Taking the Measure of Egypt’s Nobel...

<i> Siddiq, an Israeli Arab, is a professor of Arabic and Hebrew literature at UC, Berkeley</i>

Conventional critical wisdom usually divides the works of Naguib Mahfouz into four more or less distinct phases. The first of these, the historical phase, borrows its designation from the subject matter (ancient Egyptian history) of the historical trilogy that Mahfouz published between 1938-1945. The second spans the period 1945-1957 and is often defined in terms of the dominant literary technique in which Mahfouz then wrote; namely, social realism. The realistic novels of this period established Mahfouz as a major novelist in the Arab world. “The Beginning and the End” first published in Arabic in 1949) belongs to this phase and is widely representative of the novels of this period. The third phase (1959-1967) is sometimes defined in terms of subject matter as “existential” or “psychological” and sometimes in terms of narrative technique as “symbolic.” To this phase belongs the second of our three novels: “The Thief and the Dogs” (originally published in 1961). The third novel under review, “Wedding Song,” was published in 1981, and thus belongs to the fourth phase of Mahfouz’s work. Although more than half of Mahfouz’s 50-odd novels and collections of short stories belong to this phase, it has remained frozen under the nondescript chronological designation, “the post-1967 phase.” The cause of this vagary does not lie entirely with the critics: The pace of change in Mahfouz’s style, narrative technique, and general orientation since 1967 has been nothing short of frantic. No recognizable literary or intellectual pattern has emerged yet from the diverse works of this period.

Questions of periodization aside, Mahfouz’s art rests primarily on its powerful evocation of the social and psychological reality of that segment of Egyptian society with which he is intimately familiar: the Cairene petite bourgeoisie. Mahfouz undertakes this task of representation with a seemingly unshakable faith in the referential power of language and of contrived fictional structures to deliver reality. As a result, his novels often appear blissfully oblivious to the problematics of self-consciousness and singularly uninterested in theoretical questions about the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs or the transparency of writing strategies and literary devices. Therefore, readers weaned on the pervasive presence of these concerns in modernist and post-modernist writing will inevitably find Mahfouz’s novels somewhat quaint, if not altogether passe.

In structure and narrative technique, Mahfouz’s fiction shows greater affinity with the main tradition of the Western novel than it does with the indigenous narrative forms prevalent in Arab culture. This is particularly true of the first three phases of his career. In part, this anomaly is the product of historical circumstances: The novel genre was borrowed into Arab culture from the West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although an impressive narrative tradition existed in Arabic (witness the “Arabian Nights”) there were no Arabic novels in the Western sense of the term before 1913. (Mahfouz was born in 1911). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mahfouz and the pioneering Arab writers of his generation, should strive to emulate Western models of the genre even as they were acclimatizing it in Arabic.


To the inexorable pressures of historical urgency, however, one must add Mahfouz’s personal aptitude: In his public pronouncements, Mahfouz makes no secret of his philosophical and intellectual identification with the secular outlook of modern Western civilization. Moreover, it is precisely because the novel has expressed more fully than any other literary genre the scientific and secular principles of this civilization that it has exercised such a formative influence on his imagination and literary sensibility. The preponderance of secular Western ideas in Mahfouz’s fiction is therefore entirely consistent with his philosophical and artistic commitment.

Hence a potential irony: In the works of this major Arab novelist one encounters the ideas of Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, and Freud more often than those of any Arab or Islamic thinker. In fact, the collective genius of Arab/Islamic civilization is invoked by reference and allusion in Emil Habiby’s single novel, “The Pessoptimist,” more than it is in all of Mahfouz’s novels combined. The increasing recourse to indigenous and traditional forms of narrative and storytelling one detects in the works of younger Arab writers in Egypt (e.g. Jamal al-Ghaytani) and elsewhere in the Arab world may be a reaction against the excessive reliance of Mahfouz and his generation on Western fictional models.

These unsettling contradictions notwithstanding, Mahfouz’s supreme contribution to the art of the Arabic novel lies safely beyond doubt. In the long run, his cultivation of a functional literary Arabic prose capable of capturing the nuanced rhythms of daily life in a bustling metropolis may emerge as his greatest lasting contribution to this literary tradition.

Perforce, much of the pleasure that accrues from reading Mahfouz’s supple and perfectly controlled prose in Arabic will elude the reader of his novels in translation, no matter how adequate the translation. And the translation of the three novels under review is not only adequate but actually quite good. The flavor, however, is there, and it is well preserved in Mahfouz’s tightly constructed plots with their neat closures, compelling psychological portrayals and lifelike characters whose genuine passions elevate them at the moment of death to a kind of heroic status that their humdrum petit-bourgeois existence had denied them in life.

Of the three novels reviewed here, “The Beginning and the End” is perhaps the least complicated artistically. Cast in the traditional mold of realistic fiction, the novel is almost a case study in social stratification. The action is set in the late 1930s in Cairo and evolves around the futile struggle of the family of a minor government official to survive his untimely death. The economic and social hardships exercise different and uneven pressures on the various members of the family and severely circumscribe personal ambition to move up the social ladder. As is typical in Mahfouz, innate disposition conspires with acquired habit to motivate the characters of this novel to transgress against a reified social system that lashes back at them with deadly vengeance.

Although the events of the plot unfold in a uni-linear sequence of cause and effect, the novel contains a considerable amount of suspense and many turns and twists that never cease to fascinate us in realistic fiction. To help the reader disentangle these mysteries, the English translation uses a different font to distinguish the interior monologue and unvoiced thoughts of the characters from the narrative of the omniscient narrator. This technical device is used for the same purpose in the other two novels as well.


“The Thief and the Dogs” is written in the tradition of the psychological or stream-of-consciousness novel. As in the normative examples of Western practitioners of the genre (e.g. Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf), concern with the internalized experience of characters takes precedence here over external reality, and interior monologue replaces omniscient narration and description. The few novels Mahfouz wrote in this style during the ‘60s announced the emergence of psychological realism in Arabic fiction.

In contradistinction to the Western models that inspired these technical and stylistic innovations, however, Mahfouz’s psychological novels retain in full their interest in political and social issues. In “The Thief and the Dogs” this interest survives in the motivation of the plot. A deluded idealist (an Egyptian Robin Hood of sorts,) seeks revenge from society for thwarting his ideals of justice and rewarding charlatanism. Upon release from prison, he takes the law into his own hands and wages a personal crusade against imposters. Instead of the intended culprits, however, his bullets claim only the lives of innocent by-standers before he himself is hunted down by the police.

What makes this novel political is the fact that the societal ills against which the contrived fictional action inveighs are directly referable to the culture of political opportunism cultivated and sanctioned by the regime. (Awareness of the constitutive relationship between the fictional action and its historical bases has led translators of other novels from this phase to append explanatory notes to the fictional text. Though admittedly cumbersome, this practice is not without merit in referential fiction.)

In theme, structure, and style, “Wedding Song” reveals Mahfouz’s post-1967 groping for new approaches to the fast- changing social scene around him. This novel tells the story of a play: One of the characters in the novel recasts in dramatic form the actual life-stories of his parents and their close circle of associates--all of whom are involved with the theater. The author disappears shortly after the play becomes a hit, but before the novel proper begins, thus leaving the characters (and readers) to figure out on their own such pressing questions as his authorial intention and the relation between lived and imaginatively rendered experience.

While the withdrawal of the author from the text and the attempt to mix genres point in the direction of post-modernist writing, the appropriation of the idea and structure of “Hamlet” to the Egyptian context is a typical Mahfouzian move. On numerous occasions the characters draw an explicit analogy between their personal lapse into moral depravity and crime (prostitution, gambling, drug-dealing, etc.) and the large-scale economic and political corruption that accompanied the open-door policy of the late President Sadat. The time is the 1970s, and this is Mahfouz’s way of saying “something is rotten in the state of Egypt.”