Storm

Miramar

Naguib Mahfouz, 1967

Miramar is set in Alexandria. Alexandria is a city which occurs occasionally as a secondary locale in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. It is not a location which Mahfouz often uses as the main setting. Mahfouz is a Cairene novelist.

In Autumn Quail (1962), Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh moves to Alexandria for a while.  ‘“I’m thinking of going to Alexandria.”’ [Autumn Quail, 12.] In The Beggar (1965), Omar al-Hamzawi takes his family for a holiday in Alexandria. This is quite normal for middle-class Cairenes. Omar takes a holiday on the doctor’s advice. ‘“Take a vacation.”’ [The Beggar, 1.]

Mansour Bahy, one of the characters in Miramar, takes a number of trips to Cairo to see a woman called Doreya. Other than that, the whole novel takes place in Alexandria.

Mansour’s former comrades, including Doreya’s husband, have been arrested. ‘”You heard…?” “Yes, at the office. I took the two o’clock train.”’  [Miramar, 3.]

Miramar is the name of the pension in which the novel is set. There are five residents. All of the residents are male. Two of the residents are older. The older residents are Amer Wagdi and Tolba Bey Marzuq.

Amer Wagdi is an old journalist. He is also an old Wafdist. ‘Those were the days – the glory of working for the Cause, independence, the nation!’ [Miramar, 1.]

Tolba Marzuq knows Wagdi’s work. Marzuq doesn’t approve of his politics. ‘“Yours was a good example of a fine pen serving a bad cause.”’ [1.]

Amer Wagdi has come to the Pension Miramar to die. ‘There’s not much time left; the world is changing fast and my weak eyes under their thinning white brows can no longer comprehend what they see.’ [1.]

Marzuq is a former landowner. ‘He was one of the King’s henchmen and naturally an enemy of the Wafd. I recall that his property had been put under sequestration a year ago, with all his resources confiscated, leaving only the usual allowance.’ [1.]

This dates the novel. The July Laws of 1961 were what made the July revolution of 1952 a socialist revolution. [Goldschmidt, 10.]

Under the July Laws, the maximum individual landholding was reduced from 200 to 100 feddans. A feddan is a little more than an acre. The July Laws also nationalised certain industries, including textiles.

Another resident of the pension, Sarhan al-Beheiry, works in a nationalised textile factory. Sarhan al-Beheiry introduces himself. ‘“Deputy head accountant at the Alexandria Textile Mills….”’  [1.]

The action of the novel occurs no earlier than 1962. If Mahfouz had wanted us to know it occurs later than that, he would have given us an indication. He does not.

Al-Beheiry and Bahy are younger than Wagdi and Marzuq. The fifth resident, Hosny Allam, is also a younger man. In addition there are two female characters. One is Mariana, the proprietor. The other is Zohra, who is hired as a maid.

Mariana is Greek. There is no novel of Mahfouz’s in which the Greek community is foreground. The Greeks however are often present.

In Autumn Quail, Ad-Dabbagh chooses to live in the Greek quarter. ‘…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.’ [Autumn Quail, 13.]

Mariana is in reduced circumstances. ‘The pension is all she has; she has to take in winter guests… at a reasonable rent, although I can retain my room in the summer only if I pay at the special summer rate for vacationers.’ [Miramar, 1.]

Zohra is a pretty countrywoman. She is often referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as a ‘fellaha’ The word means female peasant. Zohra’s prettiness is a powerful part of the dynamic of the novel. ‘I opened the judas as Madame always did and met a pair of eyes that belonged to a pretty face, a suntanned face, framed in the black scarf of a fellaha, with features full of character and an expectant look that went instantly to the heart.’  [1.]

Mahfouz does not deal with the country in his novels. He is a quintessentially metropolitan novelist. Countrywomen occur, like Nabawiyya, Said Mahran’s wife in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), when they have come to the city and become maids. ‘She was always so nicely dressed, much neater than the other servant girls, which was why she’d been known as the “Turkish lady’s maid.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 10.]

Zohra in Miramar and Samara in Adrift on the Nile (1966) are among Mahfouz’s most sympathetic portraits of women. Both Zohra and Samara have something more to them than sexuality.

Miramar is divided into five chapters. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the characters. Neither Tolba Marzuq nor either of the women have a chapter of their own. The novel is not narrated at any point from their perspective. The first chapter and the last – which is short – are both narrated from the perspective of Amer Wagdi, the elderly journalist. Wagdi was the first resident to arrive in the pension for the winter. He is one of the few people still there at the end.

Each chapter starts when the character arrives in the pension. Since they arrive within a couple of weeks of each other, there is a lot of overlap in the narrative. This allows Mahfouz to tell the same incident from different points of view. There are three incidents in particular where this happens. Each time one of the incidents is told we learn a little more.

One of the incidents is the evening when everyone gathers to listen to a concert by Umm Kulthum on the radio. ‘We did not get acquainted any further until the first Thursday of the Umm Kulthum season, when I learned from Mariana that they would join us in the evening to listen to the concert on the radio… They had ordered a kebab supper and a bottle of whisky.’ [Miramar, 1.]

Umm Kulthum was an internationally renowned Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. Her status is legendary.

The other two incidents which are narrated from multiple points of view are fights. Both the fights involve Zohra. The first fight involves Sarhan Baheiry’s other woman. ‘“I opened the door for Monsieur Sarhan…. and there was this woman following him…. Then they started fighting.”’ [1.]

Zohra and the woman fight. Zohra gets the better of it. ‘The woman suddenly turns on [Zohra], but Zohra is a magnificent fighter and punches her twice, banging the stranger each time into the wall.’ [2.]

The second is a fight between Al-Beheiry and Allam. ‘She’d… gone out to find Sarhan al-Beheiry and Hosny Allam exchanging blows in the corridor.’ [1.]

Allam has assaulted Zohra. ‘Excited with drink and desire, I throw myself at [Zohra]. She fights me off, beating my chest with her fists…. I start hitting her savagely…. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder and hear Sarhan…. “No, no, gentleman, you’ll wreck the place! I won’t stand for it!”’ [2.]

Each of the characters has been affected by the revolution. The revolution, in Mahfouz’s novels of the 1960s, is the unifying force. What also unites the younger men is that they all have a problem making a commitment to women.

Amer Wagdi has been left behind by history. In this he has something in common with both Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh and Omar al-Hamzawi, the protagonists respectively of Autumn Quail and The Beggar. The process however is different in each case.

Autumn Quail starts with the fighting in the Canal Zone and the riots in Cairo in 1952 After the fighting and the riots Ad-Dabbagh is demoted. ‘“A decree’s been issued transferring me from my position in the minister’s office to the archives.”’ [Autumn Quail, 3.]

After the July Revolution Ad-Dabbagh is purged. He is accused of corruption. ‘… [Ad-Dabbagh] was summoned to appear before the Purge Committee…. All the accusations applied to the appointments of umdas on the basis of party bias and gifts….’ [7.]

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

Ad-Dabbagh is used to being part of history. History has moved on. It has abandoned him. ‘“We were the vanguard of a revolution…. and now we are the debris of one!”’ [10.]

Omar al-Hamzawi in The Beggar was deeply involved in politics as a young man.  ‘”Tell me, do you remember those days of politics, demonstrations, and dreams of Utopia?”’ [The Beggar, 1.]

Now his life is meaningless. ‘Very often I’m sick of life, people, even the family…. I don’t want to think, to move or to feel. Everything is disintegrating and dying.”’ [1.]

Amer Wagdi had been powerful. ‘Amer Wagdi was someone indeed – full of favours for friends, but a man to be feared and avoided by enemies.’ [Miramar, 1.]

In this he was like Isa Ad-Dabbagh. ‘There’s been a time when he’d made several members of the [Purge] committee tremble even when his party was not in power.’ [Autumn Quail, 7.]

Wagdi, like many elderly people, perhaps, is nostalgic for the past. ‘All my friends are gone. The good old days are over…. But these are bad times. We are condemned to work with upstarts, clowns who no doubt got their training in a circus and then turned to journalism as the appropriate way to display their tricks.’ [Miramar, 1.]

Wagdi is alone. ‘“No wife, no family. And I’ve retired… I’m finished.”’ [1.]

Wagdi was once turned down as a suitor. ‘”Sir, may I ask you for your daughter’s hand?”’ [1.]

The rejection is very angry. Wagdi is rejected on religious grounds. ‘“People like you were made for hell…! Get out of this sanctified house, as Iblis was turned out of God’s grace!”’ [1.]

Iblis is Satan. Iblis was expelled from Paradise for refusing to worship Adam. The name in Arabic word is a corruption of the Greek word diavolos.

As Idris, Iblis is one of the important characters in Children of the Alley. Idris is banished by Gabalawi. The expulsion of Iblis introduces the theme of evil into the novel. ‘”Don’t you know the punishment for defying me, you fiend? Damnation to anyone who lets him back in or helps him!”’ [Children of the Alley, 1.]

We learn that Wagdi was once a student at Al Azhar, the religious university. He was expelled. We do not learn what for. ‘“My son, you were one of us. You studied in Al Azhar once. But don’t let us forget that you were expelled…. Wise men accused you of a terrible crime.”’ [Miramar, 1.]

Wagdi from time to time quotes the Qua’ran. He quotes Sura 55. ‘The Beneficent hath made known the Koran….’ [1.] Sura 55 deals with the lack of gratitude to God.

Wagdi also quotes Sura 27. ‘These are the revelations of the Scripture that maketh plain.’ [1.] Sura 27 deals with the denial of the afterlife.

Tolba asks Wagdi a question. ‘“Have you returned to the Faith?” he asked.’ [1.] We do not get an answer.

If Mahfouz wanted to tell us why Wagdi was expelled from Al Azhar he would have done. He does not. We are left with a picture of a secular person who has not so much abandoned his faith as been driven out of it.

Samara in Adrift on the Nile is very clear about the connection between lack of faith and nihilism. ‘It is also necessary that our belief has the sincerity of true religious faith, plus faith’s astonishing power to inspire acts of heroism.’ [Adrift on the Nile, 10.]

Mariana has been affected by both revolutions, the July Revolution of the Free Officers and the nationalist revolution of 1919. The nationalist revolution is a major theme of Palace Walk (1956), the first part of the Cairo Trilogy.

Mariana is bitter. ‘“Monsieur Amer, the first revolution killed my first husband. The second took my money and drove out my people. Why?”’ [Miramar, 1.]

There was a large migration of Greeks from Egypt to countries including Australia. Mariana’s claim that her people were ‘driven out’ is perhaps a little melodramatic. The migration started before the revolution of 1952 and continued well after it. [Wikipedia.]

Mariana’s first husband is ‘the Captain’. ‘There is the Captain’s portrait, in full dress, heavy whiskered – her first husband, killed in the Revolution of 1919.’ [Miramar, 1.]

Wagdi is a little puzzled about how Mariana lost her money. ‘”Haven’t you heard of the stock market crash…? That’s when I lost all the money I made in the Second World War.”’ [Miramar, 1.]

It is fairly clear that Mariana made her money from brothel-keeping. ‘”You never saw anything like the generosity of His Britannic Majesty’s officers!”’ [Miramar, 1.]

Tolba Marzuq has lost his land. ‘“He had a thousand feddans.”’ [Miramar, 1.]

Marzuq blames the Wafdists for his misfortunes. ‘“One man is responsible for this…. Saad Zaghloul.”’ [Miramar, 1.]

Marzuq has become paranoid. ‘[Tolba] was suspicious of strangers, certain that they knew his history and the circumstances of his ordeal….’ [Miramar, 1.]

Marzuq is not even a patriot any more. ‘”The Americans should have taken control of the whole world when they had the secret of the atom bomb all to themselves.”’ [Miramar, 1.]

The reference to the atom bomb here is only incidental. In Children of the Alley atomic weapons are an important theme. Arafa the magician develops a magic bottle.  It is a symbol both of high explosive and the atom bomb. ‘”Should I consider a man with a weapon like yours, that makes clubs a joke, a poor man? …I want a great deal of [the magic bottle]. …you’ll be able to work your magic under my protection, and you will have everything you ever wanted.”’ [Children of the Alley, 105.]

Hosny Allam is intensely resentful of the revolution. ‘Revolution? Why not? To put you where you belong, you progeny of whores, to take all your money and push your noses in the mud.’ [Miramar, 2.]

What he seems to resent most is the loss of status of his class as a whole. It has made him cynical. ‘So what if my class has left me to the waves and the boat sinking? How marvellous to be loyal to nothing, to be free, completely free, free of claims from class, country or any duty whatever.’ [Miramar, 2.]

His personal loss of status has led to him being turned down as a suitor. ‘“You’re just mad because Mervat turned you down.”’ [Miramar, 2.]

His property hasn’t done him any good. ‘“No education,” she said, “and a hazardous hundred feddans.”’ [Miramar, 2.]

Mansour Bahy has been affected in a different way. He is a communist. ‘No one guessed what [Tolba Marzuq] meant to me: old recollections, dreams of bloodshed, of classes in conflict….’ [Miramar, 3.]

Before the July Revolution, the communists and the Muslim Brotherhood were both considered a threat. ‘”He assured me that the only alternatives to the Revolution were the Communists or the Brotherhood.’” [5.]

Bahy’s brother is a police official. Mariana is very impressed. ‘“Your brother is a very distinguished police officer indeed.”’ [Miramar, 3.]

Bahy’s brother has forced him to leave his comrades and relocate to Alexandria. ‘“So I’m to stay prisoner here in Alexandria, to spend the rest of my life trying to justify myself.”’ [Miramar, 3.]

Bahy is a weak man. This is symbolised by his somewhat effeminate appearance. ‘I was charmed by his fine, delicate features….’ [Miramar, 3.]

Sarhan al-Beheiry is an opportunist. Before the revolution Al-Beheiry was active in the Wafd. ‘We’d both been members of Wafdist student committees….’ [4.]

After the revolution Al-Beheiry turned his coat. ‘“Of course. I was a member of the Liberation Organisation and then the National Union. Now I’m on the Committee of Twenty and I’m also an elected member of the company board, representing the staff.”’ [1.]

What makes Al-Beheiry vulnerable is greed. ‘“What’s life worth without your own villa, your own car and your own woman?”’ [4.]

Al-Beheiry gets involved in a plot to steal yarn from the factory where he works. ‘”The goods are up for grabs. You can imagine what a truckload of yarn can bring on the black market. It’s a safe operation and we can repeat it four times a month.”’ [4.]

Zohra is less concretely affected by the revolution than the other characters. She has nothing to lose. ‘“She used to rent half a feddan and work it herself….”’ [1.]

Symbolically we can imagine Zohra is more affected by the revolution than anyone, and in a more positive way. It may be the revolution that emboldened Zohra to resist the oppressive social conditions of life for women in the countryside. ‘”She ran away…. Her grandfather wanted her to marry an old man….”’ [1.]

It may have been the revolution which gave Zohra hope. “I love the land and the village, but I hate the misery…. Here is where love is. Education. Cleanliness. Hope.” [1.]

Zohra is determined to better herself. She decides to get an education. ‘”She’s arranged it with a schoolmistress who lives on the fifth floor. A young teacher who’ll give her private lessons.”’ [1.]

Zohra sticks to her plans even when her romantic hopes are dashed. ‘”What are your plans for the future?” “Just what they were….”’ [5.]

Womanising is as important as the revolution in Miramar. All the young men are womanisers. Amer Wagdi and Tolba Marzuq are not excluded. They were both womanisers in the past. Mariana was once Tolba Marzuq’s mistress. ‘”…are you back on the old terms with Mariana?”’ [1.]

Amer Wagdi had a reputation. ‘”Have you forgotten all your old escapades? The scandal sheets of the thirties were full of them; your chasing every skirt – or rather melaya – in Sharia Muhammad Ali.’” [1.]

The melaya is the black, head to foot garment worn for modesty by Egyptian women. It is used as a prop by belly dancers in Alexandria in immodest dancing. Dancers in clubs, like singers, were considered loose women.

Womanising is a persistent theme in the novels that Naguib Mahfouz wrote in the sixties. It is usually associated with lack of meaning. The journalist Samara in Adrift on the Nile thinks of lack of meaning as absurdity. ‘Absurdity is the loss of meaning, the meaning of anything.’ [Adrift on the Nile, 10.]

Mahfouz introduces the existentialist term commitment. This makes it quite clear he is thinking of absurdity in the context of that ideology. In Adrift on the Nile a group of friends meet on a houseboat to smoke hashish. One of them says, in a comment on an article by Samara, ‘”I thought that the article smacked of ‘commitment’.”’ [8.]

In Autumn Quail, Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh has lost his sense of being an actor in history. ‘“We won’t be working, whatever job we take… because we’ve no role to play.”’ [Autumn Quail, 13.]

Ad-Dabbagh moves a prostitute into his flat in Alexandria. ‘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.]

Ad-Dabbagh treats the woman badly. When she gets pregnant he throws her out. ‘“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.]

In The Beggar Omar al-Hamzawi loses his sense of meaning. ‘”I suppose I could still work, but I have no desire to…. Very often I’m sick of life, people, even the family…. I don’t want to think, to move or to feel. Everything is disintegrating and dying.”’ [The Beggar, 1.]

Al-Hamzawi tries to seduce a singer. ‘…for a moment, bewitched by the night’s charms, he was restored to his lost youth.’ [The Beggar, 7.]

The singer disappears. This is never quite satisfactorily explained. It doesn’t have to be. ‘“Where’s Margaret?” “…She’s gone.” “Where?” “Abroad.”’ [7.]

Al-Hamzawi takes up with a dancer. ‘…a magnificent statuesque woman with wide-set languid eyes and a high forehead which gave her face a certain aristocratic distinction.’ [8.]

The dancer leaves him. “I’m going away…. I don’t want anything…. What’s sad is that I’ve really loved you.”’ [13.]

Al-Hamzawi’s womanising becomes indiscriminate. ‘A brunette dancer at the New Paris attracted him, so he went after her…. The brunette left with him, enticed by money…. Every night he picked up a woman, from one club or another, sometimes from the streets.’ [13.]

Womanising in Autumn Quail and The Beggar is a response to loss of meaning. It is little more than a distraction. It does not create meaning.

The womanising of each of the young men in Miramar is different. The common factor is an incapacity for commitment. Womanising is an existential condition.

Hosny Allam, like Omar al-Hamzawi, has recourse to prostitutes. ‘I pay a visit to an old procuress at Chatby; she brings me a girl who isn’t bad to begin the day with.’ [2.]

Allam does so on an industrial scale. He is completely indifferent to his companions. ‘I go to the Metro cinema for the matinee and chat up a girl at the buffet during the intermission. We lunch at Omar Khayyam, then have a short siesta in her little flat at Ibrahimiya. By the time I get back to the pension I have forgotten her name.’ [2.]

Al-Hamzawi ends up seeing a different woman every night. Allam sees several women on the same day. ‘I drop in on the Maltese madam at Cleopatra and ask her to call in as many of her girls as she can.’ [2.]

Allam’s recklessness is symbolised by his excessively fast driving. ‘I drive around in my Ford, aimless except to satisfy a craving for speed.’

Allam is like the actor Ragab al-Qadi in Adrift on the Nile. ‘…they set off, faster and faster, until they were travelling at an insane speed.’ [Adrift on the Nile, 15.]

Ragab hits a pedestrian and kills him. ‘Suddenly a horrifying scream rang out. [Anis] opened his eyes, shaking, to see a black shape flying through the air.’ [15.]

Allam gets involved with Sarhan al-Beheiry’s discarded mistress. ‘… I emerge from behind the screen and take the strange woman firmly by the wrist. I pull her gently out, apologizing and trying to calm her down.’ [Miramar, 2.]

Safeya works at a night-club. The female entertainers are part-time prostitutes. ‘“I work at the Genevoise.”’ [2]

Allam is supposed to be looking for a business opportunity. ‘I drive around making plans for my new business.’ [2]

Safeya finds him just the opportunity he needs. ‘“There’s a wonderful opening for you…! The Genevoise. The owner wants to sell out.”’ [2]

Allam, like Saber in The Search, is on the point of becoming a pimp. Saber’s mother, like Mariana, is a brothel-keeper. She has prepared Saber for no other life. ‘”There’s nothing for me to do but become a ruffian, a hustler or a pimp.”’ [The Search, 1.]

It is in the case of Mansour al-Bahy that lack of commitment is perhaps most clearly existential in nature. Al-Bahy expects portentous events. ‘I said to myself that only a disaster, huge in scale, something on the order of a colossal earthquake, could bring back harmony.’ [3.]

Al-Bahy sees his future symbolised in the dramatic winter weather. ‘I watched the storm from behind the glass of my windowpanes until it finally cleared. This drama of the elements touched a sympathetic cord in my inmost heart. I had a premonition that forecast, in terms still incomprehensible to me, my personal destiny.’ [3.]

In addition to being unable to commit to a relationship with a woman Al-Bahy has also been unable to sustain a political commitment. ‘“Perhaps it was wise to stop working for a cause so uncongenial to you.”’ [3.]

Al-Bahy is aware of the effect that nihilism has on him. ‘I felt myself lapsing into anxious depression. “I’m sure the ideal is to believe and to put your beliefs into action. To have nothing to believe in is to be lost forever.”’ [3.]

Al-Bahy was previously in love with Doreya, the wife of his comrade Fawzi. Fawzi is now in jail. Al-Bahy renews his suit. ‘“Would you forgive me if I couldn’t help myself… and told you… that I love you now as I loved you in the past…?” “Mansour!”’ [3.]

Al-Bahy and Mrs Fawzi begin a relationship. It does not assuage Al-Bahy’s existential anguish. ‘When she stopped resisting and finally surrendered herself, it’s true, I was overjoyed. But afterward I was torn by anxiety, obsessed with the morbid idea that love was the road to death and that my own excesses would destroy me.’ [3.]

Mrs Fawzi sees Al-Bahy’s difficulty as a defect of character. ‘“You’ve always been so diffident….”’ [3.]

Mrs Fawzi cannot bear her loneliness. ‘“But I’m all by myself…. I can’t stand it anymore.”’ [3.]

Al-Bahy reacts as a lover should. “It just stands to simple reason: we should either separate or get you your divorce.” [3.]

Like all the other residents Al-Bahy is interested in Zohra. When Al-Beheiry betrays Zohra for Aleya, the schoolteacher, Al-Bahy overidentifies. ‘“That’s none of your business,” Sarhan was shouting. “I’ll marry as I like. I’ll marry Aleya….” I spat in his face. “There,” I shouted. “I spit on you and the likes of you. Traitors!”’ [3.]

Mrs Fawzi comes unexpectedly to visit Al-Bahy in Alexandria. ‘A woman was sitting near my desk. It was Doreya…. “I got a message from Fawzi…. He’s freed me to do what I like with my future.”’ [3.]

He betrays her. “Doreya. This kind offer of his. Don’t accept it.” [3.]

Mrs Fawzi perceives there is something seriously wrong. ‘“I’m beginning to think you’re mentally deranged.”’ [3.]

Al-Bahy’s response is glib. ‘“Never get too close to a man who hates himself.”’ [3.]

Mrs Fawzi is crushed. ‘Her staring eyes reflected her inner collapse…. it was clear to me that this broken creature I watched disappearing into oblivion was my first and probably my last and only love.’ [3.]

In his over-identification with Zohra Al-Bahy sees himself as the one who has been betrayed. ‘Here was Zohra, robbed of both honour and pride. Yes, I was looking into a mirror.’ [3.]

Al-Bahy decides to murder Al-Beheiry. ‘“I have no life if I don’t kill you.”’ [3.]

In Al-Bahy’s lack of any real motive, this is reminiscent of the acte gratuit that is referred to in Adrift on the Nile. One might find a killer without a motive in a novel such as L’Etranger, but in real life?’ [Adrift on the Nile, 7.]

The psychology is very similar to that of Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs. ‘But unless I settle my account with [his wife and his former associate], life will have no taste, because I shall not forget the past.’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 4]

Al-Bahy follows Al-Beheiry. He forgets to take the weapon he intended to use. ‘Had I forgotten to take the scissors…? I kicked him in the ribs, once, twice, brutally, then I was kicking him like a lunatic….’ [Miramar, 3.]

The next morning, unprompted, Al-Bahy confesses. “I killed Sarhan al-Beheiry,” said Mansour…. “I’m going to the police myself.” [5.]

Mariana and Amer Wagdi agree, more or less, with Mrs Fawzi. ‘“He’s mad,” said Mariana, panic-stricken. “No, he’s sick,” I said.’ [5.]

Al-Beheiry is more of a conventional womaniser than Al-Bahy. He only ever leaves one woman for another.

Al-Beheiry is fed up with the woman he is living with. ‘“We’ve been living together for over a year,” Safeya said in her nagging fashion.’ [4.]

He spots Zohra. ‘She walked on in quick straight steps and when she turned in at the Miramar building she looked back quickly: honey-brown eyes, exquisite but rigidly noncommittal.’ [4.]

He makes enquiries about Zohra from the newspaper seller. ‘“She works at the Pension Miramar,” he said indifferently.’ [4.]

Unlike the other tenants, Al-Beheiry moves into the pension Miramar specifically because of Zohra. ‘”I’d like a room for a long stay.”’ [4.]

He makes excuses to his girlfriend. ‘“We’ll have to change our way of life…. I may even have to live in some dirty little hotel or noisy pension….” We’re though, I thought.’ [4.]

Zohra falls in love with Al-Beheiry. She is however quite rightly suspicious of him. ‘“I don’t trust you…. I love you… but you don’t really love me…. You look down on me, just the way they all do.”’ [4.]

Zohra is very aware of inequality. “Do you consider me your equal as a human being?” [4.]

Al-Beheiry’s discarded girlfriend is offended by Zohra’s social status. Since Safeya is a part-time prostitute, this is perhaps ironic. ‘Safeya stepped back and looked at Zohra in surprise…. “A servant. How dare you…?”’ [4.]

Zohra gives as good as she got. ‘Zohra slapped her across the mouth. Safeya hit back, but the girl was too strong for her…. Everybody was awake, doors were opened…..’ [4.]

Al-Beheiry makes difficulties about marrying Zohra. “… marriage would cause difficulties for me, with my family and at work too.” [4.]

For Al-Beheiry, marriage is about social advancement. ‘What’s the good of going into [marriage] if it doesn’t give me a push up the social ladder?’ [4.]

Al-Beheiry thinks that in his willingness to live with Zohra without being married he is being generous. ‘She’s really mulish. It hasn’t been as easy as I expected…. If she consents to live with me, I’m ready to give up the prospect of marriage, including my plans for advancement through a suitable match.’ [4.]

Al-Beheiry notices that Zohra’s teacher has the qualities that Zohra lacks. ‘[The teacher] is quite good-looking; she is also smartly dressed, a career girl…. If only Zohra could have found herself in the other girl’s world, with all its potentialities.’ [4.]

He pursues her. ‘I say hello and invite her for a cup of tea.… we meet at the café at the Amir cinema, then go in together to see the film…. I realise she’s looking of a husband and I weigh it all up cold-bloodedly….’ [4.]

Zohra discovers Al-Beheiry’s deception. She is outraged. ‘“I saw the two of you with my own eyes…. The teacher…. That whore, that man-hunter…. Why does God make sneaks like you…?” She spits in my face…. She spits at me again…. She leaps at me, slapping my face with unbelievable strength.’ [4.]

Zohra confronts Aleya’s family. They too are outraged. In their case it is very much about social status. ‘“Imagine a housemaid taking us to task like that!”’ [4.]

The plot in which Al-Beheiry is involved unravels. ‘“Listen, Sarhan, it’s gone badly wrong…. The driver wanted the whole lot for himself. They got him and he’s going to give everything away.”’ [4.]

In short order Al-Beheiry has lost the woman he was supposed to marry, the woman he left her for, his chance of wealth and – very probably – his freedom. He opts for suicide. ‘“A razor, please.”’ [4.]

It is suicide that is the cause of death, not a kicking. ‘The post mortem report showed the cause of death to be a razor cut across the arteries of the left wrist, not a beating with a shoe, as the alleged murder had claimed…. when the connection between the victim and the incident of the truckload of stolen yarn came out, the hypothesis of suicide was confirmed.’ [4.]

Al-Bahy’s attack on Al-Beheiry was completely futile. His confession was pointless. ‘“[Mansour] is an excellent young man…. but he suffers from some secret malady of which he must be cured.”’ [4.]

Amer Wagdi has religion. He quotes Sura 24. Sura 24 includes among other matters the punishment for adultery. It is also known as Sura An-Nur because of the reference to light. ‘”Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.”’ [4.]

Zohra has her ambitions for mobility. ‘”When I learn to read and write,” [Zohra] said thoughtfully, “I’ll try to learn some profession. Like dressmaking perhaps.”’ [1.]

No-one else has anything very much. The nihilism of the Egyptian intelligentsia, in Miramar as well as in Adrift on the Nile, is destructive and self-destructive.

That is a working definition of evil.

 

 

 

Bibliographical Note

Goldschmidt, Arthur Jr., Modern Egypt: the Formation of a Nation State

Photo credit: omdaa on Foter.com /  CC BY-NC-ND

Water pipe

Adrift on the Nile

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naguib Mahfouz, 1966

Adrift on the Nile is about a group of friends who meet on a houseboat on the Nile to smoke hashish. Some of them also use the houseboat to engage in illicit sexual relations. It was a book that very nearly got Mahfouz into serious trouble with the military regime.

Abd al-Hakim Amir wanted Mahfouz punished for Adrift on the Nile. Al-Hakim Amir was vice-president, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. There can hardly be many people more powerful under a military dictatorship than the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

The decision to tolerate the novel was taken finally by Nasser himself. It is remarkable that the decision on a single novel was finally taken by the head of state. It is also remarkable that Naguib Mahfouz had the support he needed at that level of government. One of his supporters was Mohammed Haykal, the editor of Al-Ahram. Samia Mehrez gives an interesting account of Mahfouz’s negotiation of the power relationships and his dealings with censorship. [Mehrez, Respected Sir, in Beard and Haydar, 1993.]

The dating of the novel is precise. Anis Zaki, who is in effect the protagonist of the novel, works at a menial level in the civil service. In the first chapter of the novel, Mahfouz gives a hint, through an extract from correspondence, of the tedious nature of the work that Zaki does.

The correspondence includes some precise dates. Knowing Mahfouz’s methods, that is deliberate. ‘Dear Sir: With reference to you letter number 1911, dated February 2, 1964, and to the communication pertaining, reference number 2008, dated March 28, 1964: I have the honour of informing you….’  Some people might think it is not surprising, if Zaki spends his day dealing with correspondence as boring as that, that he smokes dope. [Adrift on the Nile, Chapter 1.]

Mahfouz knew the civil service well. He was a career civil servant, and a successful one. ‘The great writer was employed in the government for more than fifty-four of his seventy-eight years.’  [Mehrez, Respected Sir, in Beard and Haydar, 1993.] Mahfouz eventually became a consultant in the Ministry of Culture [Wikipedia].

Mahfouz writes about the civil service in Cairo Modern (1945), Khan al-Khalili (1945), The Mirage (1948), The Cairo Trilogy (1956-7), Autumn Quail (1962), Mirrors (1972) and Respected Sir (1975). The civil service is part of the world in which Mahfouz’s petty-bourgeois characters live.

We do not know how promptly Zaki is dealing with the correspondence. We suspect it is not very promptly at all. These dates however give us a terminus post quem.

There is also a reference to a public event, a dating technique that Mahfouz resorts to routinely. In Cairo Modern the reference is to the rise of Hitler. Towards the end of the novel there is a remark about ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ [Cairo Modern, 41.]

In Adrift on the Nile the reference is to the Vietnam War. ‘American planes had made strikes on North Vietnam.’  [Adrift on the Nile, 7.] Operation Rolling Thunder, as the bombing campaign was grandly known, began on March 2, 1965. [Wikipedia.]

When a novel of Naguib Mahfouz is precisely dated it is usually political or social in significance. The novels in which a more personal theme is paramount are also dated, but more loosely.

There is also, rather unusually for Mahfouz, a reference to an Islamic festival. ‘Amm Abduh replied that it was on this day that the Prophet left the unbelievers – curses be upon them – for a new place.’ [14.]

The feast of Al-Hijra commemorates the departure of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca and their journey to Medina. The emigration represented a separation of the Muslims from the unbelievers.

Al-Hijra occurs on the first day of Muharram, the New Year in the Muslim lunar calendar. The first of Muharram in 1965 was Tuesday the 11th of May in the Western calendar.

Ragab’s response to the festival is to propose that the friends make a journey of their own. Ragab al-Qadi is a successful film actor. He is also a sex god. ‘Ragab… is the god of sex, the provider of women for our boat.’ [3.]

 Ragab’s comparison of a drive in the country with the Emigration of the Prophet is at best frivolous. I am not sure if it is blasphemous. I think it may be. ‘Ragab said: “The best way to celebrate the prophet’s journey is to make one of our own…. What do you say to a trip to the country in my car?”’ [14.]

Ragab is irresponsible. He has already introduced an under-age girl to the houseboat. ‘[Ragab] was slender, dark and fine-featured… he announced in a melodious voice: “This is Miss Sana al-Rashidi, a student at the Faculty of Arts.”’ [3.]

It is a setting where men seduce women and smoke hashish. His friends are aware of what Ragab is doing. ‘Now that [the underage girl] is here we have broken every rule in the book.’ [4.]

The friends eventually challenge Ragab. ‘…Sana had finally become acquainted with the water pipe – at which Ahmad Nasr had whispered in Ragab’s ear, “She’s a minor!”’ [5.] They do not stop him.

Ragab’s irresponsibility, on the drive to the country, is to set off the crisis of the novel. Ragab could of course have proposed a trip to the country without any reference to the Prophet Mohammed whatsoever. Mahfouz is also making a deliberate point about irreligion.

Samara is a young journalist who is introduced to the houseboat by Ali al-Sayyid, the art critic. She is twenty-five. Samara is in a sense the antagonist of Anis Zaki.

Samara sees herself as a serious person. She is preoccupied with the absurd. ‘Absurdity is the loss of meaning, the meaning of anything.’ [10.]

Samara is not apparently religious. She nevertheless associates the loss of meaning with the loss of traditional religious faith. She also sees faith as creating a standard for belief. ‘It is also necessary that our belief has the sincerity of true religious faith, plus faith’s astonishing power to inspire acts of heroism.’ [10.]

The friends who gather on the houseboat are six men and two women. Two other women, Sana and Samara, join them temporarily in the course of the novel.

The friends are outwardly respectable. Layla Zaydan is in her thirties and unmarried. She is a translator at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ahmad Nasr is a senior civil servant. He is the Director of Accounts at the Ministry of Social Affairs. Mustafa Rashid is a lawyer, Ali al-Sayyid is an art critic and Khalid Azzuz is a short-story writer. Ragab al-Qadi is of course an actor. Saniya Kamil is a married woman, who periodically leaves her husband.

In another culture – in another city, perhaps – the group might be seen as bohemian. Three of them have artistic occupations, they all take drugs and some of them engage in what would in another context or another culture have been called free love.

They resemble in some ways the friends of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy. Abd al-Jawad and his friends drink alcohol, which is of course forbidden to Muslims. They frequent singers and in the case of Abd al-Jawad have sexual relationships with them. That is also forbidden. Abd al-Jawad and his friends are united by their love of music, not hashish.

One would not describe Abd al-Jawad and his friends as bohemian. They are petty-bourgeois businessmen. Abd al-Jawad and his friends remind one more of the hedonism described by Omar Khayyam. There is a reference to Omar Khayyam in Adrift on the Nile. This is surely deliberate. ‘But if the plaints of Omar Khayyam lose their ardour, say goodbye to ease.’  [7.]

Abd al-Jawad and his friends are also not unlike Haroun al-Rashid and his vizier, Yahya bin Barmak, who roam Baghdad at night in several of the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. The resemblance is almost certainly deliberate. Mahfouz was to make use of al-Rashid, Barmak and Scheherezade in Arabian Nights and Days (1982). Mahfouz changes the names.

There is a superficial resemblance between the friends who gather on the houseboat and the hashish smokers in Khan al-Khalili. In Khan al-Khalili the hashish smokers start their evening in the Zahra café. They smoke their hashish in the local brothel. They are undistinguished. Ahmad Akif, the protagonist, joins them once. [Khan al-Khalili, 32.]

It is important I think that with the exception of Zaki the friends on the houseboat are middle class professionals. Zaki, like Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili, is an unsuccessful civil servant. Middle class professionals can perfectly well live a bohemian lifestyle. Sometimes they do. I do not however think that is what Mahfouz intends.

The friends are united by their drug smoking. ‘“[The waterpipe] is the focal point of our gatherings. None of us is really happy except when we are here.”’ [6.]

The political and social point is the nihilism of a group of Egyptian bourgeois: an actor, a critic, a writer, a lawyer and a senior civil servant. ‘…we would be considered – in the eyes of some – nihilism itself!” [Adrift on the Nile, 6.]

They have no interest in the Egyptian state or in Arab socialism. ‘“…the truth is we are not Egyptians or Arab or human; we belong to nothing and no-one – except this houseboat.”’  [6.]

It is the dissolution of these successful people which may have been shocking for the commander-in-chief. “I am one of you, O dissolutes of our time, and whoever is like his friends has done no wrong.” [6.]

Like Isa ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail, and Omar al-Hamzawi in The Beggar (1965), the friends on the houseboat have lost all sense of meaning. Their only concern, in the new world that the July revolution has created, is their own material welfare. ‘Ragab announced that he planned to raise his asking fee to five thousand pounds per film, and Khalid congratulated him, for reaffirming in this way his loyalty to Arab socialism.’ [14.]

They have no sense of their responsibility towards the Egyptian people. This will be demonstrated by the crisis of the novel.

The women in the group might in another context be called ‘new women’. Even by being in male company they are taking a degree of sexual freedom which the conservative traditional culture did not permit. Sexual freedom for women is a topic which Mahfouz will address again in Love in the Rain (1973).

Layla and Saniya are both having sexual relations with men to whom they are not married. Layla is said to love Khalid Azzuz, the short-story writer. Ali al-Sayyid, the art critic, is Saniya’s lover when she leaves her husband, as she periodically does [3]. Samara and Sana, according to conventional norms, should not be on the houseboat on their own. Both are clearly tempted by the possibility of sexual relations with Ragab.

The particular difficulty for progressive women in Egypt was the honour culture. This would presumably also have been the case in other Arab countries. In the honour culture women did not make their own decisions, either about sexual relations or working outside the home. Their male relatives made the decisions.

In The Beggar Warda could not have been a singer if she had had male relatives. ‘”You know most people have a low opinion of the art. For that reason I left my family. It’s just as well I have no brother or father.”’ [The Beggar, 9.]

In the extreme case the honour culture permitted – indeed, encouraged – what was known as ‘honour killing’. The police officer in The Beginning and the End (1950) releases Nefisa into Hassanein’s custody. ‘”This… has to do with your sister…. She was arrested in a certain house in Al Sakakini.”’ [The Beginning and the End, 89.]

The officer clearly expects Hassanein to carry out an ‘honour killing’. ‘“I hope you’ll help me do my duty without making me regret the measures I’ve taken to protect your reputation.”’ [89.]

Mahfouz clearly does not like the idea of honour killing. In The Beginning and the End he does not seem to know how to challenge it. He resolves his dilemma by means of a double suicide.

Hassanein initially has no compassion. ‘“Drown yourself in the Nile,” he said bluntly.’ [90.] Almost immediately he has doubts. ‘There might have been another solution, he thought.’ [91.]

Hassanein’s doubts lead him to follow Nefisa into the water. ‘Hassanein reached the same place on the bridge. He climbed the rail, looking down into the turbulent waters.’ [92.]

Nefisa has been working as a prostitute. She is motivated both by poverty and sexual need. ‘However, in addition to the feeling of despair, an intense desire boiled in veins, clamouring for gratification; she felt helpless before it.’ [41.]

Mahfouz makes it clear Nefisa would have preferred to be married. ‘A deceiver, an impostor, and a liar. What would she do…? Only one hour before she had considered him her man, and herself his wife.’ [33.]

Mahfouz’s portrait of Nefisa is not sympathetic. ‘Nefisa, [Samira’s] daughter …had the same thin oval face, short, coarse nose and pointed chin. She was pale, and a little hunchbacked’. [5.]

In the honour culture, any woman who had sexual relations outside marriage would be seen as a whore. This applied whether or not she benefited financially. For the new women on the houseboat, love is very important. Love can justify sex outside marriage.

Mahfouz explicitly recognises Layla as a new woman. ‘Layla Zaydan… was thirty-five and unmarried, which was appropriate for one of the first explorers of the space of female liberty….’ [3.]

Love is important to Layla. She is not however immune to the norms of the honour culture. Love justifies Layla’s relationship with Khalid. If she engaged in sexual relations without love, the stigma of the honour culture would apply. ‘[Layla] loved Khalid, and on account of that could not give in to Anis, in spite of their friendship – if she did, she would be a whore.’ [3.]

It is less obvious that love is important to Saniya Kamil. She comes to the houseboat only when she is temporarily separated. The friends understand this. ‘“That means that your husband has left you!” “Or that I have left him.”’ [3.]

Sana, the young student, is not initially comfortable. She is aware that hashish smoking is against the law. ‘Sana appeared uneasy…. “Aren’t you afraid of the police?”’ [4.]

Sana is also aware of the impropriety of her situation. ‘“I should be studying with a girlfriend.”’ [4.]

Amm Abduh, the watchman, is traditional. He calls the faithful to prayer at the local mosque. ‘”Your voice is beautiful when you call them to prayer,” Anis remarked….’

Amm Abduh assumes that the women in the group are whores. ‘“The street girls are nicer – and cheaper.” [4.]

Anis defends his friends. ‘“They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.”’ [4.]

The insistence that they don’t take money is a rebuttal of the traditional categorisation of sexually liberated women as whores. Anis is also insisting that the women are independent. They make their own decisions.

The presence of liberated women in the group does not guarantee that the men will treat women well. Ragab neglects Sana for Samara. ‘Sana turned her gaze out to the Nile like a fugitive, and [Ragab] put his arm apologetically around her.’  [4.]

Layla defends her own position in a comment on the way Ragab is treating Sana. ‘…Layla Zaydan had pronounced: “Woe betide those who respect love in an age when love has no respect!”’ [5.]

Mahfouz presents Samara as an independent, spirited and intelligent women. He also presents her, as we shall see, as someone with flaws. He cannot prevent himself portraying her also in traditional terms. ‘…she was definitely a woman of character, but she was also quite charmingly feminine.’ [6.]

Anis is very taken with Samara. He sees her very much as a woman. ‘This visitor is interesting even before she opens her mouth. She is beautiful. She smells wonderful.’ [6.]

Samara does not initially take Anis seriously. She is nevertheless not offended when he declares himself. ‘“Your turn now, master of ceremonies; what is the most important thing for you?” Anis answered without a second thought. “To be your lover.”’ [7.]

The other friends also see Samara in sexual terms. ‘“Could she possibly be thinking that she might win us over one day…? In that case, we should try to win her over into one of these three bedrooms.” ‘[7.]

They take Ragab’s interest in Samara very seriously. ‘When the friends noticed his total absorption in Samara, Rashid said: “How fortunate we are, to witness in our age the story of a grand passion.”’ [13.]

It is the introduction of Samara to the houseboat that prompts the action of the novel. Dope smokers do not act. They talk.

Samara is introduced to the houseboat by Ali al-Sayyid. Ali apparently knows Samara. We are not told the details. We are allowed to assume that Ali and Samara know each other professionally. He describes her as ‘”My beautiful and renowned colleague.”’ [5.]

Ali’s announcement is rather dramatic. ‘“Samara Bahgat wishes to visit the houseboat!” “…The journalist?” ‘[5.]

The friends are worried that Samara’s presence will ‘constrain’ them. Ali is reassuring: ‘…she was coming for no other purpose than to get to know them.’ [5.]

To make her more interesting, Ali tells them that Samara has interests in areas other than journalism: ‘“…she has ambitions in the artistic sphere which she hopes to realise one day.” ‘[5.] These ambitions turn out to be very significant.

The friends are concerned that Samara intends in some way to investigate them. They also think she won’t participate. ‘“Why do you want to invite such a dangerous woman to the houseboat… when she can’t entertain us in the least?” ‘[5.]

Samara, like a good journalist, has done her homework. She tries to put the friends at their ease by flattering them. Samara complements Ragab on his acting. “I saw you in your last film…. I can say you played your part extraordinarily well.”’ [6.] Samara shows that she knows one of Khalid’s stories. ‘”The last story of yours I read was the tale of the piper….”’ [6.]

The friends see Samara as serious. This worries them. ‘”If we are to judge her on the strength of what she writes, then she is an alarmingly serious person,” Ragab said.” [5.] There is an opposition between Samara’s seriousness and the friends’ nihilism. ‘”Your articles pour forth bitter criticism of nihilism….”’  [6.]

Samara does not smoke hashish. ‘“Coffee and cigarettes – nothing else.” ‘ [6.] She does however drink alcohol. ‘She accepted a glass [of whisky] gladly….’ [6.]

Samara reveals her artistic ambitions. ‘“I am mad about the theatre, first of all.”’ [6.] The friends are disparaging. ‘”…the theatre is nothing but talk.”’ [6.] They are also witty. “…just like our little society here.” [6.]

The novel in some ways resembles a play. It is not inconceivable that it was first conceived as a play. In two chapters Anis is at the ministry. In another chapter the friends drive to the country. Other than that, all the action is confined to the houseboat.

The scene in the houseboat is set. It is very much like a stage. ‘The mattresses were arranged in a large semicircle just inside the door to the balcony. On a brass tray in the middle of the semicircle stood the waterpipe and a brazier for the charcoal.’  [3.]

Samara defends her chosen art. ‘”No…! the theatre is concentrated; everything has to have a meaning.”’ [6.] This may or may not be a valid statement about the theatre. It is certainly true that Samara seeks meaning.

The dynamic changes when Anis finds, and decides to keep, Samara’s notebook. ‘Anis’ eyes fell on a large white handbag on the mattress where Samara had been sitting…. He stretched out his and to the bag and opened it…. He decided to take fifty piasters to give to the girl Amm Abduh would bring…. Then another, reckless notion occurred, one uniquely capable of stirring up all kinds of mischief: he took her notebook and slid it into his pocket.’ [9.]

Until that point we have been able to observe Samara’s behaviour and hear her words, much as in a play. The notebook gives us access to her thoughts. Until that point, also, Anis has been the silent observer. Now he becomes a significant actor.

Anis is the most bohemian of the friends. He is completely cynical about the ministry where he works. ‘On the shelves the files enjoy an easeful death.’ [1.]

Anis is more committed to the drug-smoking lifestyle than the others. He is the only one of the friends who lives on the houseboat. Anis takes responsibility for the water pipe and the hashish. He is the ‘master of ceremonies’, or the ‘master of pleasures’. ‘”Come and live on the houseboat. You won’t have to pay a millieme. Just get everything ready for us.”’ [1.]

Anis is the only one of the friends whose work is affected by drug-taking.
At the opening of the novel he manages to write an entire report without any ink in his pen. ‘[Anis] saw one line clearly written, followed by a blank space.’ [1.]

The Director is furious. ‘“There isn’t a single drop of ink in it!” said the Director.’ [1.] The Director explicitly blames Anis’s drug-taking. ‘“You did not see what was on the page because you were… drugged!” [1.] Anis is penalised. The penalty at this stage is not severe. “I shall only cut two days from your salary… but beware of any repetition of this episode.” [1.]

His books are the only sign that Anis is a cultivated man. ‘It was a library of history, from the dawn of time to the atomic age, domain of his imagination and storehouse of his dreams.’ [2.] Sometimes Anis loses himself in historical fantasies. ‘And the dust flew up under the horses’ hooves, and the Mameluke soldiery let loose yells of joy on the road to the hunt….’ [1.] At other times Anis frankly hallucinates. ‘The whale came no closer; and then it winked, saying: I am the whale that saved Jonah.’ [3.]

The notebook that Anis finds contains Samara’s notes for a play. This is unmistakeable. The notes are headed: ‘SCENARIO FOR A PLAY ‘[10.] The scenario is based on the friends in the houseboat, ‘…under their own names, for the time being.’ [10.]  Later, to Anis, Samara defends herself weakly. ‘”What is written in the notebook – it’s not my opinion of you….”’ [12.]

Samara’s notes reveal her opinion of the friends. They also reveal more than Samara might want about her personality. The notes are systematic. Samara states her intention clearly at the outset. ‘The major theme of the drama is the Serious versus the Absurd.’ [10.]

The Absurd is a key term in the works of Camus and Sartre, the French writers who were identified in the popular mind with existentialism. Existentialism was very fashionable in Europe in the 50s. ‘The Serious’ is not an existential term. The idea that Sartre in particular would oppose to absurdity was commitment. Mahfouz wishes the reader to be quite sure that it is existentialism he has in mind. One of the friends says, in a comment on an article by Samara, ‘”I thought that the article smacked of ‘commitment’.”’ [8.]

Samara defines absurdity. Her approach is very much intellectual. ‘It is a passage through life propelled by absurdity alone, without conviction, without real hope. This is reflected in the character in the form of dissipation and nihilism, and heroism is transformed into mockery and myth.’ [10.]

To the existentialists, commitment was about action. By implication, that action was often political. The intellectuals on the houseboat are not Europeans. However much they deny it, they are Egyptians and Arabs. However secular they may be, their background is Muslim. They live in a world in which the truths of Islam no longer have authority. Their problem in the first place is not action. It is belief.

Samara defines her idea of seriousness in terms of lack of belief. ‘As for seriousness, it means belief.’ [10.] To make sure that the point about religion is not missed, Samara equates belief with science. ‘Let us look at the scientists for example and method.’ [10.]

Samara discusses her intentions for the play. She reveals herself as conceited and, in some ways, traditionally feminine. Samara is of course a character in her own play. ‘A young woman launches an attack on a group of men in order to change them.’  [10.] The reader will be aware of the arrogance of this ambition.

Samara puts herself at the centre of the play. ‘I require a love story. It would be truly interesting if they were all to fall in love with her and she had to choose one of them….’ [10.] Samara also sees herself as the triumphant love rival of Sana. ‘…the heroine’s victory over [Sana] in the field of love can be taken as a symbol of the victory of the Serious over the Absurd in the female domain….’ [10.] Samara is dismissive of the other women. ‘…Saniya Kamal, who practices her own special brand of polyandry; or the blond translating spinster….’ [10.]

This is a kind of vanity which in the world of Naguib Mahfouz is normal with attractive women. There are also some quite deep ironies. Samara also considers the possibility that ‘she should fall, without knowing it, in love with one of them.’ [10.] Samara is of course, though she does not appear to acknowledge it, in love with Ragab. “‘“You are only here because of Ragab.”’ [12.]

The deepest irony is contained in Samara’s uncertainties about the development of the plot. ‘And how, and when, will the plot develop to a conclusion in an artistically convincing way…? I lack some essential thing; what is it? How can absurdists find any kind of creed?’ [10.]

Samara does not change the friends. The plot is brought to a conclusion through the pointless and avoidable death of a poor man. It is a horrifying absurdity. It makes for pessimism which is much deeper than Samara’s assumption about progress.

Samara came not because she wanted to get to know the friends but because she was collecting material. What she has betrayed is friendship. “But you are a… vile girl…. You came not for friendship, but for snooping around.” [12.]

In her notes, Samara comments on the friends one by one. Ahmad Nasr, the civil servant, is the most conventional. Samara has least to say about him. She wonders why he is there. ‘Why does he smoke the water pipe?’ [10.]

Samara is contemptuous of Mustafa Rashid, the lawyer. It is hard to know whether her arrogance is that of the intellectual, or of youth. ‘He is completely aware of his spiritual emptiness…. he is apparently unaware of the deception he is practising on himself.’ [10.]

Samara reserves much of her venom for Ali al-Sayyid, the critic. As it was al-Sayyid who introduced her to the houseboat, it is hard not to feel she is using him. She condemns his sexual behaviour. ‘…he is a swine, as can be seen by his strange relationship with Saniya Kamal.’ [10.] Samara despises Ali’s professional activity. ‘As a critic, he is a great scoundrel. His aesthetic is focused on material gain….’ [10.] Samara also dismisses him as a person. ‘Harried by feelings of worthlessness and treachery and futility….’ [10.]

Khalid Azzuz, the short story writer, is dismissed as a rentier. ‘He inherited an apartment block….’ [10.]

Samara is of course most interested in Ragab. ‘He is the hope of the drama. If he does not yield to development, then I can say farewell to the play.’ [10.]

This is deeply ironic. Ragab does not develop. It is arrogant of Samara to imagine she can make him. Ragab does however produce the dramatic action of the novel. It is so powerful that it overwhelms the friends and destroys their little society.

Samara underestimates Anis. ‘Useful for comic exploitation, but he will not play a positive role in the play.’ [10.] Anis is not impressed by Samara’s analysis. ‘“Your observations are inane, believe me.”’ [12.]

The reader will probably feel that Samara’s remarks are shrewd, if over-confident. He or she will also probably feel that they reveal Samara to have some unpleasant character traits. She is arrogant, she is competitive, she is judgemental and she is capable of being devious.

Something prompts Anis to embarrass Samara. Mahfouz makes clear the impulse is not benign. ‘Deep inside [Anis], the demons began to incite him to malice.’ [11.] Anis quotes remarks about the friends from the notebook in front of Samara. ‘“You are all modern-day scoundrels, escaping into addiction and groundless delusions….”’ [11.]

Samara returns to the houseboat, and challenges Anis. ‘“I want my notebook.” “You are accusing me of theft!”’ [12.] Samara is worried that Anis will betray her. “Do you intend to tell everyone about it?” [12.] Samara fears humiliation. ‘”I would prefer simply to disappear than be driven away.”’ [12.] Anis, finally, reassures Samara. ‘”If that were my intention, I would have done it.”’ [12.] Perhaps unexpectedly, their open clash brings Anis and Samara closer together. ‘They shook hands in farewell. “Thank you,” she said, like a close friend.’ [12.]

Without knowing that Anis has found the notebook, Khalid discusses Samara’s play with her. He asserts that she cannot be serious. This is of course exactly the point at issue. ‘Khalid turned to Samara. “If you were thinking of writing a play about people like us, then I would advise you as a fellow writer to choose the comic form. I mean farce or absurdism – they’re the same thing.”’ [13.]

Khalid makes a valid point about nihilists and dope smokers. They are not capable of inner development and they do not do anything. They show none of the characteristics that Samara regards as essential to her play. ‘“People like this do not act, do not develop; so how can you begin to succeed in constructing a play around them?”’ [13.] Samara understands perfectly well what Khalid is saying. ‘“You are practically telling me to give up writing.”’ [13.]

There is no very obvious reason why Ragab proposes the trip to the country in his car. It is unmotivated. We have to assume that it is a purely frivolous impulse.

Ragab drives too fast. He is irresponsible. ‘The car went faster. “Slow down,” said Saniya to Ragab.’ [15.] On the way back Ragab is even more reckless. ‘…they set off, faster and faster, until they were travelling at an insane speed.’ [15.] The friends remonstrate, as they did when Ragab introduced an under-age girl to the club. It made no difference then. It makes no difference now. ‘“Madness – this is madness!” “He’ll kill us in cold blood.”’ [15.]

There is an accident. ‘Suddenly a horrifying scream rang out. [Anis] opened his eyes, shaking, to see a black shape flying through the air.’ [15.] Ragab insists that they flee. ‘“We must get out of here!” Ragab said decisively…. “It’s the only solution!”’ [15.] They do not even get out of the car to see how badly injured the person they have hit is, or whether they need help. ‘They drove without stopping until they reached the houseboat. They got out of the car without speaking.’ [15.] The women weep. This is I think another minor piece of sexism. ‘Layla was still crying, which made Saniya start as well.’ [15.]

Samara is the one who is aware of the legal implications of leaving the scene. ‘“But to run away is a crime,” said Samara.’ [15.] Ragab resorts to blackmail. ‘“We must forget; any other action would ruin the reputation of three ladies, and confound the rest of us – and send me straight to court.”’ [15.] Samara refuses to get back in Ragab’s car. Her disgust is clear. ‘“…come with me now, so that I can take you home.” [Samara] shook her head in revulsion. “Not in that car.”’ [15.]

The newspaper the next day confirms that the person Ragab’s car hit is dead. He is so poor that no-one knows who he is. “The body of a man in his fifties…. Half naked. Sustaining fractures to the spine, legs and skull. Hit by a car. The perpetrators fled. His identity, and therefore next of kin, have not been discovered.” [17.]

The trip to the country was unmotivated. There was no reason for Ragab to drive so fast. The result was that someone was killed. Symbolically, this is an acte gratuit. The idea of the acte gratuit is important in some versions of existentialism. It is held to demonstrate the freedom of the individual. Mahfouz has made a reference to the acte gratuit earlier in the novel. ‘One might find a killer without a motive in a novel such as L’Etranger, but in real life?’ [7.] In the case of the death of the stranger, the unmotivated action does not demonstrate that the friends are free. It shows they are reckless, selfish and finally very dangerous.

The next morning there is no kif. ‘The fact that there was no kif on the houseboat redoubled his anxiety and his sense of foreboding.’ [16.] The world has changed. ‘He came out to the street clearheaded for the first time.’ [16.] Anis does not know how to deal with it. ‘But how on earth did the sober man get through the day?’ [16.]

Anis is exhausted. He is no longer even capable of pretending to work. ‘[Anis] arrived at the Ministry early…. He rested his head on the desk and sank into a deep slumber.’ [16.] Anis has a violent quarrel with the Director General. ‘“I saw you with my own eyes…. Sleeping like a baby…..” Anis, without thinking, seized the blotter and threw it at the Director General.’ [16.]

Anis is disciplined. At best he is liable to be pensioned off. Ragab’s act of madness has destroyed Anis’s world as well as the life of an innocent person. ‘“I am sorry to inform you that there has been an order for your dismissal, and that you are to be sent to the civil service tribunal.”’ [16.]

Samara has the same sense that life has changed. ‘“Can life really go on as before?” she murmured.’ [17.] The friends are afraid that Samara will report the incident. ‘They fear trouble from Samara, Anis thought.’ [17.] The friends try, unsuccessfully, to put pressure on Samara. ‘“The newspapers will report that you were in the company of men with a bad reputation, and in the dead of night, involved in criminality, in murder! Doesn’t that mean anything at all?” “No, it does not.”’ [17.] Samara succumbs to emotion. ‘Samara…. burst into a storm of crying.’ [17.]

Ragab attacks Anis. ‘…Ragab [threw] himself at Anis, yelling: “You! You!” And he gave him a great slap in the face.’ [17.] Anis retaliates. ‘Then suddenly [Anis] leaped upon Ragab and fastened his hands around his throat.’ [18.] The fight ends with Anis brandishing a knife to protect himself. ‘[Anis] soon returned with a kitchen knife in his hand.’ [18.]

Anis insists that they must put matters right. ‘“We must inform the authorities of our involvement at once – “’ [18.] He will act if the friends do not agree. ‘“But I will simply go to the police myself,” said Anis.’ [18.] In a temper, Ragab declares he will turn himself in. ‘“I will go to the police myself, and nothing will stand in my way….”’ [18.]

Alone with Samara, Anis acknowledges that his motives are not straightforward. “…jealousy was one of the motives for my strange behaviour.” [18.] This is not about right or wrong. It is about profound irrationality. Amm Abduh has his own perspective on that. ‘“The devil had his fill of him with you tonight.”’ [18.] Samara reciprocates with a confidence. ‘“I confess…. that I try to be more serious than I really am.”’ [18.] Anis and Samara have a genuine intimacy. None of the other friends on the houseboat seem to have achieved that. Samara shows genuine concern. ‘“Do you have the right to a pension if – God forbid – you are actually dismissed?”’ [18.]

We do not find out who goes to the police. We do not find out what happens. In a more conventionally realistic novel we would do.

Like some of Mahfouz’s other novels of the sixties Adrift on the Nile is something of a parable. Mahfouz is not so concerned about outcomes. He is making a point about nihilism. Nihilism is an important theme in the other novels of the 1960s. Bourgeois characters are typically portrayed as nihilistic, materialistic and selfish. They are unable to adjust to the July Revolution.

Said Mahran, in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), has just got out of prison. ‘Once more he breathed the air of freedom. But there was stifling dust in the air, almost unbearable heat, and no one was waiting for him; nothing but his blue suit and his gym shoes.’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 1.]

Said has no occupation other than burglary. ‘My profession will always be mine, a just and legitimate trade….’ [4.] Rauf Ilwan is Mahran’s former mentor. It is from Ilwan that Said acquired his revolutionary ideas. ‘…his whole life had been no more than the mere acting out of ideas that had come from that man….’ [3.] Ilwan has done well out of the revolution. He has become a successful journalist. Said is perversely impressed when he sees Ilwan’s office at the newspaper. ‘Rauf was now a very important man, it seemed, a great man, as great as this room.’ [3.] Ilwan abandons Said. ‘“In the past you were both a thief and my friend…. If you go back to burglary you’ll be a thief and nothing else.”’ [3.]

Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail (1962) is pensioned off after the revolution. ‘…the decision had been taken to pension him off….’ [Autumn Quail, 8.] Isa has been involved in corruption. ‘All the accusations applied to the appointments of umdas….’ [7.] ‘Umdas’ are village headmen. Isa is a Wafd party loyalist. ‘“We’re the legitimate rulers of this country and there are no others besides us.”’ [3.]

Without a job and without the Wafd party Isa has lost his sense of himself as someone with a role in history. ‘“We were the vanguard of a revolution…. and now we are the debris of one!”’ [10.] Isa cannot bring himself to find another job. It would have no meaning. ‘“We won’t be working, whatever job we take… because we’ve no role to play.”’ [13.]

Omar al-Hamzawi in The Beggar (1965) is a successful lawyer. ‘”You look like a business tycoon from the past, nothing missing except the cigar!”’ [The Beggar, 1.] Omar was once involved in politics. ‘”Tell me, do you remember those days of politics, demonstrations, and dreams of Utopia?”’ [1.] Omar was also a poet. ‘”No, no, I’m not a poet. It was a childish pastime.”’ [4.]

Omar has lost interest not just in his work but his life. ‘”I suppose I could still work, but I have no desire to…. Very often I’m sick of life, people, even the family…. I don’t want to think, to move or to feel. Everything is disintegrating and dying.”’ [1.] Omar visits his doctor. ‘“You’ve got a bourgeois disease, if I may use the term our newspapers are so fond of.”’ [1.]

Omar has a moment of epiphany in the desert. That is as much resolution as Mahfouz allows. ‘His heart danced with an intoxicated joy, and his fears and miseries were swept away…. Let the end come now, for this is my best moment.’ [13.]

These novels are rather consistent. They all concern bourgeois professionals who are unable to adapt to the revolution. The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail and The Beggar are individual stories of nihilism. In Adrift on the Nile, dealing as it does with a group of friends, the nihilism is collective. It suggests that nihilism was widespread among the Egyptian middle class.

It is perhaps no wonder, under Arab Socialism, that the Commander in Chief was displeased.

 

 

Bibliographical Note

Beard, Michael, and Haydar, Adnan (eds), Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, 1993

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