Abandoned by history





Autumn Quail

Naguib Mahfouz 1962

There are some similarities, both thematic and formal, between Autumn Quail and Mahfouz’s previous novel, The Thief and the Dogs (1961). Both novels describe the impact of the Free Officers coup on July 23 in Egypt in 1952, and the ensuing July Revolution. Both novels describe the impact of the Revolution mainly in terms of its effect on the life of one individual. In the case of The Thief and the Dogs, that individual is Said Mahran. In Autumn Quail, it is Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh.

The Free Officers coup was one of the most important events of modern Egyptian history. The Free Officers were one of many secret societies at the time. As the name of the society implies, it drew its strength from the Egyptian military. It consisted of about three hundred commissioned officers in the army.

According to Arthur Goldschmidt, one factor precipitating the revolt was the shame that Egyptian officers and soldiers felt about the defeat of Egyptian forces in Palestine in 1948. Many in the Egyptian army saw the defeat as a consequence of the military preparations for the war, which had been very poor.

At the same time, the government had lost much legitimacy. King Faruq’s popularity had been declining, and the political parties were ineffectual and notoriously corrupt. Goldschmidt describes King Faruq as ‘… a womaniser, gambler and glutton.’ [Goldschmidt 2004, chapter 8.]

Hasan Ali ad-Dabbagh, in Autumn Quail, strongly criticises the corruption of the parties. Hasan is the cousin of Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh, the protagonist. ‘”There’s widespread corruption, believe me. Nobody in a position of authority today thinks about anything but the rotten game of getting rich quick. We inhale corruption in the very air we breathe!”’ [Autumn Quail, chapter 3.]

Goldschmidt thinks the situation in Egypt had become so bad that the issue was not whether there would be a revolution, but who would carry it out. ‘As King Faruq grew ever more inept, the Wafd and its rival parties more corrupt, and parliamentary democracy more decrepit, a rebellion became inevitable. But which rebels could speak for the Egyptian people?’ [Goldschmidt 2004, 8.]

The effective leader of the Free Officers had for some years been Gamal Abd al-Nasir, usually known in the west as ‘Nasser’. Nasir was a colonel. General Muhammad Nagib, the hero of the siege of the Palestinian village of Fullaja, provided a senior figurehead.

The coup was almost bloodless. There were one or two comic opera incidents. Major Anwar al-Sadat, later Nasir’s successor as president of Egypt, had taken his family to the cinema and could not be contacted. Nasir was stopped by a policeman because of a burned-out tail light.

The old regime – the palace and the parties – fell overnight. It only remained to finish with the British.

The impact of the revolution on the protagonists of the two novels is in some ways different. It is conditioned to a large extent by the degree of their social integration.

Said Mahran, the protagonist of The Thief and the Dogs, is socially isolated. He is a professional thief. For Mahran, the effect of the revolution is personal. It is mainly experienced as a betrayal by his mentor, Rauf Ilwan. ’What if Rauf should prove to have betrayed those ideas? He would then have to pay dearly for it.’ [The Thief and the Dogs, chapter 3.]

Unlike Mahran, Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail is well- integrated. He is an unusually successful civil servant. ‘His success… had been beyond the hopes of either [his mother] or his late father, who had spent his entire life as an obscure minor civil servant.’ [Autumn Quail, 3.]

The revolution is seen as impacting Ad-Dabbagh’s social circle in different ways. Isa’s cousin Hasan is favourably disposed towards the Revolution. Hasan disagrees with Isa on politics. ‘“The English, the King, and the parties, they’ll all have to go,” Hasan said. “Then we can start afresh.”’ [3.]

Under the new regime Hassan does well. He is not associated with any of the parties. ‘Then [Isa] learned that his cousin Hasan had been selected for an important post but that the way was clear for him to be appointed to even more important and influential positions.’ [7.]

Isa, by contrast, loses his job in the ministry. ‘…the decision had been taken to pension him off….’ [8.]

Isa’s friend Samir loses his job as well. ‘”It’s the same with me… I left the ministry for the last time today.”’ [8.]

Other friends, like Rauf Ilwan – Said Mahran’s former mentor in The Thief and the Dogs – adapt with perhaps discreditable quickness. ‘Here was his friend Ibrahim Khairat, a lawyer and ex-member of Parliament, writing enthusiastically about the revolution in more than one newspaper as though he were one of the officers himself!’ [7.]

The protagonists of both novels have some sympathy with the national and social ideals of the Revolution. Mahran was once involved in a revolutionary group. ‘On the other side of this very hill, young men, shabby, but pure in heart, used to train for battle.’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 5.]

Ad-Dabbagh feels an enthusiasm for the Revolution that he does not understand. ‘The exhilaration he frequently felt was difficult to confirm, to define, or even to contemplate….’ [Autumn Quail, 6.]

The Revolution and Ad-Dabbagh’s friends had enemies in common. ‘“The King’s finished…. The King’s our traditional enemy.”’ [6.]

The Revolution has achieved many of their goals. ‘…his friends …started praising the startling historic actions of the revolution, the abolition of the monarchy, the end of feudalism, and the evacuation….’ [18.] The evacuation, here, refers to the evacuation by the British of the Suez Canal zone.

Isa’s cousin implores him to join with the Revolution. ‘“Tell me one of your past hopes…. which hasn’t been achieved today. You should jump on the train and join the rest of us!”’ [18.]

Isa can appreciate the achievements of the revolution. He cannot accept that those achievements have been brought about by someone else. ‘“The truth is,” Isa replied after thinking for a moment, “although my mind is sometimes convinced by the revolution, my heart is always with the past.”’ [19.]

The outcomes are similar in one sense for Said Mahran and Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh. They are both left by the revolution without a future.

The only occupation that Said Mahran knows is burglary. ‘“In my whole life I’ve mastered only one trade.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 3.]

His former mentor predicts the outcome for him. ‘”You’ll always be worthless and you’ll die a worthless death.”’ [4.]

Ad-Dabbagh has not just lost a job. He has also lost his role. ‘“We won’t be working, whatever job we take… because we’ve no role to play.”’ [Autumn Quail, 13.]

Mahran and Ad-Dabbagh are powerless in the face of history. Mahran has lost any sense of purpose he might once have had. He does not feel he is living any more. ‘Said’s life was finished, spent to no purpose; he was a hunted man and would be till the end of his days… alive but without real life.’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 8.]

Ad-Dabbagh has lost his sense of himself as a participant in history. He feels worthless. ‘“We were the vanguard of a revolution…. and now we are the debris of one!”’ [Autumn Quail, 10.]

Said Mahran is proud of his occupation. He believes his crimes are political acts. ‘My profession will always be mine, a just and legitimate trade….’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 4.]

Mahran has been taught by his mentor, Rauf Ilwan, to see his crimes as justified by social conditions. ‘“You’ve actually dared to steal. Bravo! Using theft to relieve the exploiters of some of their guilt is absolutely legitimate, Said. Never doubt it.”’ [5.]

While Mahran is in prison the revolution takes place. Everything changes. ‘“And now you’ve come out of prison to find a new world.”’ [3.]

Mahran feels betrayed. He feels betrayed by his wife and by his friend, Ilish. ‘“She applied for divorce on the grounds of my imprisonment and went and married him…. And he took everything I owned, the money and the jewellery…. It was that dog who betrayed me, in collusion with her.”’ [2.]

Mahran has lost his daughter. After four years absence in prison she does not recognise him. ‘“Shake hands with Daddy,” said Ilish…. “No!” said Sana…. “Mammy!” she cried.’ [1.]

Mahran also feels betrayed by his former friend and mentor, Rauf Ilwan. Since the revolution Ilwan has become a successful journalist. Even his empty office conveys a sense of his new-found importance. ‘Rauf was now a very important man, it seemed, a great man, as great as this room.’ [3.]

The man Mahran once knew has vanished. ‘…what had become of the Rauf Ilwan he’d known?’ [3.]

Mahran wants revenge. He wants revenge on his ex-wife, his erstwhile friend Ilish, and on his former mentor Ilwan. ‘To kill them both – Nabawiyya and Ilish – at the same time would be a triumph. Even better would be to settle with Rauf Ilwan, too, then escape, go abroad if possible.’ [7.]

Mahran twice attempts murder. He first attempts to kill Ilish. ‘He drew his gun and gave the glass one blow thought the twisted bars that protected it…. A man’s voice… said, “Who’s there…?” Said pressed the trigger and the gun roared like a demon in the night. [7.]

Later he ambushes Rauf Ilwan. ‘“Rauf! This is Said Mahran! Take that!”’ [14.]

Said fails to kill Ilish. ‘Said Mahran had come to murder his wife and his old friend, but had killed the new tenant instead.’ [8.]

Said also fails to kill Rauf Ilwan. ‘…the unfortunate doorkeeper had fallen. Another poor innocent killed!’ [15.]

In both cases Said kills the wrong person. That is surely a comment on political violence. ‘A failure. It was insane. And pointless.’ [8.]

Said is abandoned by the woman who loves him. ‘Dawn was close, but Nur had not returned….’ [16.]

Said’s friends can no longer help him. ‘“But it was disastrous of you to attack a man of importance!”’ [16.]

He dies alone. ‘The dogs had come at last and there was no hope left.’ [18.]

Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh is a powerful bureaucrat, despite his youth. ‘There’s been a time when he’d made several members of the [Purge] committee tremble even when his party was not in power.’ [7.]

Isa is a party man. It is politics that is responsible for Isa’s rapid promotion. ‘[Hasan] was almost the same age as Isa but was still in the fifth grade, whereas politics had managed to push Isa up to the second.’ [3.]

From the arrogance with which Isa identifies his party with the nation, it is clear that it is the Wafd. The Wafd is never mentioned by name. ‘“We’re the legitimate rulers of this country and there are no others besides us.”’ [3.]

Ad-Dabbagh is involved with the appointment of umdas – village headmen. ‘All the accusations applied to the appointments of umdas….’ [7.] We can deduce from this involvement with the appointment of umdas that Isa is with the Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry of the Interior was responsible for umdas.

The Ministry of the Interior is a powerful organisation. Ad-Dabbagh has a senior job in the Ministry, a ’”… position in the minister’s office….”’ [3.] He is in a position of power.

The Ministry of the Interior is not named in Autumn Quail, any more than the Wafd is named. That gives ‘the ministry’ where Ad-Dabbagh works an eponymous quality. It becomes, in a shadowy way, a symbol for the civil service as a whole.

Mahfouz would expect his readers to recognise the allusions to the Wafd. Neither does he does not provide any background about the party.

Mahfouz provides no background for two reasons. The first and more banal reason is that, writing at that date and writing primarily for an Egyptian audience, he did not need to provide any background. He would expect his readers to know.

The second and more interesting reason is that Mahfouz was not writing a fictional history of the Wafd. To some extent Mahfouz had already done that, in the Cairo Trilogy.

In Autumn Quail Mahfouz was writing about the effect of the July revolution on an individual who – like Mahfouz himself, like many of Mahfouz’s colleagues in the civil service, like many of their contemporaries from the urban petty bourgeoisie – had had a lifelong loyalty to the Wafd.

Those loyalties were often powerful. Between 1919 and 1952 the Wafd was strongly identified with the struggle for Egyptian national independence. While there were other nationalist parties, the Wafd was preeminent.

The Wafd had its origins in a delegation which was sent to the peace conference in 1919. ‘Wafd’ in Arabic means ‘delegation’. If the countries of Eastern Europe were to have national self-determination, articulate and educated Egyptians – the Egyptian political community – saw no reason why they should not have the same. They were bitterly disappointed when the American delegation recognised the British protectorate.

The delegation was led by the lawyer Saad Zaghlul. He was to become the most popular Nationalist politician of his generation. Saad remained important even after his death. [Goldschmidt, 6.]

Bewildered by events after witnessing the Cairo riots, Ad-Dabbagh visits a Pasha. We are entitled to assume that the Pasha is someone senior in the party.

The Pasha is already washed up. His career was over before the riots. The loss of power and influence is an important theme in Autumn Quail. The Pasha ‘… no longer had any real job except to serve on the Finance Committee in parliament.’ [Autumn Quail, 2.]

Nevertheless the Pasha tries to pretend that he still has his finger on the pulse of affairs. ‘”Things are not as obvious as you imagine,” the Pasha replied.’ [2.]

The attempt to hang on to a vestige of political influence is another important theme. During the Suez crisis in 1956 one of Isa’s party colleagues displays not only an extraordinary arrogance, but an anti-national attitude that verges on treason. ‘“Some of our men are meeting the responsible authorities at this moment,” said Ibrahim…. “We’re trying to persuade them to surrender so that we can save whatever can be saved!”’ [24.]

Mahfouz does not need to make explicit the loyalty that Ad-Dabbagh and the Pasha share. All Mahfouz has to do when they meet on the evening of the riots is to mention briefly – almost cryptically – a detail of the interior decoration.  He refers to ‘…the picture of Saad Zaghlul hanging on the wall above the huge desk to the right of where they were sitting’. [2.] Twenty-five years after his death Saad, the nationalist, has become what would now be called an icon.

The image of Saad recurs right at the end of the novel. ‘… [Ad-Dabbagh] sat on a bench under Saad Zaghlul’s statue.…. He jumped to his feet in a sudden drunken spurt of enthusiasm and started after the young man with long strides, leaving the seat behind him sunk in solitude and darkness.’ [31.]

This is a much more complex metaphor. Saad is no longer a living statesman. Saad is history as the past. History as a dynamic process is represented by the young man whom Ad-Dabbagh once imprisoned. The novel ends before we can tell whether Ad-Dabbagh will catch up or not.

The London government would not discuss Egyptian independence. The British tried to quell the unrest by exiling Saad Zaghlul and three of his colleagues in 1919 to Malta.

The law school students went on strike. They were joined by government employees, judges, and lawyers. ‘Within a week Egyptians were looting shops, blowing up railroad tracks, cutting telegraph wires, and burning down buildings…. Street demonstrations… became a daily occurrence and dozens of rioters were killed, injured or arrested.’ [Goldschmidt, 6.]

These events became known as the 1919 Revolution. Mahfouz describes them vividly in Palace Walk (1956).

By 1921 it was clear, according to Goldschmidt, that the British would have to give up the protectorate. Saad thought he was the only Egyptian who had the authority to negotiate.  He called demonstrations. The British response was to exile Saad again. He was not to return home until 1923.

In 1922 the British granted Egypt partial autonomy. They made a formal statement terminating the protectorate and declaring Egypt a sovereign state. Several points were ‘reserved’ for further negotiation.

The Wafd reorganised as a political party. Under the 1923 constitution – with which the Wafd had had nothing to do – the Wafd won 179 seats out of 211 in the lower house. Saad became Prime Minister.

Sir Lee Stack, governor of the Sudan and commander in chief of the Egyptian army, was assassinated November 1924. The Wafd had nothing to do with the assassination. Allenby, the British representative, nevertheless issued an ultimatum. Saad resigned rather than accept it.

Goldschmidt believes that this was a mistake. He contends that Saad ‘… could have rallied the Egyptian people….’ [Goldschmidt, 6.]

In Goldschmidt’s words these events created a ‘power triangle’ that lasted until the July Revolution of 1952. It consisted of the king, the Wafd, and the British. This is precisely the arrangement against which Isa’s cousin Hassan fulminates so angrily. ‘“The English, the King, and the parties, they’ll all have to go,” Hasan said. “Then we can start afresh.”’ [Autumn Quail, 3.]

After what Goldschmidt describes as a ‘virtual palace dictatorship’ under Ismail Sidqi the democratic 1923 constitution was restored in 1934. King Faruq succeeded at the age of sixteen in 1936, and was initially popular.

The Wafd under Mustafa al-Nahhas, who had succeeded to the leadership in 1927 after the death of Saad, won large majorities in both houses of parliament. According again to Goldschmidt, only the Wafd could influence popular opinion. [Goldschmidt, 6.]

The Anglo-Egyptian treaty of August 1936 was perhaps the most important achievement of the Wafd. Goldschmidt describes it as a ‘first step towards independence’. He also says it was the ‘high-water mark of liberal democracy’. [Goldschmidt, 7.]

The Wafdist cabinet lasted only eighteen months. Faruq proved himself to be dictatorial.

The reputation of the Wafd suffered badly in 1942. The British ambassador surrounded palace with tanks. The ambassador demanded that Faruq should appoint Mustafa al-Nahas as prime minister. Faruq did not abdicate, and Mustafa al-Nahas agreed to form a cabinet. From that time forward the Wafd, who had always been in the forefront of the struggle against the British, were seen as collaborators.

The Wafd were hit again in the same year. Makram Ubayd, one of the leaders, quit the party and published his Black Book. In it Ubayd exposed the corruption of the Wafd. Mustafa al-Nahas was one of those he accused.

In the post-war period, British troops were withdrawn as agreed to the Canal Zone. The Canal Zone became the largest and best-equipped British overseas base. The British were also making preparations for eventual Sudanese independence. This was opposed by the Wafd. [Goldschmidt, 7.]

In the parliamentary elections of 1950 the Wafd won most of the seats with 40% of the vote. Mustafa al-Nahhas became prime minister.

Mustafa al-Nahhas’s new government introduced progressive measures. To some extent the Wafd redeemed themselves. Fees for secondary and technical schools were abolished, social service centres were created in many villages and a social insurance programme was set up. A land reform proposal – vitally important, because of the problem of landlessness – was even discussed. It not implemented.

The British were determined to hold on to their Suez Canal base. In 1951 Nahhas made a bold move. He unilaterally renounced the Anglo-Egyptian treaty and declared Faruq king of both Egypt and Sudan.

The Egyptian government claimed that the revocation of the treaty made the British presence in Canal Zone illegal. The government had popular support. There were strikes, a blockade and a boycott. The British retaliated by occupying roads, bridges and the Suez customs house.

The Egyptian government did not use the armed forces. It encouraged however the creation of groups of irregular fighters. They were usually known as fedayeen.

On 25 January 1952 British attacked the police headquarters in Ismailia. There were fifty killed.

On 26 January there was a march of auxiliary police and students in Cairo. Riots broke out. This would later be known as Black Saturday.

By the time the riots were over there were thirty dead and hundreds injured. Four hundred buildings had been destroyed and the damage was estimated at $500 million. The army stepped in after several hours delay.

Mahfouz does not describe the history of the struggle for independence for his Egyptian readers. He does not need to, any more than he needs to explain the origins of the Wafd.

Mahfouz is not writing about the struggle for independence. He is describing the impact of those well-known historical events on one individual.

Isa’s personal standing, before his fall, is vividly suggested at the beginning of the novel. When Isa returns from the fighting in the Canal Zone to find riots in Cairo he expects an entourage to meet him. There is no one. ‘When the train drew to a halt, he could see no one waiting for him. Where was his secretary? Where were the office staff and the messengers?’ [1.]

Symbolically Isa has already lost his power. He is then demoted following the riots. ‘“A decree’s been issued transferring me from my position in the minister’s office to the archives.”’ [3.]

After the revolution, Ad-Dabbagh is purged. The new rulers set up a formal process. ‘…he was summoned to appear before the Purge Committee.’ [7.]

I am not quite clear what Mahfouz means here. Goldschmidt refers to a purge of political parties. ‘Political parties were ordered to cleanse themselves of corrupt politicians.’ [Goldschmidt, 8.]

While Isa is a party man, the process that Mahfouz describes in Autumn Quail is pretty clearly an internal civil service process. ‘All the accusations applied to the appointments of umdas on the basis of party bias and gifts….’ [7.]

Isa is amongst other things being scapegoated. ‘“The minister relied on your nominations…. so you were primarily responsible.”’ [7.]

The penalty that is imposed is an internal civil service penalty. ‘…the decision had been taken to pension him off….’ [8.]

Isa loses not only his job, but – more importantly to him – his role. ‘“We won’t be working, whatever job we take… because we’ve no role to play.”’ [13.]

Like Said Mahran, the thief, Isa ends up friendless and alone. ‘“I want to live somewhere no one knows me and I know no one.”’ [12.]

In Isa’s case however it is perhaps more by conscious choice. ‘He experimented with solitude and its companions – a radio, books, and dreams.’ [13]

Both novels are realistic. They are not however completely conventional.

Both novels focus very much on the present. We are given only enough of the back story to make sense of the present.

In a more conventionally realistic novel, we would hear about Said Mahran’s exploits, his life of crime before he was imprisoned. His relationship with the friend who betrayed him and married his wife would be more developed.

Similarly in Autumn Quail we would hear more about Ad-Dabbagh’s exercise of power before he fell. As it is we are simply informed he was a powerful man.

A more conventional writer than Mahfouz might also want to develop Isa’s relationship with the young man whom he put in prison in his glory days. Isa encounters again, by chance, at the end of the novel. ‘Just before midnight, he saw someone coming toward the restaurant who attracted his attention like an electric shock…. He stared at Isa intently, and Isa realised that he recognised him.’ [31.]

Mahfouz does not do that. Personal history is suppressed in favour of national history. To a large extent, Autumn Quail and The Thief and the Dogs are both psychological novels.

Said Mahran and Isa Ad-Dabbagh are both individualists. Mahran is a thief. Ad-Dabbagh is an ambitious bureaucrat. Yet both novels are a critique of individualism. Neither Mahran nor Ad-Dabbagh can live without a connection to the collective. When Mahran loses his connection to his revolutionary ideals – however false and misguided those ideals may be – he self-destructs. Ad-Dabbagh, similarly, cannot live when he is excluded from history. At best he exists.

Autumn Quail begins when Isa Ad-Dabbagh returns to Cairo after a visit to the Canal Zone during the fighting. We never learn exactly what he was supposed to be doing there. The fighting is retrospective. ‘His mind still held the bloody scenes at the Canal, the slaughtered policemen, their defenceless heroism.’ [1.]

The rioting in Cairo is vividly present. ‘….gasoline was flaming, fires were burning, doors were being knocked in, all kinds of merchandise was being strewn about, and water was gushing out in crashing waves.’ [1.]

It is described in apocalyptic terms. ‘“The last day’s come…. Fire and destruction….”’ [1.]

It is not the provocation of the British by Mustafa al-Nahhas that Mahfouz sees as historic. Through the prophetic eyes of his protagonist Isa Ad-Dabbagh, it is the upsurge of popular anger that follows that Mahfouz sees as historic. ‘This flood would uproot the government, the party, and himself.’ [1.]

Isa and the Pasha understand fairly well what is going on. “Nationalist feelings are running very high.” [2.]

Mahfouz also understands, however much sympathy he may have with the national cause, that there is something fundamentally irrational about the behaviour of the crowd. “Burn! Destroy! Long live the homeland!” [1.]

When Isa is initially demoted he and his friends try to convince themselves that it is just another temporary setback of the kind that he is familiar with in politics. ‘”It’s not the first time.” [his  mother] said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your old job back. Or maybe something even better.” [3.]

With a rather extraordinary confidence Isa decides to finalise his plans for an advantageous marriage. ‘“I think it’s important… that I take advantage of this period of retirement to attend to my personal affairs.”’ [3.]

Isa’s proposed father in law, though his political loyalties are different, is form the same power élite in which Isa moves. ‘Rich and from a rich background, [Ali Bey Sulaiman] was also an influential justice, quite apart from the fact that he was a Palace man.’ [3.]

A politician to the last, Isa feels a need to present his feelings as more romantic than they are. ‘“But in fact I loved you tremendously ten years ago; you were ten and I was twenty.”’ [5.]

Salwa, Isa’s fiancé, is not completely convinced. ‘“All this, and yet you haven’t been to see me for ten years!”she said with mild irony.’ [5.]

Salwa nevertheless rewards him. He took her chin between his fingers, turned her head gently, leaned forward until his hungry mouth met her soft lips in a throbbing kiss…. [5.]

This is the kind of reward that Hassanein, despite being engaged, is not allowed in The Beginning and the End (1950). Bahia does not allow Hassanein any familiarity. “Don’t touch me,” she said with serious finality. [The Beginning and the End, 24.]

Hassanein becomes frustrated. Eventually he breaks off his engagement. ‘He felt he was wasting his days in hopeless monotony. …he was overcome by a vindictive impulse, a desire to injure, if only by words.’ [38.]

Isa and Salwa are older. Isa is certainly more worldly. Isa and Salwa are both from a higher social class than Hassanein and Bahia.

Isa’s pleasure in his marriage is real. ‘“Today I think I’ve reached the peak of happiness,” Isa said.’ [Autumn Quail, 4.]

In this Autumn Quail is reminiscent of the earlier melodramas. The moment of greatest apparent happiness comes immediately before the fall.

The riots were a premonition of the downfall of the old order. Reality arrives with the Free Officers coup. ‘Isa was at breakfast on the morning of the twenty-third of July when the radio interrupted its normal broadcast to announce the Army declaration. At first he did not fully comprehend what he was hearing.’ [6.]

Mahfouz does not need to specify what is happening. He can rely on his readers to know what happened on 23 July. He does not even have to remind them which year it is.

Isa initially reacts as a politician. That is how he reacted to the riots with which Autumn Quail opens. In exactly the same way, he goes to see a more senior politician. ‘He found Abd al-Halim Pasha in Athenios…. “Haven’t you any news, sir?” “…One can’t be sure about anything. Who are these officers?” [6.]

Isa begins to realise that this is no longer the political universe with which he is familiar. ‘The shock was tremendous. It overwhelmed him for a moment.’ [6.]

The effects of the coup on Isa personally are more serious than the effects of the riots. The riots led to a change of government. The coup, though it takes Isa a while to recognise it, is a change of regime.

Isa’s personal circumstances become uncertain. ‘The postponement of his marriage had become inevitable….’ [7.]

Isa’s position in the civil service is threatened. ‘Then the purging statute was announced.’ [7.]

When Isa loses his job his marriage is called off. ‘“Marriage is now quite out of the question!”’ [9.]

Isa is well on the way to having lost everything. His world is falling apart. He feels alienated. ‘He was an outcast in his own big city, banished without really being banished. He was amazed at the way the ground had suddenly collapsed under his feet like a puff of dust and how the pillars which had withstood fate for a quarter of a century had crumbled.’ [8.]

It is not unlike the way that Said Mahran feels on his release from prison. ‘I am alone with my freedom….’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 2]

Isa deteriorates. His cousin Hasan tries to help. ‘“I’ve got a job for you in a respectable company…. A company that produces and distributes films.”’ [11.] Isa is not interested. ‘“I’m really thinking of leaving Cairo.”’ [11.]

Isa is close to despair. ‘“My future’s a thing of the past.”’ [12.] He goes beyond a vague intention of leaving Cairo, and makes plans. ‘“I’m thinking of going to Alexandria.”’ [12.]

In Alexandria Isa lives in a Greek quarter. It makes his alienation fell real. ‘…you could see Greek faces on the balconies, at the windows, and in the street. He was a stranger in a district filled with strangers… you were all strangers in a strange country.’ [13.]

The autumn quail of the title are a symbol of Isa’s feelings of sadness and loss. ‘You could see the bevies of quail as well….’ [13.]

In his isolation and despair Isa sees women as a drug. ‘“You’ll still need girls, though; they’re wonderful tranquilisers for anxieties.”’ [13.]

Isa cannot afford the prostitutes in the nightclubs. ‘All these beautiful women belonged to houses now, not to the streets….’ [14.]

He encounters a desperately poor streetwalker and takes her in. ‘The cheap cotton flannel dress, the defiant look untinged by reserve or haughtiness, and the very fact that she was walking alone at night, all these things showed that she was a Corniche girl.’ [14.]

He does not respect her. In his eyes she is: ‘…like a stray dog looking for any passerby to follow.’ [14.]

Isa discovers the depth of Riri’s poverty. ‘…he went into the lounge and found her there, cleaning and putting things straight with great industriousness. “…Haven’t you got a home?” “No.”’ [15.]

He takes advantage of her. ‘He gave her no encouragement to get emotionally involved with him….’ [16.]

When he discovers she is pregnant he is furious. He treats her with great cruelty. ‘“You poisonous little snake!” he yelled at her. “Is this how you pay me back for giving you a home? …Don’t let me see your face from now on, or ever again.”’ [16.]

Isa is not merely exploiting Riri, and showing his contempt in doing so for the Egyptian people, from whom Riri comes. He is showing an inability to feel for women and by extension a lack of feeling for people in general.

Riri attempts to contact him again. ‘He heard a slight cough and turned to his left. There was Riri, sitting at a table only one away from his! …her smiling eyes were full of tragedy.’ [17.]

Isa pretends he does not recognise her. It is perhaps even more cruel than shouting. ‘“I’m sorry. Maybe you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”’ [17.]

Isa is refusing to recognise Riri’s suffering. He is refusing by the same token to recognise his responsibility for her. He does not understand that as a politician and a civil servant, he had some responsibility for the people. For him politics is about career, and women exist to meet his needs.

Isa’s mother dies. He goes back to Cairo to sell the house. ‘He found a telegram waiting for him from the family saying that his mother had died.’ [17.]

He discovers that his former fiancée is going to marry his cousin. ‘“{Salwa is] engaged to your cousin Hasan….”’ [18.]

Through the sale of the house Isa meets a wife. Unlike Riri, Qadriyya is of similar social standing. Unlike Riri, Qadriyya has money. ‘Qadriyya needs a husband, he thought with a good deal of sorrow, and I need a wife. He decided to make a few of the usual enquiries, which established that she had been married three times, not once.’ [21.]

Isa is cynical about Qadriyya, as he was with Riri. ‘He realised that if he knew about the bride’s faults in advance, later on he wouldn’t be able to play the role of the faithful husband whose hopes have been dashed.’ [21.]

Marriage does not satisfy Isa for long. ‘“I doubt if any man could stand [married life] without a job or children.”’ [22.]

History intervenes. The Suez crisis erupts. ‘One day, the radio surprised him by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company.’ [22.]

The British had agreed to evacuate the canal in 1954. In 1955, the Western powers were alarmed when Nasser announced the purchase of $20 million worth of Soviet weapons, ostensibly from Czechoslovakia. They saw it as a turn towards the Soviet bloc.

Previously the Western powers and the Western institutions had been quite supportive. The World Bank had already announced itself ‘cautiously in favour’ of the heroic Aswan High Dam infrastructure project.

Dulles, the American Secretary of State, then made what Goldschmidt describes ‘as the worst diplomatic blunder’ that he ever committed. He withdrew the High Dam offer. Nasir responded by nationalising the Suez Canal Company.

The British decided to treat the nationalisation of the canal as a threat to the security of their communications with the Empire. They concerted plans with the French and the Israelis. They did not inform the Americans. [Goldschmidt, 9.]

The Israelis attacked. ‘The Jews attacked Sinai.’ [Autumn Quail, 22.]

The British, disingenuously, issued an ultimatum to both the Egyptians and the Israelis. They instructed both countries to withdraw their armed forces ten miles either side of the canal. This was to treat both parties as equal belligerents, when in fact the Israelis were the aggressor. It was also to treat the canal as if it was the frontier.

In the face of international opposition the British and French attack was aborted almost before it began. The Israelis pulled out of Sinai. Goldschmidt describes the outcome as ‘a military defeat but a political triumph for Nasir’. [Goldschmidt, 9.]

Isa briefly shares the enthusiasm. ‘The world gave its decision, the threats disappeared, and the enemy was forced to swallow its pride and submit to an unprecedented reality. Then there was an outburst of joy greater than any bomb.’ [24.]

It does not last. ‘…Isa himself …rapidly sunk into a profound lethargy like a pile of ash.’ [24.]

Isa now feels his situation. ‘Everyone has a job, but he had none. Every wife has children, but she had none. Every citizen in a country has his own abode, but he was an exile in his own homeland….. How much longer can this miserable existence last, he asked himself.’ [24.]

Isa takes to gambling. ‘Isa put his whole heart and soul into the poker game.’ [26]

Qadriyya does not like his gambling. She throws him out. ‘He kept on pressing the bell, but here was no answer. She must have decided not to open the door, he thought.’ [26]

Isa and Qadriyya are reconciled, provisionally at least, by their friends. They are advised to move to Alexandria.

Isa starts to fantasise about a tranquil rural life, quite unlike anything he has ever known. It is pure escapism. ‘“I’d really like some other kind of life…. I’d like to spend the day working in the fields and the night on a balcony looking out on space and silence…. It’s just a dream.”’ [28.]

Isa encounters a fortune teller. It is a sign of his state of mind that a sophisticated, secular man such as Isa should even listen to a fortune teller.

Mahfouz used a similar device in The Mirage (1948). Kamil decides to spy on Rabab.  He suspects she is having an affair.

Kamal visits the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, where he used to go with his mother: ‘…I happened to see a geomancer. “…You think and worry a lot,” he said. “…And you have a cunning enemy…. He’s planning a cunning deceit, but God will bring his artful plot down on his head. …And you’ll receive a piece of paper that will bring you everlasting satisfaction.” [The Mirage, 50.]

The predictions, if nothing else, confirm to the reader that Kamal is right to be paranoid. Kamal, unlike Isa, is of course superstitious. Kamal attributes his superstitiousness to his mother. ‘She so filled my ears with stories of goblins, ghosts, spirits, djinns, murderers, and thieves that I imagined myself living in a world filled with demons and terror…. It was this that placed fear at the centre of my soul….’ [4.]

Some of what the fortune teller tells Isa is the usual nonsense. ‘He found a palm reader in Indian dress standing in front of him…. “You’ll have a long life,” the man said, “and you’ll recover from a serious illness….”’ [Autumn Quail, 28.]

The fortune teller makes an observation on Isa’s character which is however very apt. ‘“You’re an ambitious man without any consideration for others.”’ [28.]

Isa encounters Riri. ‘She was in a small place which sold ice cream and ful and taamiya sandwiches, and was sitting behind the till on the chair belonging to either the manager or the owner.’ [28.]

A servant brings a little girl. ‘…the little girl jumped onto Riri’s lap and started playing lovingly and trustingly with the necklace she was wearing.’ [28.]

Isa realises that the little girl is his daughter. It affects him as powerfully as anything else in the novel. ‘Breathing heavily, he looked up at the sky, and then muttered, “Mercy… Mercy….”’ [28.]

The sight of his daughter gives him some understanding of how he treated Riri. ‘…he was shocked by how cruel and unpleasant he had been to her.’ [28.]

Isa nevertheless understands the situation in a completely selfish way. ‘Maybe it was a final despairing invitation to a life with some meaning….’ [29.]

He has the gall to approach Riri. Riri initially pretends she does not recognise him, just as Isa pretended not to recognise her when she needed him. ‘“Who are you?” she yelled angrily. “What do you want?”’ [29.]

Then Riri rejects him, exactly as he rejected her. ‘“Go away… and don’t let me see your face ever again.”’ [29.]

Isa finds out from a boot black that Riri has found a man who treats her decently. ‘“He’s old and a good man. He had no children and loved the woman. So he married her in the proper way!”’ [29.]

Isa watches Riri and her daughter on the beach. ‘Riri was sitting under an umbrella with her arms folded, and little Ni’mat was bending over the sand a few yards away, eagerly digging a pit.’ [31.]

He makes his only gesture of affection in the novel. ‘…he planted a long warm kiss on [Ni’mat’s] cheek. Then he muttered, “Farewell,” and left without turning back.’ [31.]

Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs also shows affection only for his daughter. It is something else that the two men, socially so different, have in common. ‘”As the thought of [Sana] crossed his mind, the heat and the dust, the hatred and pain all disappeared, leaving only love to glow across a soul as clear as a rain-washed sky.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 1.]

Isa encounters the young man. ‘One night, he had arrested this young man…. the inquest had not found him guilty. He had been sent to prison anyway and had stayed there till the ministry had resigned.’ [Autumn Quail, 31.]

Initially Isa pretends not to recognise him. He denies responsibility for the young man’s suffering, just as he denied responsibility for Riri. ‘“You remember me, of course!” “… I certainly remember the way days and the harsh circumstances which often forced us to do things we didn’t like doing.”’ [31.]

The young man is more sophisticated than Riri. ‘“That’s the traditional excuse…”’ [31.]

Isa decides to follow the young man. ‘I could catch up with him, he thought, if I don’t waste any more time hesitating.’ [31.]

Isa doesn’t expect very much. ‘What an odd young man…! Why didn’t I encourage him to talk? Maybe I should ask him to help me overcome my boredom…. Our conversation might lead us into an adventure which would brighten up the night.’ [31.]

Isa, an educated man with resources has more than Said Mahran has in a similar condition of isolation and despair. Said Mahran ‘… heard dogs beginning to bark in the distance…. The dogs had come at last and there was no hope left.’ [18]

Without community, they are both nothing. Said Mahran has no hope. Isa, realistically, has very little.

Mahfouz is prepared to confront suffering. This is a kind of realism. It is however realism about the world. It is more than a literary convention.

The Thief and the Dogs and Autumn Quail are competent novels. Mahfouz has moved away from the melodrama of the novels he wrote in the late 1940s.

I do not see the merit of these novels as purely aesthetic. They are courageous, and they are wise.

Bibliographical note

Goldschmidt, Arthur Jr., Modern Egypt: The Formation of a Nation State, 2nd edn. 2004

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