz the questions that everyone in Cairo was asking: “Why you? Why now?”

His eyes seemed to mist over, and then he said, “I simply got caught in the middle, in the battle between the system and the Islamists. ‘Why now?’ is not the question—perhaps circumstance or fate—yet it could have happened any time, for I'm convinced that the battle will continue, and that both sides will take it as far as they can. Why me? Why others?” He shrugged, and gave me a sad smile.

“In The Day the President Was Killed, Ilwan searches for order and reason and grapples with God,” I said. “Yet nothing in the alleys is as it appears to be.”

“Yes,” he interrupted, before I could finish my thought. “It's interesting that you chose that book, and obviously what you mean to ask is, Did I somehow prophesy my own attack? Yes, perhaps I did. But then so much of what is now happening in Egypt is, in a sense, Mahfouzian.”

The streets of Cairo are like no other streets in the world. Every corner, every crevice, every alleyway seems to be inhabited. Crowds of pedestrians and traffic jostle for space, and noise is everywhere—a pervasive din of car horns tooting, street venders hawking their wares, and muezzins, their voices shrilly amplified, calling the faithful to prayers. Yet as I wandered around one late-October afternoon I was struck, more than ever before in the twenty years that I have known Cairo, by the impression of a city that was angry and out of control. People seemed to be living on the edge, as much of the city's infrastructure, like its ancient monuments, was being reduced to dust. Corruption flourished, and political stagnation ossified. The number of Cairenes increased by nearly a thousand every day, in a country whose population, of nearly sixty million—a third of the Arab world—grew by more than a million every year. Yet ninety-five per cent of that population lived on less than five per cent of the land. Every year, Egypt produces more than a hundred thousand university graduates, many of whom cannot find jobs—in a country whose literacy rate has remained frozen at about fifty per cent. The city's once astonishing diversity of cultures and social strata had seemingly been reduced to two starkly contrasting poles: poverty, which appeared to be everywhere, and extraordinary wealth. All across Cairo, as I drove back to my hotel, it was easy to spot soaring new apartment buildings of glass and polished chrome and, immediately behind them, narrow, labyrinthine lanes where half-naked children played—as they had done in Midaq Alley, one of Mahfouz's most popular books—with cockroaches, in mud and dust.

As I continued through Tahrir Square, everything there seemed dwarfed by a bulbous gray twelve-story structure, Stalinesque in design, called the Mugamma. It is the headquarters of Egypt's equally bulbous state bureaucracy, three million strong. Many Cairenes say that more souls are at rest in the Mugamma than in the City of the Dead. (According to a recent study, the average Egyptian bureaucrat works twenty-seven minutes a day.) The Mugamma, perhaps more than anything else, has come to symbolize a system that had been created by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1952, but was now exhausted, and in steady decline.

Mubarak had become the coincidental inheritor of that system in 1981, when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was gunned down by members of a military cell of al-Jihad—a group that, like Gama‘a and others in today's militant Islamic underground, had been encouraged, trained, and armed to challenge the left by Sadat himself. As the third generation of the revolution, Mubarak lacked the charisma of Nasser and the vision of Sadat, and many Cairenes say that he is a bit like a Mahfouz bureaucrat: gray, one-dimensional, almost smaller than life.

Since the late nineteen-seventies, when I lived in Cairo, Egypt has been receiving lavish amounts of Western aid, including some two billion dollars a year from the United States. It is, after Israel, Washington's second-largest recipient of funds, and the largest United States overseas aid operation since Vietnam. The money began arriving after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, when President Sadat embarked on policies that transformed Cairo—the Islamic world's largest city—into the hub of American policy in the Middle East. But the distribution of the aid was uneven at best, and little of it filtered down. The new wealth also bred a new, and ostentatious, class, which surrounded Sadat and now surrounds Mubarak. Its members think little of spending four hundred thousand dollars on a new Mercedes—or a hundred and fifty thousand dollars on a daughter's wedding at a five-star Cairo hotel—while the nation's per-capita G.N.P. remains frozen at around six hundred dollars a year.

The government's reputation for rampant corruption is fuelling popular discontent and is being exploited by the Islamists; it is also leading to growing consternation among Western donors and diplomats. Particularly nettlesome are the mounting accusations against the Gang of Sons, as the wheeling-and-dealing offspring of a number of key Mubarak officials are called; two of the most frequently mentioned are the sons of the President. Accusations that the Gang of Sons—and, by extension, the Mubarak government—is actively assisting neighboring Libya in circumventing United Nations sanctions have led to a number of recent rebukes from the United States. Nevertheless, Washington continues to have an enormous stake in the Mubarak regime, for on assuming office Mubarak immediately reaffirmed Egypt's commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, began reëstablishing the nation's place as a leader in the Arab world, and set to work behind the scenes as a mediator in the ongoing quest for Middle Eastern peace. Later, he, more than anyone else, gave legitimacy to the United States-led coalition in the Gulf War.

As I headed back to my hotel, I passed clusters of riot policemen, their faces partly hidden by visored helmets, who were standing guard outside tourist centers and half-empty hotels. The campaign by Islamic militants to cripple Egypt's economy through attacks on tourism—the country's No. 1 source of foreign exchange—had cost the Mubarak government one and a half billion dollars last year, and had decimated the tourist industry. Combined with an admittedly timid government attempt at structural economic reform, the growing reluctance of foreign investors to consider Egypt potentially promising had only served to widen the gap between the rulers and the ruled. And the social and economic alienation that was largely fuelling the Islamic flame was almost certainly going to get worse. Waging war on the Islamists will not change that.

When I asked a Western ambassador how serious a threat the Islamic groups posed, he replied, “Unlike Algeria, they're not regime-threatening—at least, not yet—but if the government continues to refuse to address the root causes of this revolt, and persists in treating it as merely a law-and-order problem, I'll be a little less certain about that. Mubarak has a mindset about the Islamists, and he keeps insisting to us that they're a creation of Iran and Sudan, but doesn't produce a shred of evidence. Some Iranian money probably is coming in, and some Egyptians are undoubtedly training in Sudanese camps, but it is very wrong—indeed, potentially self-defeating—to put all the weight on external help, because the great majority of weapons, money, and recruits and the anger that fuels them are coming from here. Despite Mubarak's pronouncements, the problem is not Iran or Sudan. It's him.”

The anger of which the ambassador spoke had increased almost palpably in the eighteen months since I'd last been in Egypt. So had the level of violence, and the intransigence on both sides. Egypt seemed to be sliding into an incipient guerrilla war, in which neither the Islamists nor the security forces had defined any front lines. At the street level, the country had been transformed into a police state that is never quite in control. Thousands of political prisoners are being systematically tortured, as part of official policy; hundreds have “disappeared”; hostage-taking and collective punishment are common practices; and entire neighborhoods have been cordoned off, and mosques and houses razed.

One morning, I called on two writers who had received death threats from the Islamists, and found both of them hidden away—one inside his shuttered apartment, the other in his office, with thick curtains drawn. In both cases, heavily armed guards were standing at attention outside their doors. I then visited a group of young men, mostly students, who were also hidden away, in a slum neighborhood in one of Mahfouz's labyrinths. They hadn't attended classes in more than a month, they said. When I asked why, one replied, “Because we're bearded, and we're young. To be young and bearded in Egypt is a crime.”

What Mahfouz has termed “the concealed side”—the reality that hides behind convention and form in societies where repression has become an inescapable part of everyday life—did not express itself in a highly visible presence of crack troops or of uniformed policemen on the streets, though I did notice them from time to time. It expressed itself mostly in fear in the alleyways and in outrage in sophisticated Cairo salons. It also expressed itself in a growing anti-Americanism, which I had not known in Egypt before, and in an intellectual siege, in which the country's writers, directors, playwrights, and poets found themselves increasingly caught between the Islamists, on the one hand, and the government, on the other—especially the official sheikhs of al-Azhar, whose increasingly strident pronouncements, as they attempted to guide artistic thought, were proving as outrageous as the demands of many militants.

“What is happening to our civility?” Egypt's best filmmaker, an eccentric genius named Youssef Chahine, asked. His most recent film, The Emigrant, which was hugely successful and broke all Egyptian attendance records, had come under attack by the militants, who alleged that it was based on the Biblical travels of Joseph, and thus personalized a prophet in a human way. There were bomb threats against one of the theatres where it was being shown, and an obscure Islamist lawyer, backed by al-Azhar, had demanded that the film be banned. The case is now in the courts. “You know,” Chahine told me, “last year I had a film”—a docudrama depicting the alienation of Cairo's slumdwellers—“banned by the government.” Unlike many writers and artists, Chahine hadn't been fatwaed, but he felt threatened nevertheless. “All of us do,” he said. “Both physically and artistically. Strangling someone's work is like hitting Naguib Mahfouz in the neck.”

Mahfouz had begun receiving death threats in 1988, only days after being awarded the Nobel Prize—when the controversy over the banned Children of Gebelawi was revived—but he had doggedly refused to accept armed government guards. “I walk to the coffee shop, and I don't look to the left or the right,” Mahfouz said in an interview at the time. “And so what if they get me? I have lived my life and done what I wanted to do.”

Like most Egyptian secularists, Mahfouz, who had frequently called on the government to enter into a dialogue with its Islamic foes, had grown concerned over the steady, consistent rise in the influence of the Islamists in the schools and universities, in the news media, in the courts, and in the arts, and over what he considered an acquiescent government response. (Clearly baffled by the movement, the government has veered between suppression and a highly orchestrated campaign to make itself appear more Islamic than the Islamic activists.) Last year, Mahfouz's concern gave way to alarm when the Minister of Culture agreed to demands by an Islamist parliamentarian that any books scheduled for publication by his Ministry be sent to al-Azhar for review. Never before in the history of modern Egypt had any government agreed to such a demand. Mahfouz issued a furious statement, signed by scores of artists and writers, in which he described the assault on the arts as “intellectual terrorism,” and he later told friends, “The censor in Egypt is no longer just the state. It's the gun of the fundamentalists.”

Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world, attracts thousands of students each year from every part of the Muslim world. It has long been a prime recruiting ground for the Muslim Brotherhood—the oldest and most moderate of Egypt's Islamic groups—and its graduates have, in turn, reexported the Brotherhood's brand of militant Islam throughout the Muslim world. What is far more worrying to the Egyptian government, however, is the Brotherhood's recent success, thanks largely to funding from Saudi Arabia, in recruiting prominent sheikhs from within al-Azhar itself.

Western diplomats were thus not surprised when the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, aged seventy-seven, who had been appointed by Mubarak, issued a scathing fatwa against holding a United Nations conference on population in Cairo last fall, or when he granted the title of shahid, or martyr—the highest accolade that an Islamist can receive—to a young member of Gama‘a who had joined forces with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in a shooting spree in Jerusalem which left sixteen wounded or dead.

The diplomats and Egypt's increasingly beleaguered secularists were nevertheless stunned when one of the world's leading moderate Islamic scholars, Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali, of al-Azhar, testifying for the defense at the trial of those accused of assassinating the writer Farag Foda, in 1992, effectively endorsed the extrajudicial killing of anyone who opposed the implementation of Islamic Sharia law. For the secularists, Sheikh al-Ghazali had come to represent a dangerous convergence between Egypt's radical and moderate Islamic political trends. In their view, as the government has accommodated al-Azhar, and thus emboldened it, al-Azhar has begun adopting political ideas from the militants.

“Suddenly, we realized that within al-Azhar there are many sheikhs who aid and abet the violence, who give it credence,” Tehseen Bashir, a retired Egyptian Ambassador, told me over tea. “Al-Azhar has always been a center. Sheikh Yassin [the leader of Hamas] studied there; so did Hasan al-Turabi [the leader of the Islamic movement in the Sudan] and Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. And today we see the sheikhs of al-Azhar issuing fatwas as extreme as those of Gama‘a, and they are doing it with the active encouragement of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The key question about the banned Brotherhood—one that has proved vexing to Egypt's nervous bourgeoisie and to many of its Western friends—is whether it has really renounced violence, as it claims to have done. It maintains that it has no direct control over groups like Gama‘a, but many Egyptians and Westerners aren't convinced.

“How overt the coördination is between the groups is secondary,” one Western diplomat told me when I called on him. “What matters is that all these groups have a relationship that works; their goals are the same. They could be rivals, they could be in competition, or somewhere in between. That doesn't matter. What does is that they have an effective distribution of labor, and that the glue that holds it all together is the money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, whether it comes from individuals or from their governments.”

Imbaba, only a bridge away from the affluent island of Zamalek, is one of Cairo's most dismal and sprawling slums, holding some eight hundred thousand people. In it stark, sometimes tottering houses, built of stucco or brick or of corrugated iron and mud, line a labyrinth of open sewers and unpaved alleyways. The alleys are so narrow that they are little more than dark, hidden passageways. Some of them are less than six feet wide, and an attempt to navigate them by car meant lurching, no faster than a person could walk, through gullies and ravines, then negotiating one's way around chicken coops, uncollected garbage, and open cesspools. Laundry hung from rooftops and from window frames on both sides of the car, and when there was a wind the laundry met in the middle of the alley, creating billowing barricades. I had come here with a graduate student—whom I will call Ahmad, since at the moment he is living underground—and we decided that it was far more practical to walk.

From the moment you arrive in Imbaba, the problems facing Egypt overwhelm you. There is almost no government presence here: few services; no sanitation; only sputtering electricity; few hospitals or schools. We had left the government behind us at the last paved road.

We finally reached our destination, the al-Iman Billah Mosque. One of some seventy thousand unofficial, or what are called “popular,” mosques in Egypt, it was little more than a room on the ground floor of a dun-colored apartment building in Imbaba's Munira Gharbiya neighborhood. Militant Islamic slogans were defiantly scrawled across its walls, above latticed windows and brown-painted doors, which were sealed with immense padlocks. The government, in its move to crush the Islamic groups, had closed all of Munira's popular mosques—there were ten—and imprisoned their sheikhs. The sheikh of al-Iman Billah was a medical doctor who, without charges or trial, had been in the “punishment ward” of various Cairo prisons for more than four years. Sheikhs from the neighborhood's other popular mosques—including professors, lawyers, and a former Marxist economist—had been in prison just as long. (A fairly significant number of former Marxist and socialist professionals are part of the militant Islamic movement now.) But the popular mosques—nearly a thousand of which had been shut down nationwide—were, in a sense, like the Islamic militants themselves: quiescent in one province or in one neighborhood after a government crackdown, they would spring up in another.

Leaving the al-Iman Billah, we moved next door, to a coffee-house, and sat at one of a number of small wicker tables spilling out into the alleyway, while four disagreeable-looking plainclothes security men at the table next to us were fingering worry beads. As we sipped tiny cups of thick coffee, we watched the life of the alleys pass by: a young girl on a donkey, who was dressed in a black djellabah and wearing the traditional head scarf, or hijab; birds in wicker cages, in a cart pulled by a mule; a herd of goats waiting to be slaughtered outside a butcher shop, where carcasses of meat hung from spikes and blew in the breeze. A group of dark-eyed, dark-skinned men in djellabahs, with prayer caps or floppy turbans on their heads, walked by silently in single file, as if performing a secret military drill. The security men stared at them, and they stared back. The dark-skinned men were mostly from the countryside of Upper Egypt, Ahmad said, where the battle between the Islamists and the regime was most intense. Many Cairenes worried that the chaos it had spawned was driving Upper Egypt dangerously close to civil war.

A buxom woman who had tattoos on her fingers and her nose, and whose head was covered by a scarf, joined us; Ahmad introduced her to me as Gamila, the neighborhood prostitute. She told me that she gave twenty per cent of her earnings to a popular mosque. An alley-dweller is not just a person but part of a social network, a professor of sociology had told me earlier. And now, as I watched the life on the street, it seemed to me that, as in so many of Mahfouz's works, two seemingly contradictory worlds coexisted in the alleys—a world of extreme Islamic activism and a world of extreme vice.

And those who lived here, tucked away from public view, were—like the alleys—Mahfouzian. They included civil servants and bureaucrats, the educated unemployed, laborers and shopkeepers, pensioners and petty thieves, drummers and belly dancers, drug dealers and prostitutes. As they measured their lives against their hopes, they came up short, so it is hardly surprising that the alleys of Imbaba had become a stronghold of the militant Islamic groups.

The two strongest of these groups are Gama‘a al-Islamiya and al-Jihad. For religious counsel and guidance, both of them follow the teachings of Gama‘a's spiritual mentor, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman—the sheikh now on trial in Manhattan on charges of conspiring to bomb New York City landmarks. It is easy to find cassettes of his sermons in the Imbaba alleyways, and his name is familiar there. After Ahmad and I left the coffee-house, we watched men transform a small, empty square by spreading out straw mats for midday prayers. The few women in evidence were shrouded in black abayas; they were anonymous forms, gliding in and out of storefront shops. The sounds, from amplified systems, or from radios, were those of the Koran. I saw on nearly every crumbling wall we passed, and flying from balconies above, the green-and-white flags and signs of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Islam Is the Solution,” they announced.

The Islamists, led by the Brotherhood, had built their own social and welfare system here. Gama‘a-controlled popular mosques had set up discount health clinics and schools, day-care centers, and furniture factories to employ the unemployed, and they provided meat, at wholesale prices, to the poor. Despite an aggressive, ten-million-dollar social program launched by the government last fall, the Islamists' institutions remained generally far more efficient and far superior to run-down government facilities. Along with the collapse of every secular ideology embraced by Egyptian politicians and intellectuals during this century, it was government repression and ineptitude, far more than militants' guns and bombs, that were fuelling the Islamic flame.

Dissent was rarely tolerated in the alleys under Gama‘a's control. Girls and women were harassed if they ventured outside without covering their heads, and I noticed that even girls as young as six—as opposed to the usual age of twelve or thirteen—had “taken the veil,” and were wearing hijabs. Christian shopkeepers were made to pay “taxes”—forcibly, I was told—for their protection, and many had removed icons of the Virgin Mary from their walls. Groups of militants, armed with knives and guns, went around burning video shops, and there were many neighborhoods that policemen feared to enter after dark. Local emirs, or princes, were appointed—most often bearded young men wearing long white robes and crocheted prayer caps. Throughout their areas of control, they imposed Islamic law by fiat. In Imbaba, the Islamists had, for all intents and purposes, created a state within a state. Then, in December of 1992, the government moved in, in an abortive attempt to crush the Islamic groups. It was a virtual invasion, of some fifteen thousand troops. Raids have occurred intermittently ever since.

I found evidence of the violence everywhere I went: metal sheeting pock-marked with bullet holes; popular mosques whose doors had been cemented closed; the faces of mothers whose sons had disappeared; and a young boy, barely a teen-ager, who had been arrested and buried up to his neck for days at a time, in highly saline soil in a state security camp. His skin, discolored and disfigured, resembled that of a leper, and it was impossible to guess his age.

I met Ali Ismail, a lawyer who defended members of the Islamic groups, in his office, in a flooded, unlighted Imbaba alleyway. A stocky man in his mid-thirties, whose most distinguishing characteristics are deep, dark eyes and a neatly trimmed black beard, he greeted me and my interpreter warmly and offered us Pepsi. Then he guided us from an outer office into his own—a small, bare whitewashed room lit by a single electric bulb that dangled from the ceiling. The shutters on the only window were closed.

During the security operation in December of 1992, Imbaba had been effectively sealed off from the world. “They cordoned off the entire area at four or five strategic points,” Ismail said. “People woke up in the morning to find themselves under siege. There had been so many police operations here before that people got used to it. But there had never been anything like this. It was unprecedented in its intensity, in its viciousness, in its length of time, and in the number of arrests. It went on night and day, for five weeks. By the first evening, the idea of collective punishment was the defining line: they would arrest all those who were bearded and young, their mothers and fathers, their children and wives. Babies were even taken in. And children less than ten years old were herded into police stations and tortured, to pressure their fathers to turn themselves in.

“Women were tortured with electroshocks and beaten in the streets—dragged by their hair, after their hijabs were savagely torn off their heads. Altogether, there were no fewer than five thousand long-term arrests. Over the next year, some forty-five hundred people were released; they were never charged or tried. Many of them have no idea why they were arrested—except that they lived in Imbaba's alleyways.”

“What about the five hundred others?” I asked.

“They're all still in prison,” he said. “Some of them were charged and tried, and most were acquitted and ordered released by the courts. Others—the great majority, four hundred or so—were never brought to trial, because the courts ordered their release for lack of evidence.” He paused for a moment, and then he continued, “But under our emergency law”—which has been in effect ever since the assassination of Sadat—“when you go to prison in Egypt there's no hope of getting out.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the number of Islamists in Egyptian jails in 1994 was over twenty thousand—as opposed to some six thousand the previous year. When I called on General Hassan al-Alfi, the hard-line Minister of the Interior, he became increasingly agitated, and said that these figures were totally wrong. He refused to provide an alternative number, however, and would say only that some four thousand Islamists had been arrested in 1994. Ismail told me that a total of nearly thirty-eight thousand were being held. It was the largest number of political prisoners in Egypt's modern history, and the vast majority of those prisoners had been ordered released by civilian courts.

Ismail explained the way the Orwellian system worked. When Islamists are acquitted by the courts, most of them are transferred almost immediately to the headquarters of the dreaded State Security Investigation, or S.S.I., an arm of the Interior Ministry, and they are kept there for anything from a week to a month. Then a new order is issued for their arrest, signed by the Minister of the Interior himself. During the period between a person's acquittal and his re-arrest, an S.S.I. official draws up documents claiming that he has been released. “And who would know?” Ismail said. “They've been in S.S.I. headquarters all along. This has happened in Egypt before. But what is noteworthy, and alarming, is that it's the usual procedure now.”

I asked him to give me an example, and he spoke of Hassan al-Garabawi, a lawyer from a slum area called Ayn Shams. He had been arrested in January of 1989 and acquitted in May of the following year. Since that time, thirty court orders had been issued for his release and thirty new detention orders filed. This month, Hassan al-Garabawi will have been in prison for six years. He has never left jail, even though he has been ordered released by five different judges, five times a year.

“I have fifty cases of such severity,” Ismail said. “They are doctors, lawyers, architects who are being held incommunicado in what is called ‘the highly guarded prison’—the Scorpion.” (The Scorpion, a new prison within the high-security section of Cairo's Tora Prison complex, is one of Egypt's most dreaded detention sites. A number of lawyers and judges told me that it had been built at least partly with aid from the United States.) “And this is illegal,” Ismail went on. “Here are the court rulings.” He waved a sheaf of papers in the air. “Abdel Harith Madani was one of the attorneys who challenged this. He was not the most prominent or the most forceful, but he could have paid the price with his life.”

I had met Abdel Harith Madani—a handsome young man of thirty, with intense dark eyes, a square black beard, and short black hair—in the office of another Islamist lawyer when I visited Cairo in 1993. Soft-spoken, almost shy, Abdel Harith had defended many Islamic militants, including some (there have been fifty-six in all) who have been sentenced to death. In April of 1994, he was arrested by the S.S.I. “I know the case dot for dot,” Ismail said. “He was my friend.” The account he gave me was later confirmed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

April 26th was a beautiful early-summer day, and Abdel Harith, after spending the day in court, returned home for an early dinner with his twenty-one-year-old wife and their two infant daughters. Then, as was his custom, he jogged along the Nile; jogging and soccer were passions of his. He was particularly pleased with himself that evening, for only a few days earlier he had won an important case: a court had ruled that the incommunicado detention of prisoners in the Scorpion was contrary to the Egyptian Constitution and the penal code. Just the previous morning, he had had the documents hand-carried to the director of the Scorpion.

Abdel Harith had often told friends that the spiralling violence in his country appalled him, and now he was attempting to broker a cease-fire between the two sides, through a respected opposition member of Parliament, Kamal Khalid. He hoped to have word from Khalid later that evening on the government's response.

He arrived at his law office, in the fashionable area of Giza, at around eight o'clock that evening, and he apparently didn't notice that unmarked S.S.I. cars were parked just down the block. Three lawyers with whom he shared the office were already there. Like Abdel Harith, they were members of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and, like him, they headed a legal-aid fund—reliably said to be underwritten by Saudi Arabia—for Islamist detainees. Khalid had called him, one of the other lawyers said, but Abdel Harith was never able to return the call. Nine S.S.I. officers stormed the office, breaking down the door. Several others cordoned off the building. The four young lawyers were told to stand up and face the wall, with their arms raised above their heads. They remained there for three hours, as the S.S.I. officers tore the office apart.

Abdel Harith was then driven blindfolded to his home by the S.S.I. (The three other lawyers were released.) The officers ransacked his apartment, terrifying his wife and his daughters. Then they drove him to the S.S.I. headquarters in Giza. It was just past midnight.

Across Giza, at the Kasr al-Ayni Hospital, where a small rooftop extension on the eighth floor had been transformed into a secret prison ward, doctors remember that Abdel Harith was carried in just before dawn. He was bleeding profusely and was in a severe state of shock. Within an hour, he was dead. According to a still unreleased autopsy report, he was beaten to death. Seventeen wounds were found on his body, including punctures with a sharp instrument. The fatal blow had been delivered by a club, to the back of his neck.

Yet no one told his family or his friends for eleven days. It was only on May 7th, at dawn, that his wife was told to come and pick up her husband's body at the central morgue. (The Ministry of the Interior later announced that Abdel Harith had died of lung failure caused by an asthma attack, and a spokesman told the press, “What do you expect the government to say? We never violate human rights. He died God's death.”)

At the same time that Abdel Harith's wife received the telephone call, the S.S.I. arrested his mother-in-law, one of his cousins, and a cousin of his wife's, and they were held, virtually as hostages, until the family would agree to pick up the body and bury it immediately. But the family refused, demanding that the autopsy report be released, and that a second, independent autopsy be performed. They were backed by the powerful syndicates of lawyers and doctors—both of which, along with nearly all the syndicates, the Islamists control—and later by the American State Department, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

Nevertheless, the family's protest did not last long. The next evening, Abdel Harith's cousin Amir, who had spent two days at the S.S.I., returned home. He had been tortured. The following morning at dawn, the family went to the Zeinhum Morgue and retrieved the corpse.

The S.S.I. had arranged a car and a plane to fly Amir and the coffin containing Abdel Harith to the tiny village of Qimaan al-Mataana, in Upper Egypt, where Abdel Harith's parents live. But neither of his parents was permitted to attend the burial; nor, for that matter, was anyone else. And the family and the villagers were warned that if they complained Abdel Harith's younger brother, Salah, who was in prison after being accused of killing an undercover S.S.I. officer in 1992, could meet the same fate that Abdel Harith had met.

The S.S.I. buried Abdel Harith in an unmarked grave in al-Mataana's cemetery, near the banks of the Nile, and for the forty days of official mourning S.S.I. officers stood guard by it. Nobody was permitted to come to pray, or to pay final respects. And every morning during the forty days the women of al-Mataana, dressed in black shawls, passing by the cemetery on their way to the village well, craned their necks forward and tried to find the grave. It was identifiable only by the presence of the security men. Otherwise, it was just a pile of stones covered with dust and sand.

Dr. Hussein Kamel Baha Al-Din has what is probably Egypt's most difficult job. As Minister of Education, he is charged with combatting Islamic activism in the schools, where one of the fiercest battles is now being played out between the Islamists and the government. Since the days when Hassan al-Banna, a teacher, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, some seventy years ago, Egypt's twenty-five thousand schools—which have eight hundred and fifty thousand poorly paid teachers—have proved fertile ground for the spread of political Islam. In schools around the country—especially in Upper Egypt, a particular stronghold of the militant groups—the Islamists had basically seized control of the educational system, assaulting secular thought, altering school texts, and playing cassettes of radical sermons of popular sheikhs in class. And, as the battle lines have become increasingly drawn, they have most symbolically been expressed in a growing tussle over whether female students and teachers could attend classes veiled.

In 1993, Baha al-Din banned the niqab—a shawl-like garment that covers the face, hair, and neck—from the schools, but when, the following year, he banned the less extreme hijab he was, much to his astonishment, overruled by the Supreme Court. Emboldened, the Islamists have now forcefully challenged him on the niqab. Like so much else that is now happening in Egypt, the government's campaign against the head scarves has only served to harden the Islamists' resolve.

Just after the opening of the school year, there were demonstrations nearly every other day and, often, violent clashes, as bands of young girls dressed in niqabs stormed government schools. One afternoon in Imbaba, I watched a number of girls being rounded up—some as young as ten. They refused to enter a police van, because, they said, it was a symbol of the regime, but they were picked up and carried into it anyway, flailing their arms and singing verses from the Koran.

Baha al-Din had stunned Cairenes in an interview last year by saying that the Islamists had successfully infiltrated primary, preparatory, and secondary schools all over Egypt. When I visited him early one evening, in his office, I asked him to explain.

“I couldn't believe how many fundamentalist teachers we had in the schools,” he said. “I've transferred more than a thousand teachers out of their jobs, and put them into administrative posts; then I went through the libraries, which were full of fundamentalist tracts, and had them all removed. And then, of course, there's the matter of the niqab, and the hijab. And this matter is a matter of actual war.

“When I tried to ban them, there was an immense uproar. Everyone fought me ferociously—the media, the teachers, al-Azhar. The fundamentalists have forced entire schools to wear the hijab. I found schools in which little girls as young as six, seven, eight were being forced to wear it; schools where teachers were preventing students from singing the national anthem, or saluting the flag. In other words, there was to be no national identity—only an Islamic one. Music, theatre, anything relating to the arts was being proscribed. The fundamentalists disapprove of drama clubs, so, the night of a performance, they would surround a theatre, kneeling in prayer and blocking all the entrances so that no one could get in. One woman was forced to divorce her husband because he had sent their children to a particular school. They told her that her husband was heretical.

“It's an immense problem,” Baha al-Din went on. “The leaders of this movement are very well educated, and they know exactly what they want. They want to seize power, and our educational system offers them a very convenient route.”

Baha al-Din refused to comment on the perceived rise of Saudi Arabia in evidence at al-Azhar—and in the Egyptian Islamist movement at large—but one of his key advisers had told me earlier that considerable amounts of Saudi money were coming in, and that they had increased substantially over the past year.

When I asked a Western diplomat later how the funding of Egypt's Islamic underground worked, he replied, “It's mostly legitimate, but it's all managed behind the scenes: through banks, insurance companies, foundations, front organizations, and mosques.” What has changed over the last year or two, he said, was the increasing amount of money, in percentage terms, that was coming from Europe and the United States.

Egypt's militant Islamic groups now have support offices in some thirty countries, one Western ambassador told me. Generally, he said, these supporters work under the cover of a religious front, from which they collect money, set up organizational cells, and purchase explosives and arms—not only for the Egyptian groups but also for the Palestinian organization Hamas. I learned later, from a ranking official of the Egyptian government, that its assessment was that in 1994 over fifteen million dollars had been collected in, or channelled through, the United States. According to the official, the bulk of it had gone to Hamas.

Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the fifty-six-year-old spiritual mentor of Gama‘a, arrived in the United States, quietly and without attracting attention, in July of 1990, via Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Sudan, on a much-disputed tourist visa—the sixth visa he had been granted by the United States. What is perhaps as interesting as how he entered this country is why he decided to come. I had learned in Cairo that his primary purpose was to set up a United States infrastructure, a funding mechanism, and an organizational base for Egypt's militant Islamic groups.

One afternoon just before Christmas, after I returned to New York, I went to the Metropolitan Correction Center, in lower Manhattan, to meet with him, in what appeared to be a recreation room, in the prison's maximum-security ward. I was accompanied by one of the Sheikh's followers, who was acting as my interpreter and as a paralegal for the Sheikh, whose conspiracy trial would begin in Manhattan on January 9th. No sooner had we sat down, on two straight-backed chairs, than Sheikh Omar came in. He wore a blue two-piece prison uniform, brown bedroom slippers, and a pair of woolly white socks. His eyes were not covered by the heavy black glasses that he normally wears, nor was he wearing the crimson turban of al-Azhar. Instead, he had a simple white prayer cap on his head.

He greeted me cordially, and opened the conversation by telling me that his twenty-year-old son, Abdullah, had just begun his first year at al-Azhar University, where the Sheikh himself had received his Ph.D., in Islamic jurisprudence, some twenty-five years before.

I asked him how he explained the new militancy at al-Azhar.

“In my view, it isn't militancy,” Sheikh Omar said. “It's just a tepid whispering that has begun. You mentioned the U.N. population conference, and the Grand Sheikh's opposition to it. But, in the final analysis, what did he do? We didn't see the kind of opposition that we saw from the Pope, in Rome—his opposition was very forceful. I do admire that man. He opposed this conference, and the issue of abortion, in a most positive way, and he did whatever he could to prevent this conference's taking place. Everyone in the world knew what the Catholic Church's position was, so why didn't the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar stand up and tell the world what Muslims think? No. Al-Azhar's response to this conference was not nearly adequate enough for me.”

“But,” I persisted, “many Egyptians believe that the al-Azhar sheikhs sense that their interpretations of Islam are being superseded by those of more militant groups, and, as a consequence, they are increasingly adopting the ideas of these groups.”

“Good,” the Sheikh responded. “If what you say is true.” After a moment's pause, he went on, “You know, if al-Azhar had not neglected its duty, had it not become only a mouthpiece of the government, had it implemented Islamic Sharia law, you would not see any Islamic groups, like Gama‘a, working as they are now. They wouldn't even exist, for it was only after al-Azhar forfeited its historical role that all these groups began popping up to fill the void. Every Islamic group working in Egypt now is trying to fill a vacuum created by al-Azhar.”

I asked him to give me an example, and he replied, “In the area of education, for one; but, most important, in the implementation of Sharia law. I can assure you, the moment that al-Azhar begins doing what it is supposed to do you will no longer see any of these Islamic activist groups.”

As the Sheikh continued talking, he appeared at ease, rocking back and forth in his chair, his long white beard resting on his chest. He apologized that he could not offer me tea or soda, explaining that he was not permitted to carry money in his prison uniform.

I asked Sheikh Omar if, in his view, the attack on Naguib Mahfouz was justified.

“I don't know the circumstances, but it all seems a bit strange,” he said. “It could be just another government trick to anger the people. Naguib Mahfouz has been around for years, and if our youth wanted to attack him they would have done it long ago. The main question I have is, Why now? They've charged sixteen people. It's unbelievable! They say sixteen people were needed, just to scratch a man on his neck with a knife. Now they will court-martial them all, and within a month they'll be dead. And no one will know, not even their lawyers, what really happened to Naguib Mahfouz.”

“Are you absolutely certain that this attack was not carried out by Gama‘a?” I asked.

“This is what I think,” he replied. “Naguib Mahfouz is not a target for the Islamists. As I said before, we know where he sits, where he walks. When the pressure on the Islamic groups was not nearly as great as it is now, when they were more or less able to freely move about, they never attacked Mahfouz. So, why now? And what could they hope to accomplish by killing him, anyhow?”

“It has been reported that you issued a fatwa against Mahfouz, by declaring him an apostate,” I said.

“No, no, no,” he replied, and his voice began to rise. “This whole matter is so misunderstood. What I said—and this was when The Satanic Verses was making headlines—was, if we had punished Naguib Mahfouz for what he wrote in Children of Gebelawi, then Salman Rushdie never would have dared to write that book. This was a reply, to a question asked by a journalist. It was a reply, an opinion. It was not a fatwa.

“How should Mahfouz have been punished?” I asked.

“You've got to understand the rule of Sharia law,” Sheikh Omar replied. “Al-Azhar should have brought Mahfouz before a committee where he would have been judged. He would have had an opportunity to defend himself, and, if found guilty, he would have been given an opportunity to repent. But under Islamic law any Muslim who is found to be an apostate has no other option: he must repent.”

“And if he doesn't?”

“Then he will be executed,” Sheikh Omar said.

He stopped for a moment, and then he went on, “You personally, and others in the West, may not like this; you may find it harsh. But this is our religion; it is the rule of God.”

For a few moments, neither of us said anything more.

I left Cairo, I had asked a foreign diplomat what he anticipated was going to happen in Egypt next, and he had replied, “Egypt is not Algeria, at least not yet. There it's a civil war; here it's guerrilla attacks. But should widespread violence and unrest break out, then the key question is, What will the Army's reaction be, for it is Mubarak's only real constituency. I suspect he will keep the troops in the barracks for as long as he can, for there are many who doubt whether the Army will fire on civilians to support an increasingly unpopular government.”

Last year, there had been at least one court-martial—and probably two—of junior officers charged with plotting to assassinate President Mubarak. (The officers were subsequently executed by firing squad.) It was the realization of the government's worst nightmare.

So I now asked Sheikh Omar what the Islamists' strength in the Army was.

He hesitated, and didn't reply directly. Instead, choosing his words carefully, he said, “That is a very difficult question, which no one can answer right now. And, even if I knew, obviously I would not tell The New Yorker—which divisions, where, and how much—and allow the Egyptian government to finish them off. What I can say is that, in addition to the courts-martial, there have been at least three trials of civilians this year, in which some of the defendants were officers or cadets from the military academy.” (According to defense lawyers, there were thirteen.)

Sheikh Omar had been animated during our interview, but now he began to fidget in his chair. In an hour or so, he told me, he was meeting with former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is heading his defense team.

“One more question,” he said.

I asked him what, in his view, was the most likely scenario for the Islamists to come to power in Egypt, if they do.

“Be specific,” the Sheikh said. “Give me your choices.”

I did. A growing number of Egyptians and foreign diplomats had come to believe that if parliamentary elections, which will take place in October, are free and fair, the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, would probably win. I now said to the Sheikh that it seemed to me that the three most logical scenarios were: elections; a military coup; or mass demonstrations and chaos on the streets.

“Forget about elections,” he replied. “As long as this government is in power, they will never be free or fair. Every election in which Mubarak has stood, he has won by ninety-nine per cent. Has this ever happened to an American President? As far as a coup is concerned, the Egyptian Army is now under unprecedented surveillance and security. Military intelligence has set up a new arm—it's called the Seventy-Fifth Group—and its sole purpose is to monitor junior officers and new recruits. And that monitoring tells me that there is something to be worried about. But, nevertheless, the moment they discover anyone who prays, who reads the Koran, who observes Islamic rituals, they are weeded out; thus, through attrition, they are trying to deplete the ranks.”

“So,” he went on, “we've eliminated two of the three choices, and the last one is the most viable for me: for people to rise up, and go to the streets. You've seen the disaffection all over Egypt—we control the bar association, yet when lawyers demonstrate they are beaten back with tear gas and clubs. We control the student unions at the universities, yet the representatives are being carted off to jail. And the students, like the lawyers, are elected representatives. Blue-collar workers have been striking more than ever before. Everyone, from the extreme right to the extreme left, has lost faith in this regime; on every level of society, people are in conflict with this regime.”

He stood up and walked me to the door, ringing a button for a guard to see me out. He seemed confident, even puckish, and I was struck by the realization that, for over a year, Sheikh Omar had been in jail. Yet even from a prison in the United States he was better informed on what was happening in Egypt than many Egyptians were.

Before I left Cairo, I had called on President Hosni Mubarak in the Presidential palace, in Heliopolis, some ten miles from the center of town, where he had set up his primary office. To walk through the palace's high-ceilinged halls, resplendent in marble, alabaster, and gold, is to enter a vanished world of monarchs and colonial powers, seemingly cut off from the rest of Egypt.

The sixty-six-year-old Mubarak is well aware of the risks involved in leaving the palace grounds. As Vice-President, he had been sitting only a few seats away from Sadat on the afternoon of October 6, 1981, watching a military parade, when machine-gun fire began. In forty-five seconds, Sadat was dead, along with ten others. Mubarak, a cautious, self-effacing man, who was a former fighter pilot and later the Commander of the Egyptian Air Force, had seemed an unlikely choice when Sadat appointed him Vice-President, in 1975. The day after Sadat's assassination, he was sworn in as only the third President in Egypt's history. It was a job that he had never aspired to, and never really wanted, he told friends.

Yet he consolidated his power, retired potential rivals, and, by scrupulously maintaining the status quo, managed to stay ahead of the three-hundred-thousand-man Army, whose leaders are the arbiters of power in Egypt, and have been for more than forty years. But, according to his critics, he grew increasingly out of touch in recent years, surrounding himself with sycophants and old military friends, and issuing increasingly authoritarian decrees, in the same manner that doomed the Egyptian monarchy. His inability, or unwillingness, to come to grips with the monumental problems that Egypt faces has led to a widespread perception that the Arab world's largest country is badly adrift.

All that I had heard about Mubarak led me to expect a disillusioned man. He doesn't take pressure well, I was told, and tends to withdraw into himself. Only a few days earlier, he had met with President Clinton, who had stopped in Cairo en route to the signing of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. The meeting had not gone well, according to all accounts, and the Egyptian government had begun to sense that American foreign policy in the Middle East was no longer as inextricably tied to Cairo as it once had been.

There had also been a disaster in Upper Egypt a few days after Clinton left, in which some six hundred people died when blazing fuel from an Army depot was carried by flash floods through a small town. Two years earlier, when Cairo was hit by a devastating earthquake, the government had dithered while Islamist groups rushed in with relief. Mubarak was determined that that would not happen again. But the government stumbled, and every stumble was pounced upon.

Security at the Presidential palace was unprecedented when I arrived. The outer foyer bristled with electronic equipment and metal scans. After some time, I was escorted into the private office of the President. As Mubarak greeted me, and indicated that I should sit on a large gilded sofa to the left of his elegant armchair, his manner was confident, even ebullient. After an exchange of pleasantries, I asked Mubarak what concerned him most about the problems facing Egypt today.

“Our main concern is the economy,” he said in English, “and we're working hard on economic reform. I suppose you're asking that question because of the [Islamic] fanatics here. They're nothing to worry about. We're used to this in Egypt; it goes up and down. And, frankly, I must tell you, this whole problem of terrorism throughout the Middle East is a by-product of our own, illegal Muslim Brotherhood—whether it's al-Jihad, Hizbollah, in Lebanon, or Hamas. They all sprang from underneath the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood. They say they have renounced violence, but, in reality, they are responsible for all this violence, and the time will come when they will be uncovered.” He went on to imply that a severe crackdown on the Brotherhood was imminent.

As we continued talking, Mubarak expressed both irritation and concern over what he considered to be the passive attitude of Western governments, particularly those of Britain, Germany, and the United States, in allowing Egypt's militant Islamic groups to operate freely from their soil. But he voiced his greatest concern—rage, really—over the veterans of the United States-sponsored Afghanistan war.

“Nearly all those who are committing these crimes, these acts of violence, were trained on the battlefield of Afghanistan,” he said. “They are now re-infiltrating, all over the Middle East. They have training, money, and arms, and they're now looking for a new cause. The problem of violence in this country began when the first man returned from Afghanistan. Before that, there was a dialogue between the Gama‘a al-Islamiya and the government.”

When I asked him if he could give me details, he hesitated, and then said that he would prefer not to.

A number of Western diplomats had told me earlier that they were troubled by mounting evidence not only of coöperation between Egypt's militant Islamic groups and Hamas but of recurring reports that the Egypt-Gaza frontier had, for all intents and purposes, become a cordon sanitaire for the smuggling of weapons and men, and the transfer of funds, in and out of Yasir Arafat's beleaguered Palestinian autonomous zone. I asked Mubarak how concerned he was about the breakdown of law and order in the Gaza Strip.

“I'm concerned, of course,” he replied. “The last thing we want is to have the ghost of Afghanistan haunting us again—and, this time, right across our border, in the Gaza Strip. And, I must be absolutely frank; the failure of the Palestinian Governing Authority, and of Yasir Arafat, not only will set us back by fifty years but there will be terrorism everywhere! My own fear is that if there is a delay in the process, if Arafat fails, all these extremists, all these terrorists trained in Afghanistan, will rush to Gaza and join Hamas. It will be a disaster, and create one hell of a problem for us.”

From time to time during my interview with Mubarak, which lasted two hours, he seemed bewildered, then annoyed, by some of my questions—concerning, for example, the increasingly iconoclastic behavior of the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, and the incommunicado detention of prisoners in the Scorpion—and broke into Arabic with his Minister of Information, who was sitting next to me. I wondered if it was possible, as I had been told by some of his aides, that Mubarak genuinely didn't know many of the things that were happening in Egypt, though they were happening in his name.

One of his top advisers had told me earlier that, in his view, the main irony surrounding the Middle East's militant Islamic groups was that all of them had been spawned by the leaders of the region themselves: Gama‘a was a creation of Egyptian intelligence to counter the left; Hamas was a creation of Israeli intelligence to undermine the P.L.O.; and the Arab-Afghanis, as the veterans of the Afghan war are called, were created by the C.I.A. and Saudi intelligence. And, as the contacts among these various Islamic groups increased, there was a growing resentment toward the United States; for it was Washington, in Egypt's view, that was most responsible for creating what the adviser called a hydra-headed monster on the battlefields of Afghanistan, yet had then refused to assist threatened Arab governments in putting the genie back into the bottle again.

So I asked Mubarak how much responsibility, in his view, the government of the United States—and that of Egypt—bore for the creation of today's militant Islamic groups.

He remained quiet for a moment, and then he replied, without answering, “Yes, Sadat was responsible for the formation of Gama‘a. He was badly advised, and he made a big mistake. But, I must tell you, even though this group calls itself Gama‘a al-Islamiya, it is not Islamic. None of them are: they have nothing to do with Islam. They want to seize power, pure and simple, and who are they? Belly dancers and drummers from the slums. The man who tried to assassinate Naguib Mahfouz knows nothing about the Koran; he knows nothing about praying. He was simply paid to do what he did. It's all a matter of money.”

“Who is paying them?” I asked.

“The financing is coming from different places,” he replied. “These people have their contacts in Paris, Germany, Switzerland. They move about, from here to there. And, thanks to modern technology, they make bank transfers by wire, and run the movement by conference calls and fax.”

“What about the United States?” I asked.

It was clear that he was angry and bitter, even before he spoke.

“Your government is in contact with these terrorists from the Muslim Brotherhood,” he replied. “This has all been done very secretly, without our knowledge at first. You think you can correct the mistakes that you made in Iran, where you had no contact with the Ayatollah Khomeini and his fanatic groups before they seized power. But, I can assure you, these groups will never take over this country; and they will never be on good terms with the United States. These contacts will never be of any benefit to you, or to any other country which supports these groups.”

A year or so ago, Mubarak had told a group of Egyptian editors that Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman was a paid agent of the C.I.A., and I now asked him if he still held that belief.

He replied that he did, and when I asked him why, he responded that he had read it in the New York Times. (Not surprisingly, the Sheikh denied the allegation and told me that when Mubarak made the original charge “even Warren Christopher denied that it was true.”)

When Mubarak had first assumed office, he did more to bring about democracy than most Egyptians thought he would. But then, having doled out certain freedoms, he began reining them in. Now his government, according to international human-rights organizations, has one of the most abusive records anywhere. So I asked the President if it wasn't a mistake to treat the Islamic movement as strictly a law-and-order problem, and, in the process, come under criticism around the world.

“I do not have one political prisoner in my jails,” he said. “Everyone there is a criminal, who has engaged in criminal acts. Not once have I ever arrested anyone for their political beliefs. Yet the moment anyone is picked up, somebody immediately sends a fax to Amnesty International. And most of these human-rights organizations abroad get their information from a so-called human-rights organization here, which is controlled by members of the former”—Nasser—“regime, and is stacked with people from the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He had begun shouting, and paused to take a deep breath.

I used the occasion to ask him when the autopsy report on Abdel Harith Madani's death—which had been requested by President Clinton's aides—would be made public.

He leaned across a table toward me, and his face hardened.

Why is there such a big fuss about Abdel Harith Madani?” he asked, and his voice began to rise. “What about the human rights of the women and children that these people kill? Madani was a criminal! And those who say they're looking out for human rights are only looking out for criminals' rights. They never ask about the innocent people who have been killed in the streets. There's no balance at all! What about Naguib Mahfouz? What about his rights? What about the woman who lost all her sons—two in the wars, and one at the hands of these terrorists. What about her? She cannot have any more children. Till this day, when I see her on TV, I cannot look at her face.”

The President leaned back in his chair, looking suddenly beleaguered and tired. Then he said, seemingly to no one in particular, “We are in a mess.”

Naguib Mahfouz has now left the Police Hospital and has resumed his normal life, moving from café to café. The only difference is that, much to his irritation, he is now surrounded by a phalanx of five heavily armed security men.

A few weeks after the attack on him, Children of Gebelawi was serialized in the Egyptian press. It was done without his permission and, to the best of everyone's knowledge, without the permission of al-Azhar. Mahfouz was furious, and told friends that the re-publication of the banned novel was tantamount to “a second assassination attempt.”

The controversy began when the Minister of Information—with television cameras in tow—appeared at Mahfouz's bedside, and declared that the government did not support a ban on any of his works. No one was certain—including Mahfouz himself—whether the Minister's statement ended the prohibition or not.

The evening that I visited Mahfouz in his hospital room, when I asked him what he thought, he merely shook his head and said, “I asked that the publication come at a later time, if the book was to be re-published at all.”

“Who do you hold responsible for the attack on you?” I asked.

He answered without hesitation, “The system, not the young man. The young man who attacked me didn't know anything about Children of Gebelawi. He had never read the book.”

I asked Mahfouz what troubled him most about the situation in Egypt now.

“All the young men, like the one who attacked me,” he replied. “We have alienated an entire generation—our most precious commodity, our youth.”

“You've told your friends that young people today don't have the same chances that your generation did,” I said.

Mahfouz smiled sadly, and nodded his head.

“Can you explain that?” I asked.

He was silent for a moment, and then he turned toward me and said, “We sat in the coffee-houses, late into the night, and discussed the world. We didn't have to worry about what life would bring us the following day. Our economic situation was far better, and we had more democratic rights. We could choose any political party, and we could choose our government. Some of us even had the hope to be in that government. We had the hope to rule, and to have a chance.” He paused for a moment, and then he said, “But the young men of today don't have our hopes, or our opportunities. They also don't have our dreams.”

Matti Moosa (essay date Spring 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 224–30.

[In the following essay, Moosa outlines the development of Mahfouz's literary style and thematic concerns.]

Among the major figures in the development of modern Arabic fiction, none has received higher international acclaim than Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Before then he was—like Taha Husayn (d. 1973) and Tawfiq al-Hakim (d. 1987)—known in the West only to a very limited audience despite an output that includes over thirty novels and a number of short-story collections and plays. In fact, until the 1940's, Mahfouz was little known even in his native Egypt, where he began his literary career as an essayist. He gained some fame with the publication of three historical novels, but his undisputed literary renown came from a series of realistic contemporary novels in which he portrayed various aspects of life in Cairo. “Al-Thulathiyya” (“The Trilogy”), published in 1956–57, was immediately seen as a major achievement and brought him wide recognition in literary circles outside Egypt.

Mahfouz was born into a middle-class family, the youngest of seven children. Though he seldom discusses his early life, it appears that he grew up in a solid family environment with happily married parents whom he loved and respected and who nurtured his intellectual interests, particularly in ancient history. He also took an interest in politics, soccer, and composing poetry in both traditional and free verse. He began reading Arabic translations of Western detective stories and historical novels, and then the works of prominent Egyptian writers. After completing his formal education, he concentrated on the masterpieces of Western literature.

Mahfouz began his literary career in high school, writing essays on various topics in philosophy and literature, along with an occasional short story. Initially viewing philosophy more important than literature, he eventually chose fiction only after he saw his short stories being readily accepted for publication. Even so, he spent the years from 1930 to 1945 largely in writing essays, and his first short-story collection, Hams al-junun (The Whisper of Madness), did not appear until 1938.

His first philosophical essay, “Ihtidar Mu‘taqadat wa Tawallud Mu‘taqadat” (“The Death and Birth of Doctrines”), appeared in Salama Musa's periodical al-Majalla al-Jadida (The New Periodical) in October 1930. In it Mahfouz points out that life is subject to constant change and evolution, which man must accept as the inevitable result of civilization. Yet man is also by nature a believer who needs religious faith or an acceptable substitute to achieve tranquility and happiness.

Though imported Western doctrines like socialism and communism had been finding some acceptance among the intelligentsia, Mahfouz desired an egalitarian system which would benefit the majority while not offending Muslim believers, something between capitalism and communism. He settled on moderate socialism but recognized that, while it can fulfill some of man's material needs, it cannot bring him spiritual happiness. In the late 1960's, when an interviewer suggested that Mahfouz appeared to sympathize with Marxism, he expressed antipathy toward the materialistic tenets on which it is based and doubt about its workability. In his vision of society, individual freedom and happiness must prevail; everything depends on science, which ultimately leads to understanding of the highest truth and the acquisition of knowledge.

Mahfouz's early articles on philosophy reveal him as an intelligent young Muslim trying to reconcile various Western concepts with his traditional beliefs. Despite his respect for philosophy, he seems convinced that the modern age is dominated by science, technology, and pragmatism. Caught between the idea that the concept of God has always been inherent in the collective society and the mystics' view that God is a transcendental essence which man feels in the depths of his soul, Mahfouz grew more perplexed than ever. Years later, calling himself a Muslim believer, he declared that in his heart he had combined an aspiration for God, faith in science, and a predilection for socialism.

Mahfouz also wrote on psychology, music, and literature, and two of his articles on Arabic writers are especially significant. In one he calls Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad the soul of the Arab literary nahda (“awakening”), Taha Husayn its intellect, and Salama Musa its will. In a 1945 article, however, he sharply disagrees with al-Aqqad, whose little book Fi Bayti (At My House) praises poetry at the expense of fiction, which he calls inferior. Art in any form, Mahfouz says, is an expression of life, and should not be scorned because it brings pleasure to many. He contends that story is more popular than poetry because its technique is simpler and its purpose is to entertain.

With encouragement and help from Salama Musa, Mahfouz published three historical novels before moving to other concerns. He called the first Hikmat Khufu (The Wisdom of Cheops), but Musa renamed it Abath al-aqdar (Ironies of Fate) and printed it as a separate issue of his magazine in September 1939. Two others followed, Radobis (1943) and Kifah Tiba (1944). In writing these novels, Mahfouz was continuing the tradition of Salim al-Bustani and Jurji Zaydan, later carried to greater heights by Ibrahim Ramzi, Muhammad Said al-Uryan, and others. Several educated writers of his generation, eager to portray current social and political movements, sought parallels between Egypt's ancient and contemporary history, giving the historical novel a new nationalistic emphasis.

After writing this series of novels, however, Mahfouz abandoned historical themes to focus on contemporary life in his native Cairo. “To me,” he says, “history had lost its charm. There was a time when I wanted to write more historical novels, but I could not.” Between 1945 and 1951 he published five novels dealing with social themes drawn from city life. These include al-Qahira al-Jadida (The New Cairo, 1945), which contrasts the city's upper- and lower-middle classes in the 1930's, confronting us with the stark, absolute dichotomy between them. The upper class had wealth, power, and prestige, but was morally bankrupt; the poor struggled to improve their lot but could succeed only by compromising their principles. The moral climate was changeable, and when the members of the lower class sought answers to society's problems, they were faced with diverse, often conflicting values.

Khan al-khalili (1946), named for an old quarter of Cairo, focuses on the many Egyptians squeezed in between the upper-middle class, which controlled wealth and land, and the fallahin (peasants). It depicts well the growing semiliterate segment of the population in the 1940's, people who dabbled in a variety of disciplines, mastering none and impressing only those less educated than themselves. Mahfouz also shows here the dramatic effect of World War II on the common people. Cairo has been turned upside down, with a new class of profiteers having risen to join the aristocracy, and thus having blurred the old class distinctions. Mahfouz vividly shows people's credulity and their vulnerability to propaganda from both sides.

In Zuqaq al-Midaqq (Midaq Alley, 1947), the alley becomes the protagonist, defiant and changeless, while its inhabitants hate it, leave it, and return. A timeless relic of the Fatimid and Mamluk periods, it is a monument to antiquity; its people, showing little interest in the outside world, carry on its tradition. Zuqaq al-Midaqq has no formal plot and no dominant character. It is filled with common folk from the lower-middle class, mostly semiliterate or uneducated. The action is set in the last years of World War II; the war directly affects only a few inhabitants, though the conflict between their traditional values and those imposed upon them by the war is clear.

Al-Sarab (The Mirage, 1948), is a continuation of Mahfouz's contemporary social novels with a different technique and emphasis. A careful reading shows that it explores male-female relationships, family ties, and the social gap between the Turkish aristocracy and common Egyptians. Mahfouz experiments here with a first-person narrative, letting the protagonist describe his own actions without comment. Mahfouz's aim is not to write a psychological novel but to reveal Cairo life from the viewpoint of a Turko-Egyptian who happens to suffer from an Oedipus complex.

Bidaya wa Nihaya (The Beginning and the End, 1949) presents the hopes and fears of a lower middle-class family struggling against the hardships caused by the death of its head and sole breadwinner. It is set in the 1930's, when British imperialists controlled Egypt with the aid of subservient, self-seeking politicians.

“Al-Thulathiyya” (“The Trilogy,” 1956–57), is undoubtedly Mahfouz's most important work and one of his personal favorites. In studying the novel as a genre, he became interested in the “generations novel,” which follows a single family over an extended period. Subsequently he composed “al-Thulathiyya,” the saga of three generations of a Cairo family that offers a comprehensive view of major social and political events from 1917 to 1944 from the perspective of the Egyptian middle class, then caught in the clash between traditional Islamic ideals and Western doctrines.

The first volume, Bayn al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), examines the family's basic relationships and interactions, and reveals the hypocrisy of the patriarch Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who pretends to be a good Muslim but is actually a libertine. Kamal, only a young boy (a character many believe modeled after Mahfouz himself), fears his father and takes refuge in his mother and in Islam. In addition, we learn of the patriarch's political apathy toward the Egyptian national leader Sa‘d Zaghlul and his revolutionary movement against the British authorities in 1919. Sadly, Abd al-Jawad's other son—Fahmi, a high school student who had a promising future—is killed while demonstrating against the British in the Revolution of 1919.

The second part of the trilogy, Qasr al-Shawq, (Palace of Desire) covers from 1924 to Sa‘d Zaghlul's death in August 1927. In it Mahfouz depicts the deterioration of the national movement into petty squabbling between the politicians and the palace, and shows the clash of traditional values and concepts with those imported from the West. In essence, Kamal is a perplexed young man attempting to reconcile his faith and idealism with social reality. The novel also explores the social tension between the aristocracy and the middle class, as exemplified in the account of Kamal's love for the noble Aida, who ultimately spurns him. Kamal then becomes a skeptic and turns to science for the salvation of both himself and mankind, espousing Darwinism. As a result he is totally estranged from his own culture and society, which is still controlled by the British.

In the final book of the trilogy, al-Sukkariyya (Sugar Street), covering the period from 1935 to 1944, Mahfouz looks closely at political upheavals, the conflict between Western ideologies and traditional Muslim beliefs, and the cultural and social changes wrought by modern civilization and World War II. Kamal's nephews—Ahmad (a Marxist) and Abd al-Munim (who joins the Muslim Brotherhood)—represent the opposing poles of this spectrum. Western ideas now enter more pervasively through radio. In the midst of all this change, Kamal becomes emotionally paralyzed, incapable of significant action for good or evil, while his nephews, as the embodiment of the new generation, suffer no such ambivalence. Although Mahfouz also pictures here the strong demarcation between the Muslims and the Coptic Christian community, his most significant concern remains the confusion of the middle class about their place and identity in society.

Shortly after Mahfouz finished his trilogy in 1952, a group of army officers overthrew King Farouk and proclaimed the dawning of a new day. For seven years Mahfouz waited for the revolution to yield the social changes he had envisioned. In 1959, disillusioned by the outcome of the revolution, he wrote the allegorical Awlad Haratina (literally “Children of Our Quarter,” but translated as Children of Gebelawi) to comment specifically on the Egyptian situation within the general context of the human condition. Divided into five chapters, each named for its central figure, the book (like Shaw's Back to Methuselah) follows a loose chronological sequence. The first chapter retells the thinly disguised story of Adam and Eve; the next three parallel the lives of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad; and the final chapter introduces Arafa, who symbolizes modern science. The characters dwell in the hara (alley) of history, which is dominated by the nearby house of the powerful, enigmatic Gebelawi; they experience history as an endless cycle of hope and despair, escaping tyranny only briefly. Mahfouz is interested here not in religious questions but in social and political issues and the role science plays in settling them.

Awlad Haratina reflects Mahfouz's doubt that any society can maintain justice for long. Religious figures come and go, but the people remain powerless and miserable. Science represents the last great hope for mankind, but whether it can overcome human tyranny is unclear. Mahfouz seems to think that religion, if freed from fanaticism, parochialism, and superstition, could lead men's rulers to use science for the good of all. At the same time, he appears to accept the contention of Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–98) that there are two kinds of truth, philosophical and theological, and that a single phenomenon can be understood rationally in philosophy and allegorically in theology.

This theory, which has long aroused the wrath of Islamic theologians, led to attacks on Awlad Haratina and prompted the clerics of the Islamic University of as-Azhar to ban the publication of the novel. Although the Egyptian government itself neither condemned nor banned the book, the initial publication came in Lebanon in 1967, and the title remained unpublished in Egypt until relatively recently. Nevertheless, even after Mahfouz received the 1988 Nobel Prize the book was still troubling some people, and the blind Shaykh Umar Abd al-Rahman, a member of an extremist religious group, issued a fatwa (juristic opinion) condemning Mahfouz as a blasphemer. According to Islamic Sahri‘a (law), Mahfouz should have then either repented or been killed.

Between 1961 and 1967 Mahfouz published six novels and two collections of short stories—an astonishing burst of literary productivity all the more remarkable because of his increasing distress at the direction Egypt was taking under President Nasser. In the last stage of his literary career, beginning with the publication of Miramar in 1967, Mahfouz appears to have synthesized the social realism of the contemporary novels and the trilogy with the allegory of Awlad Haratina. Since 1969 he has published several more novels and collections of short fiction, constantly experimenting with new forms and techniques as he moved further from conventional realism. Even after retiring from the Ministry of Culture in 1972, Mahfouz continued to write fiction in addition to working on film adaptations of several of his novels and producing a weekly column for the newspaper al-Ahram. He has, to be sure, been publicly criticized for some of his political and religious positions, but he has attracted many readers throughout the Arab world and is commonly viewed as the conscience of Egypt.

Events took an ominous turn in October 1994, however, when the Cairo evening newspaper al-Masa began to give many Egyptians their first look—seventeen years after its initial publication outside of Egypt—at the controversial novel Awlad Haratina. Mahfouz had authorized neither that newspaper's daily serialization of the novel nor the almost immediate printing of 45,000 copies of the complete book by another newspaper, al-Ahali. But that was of little consequence to Muslim fundamentalists, who rekindled their attack on Mahfouz. On the evening of 14 October 1994, while Mahfouz was in a car waiting to be driven to a weekly literary meeting, he was stabbed twice in the neck by Muhammad Naji Mustafa, a Muslim militant who subsequently admitted that he had never read the novel but acted on the strength of the blind shaykh's five-year-old fatwa.

Fortunately, Mahfouz, though he nearly bled to death, was moved to a nearby hospital and saved with blood transfusions. He has recovered and seems likely to continue his sharp criticism of both the current government and the Islamic movement that vies with that government for power. Awlad Haratina is not against religion, he insists; it has suffered from misinterpretation.

Though sometimes called the Dickens or the Balzac of Egypt, Mahfouz has by now surely earned a standing of his own. He is the Mahfouz of the Arab world, and it will benefit other cultures to read his work on its own merits. His realistic style, his interest in social issues, and indeed his whole ethos are non-Western, genuinely Egyptian. But his works reflect so many Arab and Islamic traditions—and do so with such unparalleled skill—that he deserves to be claimed by all Arabs.

Penelope Mesic (review date 2 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Ancient Tales, Modern Telling,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 2, 1995, pp. 6–7.

[In the following review of Arabian Nights and Days, Mesic offers a positive assessment of Mahfouz's adaptation of The Arabian Nights.]

At the heart of Arabian Nights and Days, an enthralling novel by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, is the spacious courtyard of the Cafe of the Emirs. Despite some concessions to the distinctions of wealth—the cafe is furnished with couches for affluent customers and low mats for humble laborers—it is a place of true democracy. For conversation, which flourishes here, rests on an assumption of equality. Thus Nural-Din, a perfume seller of wealth and surpassing good looks, and Shamloul, the hunch-backed millionaire, gather with Ma‘rouf the cobbler and Ugr the barber and hear the lowly porter Sindbad announce his decision to become a sailor and thus quench his longing for “the unknown that brings forth islands and mountains … angels, and devils.”

But few attend to Sindbad's plan, which none can foresee will end in marvels. The men of this rich medieval town, nestled between a mountain and a river, are celebrating. The sultan Shahriyar has declared that he will marry the wise and beautiful Shahrzad, who has preserved her life by beguiling the sultan with stories. The marriage means that neither she nor any of the city's remaining daughters will be deflowered and beheaded, as were so many of her predecessors in the sultan's cruel favor.

The characters of Mahfouz's novel are, of course, drawn directly from that ocean of enchantment, The Arabian Nights. Their fates, too, are already written. Everything that happens to Sindbad, Shahriyar, Shahrzad and Nur al-Din we know from a thousand-and-one interlinked stories of legend. So what does Mahfouz contribute? Delicately, without destroying the magic of the earlier work, which is a composite retold and augmented over six centuries by countless unknown authors, he adds a layer of psychological complexity. His figures have depth and reality far beyond what the original provides.

The sultan, for example, guiltily aware of how much innocent blood he has spilled, ends by telling Shahrzad that he has kept her at his side because “I found your aversion a continual torment that I deserved.” Thus we may pity his anguish but can see that he has not really changed his nature, since even the punishment he allots himself is administered at the price of Shahrzad's unhappiness.

Mahfouz's lavish descriptions also enrich what he has borrowed, as when he writes of the city at night: “All human movement had come to rest. By the light of widely separated lamps, houses, shops, and mosques at slumber loomed into sight. Summer's heat had lessened and stars sparkled in the heavens.”

While this passage demonstrates the skill of translator Denys Johnson-Davies, it is one of the strengths of Mahfouz's work that so many of its stylistic elements are of a kind that pass unharmed from language to language. The dialogue is studded with proverbs and metaphors that retain their force in English, as when a condemned criminal's fate hits him “like the smell of pepper.” Other characters speak in measured, parallel constructions that retain their charm in translation while conveying with their stateliness the characters' sense that events are not random but destined by God. For example, in summarizing events for Sindbad, who has returned a hero, an old friend says, “Many have died and have had their fill of death, and many have been born and have not had their fill of life.”

The result of Mahfouz's efforts is a world where magical events are all the more magical for happening to ordinary people. Here are the marvels we treasured as children: a ring of invisibility, diamonds the size of hen's eggs, a sumptuous subterranean palace that suddenly appears beneath a stone and a sullen genie who could crush us with a fingernail were he not bound by the iron laws of his enchantment.

But along with these things Mahfouz provides the adult pleasures of a complicated world where a man hitherto blameless is bewildered to find himself committing crimes he abhors, where corrupt officials can arrest the wrong man and know it, where a character, sighing, can exclaim, “What an extraordinary sultanate this is! It raises aloft the badge of God and yet plunges itself in the dirt.”

As that exclamation suggests, there is a message for the modern world enfolded in Mahfouz's story telling. The most disturbing development in Arabian Nights and Days is the regular incidence of beheadings, both of innocent men and of the officials whose greed and cruelty are eventually brought to the attention of a sultan who is himself known for the abuse of power. We are being shown a land much troubled by corruption.

While the original Thousand and One Nights left its characters locked in unquestioned obedience to custom, Mahfouz allows his sultan to say, “Traditions are of the past, and there are things that become outdated.” In keeping with this attitude, Shahriyar, before relinquishing his throne, replaces the dishonest governor with Ma‘rouf the cobbler, who receives his appointment with the words, “I have spent my life, Your Majesty, mending shoes until mending is in my blood”—an implicit promise to correct past wrongs. The vizier is mistrustful of Ma‘rouf's lack of experience, but the sultan answers bravely, “Let us venture upon a new experience.”

Thus these bejeweled tales of a time past and a time that never was, when djinns amused themselves by tempting humankind to wholly, serve to remind Muslims and the world beyond of the wisdom and humane justice that is the Arab world's heritage. Implicit in the interconnectedness of these stories, in the original and in this modern retelling, is the kinship and the responsibility we bear to one another. In its scenes of banquets and copulation, riches pursued and jokes played, the breadth of our natural desires is freely acknowledged. It is a portrait of human beings too broad to fit the confines of religious extremism, particularly because in both their first form and this most recent one, these tales celebrate the human imagination, daring, unbounded and ceaselessly prolific.

It is precisely this aspect of Mahfouz's work which has made him a target for Muslim militants. In October of last year the 84-year-old author was attacked by a group of religious extremists and stabbed in the neck, suffering a serious wound from which he has been slow to recover. Although it was, of course, written long before this attack took place, Arabian Nights and Days concludes with words that could well be addressed to his assailants, or anyone else who believes himself to be in exclusive possession of the truth: “It is an indication of truth's jealousy that it has not made for anyone a path to it and that it has not deprived anyone of the hope of attaining it. He who thinks he has attained it, it disassociates itself from. … There is no attaining truth and no avoiding it—it is inescapable.”

Surely that is true. For Mahfouz has plunged into the ancient book of fantasy and found a modern truth; has written of a storyteller, spinning out a tale while life hangs by a thread, and found the storyteller was himself and the life in jeopardy his own. From the serenity with which he writes of the unattainable and inescapable truth it is apparent that Mahfouz knows something else his assailants have not grasped: that the story is the eternal preserver of life, and his words are beyond the reach of knives.

Penelope Mesic (review date 11 February 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Tapestry of Tales,” in Chicago Tribune Books, February 11, 1996, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following positive review, Mesic praises Children of the Alley as a skillful and fresh combination of allegory, historical fiction, and myth.]

Out of a timeless oral tradition, of stories so old history and myth are braided into one, comes a rich tapestry of tales, each complete in itself, that interlock as do the stories of the Arabian Nights. Each chapter of Children of the Alley encapsulates a life, presenting the whole trajectory of a character's development, actions and their consequences. The alley of the title is peopled by petty merchants and the poor—snake charmers, jam sellers, shepherds and carpenters, murderers and the pure of heart—but all claim descent from one noble household, from which their tribe was long ago evicted.

Naguib Mahfouz is absolutely specific in showing the details of these lives. Small cucumbers roll in the dust when young hooligans upset the cart of humble Adham, the first, exiled son of the noble house to be forced to earn his living by labor. And Mahfouz catches the buttery sheen of the slippers of soft yellow leather worn by the shy bridegroom Rifaa, who marries an impure woman to save her from a vengeful crowd. But the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author is deliberately cloudy about time and place. The town, somewhere on the desert's edge, and the country, somewhere in the Middle East, are nameless. The time is that year in which one brother, envying the other, does him violence; a visionary is scorned by his fellow citizens but honored in a new place; and a child of the poor and disenfranchised, raised by a wealthy mother, in maturity becomes the leader of his people. In other words, this is the time of Cain and Abel, Mohammed, Moses—and it is also the present day.

Mahfouz has set himself the task of retelling moral history as if the whole world were but a village and every man born a new Adam, discovering the sorrow of his sin and recalling the idle joy of a lost garden. The Bible, the Koran, are not merely “relevant”—full of lessons of a past age to teach by rote to this one—but present and prophetic, not in any mystical way but in the simple fact of our unchanging natures.

Yet all this is done so skillfully, and with such freshness, that it takes the reader many pages to awake to the familiarity of the story of Adham, the dutiful son, and Idris his brother, the tempter, the spoiler, the sarcastic, infuriating liar. Both are children of a powerful father, Gabalawi, stern and angry, just but swift to take revenge. Their house, set in a vast garden, is put under the stewardship of Adham, which inflames the envy of his elder brother. For his rebellion, Idris is expelled into the dusty alley beyond the estate's walls.

A drunken good-for-nothing who blames Adham for his misfortune, Idris tempts the virtuous brother, via his ambitious wife, to peep into the record books his father Gabalawi has locked away. Caught in the act, Adham, too, is driven out. Though Milton's version of this tale is more sonorous, Mahfouz's version has a homely probability, an easy vernacular quality that is purely delightful.

The unknowable workings of Gabalawi's mansion recall the frustrations of Kafka's castle, where an applicant paces and hammers at doors and questions in vain, never knowing if he is getting nearer or farther from a final answer, the seat of power, divinity itself. But because these people are humble, they take their exclusion from the divine estate not as a paradox or mystery but in some ways as normal to their condition, for they are excluded from so many privileges in their ordinary world as well.

But Mahfouz's allegory extends beyond the personal. The children of the alley live in unchanging poverty of goods and spirit. “Feet that were still bare left their deep prints in the dirt. Flies still lingered in garbage and on people's eyes. Faces were still tired and haggard, clothes were ragged, obscenities were exchanged like greetings and ears were numb with lies.” Without naming the abstraction “poverty,” Mahfouz builds up its image with instances—bare feet, flies, ragged clothes—that are themselves its distillation and proof.

What perpetuates this state is not simply the people's own weakness but the gangsters who exploit it for gain. Each neighborhood has a strongman who struggles to dominate a neighborhood by force. When an idle dreamer manufactures a new weapon, a bottle that explodes with a percussive bang, injuring many at a single blow, it takes the first gangster to see its possibilities, which leaves the reader suddenly aware that the issue is not simply of a neighborhood but of nations, jostling for military superiority.

Reflecting actual human history, there are moments of tranquility and justice. Early in the narrative, for example, a fierce but fair leader named Gabal vigorously opposes the neighborhood gangsters, arouses the shoemaker, the jam seller and the poet to band together in brave opposition, and seizes power and distributes resources equally among everyone. When one of his own followers blinds another man in a quarrel, Gabal himself propounds the doctrine of an eye for an eye and metes out the terrible punishment. This is a clear dividing line in human history, when justice at last takes precedence over tribal ties or social allegiances:

“Before Gabal had been a beloved leader; his people thought of him as a gangster who did not want the title or outward trappings of gangs. Now he was feared and dreaded … but there were always others to remind them of the other side of his cruelty; his compassion for those who had been injured, and his genuine desire to establish an order that would safeguard the law. And everyone jealously guarded the order he had set up and abided by it.”

To read this is like being present for the formulation of the code of Hammurabi, and to sense the excitement of seeing human behavior regulated by an ideal of fair conduct.

The story of Gabal concludes, however: “Good examples would not be wasted on our alley were it not afflicted with forgetfulness. But forgetfulness is the plague of our alley.”

In the next chapter, the previous evils are restored without explanation because no explanation is needed. Bad ages follow good as if to show contempt for the very notion of enlightened progress. Gabal's discovery of justice has made no permanent change in human nature.

Thus Mahfouz reminds his readers that good must be chosen again and again, and that choosing it is as prosaic a thing as making and remaking a bed that is slept in every night. Folding together past and present, Christian and Islamic tradition, has resulted not in the blurring of lines and ideas, but in a crystalline sharpness, as if he has wiped away what is merely incidental to reveal a pattern beneath.

The reader can sense this novelist's absolute faith in the power of story as a means for human beings to understand themselves. In Children of the Alley the boundary between this world and the next, the practical and the spiritual, has been erased. Paradise is in the garden at the foot of the street, evil itself lies in the anger of losing at cards and an angel of enlightenment, announcing God's will, can be an old woman with a long face. Tolerant but unsentimental in spirit, immensely entertaining and deeply serious, Children of the Alley, for all its Middle Eastern origins, can be summed up in a Hindu proverb: “All life is a spiritual journey. Happy is the person who knows this is so, and acts on the belief.”

Alain de Botton (review date 22 February 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “But Wisdom Lingers,” in Spectator, February 22, 1997, p. 28.

[In the following review, de Botton offers a generally favorable assessment of Echoes of an Autobiography.]

This is an autobiography only in the loosest sense. We don't hear where the author was born, what his childhood was like or, as Holden Caulfield would say, ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’ Naguib Mahfouz, the 86-year-old Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist, hasn't written directly about his past, more about what it feels like to have a past, to have a long life to look over; in essence, to be old.

Echoes of an Autobiography is a slim book, divided into short, loosely connected, aphoristic paragraphs which deal with poignant, often lyrical moments of remembering. The author returns to a street in Cairo to attend the funeral of an old woman. Towering buildings have replaced elegant villas, the street is crammed with cars, dust and turbulent waves of pedestrians. Mahfouz recalls a time when the street smelt of jasmine, and the deceased was a beautiful young woman, ‘casting her radiance on the passers-by.’ Elsewhere, the author looks at a photo of a group of childhood friends, who have all now died:

The faces were cheerfully radiant and at ease, eloquent with life. There was no hint, not the slightest, of what lay hidden in the unknown.

Mahfouz is particularly drawn to missed romantic opportunities. On the shores of the Mediterranean, he comes across an old woman sitting under a sunshade watching her grandson building sandcastles. They sit and chat, ‘two sedate old people under the umbrella of old age.’ Then, because ‘there's no point in being bashful at our age,’ she tells him that she had loved him in their youth. But shyness prevented her from showing it and life took a different turn. It was, as Mahfouz now realises, watching the grandson finishing the sandcastle, ‘the chance of a lifetime missed.’

It is a tribute to Mahfouz's skills that he handles his tricky theme without ever slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia. If he is moving, it is largely because he has a sense of humour. Things can be so dreadful and so sad, you can only smile, seems to be the Mahfouzian philosophy, one which looks almost etched onto the wrinkled, kindly face which he shows us from the front cover of his book.

Though in many of Mahfouz's paragraphs ageing is synonymous with loss and regret, in others, it is also the harbinger of wisdom and reconciliation. He tells of two women, a widow in her seventies and her mother-in-law of 85, who learn to forget a time of jealousy, rancour and hatred, now that the man who divided them has gone. The two women collaborate in their grief, though Mahfouz is wickedly honest enough to point out the element of self-interest in this: ‘The widow asks God to lengthen the life of the other woman lest she leave her alone and lonely.’

There are weaker passages, so slight as to be inconsequential. He treats his readers to the sayings of his favourite, but very trite Sheikh, a certain Abd-Rabbith al-Ta‘ih, who goes in for statements like: ‘In the universe floats the will, and in the will floats the universe.’ Mahfouz also has a taste for purple passages tinged with magical realism, particularly when it comes to describing women. For instance, he relates a dream in which he is in a tavern with friends in the company of a nymph with enormously long hair which ‘spilled around us like an unruly wave until it covered us,’ ‘a naked woman with the bloom of the nectar of life and its charm’—which is hard to swallow in 1997.

Nevertheless, one reaches the end of the book ready to agree with Nadine Gordimer, who in her introduction judges that,

It is impossible to read this work without gaining illumination through a quality that has come to be regarded as a quaint anachronism in modern existence … I pronounce it with hesitation: wisdom.

Rasheed El-Enany (review date 25 July 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Even in Warm Embraces,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1997, p. 4.

[In the following review of Echoes of an Autobiography, El-Enany compliments the poetic nature of Mahfouz's autobiography and finds it reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.]

If you are looking for an autobiography of Naguib Mahfouz, or even for the echoes of one, please ignore this book [Echoes of an Autobiography]. The nearest the author ever got to writing an autobiography was in some of his novels, notably “The Cairo Trilogy,” Mirrors and Fountain and Tomb. However, if what you want is the quintessential Mahfouz; the wisdom of a great mind distilled from thirty-three novels, some 200 short stories and a lifetime of contemplating the human condition, you need look no further. It is all here in this quaint book of mystical aphorisms and parables, which is reminiscent of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet.

And unlike all the translations of Mahfouz which have been published in the years since 1988, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and which have been trying to ride the wave of international fame and catch up on earlier untranslated work, the present volume genuinely is a recent work by Mahfouz, since Echoes was first serialized in Arabic in the Cairene daily paper Al Ahram in 1994.

On the other hand, the concise and poetic nature of the text, and its aphoristic structure depending on independent pieces, which can be as short as two lines and rarely longer than one page, has made it possible for this translation to avoid the pitfalls of translating Mahfouz's long fiction where colloquialisms are often misunderstood, the sense of humour lost, and an artificial literalism adopted to convey a so-called local feel. Here, we have a translation which generally lives up to the poetic quality of the Arabic original. However, occasional errors mar it. A conspicuous one will suffice here. Typically, it is a colloquialism. Any Egyptian would be familiar with the experience of a child going astray in a popular crowded quarter. Often, in such cases, a street-crier would go round crying “A child has gone astray, good fellows,” in an attempt to enlist people's help to find the lost child. The cultural background and the stock phrase are lost on the translator, who renders it as “A stray one has been born, good fellows.” This naturally damages the context of that particular episode. (Ironically, Nadine Gordimer, in her sensitive introduction to the book, unaware of the error, quotes this particular phrase and draws conclusions from it.)

Autobiography consists in recollection, and recollection immediately brings into play the interrelation between real time and mnemonic time; a recurrent theme in Mahfouz's work of his old age. To him, the memory's ability to remember things past is mankind's greatest weapon against the onslaught of Time and the ineluctable progress to death, but simultaneously it emphasizes the transience of things and the painful gap between recollected time and present time: “This old picture brings together the members of my family, and this other one is of friends from long ago. I looked at them both for so long that I sank into memories of the past. All the faces were cheerfully radiant and at ease, eloquent with life. There was no hint, not the slightest, of what lay hidden in the unknown. And now they had all passed on, not a single one remained. Who can determine that happiness was a living reality and not a dream or an illusion?”

Death has always figured strongly in Mahfouz's work, but his preoccupation with it reaches an obsessive degree in his writings in old age. Here, he portrays the way the thought of death haunts us throughout life:

His face looked straight at me from close by and with penetrating force, and he whispered in my ear, “Remember me so that you may know me when I meet you.” When I came to, his image had not slipped from my mind. How greatly was I distracted from him by work for a time and by fun for a time, and yet he returns with all his force as though he had not been absent for a single moment. Under the pressure of anxiety, I ask myself: When will he meet me? How does the meeting take place? And what is the reason for all this? It is seldom that I drive out apprehensions, even in warm embraces.

Mahfouz also sees death as an urge to life:

I told him humbly, my eyes not leaving his countenance, “I have never seen anyone so splendid.” “It is thanks to God, Lord of the Worlds,” he said, smiling. “I would like to know who you are, sir.” “I am he who used to wake you from sleep before sunrise,” he said quietly, as though remembering. “I am he who helped you against laziness, so that you began to work.” I thought deeply about what he had said, and he continued. “It was I who spurred you on to the love of knowledge.” “Yes, yes!” I exclaimed. “And the beauty of existence, it was I who guided you to its fountainheads.” “I am forever indebted to you.” A tense silence reigned. Feeling that he had come to demand something of me, I said, “I am at your disposal.” He said with intense calmness, “I came so as to put the finishing touch to my work.”

If work (the constant human endeavour to survive and to make a better life) is an antidote against death in Mahfouz's world-view, love is certainly another: “Were it not for Love the water would dry up, the air would become putrid, and death would strut about in every corner.” Throughout Mahfouz's oeuvre, there has been a constant tension between faith and its denial. Has the conflict been resolved? The answer must be no, but it is not an absolute no, because there is a sense of resignation in Echoes of an Autobiography which we do not find elsewhere; an acceptance of the fact that, in spite of the “horror” of the world, our judgment of it and of what is beyond are coloured by the faults and restrictions of our perception. If we do not have total and absolute knowledge, how reliable can our judgment of any phenomenon or event be? “I asked, ‘How can such events occur in a world made by a Merciful and Compassionate One?,’ He answered calmly, ‘Were he not Merciful and Compassionate, they would not occur.’” The account of events we normally expect in an autobiography is nowhere to be found here. What we find is their profound meaning which is often lost on us as we get bogged down in the confused detail of life and the inevitable partiality of our vision.

Michelle Hartman (essay date Fall 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Re-Reading Women in/to Naguib Mahfouz's Al-Liss wa‘l kilab (The Thief and the Dogs),” in Research in American Literatures, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 5–16.

[In the following essay, Hartman analyzes the role of female characters in Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs.]

This article rereads women both in and into Naguib Mahfouz's short 1961 novel, al-Liss wa‘l kilab. By reading women in this novel, I mean a close reading of the two women portrayed in the novel in order to explore how they are textually constructed as characters. By reading women into the text, I mean to examine the textual function of specific female characters to comment upon their significance to this novel as well as to Mahfouz's entire oeuvre.

Why is it important to read the female characters in and into this novel? There is a small but growing number of articles concerned with women in Naguib Mahfouz's novels, corresponding to a greater interest in exploring gender in Arabic literature written by both men and women. Readings of the female characters in al-Liss wa‘l kilab provides deeper insight not only into this novel, but also into the role of stereotypes of women in Arabic literature in general. It is important to read beyond the common assumption that Arab culture is sexist and/or misogynist, and therefore Arabic literature must be as well. When the female characters are read carefully in/to novels, often the reader discovers that they are less flat and stereotypical than they may initially seem.

Naguib Mahfouz is perhaps the best-known novelist in the Arabic language. Since he won the Nobel Prize in 1988, his fame has grown not only in the Arab world but also internationally. Mahfouz is the pioneer of the novel in the Arabic language, and his career has spanned almost the entire range of novelistic development in the Arab world. It may be forgotten that a canonical novelist such as Mahfouz is one of the greatest innovators of the genre. Thus, even though Mahfouz's primary interest may not be the role of women or anything to do with gender specifically, his experiments in novel writing provide challenges to the standard perception of Arabic novels.

Because it marks a radical break in his literary vision and mode of expression, al-Liss wa‘l kilab is a particularly interesting novel for the explorations of these challenges (Mahmoud 58). Mahfouz is best known for his “realistic” novels—conventional, long narratives tracing the lives of entire families with lengthy and detailed descriptive passages. Al-Liss wa‘l kilab breaks from this earlier style by using concise and sparing language, as well as formal innovations such as shifting narrative voices, long passages of interior monologues and flashbacks. These techniques confuse time sequences and linear narrative progression. A work that makes such a radical break in formal techniques re-writes novelistic discourse. This re-writing is part of a larger project of experimentation in al-Liss wa‘l kilab, and is the first of a series of modernist novels by Mahfouz. Re-reading female characters in/to this novel in creative ways in consistent with the context of experimentation and subversion of norms that Mahfouz himself creates in al-Liss wa‘l kilab.

The recent proliferation of publications relating to gender in Arabic literature has included studies on Mahfouz's novels, including his characterization of women. Most of the writing on the role and position of women in Arabic literature, however, concentrates on the image of women in literary texts—what “types” of women an author employs and what they represent symbolically.1 A study that attempts to read Mahfouz's fiction differently is Miriam Cooke's article, “Men Constructed in the Image of Prostitution.” Cooke remarks that there is a tendency—especially for Western readers—to see literature from the Arab world (as well as from Africa and Asia) as necessarily allegorical. The importance of allegory in Mahfouz's novels, including al-Liss wa‘l kilab, is well-documented.2 What Cooke is suggesting, however, is that this should be seen as only one perspective from which we can approach literary studies, and that creative writing from the Arab world has more to offer the reader than political allegory alone.

Cooke's strategy for reading women in Mahfouz's novels does not simply search for categories and allegories but rather suggests how several female prostitutes in his novels can be read as empowered and positive characters. She argues that in Mahfouz's earlier “realistic” novels, prostitutes are heroines shackled by social convention, who use their profession as a creative way to gain control over their lives. She thus posits the prostitute as a woman who successfully defies social norms and gains financial and emotional independence and autonomy (113). In her article, Cooke not only challenges the reader's presuppositions of what prostitutes are, but also what the reader's assumptions about how an Arab male writer, like Mahfouz, will depict them in his novels.

In this article, I shall continue Cooke's challenge to stereotypes but explore them from a different angle, arguing that the two main female characters in al-Liss wa‘l kilab can be read as female stereotypes, but that upon a closer examination of the characters themselves—in terms of both what is included in and excluded from the text—these stereotypes in fact collapse. Simply because Mahfouz's novels are set in Egyptian, or Arab, society does not mean that they should necessarily be read as sociopolitical documents on Egypt and/or the Arab world. Likewise, an examination of his female characterizations need not necessarily be read as an investigation of the role and position of women in Arab and/or Egyptian society. Rather, what I am specifically concerned with here is how within a given literary text Mahfouz creates vibrant, individual female characters by combining and manipulating common stereotypes of women.

Though the protagonist of al-Liss wa‘l kilab blurts out “I have absolutely no faith at all left in her gender” in a moment of anger and exasperation (32)3, the novel does not present simple, misogynistic portraits of women. The female stereotypes employed in the novel are more specific characterizations that are frequently applied to women. The two main categories are the loving and devoted wife/mother/sister, and the “fallen woman,” the prostitute. Though these paradigms have local variations and different symbols and meanings in different societies, they are easily recognizable to readers in whatever language they are reading. The dichotomy that has evolved is a divide between the virgin and the whore. One is pure and virtuous, the other dirty and disreputable. There are many permutations of these two main generalizations in literature, including the one employed in this novel, which combine these two types of women to create the “putain respectueuse” ‘respectable whore’ and the treacherous, unfaithful wife.

Though the two main female characters in al-Liss wa‘l kilab, Nabawiyya and Nur, both fit into this common pattern of female stereotypes, a close reading of their characters shows that no simple stereotype can fully explain them or their actions. This is partially due to Mahfouz's manipulation of these female stereotypes, challenging the reader to see beyond them and understand Nabawiyya and Nur as complex characters. Mahfouz simultaneously employs and subverts stereotypes of women, thereby creating complicated and ambiguous female characters who then defy accepted notions of what women are and should be. Mahfouz's motivation may not be a feminist project of rewriting women's roles in society to empower them, but what he does in thwarting such accepted notions is to write women as individual and autonomous characters who exist and act not only under the control and power of men. Mahfouz has been accused of creating flat and lifeless female characters who are only symbols. This may be because of a lack of imagination on the part of the reader or an implicit assumption that an Arab male author cannot write dynamic female characters. Though women do not tend to play the most important roles in Mahfouz's novels, many of them are among the most vital and original characters in his work.

Al-Liss wa‘l kilab is a study of Sa‘id Mahran, the eponymous thief, and his despair, destruction, and death at the hands of those who have betrayed him—the dogs. Because Sa‘id spends almost the entire novel in a state of despair and confusion, much of the novel is composed of his deluded rantings, fantasies, and distorted perceptions of reality. This often makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish between fact and fantasy within the context of the events in the novel itself.

The plot of the novel takes place over a brief but unspecified amount of time after Sa‘id's release from a four-year prison sentence. He visits several places and tries to rebuild his life, only to find everything in the world he once knew to have completely changed. His first visit is to his ex-wife, Nabawiyya, and her new lover, Illish Sidra, to try to gain custody of his daughter, Sana, who is living with them. Nabawiyya refuses to see him and Sana runs from the room screaming when he tries to embrace her (14–15). Sa‘id then visits the Sufi sheikh who was his father's spiritual guide, but discovers that the refuge he offers is in a religious language that he cannot understand. His next visit is to his former mentor in crime, Ra‘uf Alwan. When Sa‘id was a young man, Ra‘uf was a university student whose revolutionary ideals included stealing from the rich for the sake of the poor. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 occurred while Sa‘id was in prison and post-revolutionary Egypt is not what he was expecting. For example, Sa‘id finds Ra‘uf and learns that he has become a respectable newspaper editor and wants to keep his distance not only from his former ideals, but also from Sa‘id.

In his state of confusion and alienation from everyone and everything in society, Sa‘id decides to take his revenge by killing Nabawiyya, Illish, and Ra‘uf. He is, however, unsuccessful in all these pursuits and instead kills innocent bystanders. He realizes that the only people who will help him are Tarazan, the owner of a cafe he once frequented, populated by underworld-types, and Nur, a prostitute with whom he has also had some sort of previous relationship. He hides out in Nur's house as news of his murders spreads and he is pursued intensely by the authorities. From this point on in the novel, his life becomes a spiral of despair that the reader realizes can only end with him being tracked down and apprehended yet again. The novel concludes with Sa‘id cornered in a grave, being ripped apart by the police dogs that have been chasing him throughout the novel.

Though al-Liss wa‘l kilab is the story of one character and his emotional and psychological state, the minor characters are important as well. In Mahfouz's earlier novels, there are more characters who are well-developed individuals, and description and detail illuminate their individual personalities. Though this is not the case in al-Liss wa‘l kilab, this novel is formed not only by what it includes but what it excludes. Absence and silence within a text contribute to the central textual functions. Female characters, especially in literature written by men, often play secondary roles and have less strong voices. This novel, for example, is concerned primarily with the male protagonist and though both female characters—Nur and Nabawiyya—are key to the plot development, Mahfouz spends little space expanding on or developing their characters. Nur is often present in the action of the text and speaks in her own voice in dialogue sections, but Nabawiyya is totally absent, has no voice of her own, and is only seen through descriptions, flashbacks, and interior monologues—all of which are filtered through the perceptions of the protagonist, Sa‘id.

Nur is the most interesting of all the minor characters in al-Liss wa‘l kilab because she speaks for herself in extensive dialogue sections, and the reader thus has information about her that is not seen from Sa‘id's perspective. In addition, Nur's personality develops more than any other minor character in the novel and she is the only character with whom Sa‘id has any kind of meaningful relationship (Mahmoud 67–68). The only information about Sa‘id and Nur's relationship before he went to prison is that her love for him was unrequited while he was married to Nabawiyya (49).

The first description of Nur portrays her as a bit of a pathetic creature who is slightly repulsive, uncouth, and lacking in self-respect (49). Sa‘id discovers her after his years in prison, noticing that she has grown thinner and attempts to conceal this with heavy makeup. He also comments on her dress, which clings to her figure like rubber. Despite the relatively negative descriptions, Nur's actions throughout the novel show her to be a loving and kind, almost saintly woman, who simply happens to go out at night and work as a prostitute. Moreover, Mahfouz makes several plays on her name, which means “light” in Arabic, and often associates her with sunrise (e.g., 123). Darkness plays an important role in the novel and is usually something negative to be avoided. Sa‘id constantly complains about remaining hidden in the darkness. Thus, “light,” represented in name by Nur, reinforces that she is a positive force counteracting the negativity of night and darkness.

Though Nur is almost always described in positive terms—the paradigm of the noble prostitute—she also is mysterious. She disappears without a sign or trace at the end of the novel, shortly before Sa‘id is finally hunted down and killed by police dogs. Is her disappearance a coincidence or is it related? These questions are vital in understanding Nur as much more than a woman with a loving and kind demeanor who wants to help a friend in need. In the following textual examples, the contradictions in Nur's character, created by manipulation of stereotypes, reveal a complex and substantial character.

One way in which Mahfouz manipulates stereotypes relating to female characters, and specifically the prostitute in al-Liss wa‘l kilab, is by showing prostitution as simply one among many disreputable professions belonging to the characters. In this way, Nur's role in the novel as prostitute is significantly different than prostitutes in other novels by Mahfouz, for example Zanuba of the “Trilogy” Unlike Zanuba, Nur is not a woman of a “dubious” background who is contrasted with men and women of a “more respectable” background. Most of the characters in al-Liss wa‘l kilab are part of the underworld. Sa‘id and his friends are all thieves and flashbacks remind the reader that though Ra‘uf and Illish have escaped this dark, seedy world, they once were thieves as well.

Though prostitution carries different connotations and is often subject to more value judgments in society than thievery, Nur is treated throughout the novel as “one of the boys.” Her profession is never commented on lewdly or judgmentally by the men with whom she interacts—it is simply a fact. Sa‘id has no interest in condemning Nur for her profession, as their relationship is based on class solidarity and alienation from mainstream society. Two examples illustrate this particularly well. The first is when he returns to her flat one evening and finds her vomiting because she has been attacked by some young male clients who refused to pay her for her services: “He muttered angrily, ‘Those dogs!’ … ‘It's not your fault at all, go wash your face and then get some sleep’” (94). The second example is when Sa‘id contemplates the possibility that Nur has been kidnaped or has died, near the end of the novel. He expresses true regret that a woman in her position has so little importance in their society: “Would her demise cause so much as a murmur anywhere? Certainly not. She is a woman with no allies, no protector. She is thus at the mercy of a vast sea of indifferent and hostile waves …” (126).

On the one occasion on which Sa‘id tries to challenge Nur for being out late drinking, he is met with indifference. The very first evening on which he uses her flat as a hideout from the police, Nur returns in the early morning hours. He queries her about the alcohol on her breath: “Have you been drinking?” Not intimated by Sa‘id at all, she responds directly and almost flippantly: “Goes with the job. I'm going to take a bath. Here are your newspapers” (84). This is the only passage in which Sa‘id seems at all bothered by Nur's profession and its implications. She is completely at ease discussing her profession and its requirements with him, and is not at all troubled that the man she loves knows about this part of her life.

Though there are many stereotypes of prostitutes, ranging from those who love their work to those who would do almost anything to escape it, Mahfouz's particular image of an Egyptian prostitute completely at ease with her profession while pursuing her true love, encourages the reader to question these stereotypes. On the one hand, Nur is the noble prostitute who is “too good” to be working in such a disreputable profession. She treats Sa‘id in the manner a model wife should—she cooks for him and mends his clothes, runs small errands, and helps him hide from the police even when she is appalled by his crime. On the other hand, she is a prostitute who is unashamed of her profession. Prostitution is neither denigrated nor glorified. The entire milieu of the novel makes it possible for Nur to be a prostitute, and it is considered simply another way for an underprivileged person to make a living.

Nur is not only comfortable and straightforward about her profession in these examples, but other dialogue sections show her to be feisty and clever as well. One conversation between Nur and Sa‘id highlights her wit while raising questions as to what her feeling and motivations toward Sa‘id actually are. They have a conversation about dogs. References and allusions to dogs surface continually throughout the text to indicate anything from animals howling to characters like Ra‘uf and Illish, to other governmental representatives Sa‘id feels are persecuting him. Nur and Sa‘id discuss the dogs in all these varied meanings throughout the novel. In this particular example, they are eating and discussing Sa‘id's fugitive status. He says to her, “Most ordinary Egyptians neither fear nor despise thieves, but they do instinctively detest dogs.” She licks her fingertips and responds to him, smiling: “I like dogs!” He then replies, “I don't mean that kind …” (100). This is an ambiguous and flirtatious interchange that can be read on several levels. When Sa‘id says, “I don't mean that kind …,” he uses the masculine plural demonstrative adjective “ha‘ula.” Because this word would only be used if Sa‘id were referring to a noun that represents a group of people, it implies that he understands her comment to mean that she likes men. He emphasizes that this is not what he is referring to by using the word “dogs.” She ignores his comment, however, and continues as if she had always meant to speak about animals: “Yes, I always had one at home until the last one died. I cried a lot and decided not to ever get another one” (100). On one level, Nur's reply in this interchange can be read as innocent comment about animals. Perhaps Sa‘id simply jumped to an ill-conceived conclusion about what she was saying. On another level, this passage is clearly an example of playful banter. The smile that crosses Nur's lips just as she licks her fingers and says, “I like dogs” is surely not a fond reminiscence about a pet who has died. I would argue that Nur is making a deliberate pun on the word “dogs.” In addition, it is unclear if she is referring to liking men in general, sexually, as a part of her personal or professional life. Because she spends so much time with Sa‘id and clearly likes him, she may even be implying that he himself is a dog. Thus, this particular passage highlights not only that Nur is clever and able to joke with Sa‘id, but that she is willing to joke with him about men being dogs in a way that he might find insulting and derogatory.

Though a stereotypical prostitute certainly might make sexual double-entendres in her speech, here again Nur's role is contradictory. She is the vulnerable woman who cried at the loss of her pet, the brazen woman who can joke about men being dogs, and in both she is more clever and witty than Sa‘id, whose contribution to the dialogue is “I don't mean that kind. …” Cooke states that “Mahfouz often portrays prostitutes as stronger and more intelligent than the generality of womankind” (113). I would add that they are often more clever than the generality of mankind in his novels as well. In al-Liss wa‘l kilab Nur is certainly one of the most interesting characters and shows her sharp wit in several passages of dialogue. Though Nur is only seen in brief glimpses, her strength of character as a clever, loving, autonomous, and devoted woman shows through clearly. Though these attributes are not necessarily contradictory, they are not often found in one female character with so small a role in a novel, and particularly not if it is the role of a “stereotypical” woman.

Another passage that underlines the ambiguity of Nur's character occurs just after the conversation about dogs. Nur is almost always portrayed as totally devoted to Sa‘id and willing to do anything for him, as when she declares, “… [Y]ou are dearer to me than my own life and breath, in my entire life I have never known happiness except in your arms …” (117). She is, however, also seen as suspect by Sa‘id more than once—both because of a white lie she tells Sa‘id and because of her disappearance at the end of the novel. The lie Nur tells is that her father was the village umdah and not the umdah's servant, as he asserts she previously had claimed (this previous conversation is not recorded in the novel). Nur is unconcerned by Sa‘id's challenge to her: “Nur laughed, revealing pieces of parsley stuck between her teeth and said, ‘Did I really say that!?’” (103). The actual content of this exchange is inconsequential to the plot, but Sa‘id's vehement reaction to it makes it an important detail: “He said bitterly, ‘Don't lie to me. A man who must constantly endure darkness, loneliness and endless waiting can not stand lies’” (103). To Sa‘id this small lie is yet another sign of perfidy by someone he has trusted.

This slip by Nur foreshadows the possibility that she might indeed betray Sa‘id at the end of the novel when she disappears without a trace. She is absent from the action of the text for its last three chapters. Sa‘id discovers that she is gone when her landlady moves into her flat because she has not paid the rent. He contemplates many possible reasons for Nur's disappearance, though neither he nor the reader ever learns what becomes of her. He considers briefly that she may have turned him in: “Here in the warm darkness one burning question became clear to him, ‘Was the promised reward having an effect on Nur?’” (123). The reader is left unsure as to whether or not Nur would turn over to the police the man she has spent the entire novel feeding, sheltering, and loving.

Nur's disappearance, foreshadowed by a little white lie four chapters earlier, raises doubts in the reader. Is Nur loving or is she treacherous? Is she the loyal woman who would defend Sa‘id to the end and disappeared aiding him? Or is she the self-serving prostitute who uses men for money, who turned in Sa‘id for a reward? None of these questions is answered in the text. These points in the novel remain ambiguous while assuring that all of the above solutions are plausible. Because so many stereotypes could possibly describe her if her character were examined only partially, no one stereotype can ever fit her. This reading of Nur as complex and ambiguous is an example of how Mahfouz creates a dynamic character by using but undermining commonly held stereotypes.

Nabawiyya is a more elusive character than Nur. Like Nur, she embodies a contradiction of female stereotypes, though she is an inverted mirror image reflection of her. She begins as the pure and clean wife but becomes, in Sa‘id's mind, the ultimate symbol of infidelity and filth. It is difficult for the reader to get a sense of her character because she is only mentioned in brief and scattered comments throughout the novel. Though her betrayal of Sa‘id is the impetus for many of his actions, the exact nature of her betrayal of him is unclear. In addition, she is never seen in the present action of the text, never speaks, and Sa‘id himself presents two completely opposite pictures of her in his interior monologues. All that the reader knows about Nabawiyya must be gleaned through Sa‘id and then extrapolated from there.

If Nabawiyya has betrayed Sa‘id in the way he suspects, she is a loathsome character. There is a possibility that she did have an affair with his friend and protégé, that they plotted together to have him arrested, that she then took his loot from stealing and used it to set up a new life with her lover after divorcing Sa‘id while he was in jail. The reader, however, never actually knows if this is what happened or if it is yet another paranoid delusion on the part of Sa‘id. The reader also knows nothing about Nabawiyya and Sa‘id's marriage before his arrest, though it becomes clear that he had had some sort of relationship with Nur during his marriage.

To get a clear picture of Nabawiyya's character is difficult because Sa‘id always either idealizes or demonizes her. The positive images of her and their relationship are found in the lengthy descriptions of their courtship, especially in chapter ten of al-Liss wa‘l kilab. These sections of flashbacks and interior monologues present Nabawiyya as a beautiful peasant woman with whom Sa‘id was smitten in an idyllic time in his life, which he refers to as “the palm tree days” (123; when Sa‘id and Nabawiyya were first in love, they used to meet under a certain palm tree). Sa‘id's memories of Nabawiyya from this era emphasize her beauty, purity, and chastity. One example is his recollection of the first time he was brave enough to approach and speak to Nabawiyya, and her brusque reproof: “I do not like disrespectful people without proper manners” (81). This response emphasizes that Nabawiyya is a proper and respectable girl who does not speak in the street to men she does not know. That she would refer to this action on Sa‘id's part as somehow improper, “qullat adab” in Arabic, reinforces her position as such. Sa‘id's attempt to impress her with his own proper manners, “Nor do I like such behavior! Like you, I dislike people who have no respect for others, I believe in beauty, respect, manners and elegance” (81), does not win him any special favors. She goes on to reproach him further for having approached her at all: “… [G]o away, you must go back! The lady I work for sits by the window and will see you if you come one step closer!” (81).

Sa‘id's descriptions of Nabawiyya stress her purity and the traditional nature of their courtship. When Sa‘id decides to actually propose marriage, for example, he uses the language of religion and tradition. It is in a section of contemplation where Sa‘id addresses himself in the second person that the reader learns of this: “… [Y]ou asked her to marry you, you said let's get married and do it in the proper Muslim way following the traditions laid down by God and the prophet Muhammad” (82). When he talks to her in the following section about the life they will share together, none of the bravado and self-delusion that the reader sees in Sa‘id throughout the rest of the text is evident. In this section, Sa‘id seems like an earnest young bridegroom in the most conventional of situations—a sharp contrast to his fugitive's life of darkness, despair, and murder in the present action of the novel. An example is the aft