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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

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

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

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

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

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

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