Honour and shame

The Beginning and the End

Naguib Mahfouz, 1950

The Beginning and the End, like most of the other novels that Naguib Mahfouz wrote in the late 1940s, is carefully dated. Like the other novels, the dating is mainly done by reference to political events.

There are allusions to student demonstrations. “God be merciful to the martyrs of the faculties of Arts, Agriculture, and Dar el-Uhm!”  [9.] There were student demonstrations in 1934. I have not been able to determine the significance of Dar el-Uhm.

It appears that Hussein and Hassanein have participated in the demonstrations. “Let’s revolt against fate… and shout, ‘Down with Fate’, just as we shouted ‘Down with Hor’.” [8.] I have not been able to establish who ‘Hor’ was.

Hussein, on the way to his new post in Tanta, has a political discussion with someone he meets on the train. His fellow-traveller refers quite explicitly to current events. ‘…the Effendi …waved the folded newspaper…. “Who would ever have imagined that Sidhi would agree to meet with Nahas? The Palace and the Wafdists at the same table!”’ [48.]

There are casual references to other events, such as the Anglo-Egyptian treaty. [68.] The treaty was signed in 1936. [Goldschmidt, 2004.] Egypt was just a step away from independence.

Hassanein can only think of entering the War College because of a political decision relaxing the entry requirements. “Your Excellency, the government’s decision to enlarge the army affords me a golden opportunity this year that has never presented itself before.” [59.]

Similarly his graduation can be dated. Hassanein learned that… the Minister of War had decided to graduate a group of officers after only one year…. [68.]

Mahfouz also does something he hasn’t done in the other novels of this period. He explicitly mentions the year in which it is set. It happens in a context in which to mention the year is perfectly natural.  ‘[Farid Effendi’s] income had amounted to twenty-eight pounds a month, which was considered very substantial in 1933.’ [14.]

Mentioning the year is also completely redundant. It adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Mahfouz wants to make it very clear that the events of the novel occur during a historically important period. He does not – as he is to do in the Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) – integrate the historical events with the action of the novel.

Mahfouz does something else he hasn’t done in the other novels of this period. He lets time pass. ‘Another year passed, and life continued in its usual course. The members of the family followed their normal routines of everyday life.’ [43.]

Time does not pass in melodrama. Time in melodrama is consumed in urgent action. The characters in melodrama do not follow normal routines. There is too much need to maintain the excitement.

Mahfouz has not embraced realism yet. He is however moving away, by very small steps, from the pure melodrama of some of his earlier novels.

The Beginning and the End (1950) – like Cairo Modern (1945), Khan al-Khalili (1945), Midaq Alley (1947) and, for some chapters, The Mirage (1948) – is about poverty. Poverty is a preoccupation to which Mahfouz will constantly return.

In the first chapter, Hussein and Hassanein, the second and third sons of the Kamel family, are informed by the headmaster of the family tragedy. “Your elder brother has informed me that your father is dead.” [The Beginning and the End, 1.]

Hussein is nineteen years old. Hassanein is two years younger. It would not have been unusual for a young man of nineteen, in Egypt at that date, to be still in secondary school.

Mahfouz did not personally experience bereavement and destitution in his youth. It is possibly significant that the opening chapter of the novel is set in secondary school. It may be that school friends of Mahfouz were affected in this way.

This is of course pure speculation. If my intuition is correct, the experience affected Mahfouz deeply.

Kamel Effendi Ali, Hussein and Hassanein’s father, was an employee in the Ministry of Education. ‘…since he had worked for the government for about thirty years at a salary of seventeen pounds a month, his heirs would receive a pension of five pounds per month.’ [7.]

Hassanein’s salary, when he starts his new job in the eighth grade, is less than his father’s. ‘”How much of a salary do you expect?” “Seven pounds.” [46.]

Kamel Effendi Ali is doing better than that. He isn’t doing that much better.

Kamel Effendi was respectable. He wasn’t rich. His family have always been poor. Now they are plunged into something not far from destitution.

Kamel Effendi hasn’t been able to save. ‘In the dead man’s wallet [Samira, Kamel Effendi’s widow] had found only two pounds and seventy piasters, and that was all the money she had until matters could be straightened out.’ [5.]

Hassan, the eldest son, is a ne’er-do-well. ‘He never left home, nor did he search seriously for a job.’ [6.]

Nefisa, Samira’s daughter, is ‘…a girl of twenty-three, without beauty, money, or father.’ [5] Mahfouz does not have to explain to his Egyptian readers that Nefisa is unmarriageable, or that – as an uneducated girl from a respectable family – she really has no legitimate options other than marriage.

Poverty brings shame in its wake. Samira has to sell the furniture. ‘“I will not pay one millieme more than three pounds,” said the furniture dealer….’ [12.]

The two younger boys need to stay at school and pass the baccalaureate to have a chance of employment in the government service, and to achieve the same social status as their father. If they leave school now, the sacrifice involved in keeping them in school has been wasted.

Later in the novel Hassan, their elder brother, has an acid comment on the value of formal education. ‘”I’ve come to tell you that I’ve been appointed a clerk at the secondary school in Tanta, and I’ll be starting my work on the first of October,” [Hussein] said. “Will you travel to Tanta? …What use, then, will it be to Mother if you live in Tanta? …This is really bad luck. This is the result of school education.”’ [46.]

Samira is in a tough position. The dominant fact of the novel is the family’s poverty. The action is dominated by their attempts to cope with it.

Poverty dominates in some of the other novels of the late 1940s. In Cairo Modern, ‘[Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s] father was a clerk in a Greek-owned creamery in al-Qanatir. He had worked there for twenty-five years and earned eight pounds.’ [Cairo Modern, 6.] He is poorer than Kamel Effendi Ali, and as a commercial employee has lower status.

That is difficult enough. Mahgub Abd al-Daim is poorer than his friends. ‘…unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night.’ [Cairo Modern, 5.] Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s father ‘…allocated three pounds to him every month during the academic year. This sum covered necessities like housing, food, and clothing, and the young man was grudgingly satisfied….’ [Cairo Modern, 6.]

It soon gets worse. ‘We are sad to inform you that your dear father is ill and bedridden.’ [Cairo Modern, 6.]

Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s father has had a stroke. It is too severe for him to return to work. ‘His father knew that his settlement would last them …five or six months…. “Could you live on one pound a month?”’ [Cairo Modern, 8.]

It is the experience of truly wretched poverty that makes Mahgub Abd al-Daim especially susceptible to being corrupted. Corruption is one of the major themes of Cairo Modern.

In exchange for a job in the civil service, Mahgub Abd al-Daim becomes a pimp. All he has to do is provide a veneer of respectability to the illicit affair of a dignitary by marrying the dignitary’s mistress. ‘“Let me tell you about your wife…. His Excellency himself [Qasim Bey Fahmi] is her friend.”’ [Cairo Modern, 6.] Mahgub Abd al-Daim has lost any claim he might have had to self-respect.

The portrayal of poverty in Khan al-Khalili is very similar to the portrayal in The Beginning and the End. Both families lose parental income. In both families, one of the sons – the more responsible one – has to abandon the hope of higher education and accept a low-paid government job.

The father of the family in Khan al-Khalili, Akif Effendi Ahmad, was a low-level bureaucrat. He ‘…had been pensioned off before he had even reached the age of forty. As a result of sheer negligence he had failed to perform his administrative obligations adequately; what made it worse was that he then adopted a supercilious attitude towards the civil service investigators who were examining his case.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

Ahmad Akif, the protagonist ‘…had been forced to abandon his studies and take a minor administrative post in order to provide for his shattered family and support his two younger brothers.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

The father in Khan al-Khalili has been forced into early retirement. He is not dead, like Kamel Effendi. The situation is, initially at least, less tragic. Economically, also, Ahmad Akif’s family is better off. As well as Akif Effendi Ahmad’s small pension, they have Ahmad Akif’s salary. Ahmad Akif, unlike Hussein in The Beginning and the End, works in Cairo and lives at home. Ahmad Akif does not have to maintain a separate establishment. He is able to contribute more to the expenses of the family.

The parallels nevertheless are striking. Petty-bourgeois respectability is precarious. Events – the death, the early retirement, or, as in Cairo Modern, the illness of the father of the family – can threaten destitution and force sacrifices.

The poverty of Ahmed Akif’s family is not absolute. It is relative. Ahmed even manages to save small sums. He is however worried about the impact of any special demands on his financial position. ‘He was sure that during Ramadan they would spend what little he usually saved each month. He might even have to withdraw an additional amount from his savings account.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 9.] The relative poverty of respectable people is a major concern in four out of five of Mahfouz’s novels from the second half of the 1940s. The exception is Midaq Alley.

Poverty in Midaq Alley is well-nigh universal. In some cases – Sheikh Darwish, the ex-teacher and former functionary, Umm Hamida, the bath attendant and marriage broker, and Zaita, the repulsive cripple-maker – the poverty is absolute or nearly so. Midaq Alley is a poor quarter.

A handful of the characters are not poor. The businessman, Salim Alwan, is rich. He has educated his sons for the professions. His sons find their father embarrassing. ‘His son… the judge, had suggested that he liquidate his company….’ [Midaq Alley, 8.]

The café owner, Kirsha, is better off than some of the other inhabitants of the alley. Whether this is because of his café business or his narcotics trade is not clear.

The rentier landlords, Mrs Saniya Afify and Radwan Hussainy, are also better off. Neither of them has to work.

Mrs Afify is greedy and mean. ‘She kept her new banknotes in a small ivory casket hidden in the depths of her clothes closet and arranged them in packages of fives and tens, delighting herself by looking at them, counting and rearranging them…. She had always inclined towards avarice and was one of the earliest contributors to the savings bank.’ [Midaq Alley, 2.] This is a caricature.

Hamida and Hussein Kirsha, the café owner’s son, are desperate to escape poverty. Hussein works for the British army. Hamida becomes a prostitute.

Between them they destroy Abbas, the barber. Abbas is Hussein’s friend and Hamida’s fiancé. Hussein persuades Abbas to work for the army. Abbas returns to the alley and discovers Hamida is a prostitute. He loses control and attacks her. He is kicked to death by British soldiers.

Mahfouz portrays some people as flourishing in the midst of poverty: the landlords, the drug dealers, the tooth-puller Dr Booshy. They make money off people poorer than themselves. This I think is realistic.

Poverty also occurs in The Mirage. It is however temporary.

Kamil’s grandfather dies. “May God grant you length of days. Your grandfather has died, son.” [The Mirage, 24.] The former colonel’s pension has been the family’s main income.

Kamil and his mother have to retrench. “Maybe we can find a small flat in the neighbourhood for just a hundred fifty piasters…. We’d have to let the servants go.” [The Mirage, 25.]

Kamil is grossly inhibited about women. Poverty makes it even more difficult for him to ask for the hand of his beloved. ‘What was standing between my beloved and me? Poverty.’ [The Mirage, 27.]

Kamil is a petty bureaucrat by occupation. Kamil’s family are from the decaying aristocracy. They do not rely entirely on earning salaries.

Kamil is rescued by another death, that of his father. ‘“Our father has died. Come to Hilmiya.”’  [The Mirage, 32.]

Kamil receives an inheritance. This completely changes his situation. In a real way, it changes his identity. ‘I was no longer the indigent, destitute person I had been….’ [The Mirage, 33.]

Kamil’s ability to marry the woman he wants is determined by poverty. The impact of poverty on the search for partners and for sexual satisfaction is a major theme of the novels of this period.

Mahfouz is very conscious of the precariousness of his social class of origin, the petty bourgeoisie. A family tragedy can easily plunge them into what they fear most, the destitution of the urban masses. In that miserable condition, they lose not only their social status but their respectability.

Mahgub Abd al-Daim in Cairo Modern, Hamida in Midaq Alley, and Hassan and Nefisa in The Beginning and the End will resort to any shift to survive. Mahgub Abd al-Daim becomes a pimp. Hassan becomes a thug and a drug pedlar, and lives in part at least from immoral earnings. Hamida and Nefisa become prostitutes. In Mahfouz’s world, that is the only way out for women.

In Mahfouz’s novels of the 1940s, the urban masses are described from the point of view of the urban lower-middle class. The masses are the fate that the petty-bourgeois fear.

The poverty of the masses and, as Mahfouz sees it, their immorality, are the consequence of lack of status. It is only in the later, allegorical novels – Children of the Alley (1959) and The Harafish (1977) – that the portrayal of the urban poor is more sympathetic.

Mahfouz sometimes alludes to the rural poverty of the majority of the Egyptian people. He never really portrays it.

Unlike the other novels of the late 1940s, there is a great deal of emphasis in The Beginning and the End on the impact of poverty on social status. Social status, as a fictional theme, is new.

The concern with status becomes obvious very early in the novel. Samira’s status is different from her sister’s. ‘Hassan… saw a man and a woman approaching in peasant clothes. The brothers recognised them as their aunt and her husband, Amm Farag Soliman.’ [3.]

Being a peasant, in this context, is not about culture. It is made very clear that it is about social status, and that the determinant of status is occupation: ‘…his aunt’s husband, not much more than a labourer….’ [3.]

Samira’s sister is very conscious of the difference in status. She is envious. She ‘…frequently enjoyed comparing their lives… [Samira] had married a government employee, whereas her own husband was just a labourer working in a ginning factory; …her sister lived in Cairo, whereas she was doomed to the confinement of the country; …her sister’s sons were schoolboys, whereas her own sons were destined for labourers’ lives; …her sister’s larder was always full, whereas she had plenty in hers only in feast times.’ [5.]

Only the comment about the fullness or otherwise of the larders refers to consumption. All the rest is about status. The determinants, in this context, are very clear. Being a white-collar worker, working for the government, residing in the capital and having education all have status. Manual work and living in the provinces do not.

Of all the family, it is Hassanein who feels status issues most acutely. This is not explained. It is part of his character, like his ambition and his selfishness. Even his ambition is status-driven. “Not only do I loathe poverty but I hate the mere mention of it.” [57.]

Hassanein’s status needs lead him to enrol at the War College, which leads in turn to the novel’s final catastrophe. Catastrophe following so quickly on apparent triumph is typical of melodrama.

Hassanein’s anxieties about status show clearly at his father’s funeral, which in one of the very early chapters. He is concerned about the status of the guests, and how this reflects on his father’s status, and hence that of the family. ‘[Hassanein] wished that all the people there could see the great inspector.’ [4.]

Mahfouz emphasises that the level of Hassanein’s concern is, to say the least, unusual. ‘…to Hassanein a degrading funeral seemed as much of a catastrophe as death itself.’ [4.]

Hassanein’s anxiety focuses in particular on his family’s lack of a tomb. ‘[Hassanein] did not want anyone to see the family’s humble burial place.’ [4.]

In Hassanein’s eyes, the unadorned plot betrays the family’s status. ‘…Kamel Effendi was buried in something not much more than a pauper’s grave….’ [4.]

This is surely about shame. The word itself is not used. Perhaps it does not have to be. The translator’s use of the term ‘degrading’, however, is surely significant.

One of the sources of shame, for Hassanein, is poverty. It implies the loss of the petty-bourgeois status in which the family’s self-respect is based.

Other family members try to reassure Hassanein: ‘“…your father left Damietta with his grandmother for Cairo when he was your age.”’ [5.] In other words, Hassanein’s father was a provincial, like his aunt’s husband. Like Hassanein is now, his father was an orphan at the same age.

Hassanein is not consoled. ‘The obscure grave in the open would always remain a symbol of his family’s being shamefully lost in the big city’. [5.]

It is Hassanein who is particularly concerned about Nefisa having to work outside the family. ‘[Nefisa] … had been a respectable girl but now she had become a dressmaker.’ [13.]

The employment of women outside the family is a threat to petty-bourgeois respectability. This is the intersection of occupational and sexual status.

Hassanein is not content to settle for the cautious respectability and the oppressive, relative poverty for which his brother Hussein has sacrificed his chance of higher education. ‘Most of all, [Hassanein] feared that his life would be as confined as that of his brother Hussein, and that, lacking any flowery prospect, he would spend the rest of his life striving for menial promotions form the eighth to the sixth grade.’ [59.]

Hassanein sets his eyes on a higher goal than that. “I have come to the conclusion that I should choose either the Police College or the War College.” [57.]

Once the subject of a military career has been raised, Mahfouz writes as if that had always been Hassanein’s ambition. It is described as: ‘…his life’s dream, to join the War College or perish.’ [59.]

There has been no previous mention of any such ambition. Mahfouz is fairly clearly making things up as he goes along.

It would not have taken much of an effort to go back and insert a sentence or two in an earlier chapter. Mahfouz did not bother. The novels of the late 1940s were not written to the same standard as some of the later work.

Entry to the War College does not allay Hassanein’s status anxieties in quite the naive way he thought. In fact, it creates an entirely new set of concerns.

Hassanein is cruelly teased when his comrades at the college see him with his fiancée Bahia. “Yesterday this hero was seen with a girl on his arm.” “The homely type.” “She had blue eyes …but she had a crudely native look.” “Too short and too plump.” “I hope she’s not your fiancée.” [65.]

Hassanein still desires Bahia. He has however become ashamed of her. ‘Blood boiled in his veins and a reckless desire surged up in his chest. But how could he possibly disregard the appalling fact that he must avoid appearing with her in public?’ [66.]

Hassanein is drawn to a family that represents what he aspires to. He is insecure: ‘…it was impossible that [Ahmad Bey Yousri and his wife and daughter] were unaware of his true social status.’ [67.]

As well as poverty, The Beginning and the End is about sexual awakening.  It deals with the effect of poverty and social status, in particular, on the young people’s search for sexual partners and sexual satisfaction.

Hassanein strongly desires Bahia. ‘His heart beat violently and he rose like a man obsessed.’ [17.]

Hassanein, by the standards prevailing in respectable, conservative families, is over-familiar with Bahia. ‘He pressed her fingers in a manner that could not be mistaken. Resentfully she withdrew her hand, and a frown darkened her face.’ [17.]

Bahia is a neighbour in the same building. Her family have long been friends of Samira’s family. Farid Effendi Mohammed is ‘…their good friend and neighbour.’ [4.]

Hassanein becomes engaged to Bahia. It is not clear that becoming engaged is what Hassanein originally intended to do.

‘”I shall keep chasing her until… Until she falls in love with me as I have with her.” “Then?” The young man replied, perplexed, “That’s enough.”’ [18.]

Bahia does not allow Hassanein any familiarity. “Don’t touch me,” she said with serious finality. [24.]

Hassanein responds by declaring his love. “I love you, truly and honestly.” [24.]

Bahia interprets that as meaning that Hassanein wants to marry her. Her response is that of a modest girl from a conservative, Muslim family. ‘“But this is not for me to decide.”’ [24.]

Hassanein understands exactly what she means. Hassanein’s family needs to speak to her father. It is typical of Hassanein’s egocentricity that he takes it on himself. ‘“I shall speak to Farid Effendi.”’ [24.]

Hassanein is still a schoolboy. Hassanein’s family has still not managed to stabilise after his father’s death. The announcement of the engagement has to be postponed. ‘“[Samira] …requested [Farid Effendi] to wait until our stumbling family could get back on its feet.”’ [25.]

Bahia has had a conservative upbringing. ‘At the age of twelve, [Bahia] had disappeared from the yard and for some time stopped going to school….’ [15.]

Bahia’s ideas on the relations between young people before marriage are thoroughly traditional. ‘Clearly hesitating, she proceeded to speak with candour and naiveté. “Don’t you read what Al Sabah magazine publishes about girls who are deserted because of their recklessness?”’ [28.]

Bahia believes that any familiarity between the sexes before marriage is the equivalent of prostitution. ‘“My mother told me that any girl who imitates lovers in films is a hopeless prostitute.”’ [28.]

This is a view that permeates the novel. There are good girls, like Bahia and Ahmad Bey Yousri’s daughter, with whom Hassanein also becomes infatuated. There are prostitutes, like Nefisa and Sana’a. There is nothing in between. There is no middle way.

Nothing changes between Hassanein and Bahia until, towards the end of the novel, Hassanein breaks off the engagement. Their relationship is about Hassanein demanding physical intimacy and Bahia refusing.

Hassanein continues to declare his passion. “I have a burning desire to press a kiss upon your lips and embrace you to my breast.” [38.] The detail, here, makes it clear that even Hassanein – with a respectable fiancée – does not expect sexual intercourse.

Bahia denies Hassanein the smallest degree of physical intimacy. ‘“Be a decent boy and stop all this nonsense. Real love knows no such frivolity.”’ [38.]

Hassanein accuses Bahia of coldness. ‘“Bahia… you speak with the cruelty of a person whose breast has never throbbed with love.”’ [38.]

Bahia does not listen. ‘“…I do not approve of the kind of love you want….”’ [38.]

Hassanein becomes frustrated. ‘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.]

Hassanein begins to doubt his feelings. ‘On the third morning after his visit to Hassan, he wondered, baffled, if he had stopped loving Bahia…. She was no longer his ideal girl.’ [72.]

When Hassanein has decided that he no longer wishes to marry Bahia, he forces himself on her. All he wants is a kiss. The language used suggests a rape. ‘Her hands resisted, but he embraced her, took her to his breast with brutal violence, and pressed a kiss on her lips.’ [72.]

Bahia responds strongly. “I’ll never forgive you,” she said. [72.]

We might expect Bahia to break off the engagement. In fact, she behaves in a way that is more forward than anything she has done so far. ‘As she shook hands with him, the girl slipped a folded paper into his hand…. “Meet me on the roof,” it said.’ [76.]

Until this point Hassanein has always been keen to spend time alone with Bahia. This time he doesn’t go. ‘…he would never sacrifice his career and happiness for the sake of an old, infantile passion or promise.’ [76.]

Hassanein’s family are shocked. ‘“What a scandal!” “…What a terrible offence to this most good-hearted family!”’ [79.] Hussein, driven by ambition and the fear of shame, has behaved dishonourably.

Hassanein’s behaviour towards Bahia is consistently aggressive. He is restrained only by her respectability. He treats Bahia in ways she does not want. Until he loses interest in marrying her, he does not push her beyond a certain point. He is not cynical.

While Mahfouz condemns Hassanein’s aggression and his defiance of convention, he sees a justification in terms of Hassanein’s strong feelings. Hassanein is of course a man. ‘[Hassanein’s] beloved was no less stubbornly adamant than his mother. She forced him to be content with an ascetic, platonic relationship that was unsuitable to his passionate nature.’ [43.]

Nefisa’s paramours are thoroughly cynical. They set out to take advantage. The difference between Nefisa’s situation and Bahia’s is that Bahia has a father, who is prosperous. The difference between their personalities is that Bahia is cold. It represents, I think, a somewhat fatalistic approach to sexual relations. Chastity is a luxury that only the bourgeoisie can afford.

Hussein, by contrast, is the good brother. It is Hussein who warns Hassanein about his behaviour towards Bahia. ‘“Take care. Don’t be insolent. This is a respectable house.”’ [16.]

It is also Hussein who is prepared to make sacrifices for the rest of the family. ‘Hussein, her meek son, had accepted the sacrifice of his career and the suffering of loneliness for the sake of his family, and for Hassanein in particular.’ [47.]

Samira is aware that Hussein is marriageable. Mahfouz doesn’t need to spell this out. The point would be obvious to an Egyptian reader. Samira is also aware that if Hussein marries it will be a disaster for the family. ‘…Samira wished to put Hussein on his guard against the snares of marriage.’ [47.]

 In Tanta, Hussein is lonely. He is bored. ‘[Hussein] was certain that his life, lonely as it was, would be devoid of entertainment, too.’ [49.]

In that situation, Hussein is very susceptible. ‘His heart seemed to be waiting to admit the first girl who would knock at its door.’ [52.]

His superior at work tries to marry him off to his daughter. Almost the first thing Hassan Effendi wants to know when they meet is whether Hussein is available. ‘“Are you married, Hussein Effendi?”’ [50.]

Hassan Effendi makes a series of attractive offers. He knows of better accommodation. ‘“There’s a two-room flat on the roof of the house where I live,” [Hassan Effendi] added. “The rent won’t be more than a pound.”’  [50.]

Hassan Effendi also offers his company. ‘“You seem to dislike coffeehouses, so you can use this balcony as a nightclub.”’ [51.]

Hussein knows what is going on. ‘From the very beginning, he was clearly aware of how critical his situation was.’ [52.]

Samira intuits what is happening. She intervenes. ‘“Mother, in Tanta! I can hardly believe my eyes!”’ [53.]

Samira, despite her embarrassment, now asks Hussein directly to make a sacrifice. ‘“If I suggested that you postpone any thoughts of marriage, wouldn’t you consider it unfair?”’ [54.]

Samira advises Hussein to remove himself from what has become a compromising situation. ‘“I advise you to leave this flat and go back to your room at the hotel.”’ [54.]

The Beginning and the End reprises, in some ways, the central relationship between the two brothers in Khan al-Khalili. Ahmad Akif, the older of the brothers in Khan al-Khalili, is a character that Mahfouz does not like. The portrait of Hussein in The Beginning and the End, by contrast – despite the similarity in their situations – is sympathetic. Mahfouz in a way is redeeming the cruelty of the portrayal in the earlier novel.

Ahmad Akif has to give up his hopes of higher education to support the other members of his family. Ahmad takes it hard. ‘The decision to abandon his studies had been a severe blow to his hopes. At first it sent him reeling, and he was overwhelmed by a violent, almost insane fury that completely destroyed his personality and filled him with a bitter sense of remorse.’ [Khan al-Khalili,2.]

When Hussein has to refuse the offer of Hassan Effendi’s daughter Ihsan in marriage, thereby severing relations with Hassan Effendi, he too becomes angry and bitter. ‘At this moment he hated not only himself but humanity at large.’ [56.]

It doesn’t last. Unlike Ahmad Akif, Hussein has a very strong sense of duty. ‘His sense of duty outweighed all his other emotions.’ [56.]

Ahmad Akif becomes embittered. He turns against women. ‘If his complete failure to achieve anything turned him into an enemy of the entire world, then his failure with women made him their enemy too.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 4.]

Ahmad is an unattractive personality. ‘However, a combination of despair and thriftiness, followed by a peculiar adaptation to look like an intellectual, had robbed him of any concern about either his person or his manner of dress.’ His ‘…teeth [are] yellowed by smoking.’ Ahmad is unattractive morally as well as physically. ‘His secret craving for sex gnawed at him….’ [Khan al-Khalili, 1.]

His brother Rushdi is the opposite. ‘Where love was concerned, he had limitless self-confidence, based on one success after another.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 17.]

One of the most extraordinary parallels between the two novels is that both Hassanein, in The Beginning and the End, and Rushdi, in Khan al-Khalili, accost their beloved on the roof. This probably reflects the reality of courtship in conservative communities, and life in Cairo apartment blocks.

Hassanein is alert to the slightest sign of femininity. ‘[Hassanein] raised his head to follow the rustle of a dress. He saw the hem as the wearer climbed the last flight of stairs leading to the roof of the house. Who was it?’ [21.]

Bahia has a legitimate reason for being there. ‘Then [Hassanein] heard a voice clucking to the chickens.’ [21.]

Hassanein accosts Bahia. Bahia responds with proper modesty. ‘“Let me pass, please,” she said.’ [21.]

Hassanein insists on a declaration of love. ‘“Say just one word! If you can’t, only give a nod.”’ [21.]

The meeting on the roof in Khan al-Khalili is very similar. ‘Now she could no longer play with the younger girls in the street, the roof had become her favourite spot.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 21.] Nawal’s family are conservative. Once she reaches puberty she is secluded.

Rushdi follows Nawal. ‘She was amazed to find him standing there, his tall frame filling up the doorway.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 21.]

Like Bahia, Nawal responds very properly. ‘”Don’t start dragging me into the conversation. Now stop blocking my way.”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 22.]

The courtship in each novel evolves in a broadly similar way. After a proper display of modesty, the suitor is accepted. The portrayal in The Beginning and the End is somewhat more subtle.

In Khan al-Khalili, Ahmad is a failure. He craves women but is unsuccessful in love. Rushdi is reckless. His reluctance to face the truth about his tuberculosis leads to suffering for everybody. When Nawal’s family find out, they forbid her to visit him. ‘”… from today you cannot visit our dear sick neighbour any more.”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 44.]

Nawal does not understand. She is a teenage girl. She is in love. ‘”How can you be so unkind?”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 44.]

In The Beginning and the End, Hussein sacrifices his own interests for the sake of his family. Hassanein’s ambition leads him to behave dishonourably, and break off his engagement to Bahia. There is a deliberate opposition in each novel. The contrast between altruism and selfishness seems to me somewhat more interesting than the contrast between failure and recklessness.

If The Beginning and the End is a reworking of Khan al-Khalili – which in some ways it quite clearly is – then Hassan and Nefisa are in a sense ‘additional’ characters. They show different responses to poverty, and different ways of finding sexual satisfaction. What Hassan and Nefisa show are the disreputable variants.

The outcomes for Nefisa- in circumstances identical that are identical to those of Hassanein – are very different. Hassanein becomes an officer. Nefisa becomes a prostitute.

Hassanein’s progress towards his commission is sketched in fairly lightly. Mahfouz is not really interested in the army. What is important is Hassanein’s relationship with his sponsor, Ahmed Bey Yousri.

Nefisa’s progress – if that is the right word – towards prostitution is by contrast described rather carefully. Mahfouz is concerned to be as realistic as possible.

Mahfouz describes three relationships that Nefisa has. These three relationships represent the course of what I can only describe as her career.

Hamida in Midaq Alley also has a career, and her career too unrolls over the course of three relationships. Hamida first becomes engaged to Abbas, the barber. He is poor but at least he is handsome. Hamida throws Abbas over for the rich merchant, Salim Alwan. This demonstrates that she is mercenary.

Salim Alwan then has to be disposed of so that Hamida can form a relationship with her pimp, Ibrahim Faraj. This will demonstrate that she is not only mercenary but immoral. Accordingly – since the plot will not wait for anything less dramatic – Mahfouz has Salim Alwan have a heart attack.

Nefisa’s first relationship is with the grocer’s son, Soliman Gaber Soliman. Nefisa is convinced that she and Soliman are going to get married. ‘[Nefisa] believed that he was her first and last lover. Hope and despair made her cling to him passionately….’ [26.]

Soliman reassures her of this. Soliman Gaber Soliman spoke. “Don’t have any doubts about it. We shall marry as I have told you. I make this promise before God.” [26.]

When Nefisa learns he has been lying to her she is desperately disappointed. ‘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.] Nefisa’s only offence, so far, against tradition and morality has been to anticipate her nuptials.

Nefisa puts herself in the wrong by assaulting Soliman. ‘…with all her might, [Nefisa] struck him twice in the face with her fist. She saw blood streaming from his nose.’ [33.]

Soliman seduces Nefisa by degrees. Nefisa finds his attentions flattering. ‘That he was interested in her made her think very highly of him…. Perhaps she was not as ugly as she thought.’ [23.]

Soliman asks Nefisa out. ‘“The shop is usually closed on Friday in the afternoon. Meet me then. We could go to Rod el-Farag.”’ [23.] Rod el-Farag was known at that time for its nightclubs. [Wikipedia.]

This is not something that a respectable unmarried young woman from a conservative family would do. Nefisa initially resists. ‘“Go together? I don’t like the idea. I’m not one of those girls.”’ [23.]

Soliman persists. ‘“Shall we meet then, next Friday?”’ He persuades her. ‘She hesitated a bit, then murmured, “By God’s will.”’ [23.]

Soliman has a powerful psychological hold. ‘He was the first man to restore her self-confidence.’ [26.]

Nefisa also initially resists when Soliman invites her home. ‘“Please, come in.” “Let’s go back.” “…You must honour our home.”’ [27.]

In the darkness Soliman seduces her. Mahfouz is discreet about details. ‘The surrounding darkness became thicker than ever.’ [27.]

Nefisa discovers that Soliman has abandoned her to marry another woman. Nefisa is so angry that she stages a confrontation with the bride. She loses a customer. ‘“How criminal!  How insolent! Go away before I call the servants to throw you out of the house!”’ [35.]

Soliman does not pay Nefisa for sex. Nefisa nevertheless has sexual relations with Soliman without being married. By the conventional standards of the time – standards which her brother’s fiancée, Bahia, clearly shares – Nefisa has defined herself as a prostitute.

Nefisa does not see her second relationship, with Mohammed al-Ful, as leading potentially to marriage. She sees it more as an affair.

Mohammed is exciting. He is not respectable. ‘[Mohammed] seemed to her strong and daring, but at the same time dishonourable and untrustworthy.’ [41.]

Mohammed, like a lover, persuades Nefisa to go for a drive with him. ‘“Look to my left and you will find a car owned by my humble person. Old though it is, it can carry us to any place you like.”’ [41.]

When they arrive, Mohammed is rough with Nefisa. ‘Stretching out his arm, he suddenly encircled her waist, pulling her toward him with unexpected violence.’ [41.]

Nefisa is worried about her family. Nefisa does not want to have sex a second time. Mohammed treats her with open contempt. ‘“Damn you! This trip wasn’t even worth the gasoline it took to get her!”’ [41.]

Nefisa is as shocked that Mohammed pays her as she is by the trivial sum. ‘But she saw him stretching out his hand, offering her a ten piaster piece. “This is enough for one time,” he said….’ [41.]

The payment is mean. The manner of the payment is openly contemptuous. ‘…he threw the silver coin at her feet and drove off….’ [41.]

Nefisa is shamed. ‘She was overwhelmed with a profound feeling of sorrow and degradation….’ [41.]

Nefisa’s need for money, and her family’s need for money, prompts her – or so we are allowed to assume – to accept what Mohammed so contemptuously offers. ‘Seeing no reason to leave [the coin] there, she picked it up.’  [41.]

The third relationship is the one in which Nefisa behaves as a prostitute in the narrow sense. The man is not particularly attractive. He seems respectable. ‘He was sixty, age lending to his body a sagging but dignified appearance…. he wore a woollen suit; he carried an elegant fly whisk with an ivory handle….’ [60.]

Nefisa’s motives in this case are purely financial. ‘…this time, out of pure greed, and feeling no desire at all, she surrendered to a passerby.’ [60.]

The gentleman, despite his social status, treats her with the same contempt as Mohammed al-Ful. ‘“…a twenty-piaster piece is too much for a person like you.”’ [60.]

The fourth relationship, the one that is her undoing, is not described at all. It is important only because of its impact on her brother Hassanein. The first we know of it is when it becomes a police matter. ‘“Master, a policeman wants to speak to you!”’ [88.]

The description of how Nefisa becomes a prostitute is more realistic than the account of the way Hamida finds her vocation in Midaq Alley. In The Beginning and the End, there is nothing like the nonsense of the school for prostitution. ‘“Your lover is the headmaster of a school, and you will learn everything when the time comes.”’ [Midaq Alley, 24.]

Nefisa’s chances of marriage, the only really acceptable outcome for a woman of her class, are very slight. For a start, Nefisa is not conventionally attractive. ‘Nefisa, [Samira’s] daughter …had the same thin oval face, short, coarse nose and pointed chin. She was pale, and a little hunchbacked’. [5.]

(I suspect that ‘hunchbacked’, here, is a mistranslation and that ‘round-shouldered’ would have been better. There are no other suggestions that Nefisa is disabled.)

Nefisa is of course an orphan. She does not have a male protector. Since her father’s death, in addition, she is even more poor.

Nefisa’s poverty results in a loss of respectability. ‘“Nefisa is good at sewing…. …she often makes dresses for our neighbours. I see no harm in her asking for some compensation.”’ [6.]

Nefisa’s brothers don’t like it. ‘The word “dressmaker” was very painful to [Hussein]….’ [8.] There is nothing they can do. The family needs the money.

Mahfouz is sympathetic about Nefisa’s poverty. Mahfouz is also sympathetic about her desperate need for marriage and love. This is what prompts her relationship with Soliman. ‘A burning desire for love overcame [Nefisa].’ [20.]

Despite the social and economic rationality of her choices, Nefisa is presented as driven to despair. ‘How complete was her degradation! And how dreadful her end!’ [60.]

There is no specific suggestion that these feelings are religious in origin. That is reasonable, since the prevailing attitudes to female sexuality are as much social as religious. What is important, I think, is that Nefisa internalises these judgements. She sees herself as others would do, if they knew what she was doing.

Nefisa’s feelings about her situation are extreme. ‘What hope did life hold out for her? She was doomed to self-destruction.’ [47.] This is melodramatic.

What is more problematic is the treatment of Nefisa’s sexual feelings. ‘However, in addition to the feeling of despair, an intense desire boiled in veins, clamouring for gratification; she felt helpless before it.’ [41.]

Sexual feelings in women are discreditable. Sexual feelings in men, as in the case of Nefisa’s brother Hassanein, are an explanation.

Something similar is true of the feminine pleasure that Nefisa takes, despite not being conventionally good-looking, in attention from men. ‘How delicious flirtation was, even if it was false!’ [41.] This is clearly being presented as a weakness.

The depths of despair to which Nefisa sinks anticipate her suicide. This happens, for example, when she learns of Soliman’s betrayal. ‘“The new bride is the daughter of Amm Gobran el-Tui, the grocer.” “…Who’s the bridegroom?” “…It is Soliman, the son of Amm Gaber Soliman, the grocer.” [32.]

It is the end of Nefisa’s dream. ‘…an overpowering feeling of death quickly overtook her.’ [32.] This is not the inevitability of tragedy. It is rather the fatalism of melodrama.

Mahfouz’s portrait of Nefisa is unsympathetic. She is ugly. She is a prostitute. She has strong sexual feelings. She has to work for her money.

This portrayal of a woman is thoroughly in keeping with the mores of the time and the place. That does not make it all right.

Mahfouz, in later novels, is to show himself a highly intelligent and remarkably insightful novelist. It is a shame he could not have portrayed Nefisa more as an individual. In doing so he would have challenged to some extent the notions about women and sexuality that were prevalent at the time.

There are some deliberate parallels between Nefisa’s sexual progress and Hassanein’s. These are not the coincidences which in earlier novels of this period drove the plot. They are coincidences in time, which underline formal parallels.

Hassanein’s mother agrees to his engagement to Bahia. ‘Mother told him she considered his approval of your proposal a great honour.’ [25.]

In the very next chapter, Soliman and Nefisa discuss the possibility of getting engaged, and the obstacles to it. ‘”It would be natural for me to tell my father and then we would go together to your mother to ask for your hand.”’ [26.] This is deliberate.

Hassanein asks Ahmed Bey Yousri to help him with his ambition of entering the War College. It is a key step in Hassanein’s career. ‘That afternoon, Hassanein paid a visit to Ahmed Bey Yousri’s villa in Taher Street.’ [59.]

In the very next chapter, Nefisa encounters the gentleman with the fly-whisk. That is a key step in Nefisa’s career. ‘At the same hour, Nefisa was in Station Square…. She observed a man standing a few arm’s lengths away, looking curiously at her.’ [60.]

Sexual relations and occupation are closely related. They are both, potentially, sources of honour. They both carry the risk of shame. Something similar is true of family.

While Nefisa keeps her sexual activity – her prostitution – secret, the shame is hers alone. If the secret gets out, it will involve her whole family. It will particularly involve Hassanein. His ambition has driven him to choose a profession in which the code of honour is paramount.

Nefisa is by no means the first prostitute in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. She will not be the last. Prostitution occurs in the strict sense in Khan al-Khalili and Midaq Alley, and in the wider, derogatory sense in Cairo Modern.

In Khan al-Khalili Ahmad makes one visit to the local hash den. It proves to be too much for him. The hash den is also where the neighbourhood prostitute works. [The woman] started staring hard at Ahmad with her flashing eyes, and he realised at once that she must be Aliyat al-Faiza, whom they all called “husband lover”.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 32.]

In Midaq Alley, the protagonist, Hamida – it is very rare, incidentally, for a novel of Naguib Mahfouz to have a female protagonist – becomes a career prostitute. ‘The truth was that without realising it she had chosen her path…. She asked herself what people would be saying about her on the street the next day…. “A whore!”’ [Midaq Alley, 24.]

In Cairo Modern, Ihsan Shihata becomes – with the same becoming hesitation that Hamida and Nefisa display – the mistress of a rich and influential man. ‘She tossed and turned all night, brooding. The afternoon of the following day, at the usual time, the automobile approached and its door opened. She hesitated a little. Then she climbed in.’ [Cairo Modern, 25.]

Ihsan’s situation is not unlike Hamida’s. ‘Ihsan Shihata was supremely conscious of two things: her beauty and her poverty.’ [Cairo Modern, 4.]

Ihsan does not have sex for cash with casual strangers. Nevertheless, according to the prevailing norms, she – a sexually active, unmarried woman – is a whore.

Prostitution is an important theme in the Cairo Trilogy. Nur, in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), is a prostitute. She is the most important female character.

Prostitution, in the prevailing culture, is shameful. It is incompatible with honour. The Beginning and the End is, very centrally, about honour and shame.

The family are shamed by their poverty. They are shamed by Nefisa becoming a dressmaker. Hassanein is particularly vulnerable to shame when he becomes an officer. ‘“I wasn’t an officer then,” Hassanein protested. “But now that I’ve become one, my reputation is in jeopardy.”’ [68.]

Nefisa’s small earnings were essential to the family economy. Now the shame of Nefisa working for her living has become acute. ‘“Mother, Nefisa must stop her shameful work at once. It doesn’t become an officer’s sister to work as a dressmaker.” [68.] Hassanein has no idea that Nefisa is also a prostitute.

Hassan’s money was the only way the brothers could start their careers. Hassan being a thug, a pimp and a drug dealer is now a threat.

Hassanein visits Hassan. He tries to persuade him to adopt a more respectable lifestyle. Hassan is offended. He counters by pointing out that Hassanein came to him for the money he needed to enrol at the War College. “So you’re indebted for your uniform to narcotics and this prostitute.” [71.]

Hassan’s occupation may be disreputable. It is however a career and has some of the characteristics of a career. In particular, like his respectable brothers, Hassan needs a sponsor.

Hassanein and Hussein apply to Ahmed Bey Yousri, supposedly their father’s friend. Hassan relies on Ali Sabri, a conceited and unsuccessful musician. ‘“The band will be working in this coffeehouse,” [Ali Sabri] said….’ [37.]

Ali Sabri needs Hassan. ‘“On every corner there is a thug…. And who is the right person to deal with them? You. There is also the important trade in narcotics…. And who’s the right person to deal with it? You again,” Ali Sabri said.’ [37.] Hassan was a failure as a wedding singer. He has now found his vocation.

The ups and downs of Hassan’s precarious existence have a direct effect on the family. When Hassan goes on the run, a search party arrives at the flat.

…the two young men encountered an officer, two policemen, and another man, apparently an informer…. The officer produced a search warrant…. “We’re searching …for a man by the name of Hassan Kamel, commonly known as Mr Head.”’ [75.]

The family are humiliated. ‘“The whole neighbourhood is witnessing our scandal. We’ve been exposed, and now we’re finished!”’ [75.]

They move to another quarter. ‘”We’ll go to Heliopolis.”’ [76.]

They cannot escape their past. Hassan turns up at their new address, badly wounded. ‘In the open doorway he saw two strangers supporting a third man, whose neck reclined on one of their shoulders…. …its pale white complexion was tinged with a blueness that suggested death.’ [86.]

Hassan’s fear of the police makes his family complicit. ‘“…don’t call the police or take him to the hospital…. a doctor will inform the police.”’ [86.]

Hassanein’s status obsessions lead him to jilt Bahia. ‘“I want a wife from a higher class, cultured and reasonably wealthy.”’ [79.] Jilting Bahia is dishonourable.

Hussein rescues Bahia’s honour and the reputation of the family. ‘“…I hope one day you’ll bless my honest desire to ask for your daughter Bahia’s hand.”’ [80.]

This is a powerful echo of Khan el-Khalili. In Khan el-Khalili, both brothers were interested in the same girl. Now the same pattern is being repeated in The Beginning and the End.

To make this more plausible, we are told that Hussein had been interested in Bahia. ‘Formerly, [Hussein] had been in love with Bahia.’ [81.]

This is the first we have heard of it. It is as careless as the assertion that Hassanein had always been interested in the War College.

Hassanein overreaches himself. He proposes for the daughter of Ahmed Bey Yousri. His brother officers find out the results of the enquiries that the family makes.

“I understood, from his conversation …that the family did not approve…. He said many things about one of your brothers…. He said [your sister] worked to earn her living…. I believe …you made a mistake in proposing to the daughter of such a fault-finding family.” [84.]

The fact that Nefisa is a prostitute is concealed from her family until the melodramatic denouement. This is an example of the fondness for irony that Mahfouz indulges in the novels of this period.

In the finale of the novel, the careers of Hassanein and Nefisa once again intersect. Hassanein is summoned to the police station. He does not know why.

“This… has to do with your sister…. She was arrested in a certain house in Al Sakakini.” [89.] Since we already know that Nefisa is a prostitute, we can guess what kind of house this is. Mahfouz does not specify whether it is a maison de rendezvous or a brothel. The details of Nefisa’s final fall are not apparently important.

The officer then appears to invite 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.] I found this shocking. I imagine many Western readers – and many progressive, liberal readers in the Middle East and Egypt – will react in the same way.

The theme of murder has been anticipated. Hussein uses the idea of murder to illustrate an argument about means justifying ends.

“We had to defend ourselves,” [Hussein] said sharply. “And even murder is justified in self-defence.” [73.]

Hussein is talking about accepting money from Hassan, even though Hassan’s occupation is shameful. The idea of murder is not relevant. Mahfouz has taken the opportunity to introduce the concept into a discussion of shame for formal reasons.

When the police arrive at the flat with a search Hassanein is shown as reacting with murderous rage to his feelings of shame. ‘“I feel like murdering somebody… Nothing less than murder would get this out of my system!”’ [75.]

The idea of honour killing, when it is introduced at the end of the novel, is not an accident. It has been planned.

It becomes absolutely clear, when Nefisa and Hassanein leave the police station together, that it is in fact honour killing that is in question. ‘What to do with her was the main thing. He had thought of doing something as soon as they came out of the police station…. Should he strangle her, he wondered suddenly, or smash her head with his shoe?’ [90.]

Mahfouz does not challenge the dominant influence of masculine honour on female lives. He is however unwilling to endorse honour killing unequivocally.

Mahfouz makes Nefisa offer to commit suicide. ‘“Let me do the job myself so that no harm will come to you and nobody will know anything about it….”’ [90.]

Hassanein shows no compassion. ‘“Drown yourself in the Nile,” he said bluntly.’ [90.]

Mahfouz has anticipated Nefisa’s suicidal feelings. This is not careless. ‘Life was worthless; death would rescue her from its painful humiliation…. Now in her resignation, the death she hurried to meet became a soothing drug.’ [91.]

In the moment between leaving Nefisa and her death, Hassanein begins to question what he is doing. ‘He left her alone in front of the bridge and walked toward the pavement extending to the right along the bank of the Nile…. There might have been another solution, he thought.’ [91.]

Mahfouz does not leave Hassanein alone with his guilt. He also commits suicide. ‘Hassanein reached the same place on the bridge. He climbed the rail, looking down into the turbulent waters.’ [92.]

The double suicide with which the novel ends is melodramatic. It leaves Samira’s situation and Hussein’s relationship with Bahia both unresolved. In a realistic novel that would not happen.

The arrival of the police at the flat in Shubra Street is melodramatic, as is Hassan’s turning up wounded at the new flat in Heliopolis. Nefisa being arrested in a brothel is melodramatic. The timing of these events – just after Hassanein’s apparent success in being commissioned into the cavalry – is pure melodrama.

There are other elements of melodrama. Nefisa’s extreme feelings about becoming a prostitute are typical of melodrama. Hassan’s abortive attempt to work as a musician is fairly realistic. His becoming a thug is pure melodrama. It is nothing that Mahfouz has experienced or observed.

Mahfouz at one point gives the game away. ‘…a number of men stealthily streamed out of the room in succession…. Their features reminded [Hassanein] of the gangsters who appeared on the cinema screen.’ [58.] Mahfouz has based his description of Hassan’s milieu and his activities on what he has seen in the movies.

There is also a fatalism that is rather typical of melodrama. Sometimes the fatalism is expressed in a way that is common across cultures. ‘“Oh, God! Surely there’s some impurity in our blood!”’ [79.] At others it is more specific to Egypt and the Middle East. ‘“What is happening to us is the mischief of an evil eye.”’ [81.]

These elements of melodrama are important. They contribute to the tone of The Beginning and the End. It is however in the portrayal of honour and shame that the real melodrama lies. Honour and shame, in this novel, are in some way not real.

There is however greater realism. The description of family poverty and Samira’s struggles is realistic. The account of Nefisa’s relationships is more realistic than the portrayal of Hamida’s career in Midaq Alley. The attempt of Hussein’s superior in Tanta to entrap him into marrying his daughter comes across as realistic to a degree.

There is also more interest in politics. In Mahfouz’s later novels, in particular the Cairo Trilogy (1956-7), politics are very important. In The Beginning and the End, there is more discussion of politics, and more awareness of social and national issues, than in any of Mahfouz’s other novels of the late 1940s.

The boys have been involved in nationalist demonstrations. Hussein, as Mahfouz several times reminds us, has a strong faith. ‘Hussein’s strong faith …left him with no doubts about the hereafter.’ [3.]

Yet even Hussein’s faith does not quite enable him to remain stoical in the face of suffering. ‘It is true that God is the resort of all people. Yet how numerous on earth are the hungry and distressed!’ [8.]

On the train journey to take up his new post in Tanta, Hussein’s reflections about his own circumstances lead him to think about others. ‘There is no doubt about it. In our country fortune and respectable professions are hereditary in certain families. I am not spiteful, but sad; sad for myself and for millions of others like myself.’ [48.]

Hussein falls into a political conversation with a fellow-passenger. Hussein and his companion of the route both support the Wafd – the main nationalist party – as Mahfouz did when he was young. ‘”Nahas will remain in office forever,” the man said jubilantly. “The time for coups is over now. Are you a Wafdist?”’ [48.]

Alone in Tanta, Hussein muses about the condition of society. ‘Lonely and bored, [Hussein] found pleasure, he said, in dreams of social reform, imagining the emergence of a better society than the present one and improvement in living conditions.’ [73.]

Unlike the characters in the Cairo Trilogy, however – several of whom become involved and take action – Hussein’s reflections goes no further than that. There is a degree of recognition in The Beginning and the End that politics is important. Political beliefs do not affect the action.

The concern with social status in The Beginning and the End is new. The topic of honour and shame – which is related – is also new. An element of a traditional system, honour, is being portrayed in the context of a modernising urban environment. This contrast – or indeed conflict – between the traditional values and the modern world is a strong theme in the novels of Mahfouz. In The Beginning and the End, the melodramatic nature of the novel limits the portrayal. In later novels it will become more sophisticated.

The Beginning and the End, in itself, is a fairly limited novel. It is interesting because of its themes: poverty, social conditions, politics, sexual conflict, the tension between modernity and tradition. These are among the most important themes of the later novels.

It is also interesting because of its milieu. The petty bourgeoisie and the old districts of Cairo are Mahfouz’s spiritual home.

24/4/2018

Bibliographical note

Goldschmidt, Arthur Jr., Modern Egypt: the Formation of a Nation State, 2004

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

Extremes

The Mirage 

Naguib Mahfouz, 1948

 

The Mirage is one of a group of five novels that Naguib Mahfouz published between 1945 and 1950. They came after the romances of the Pharaonic past, which were published between 1939 and 1944, and before the magnificent Cairo Trilogy (1956-7).

These novels are often described as realistic. The others in the group – they share quite distinctive features, and it is I think reasonable to speak of them as a group – are Cairo Modern (1945), Khan al-Khalili (1945), Midaq Alley (1947) and The Beginning and the End (1950).

I think that to call these novels realistic is in fact misleading. I would describe them rather as ‘social melodrama’. They are melodramas with a rather strong social element.

I think it is the social element that has led commentators – for example, Marius Deeb and Ibrahim El-Sheikh – to assume these novels were written out of an aspiration to literature. They seem to have missed the significance of the strongly-marked traits of popular writing. [Deeb, El-Sheikh, in Le Gassick, 1991.]

In some ways The Mirage resembles the other four novels of this group. Like the other novels, it has significant characteristics of melodrama.

Melodrama, to me, consists of formal traits which are common across genre fiction. Melodramatic traits can also occur, as they do in these early novels of Mahfouz, in fiction which does not belong to a particular genre.

There are a number of melodramatic traits in The Mirage. They include a disastrous outcome, a plot which is focused throughout on the final denouement, a protagonist with a single dominant personality trait, other instances of extreme characterisation, similarly extreme events and a reliance on coincidence.

At the end of the novel the protagonist’s wife, Rabab, and his mother Zaynab both die. Kamil’s wife dies of a bungled abortion. Kamil’s mother dies of a heart attack, following a quarrel with her son.

The fact that two of the three most significant characters in the novel die is almost enough in itself to define The Mirage as melodrama. The fact that the deaths occur within six short chapters of each other is very nearly enough to settle the matter.

At first Kamil doesn’t realise his mother is dead. ‘…on the bed lay my mother in a deep stillness.’ He realises only when a colleague from the Ministry of War where he works shows him the obituary in the newspaper. ‘“Daughter of the late Colonel Abdulla Bey Hasan passes away.”’ It is Kamil’s practical elder brother Medhat who explains things to him. ‘“She wasn’t asleep,” [Medhat] said mournfully. “It was her heart, Kamil.”’ [66.]

Rabab’s death is in itself the essence of melodrama. Kamil does not know Rabab is pregnant. The reader has however been told. ‘…the following morning, not long after [Rabab] woke up, she vomited unexpectedly….’ [58.] This is an example of Mahfouz’s fondness for irony.

The abortion is performed in Rabab’s family home. ‘“Miss Rabab will be spending the night at her mother’s house, and they sent the servant to inform us of it.”’ [58.] Rabab’s mother and the loyal family servant are on site to grieve dramatically. ‘“The miserable operation! God damn the operation….” “You are the ones who killed her! Get out of my face!”’ [60.]

The doctor is Rabab’s lover, and a relative. ‘…to my astonishment the person who opened the door to me was Dr Amin Rida.’ [59.] There is no description of the relationship between Rabab and Dr Rida. In a realistic novel there would be.

Amin Rida is also the doctor Kamil consulted about his impotence. This introduces a touch of paranoia. ‘Before me stood the doctor I’d visited two months earlier and to whom I’d confided the secret of my misery! …Does he remember me? I wondered.’ [46.]

Kamil knows that something is not right. ‘I was faced with a crime.’ [60.] He is not sure at first what the crime is.

Dr Amin Rida believes he has killed Rabab by making a puncture during the operation. ‘“If the cause of death were known, the illegal operation you were performing would have come to light.”’ Dr Rida therefore deliberately punctures the peritoneum in order to cover up the illegal operation he was performing and Rabab’s disgrace. ‘“…the patient didn’t die from the first perforation. Rather, you killed her when you made a hole in the peritoneum.”’ [63.]

Dr Rida believes he has unintentionally killed his lover during an illegal abortion, a serious matter in itself. Dr Rida has in fact committed homicide.

Young wives in realistic novels may perfectly well fall in love with men other than their husbands. In a realistic novel set in the Middle East, the man a young wife falls in love with may be a relative outside what the Vatican (not set in the Middle East) used to call the prohibited degrees. Young wives may get pregnant in realistic novels. Young wives in realistic may have abortions. An accident may well happen during a medical procedure in a realistic novel. The errors made by doctors in realistic novels may well be fatal. Doctors in realistic novels may well try to cover up their mistake. All this I grant.

I grant also that all of these things may occur independently in what we are in the habit of referring to as ‘real life’. The possible occurrence of events in real life is in fact one of the criteria, though obviously not the only one, of realism in fiction.

When a young wife in a novel falls in love with a medical doctor in the same novel who happens to be a relative, and when the same doctor carries out the illegal medical procedure which kills her when she gets pregnant, we are entitled to assume that this is not in fact a realistic novel, and that we are dealing with a clear case of melodrama. We might even feel that these events were somewhat melodramatic if they co-occurred ‘in real life’.

Dr Rida’s crime is not resolved. We do not learn what happens to him. When we last see Dr Rida he is taking arrogant responsibility for his actions. ‘”You’re asking [Kamil Ru’ba Laz] something he knows nothing about. She was a wife in name only, and I’m responsible for everything from beginning to end.”’ [63.]

The novel is not about Dr Rida. It is about Kamil.

If the crime is not resolved then the abortion, in itself, is not important. The bungled abortion is a device for removing Kamil’s pretty, pleasant wife from the action. Rabab needs to be removed so that – I strongly suspect – Kamil may be free.

Death, here, is a plot device. Death as a plot device, I think we can safely say, is quintessentially melodramatic.

The action of The Mirage moves steadily towards the deaths of the two women. The deaths are anticipated. ‘…I’m a victim with two victims of his own. …one of those victims was my own mother!’ [1.]

The deaths, in Kamil’s mind, are the outcome of his anxiety and his feelings of inadequacy, which dominate the novel. Kamil believes that he is constitutionally unable to cope with life. ‘Don’t we prune trees, cutting off the branches that have grown crooked? Why is it, then, that we keep people who aren’t fit for life?’ [1.]

Kamil believes that it is his inadequacy that led to his wife’s death. ‘…it was my inadequacy that cast her into the arms of temptation. …So hadn’t I been an accessory to her murder?’ [66.]

Kamil is omitting his wife’s decision to have an affair, Dr Rida’s willingness to perform an illegal abortion, and Rabab’s family’s failure to communicate with him while there was still time. It is a form of reasoning that is typical, in its elision of the chain of causation, of extreme guilt.

Kamil also believes that it is his anger with his mother that brought on the heart attack that killed her. “I killed her, there’s no doubt about it.” His practical brother, Medhat, doesn’t want him to think that way. “…Don’t you dare give in to thoughts like that!” Medhat thinks Kamil’s emotionality is unmanly. “Be rational, Kamil. We mustn’t be overcome by grief like women. Wasn’t she my mother too? But we’re men.” [66.] Medhat however has no particularly effective counter-argument.

Kamil’s mother has had a heart attack before. ‘[The doctor] said she had had a heart attack….’ [57.] There have been previous hints of ill-health. ‘Two days after our bizarre conversation, my mother succumbed to an ailment that left her bedridden, and I stayed by her side throughout her illness except for the times I was at work.’ [21.]

There is no clue that this is illness is a heart problem, or that it is stress related. It does however follow a conversation in which Zaynab becomes distressed at the thought that Kamil might get married. ‘Alas, she wasn’t entirely in her right mind. “…if some day you’d like me to get out of your life, all you have to do is say the word, and you’ll never see me again!”’ [21.]

Zaynab’s first heart attack was brought on by family conflict. Rabab has been quarrelling with her mother. ‘…it soon became apparent that Rabab and her mother were exchanging the harshest of words in a noisy shouting match.’ Zaynab is aware that something is wrong. ‘“Can you tell me more about what’s going on between Rabab and her mother?”’ [57.] The reader realises, though Kamil does not, that Rabab is having an affair and Rabab’s mother is angry with her.

Rabab loses her temper with her mother-in-law. ‘I found Rabab with sparks flying from her eyes as she screamed, “This sort of spying doesn’t become a respectable lady!”’ [57.]

Zaynab’s heart attack occurs immediately after the quarrel with Rabab. ‘Then [my mother] placed her hand on her forehead and seemed to gradually slump over.’ [57.] There is no mention of the role of stress as a precipitant of heart attacks, and no attempt to distinguish between immediate and underlying causes.

Zaynab’s final, fatal heart attack also occurs after a quarrel. This time, it is a quarrel with her son. Kamil attacks his mother verbally. He accuses Zaynab of never having liked Rabab. ‘”I’ll never forget that you hated even before you’d laid eyes on her!”’ [65.]

Kamil also accuses her of being happy that Rabab has died. ‘”The fact is that you’re beside yourself with joy!”’ [65.]

Cruelly, Kamil tells Zaynab about the abortion. ‘”She was killed when the doctor was performing an abortion on her!” [65.]

Zaynab chooses a prophetic form of words to express her misery. ‘”You’re killing me without mercy.”’ [65.]

These are the ugly accusations that people throw at each other under the pressure of intolerable feelings. That doesn’t of course make them all right.

Kamil describes himself as screaming ‘like a lunatic’ and says his mother perhaps feared he had ‘gone mad’. [65.] When Kamil leaves the house the next morning his mother is already dead.

It is of course Mahfouz who has decreed that Zaynab should have her first heart attack following a quarrel with her daughter in law, and that she should have her fatal attack when her son launches an unhinged tirade. These heart attacks are not random. They are caused by the conflict over Kamil’s marriage and the death of his wife.

In a more realistic novel, the heart attacks and the quarrels could both occur. In a more realistic novel, just as in what we like to call ‘real life’, they would not necessarily be so closely connected. It is the tight causal chain that makes The Mirage melodrama.

Mahfouz has made it difficult to argue that Kamil is not responsible for his mother’s death. Mahfouz of course knows that Kamil’s thinking is typical of guilt.

There is something quite disturbing about Kamil’s conviction he is responsible for the deaths of both his mother and his wife. After the deaths Kamil breaks down. ‘I know nothing about the long hours I spent in a complete coma…. “Perhaps you don’t realise that you were gone for three whole days….” I was bedridden for a month.’ [67.]

As he recovers, Kamil has a lady visitor. ‘“A lady is her who would like to see you, and I’ve let her into the reception room.”’ We believe, though we are not told, that the lady is Kamil’s mistress, Inayat. ‘“You!”’ [67.]

It is a hint, though no more, that Kamil has a future. It is as if he has had to kill his wife and his mother to find some kind of freedom and the possibility of fulfilment.

Like the protagonists of Mahfouz’s other social melodramas of this period, Kamil has a single dominant personality trait. This is in fact typical of melodrama and of genre fiction in general.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im in Cairo Modern, for instance, is a nihilist. He is very little else. Similarly, Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili is a failure. He fails at everything. The splendidly coarse Hamida in Midaq Alley is domineering. She beats her pimp and escapes, and she beats the alley. Kamil in The Mirage, likewise, is debilitatingly anxious.

Kamil’s anxiety in The Mirage is a development of Ahmad’s sense of failure in Khan al-Khalili. Ahmad’s sense of failure is factitious. It is presented as stemming from having had to give up his chance to higher education to support his younger brother. The presentation of Kamil’s anxiety is more fully naturalistic. It is presented as having roots in Kamil’s early childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Kamil as narrator blames his mother for his anxiety. Like other significant mothers in the works of Mahfouz, such as Amina in The Cairo Trilogy, Zaynab is superstitious. She believes in spirits. ‘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….’ Kamil believes this is the aetiology of his condition. ‘It was this that placed fear at the centre of my soul….’ [4.]

In the real world it cannot be true that childhood stories, however scary, are the cause of a lifelong anxiety disorder. What is true is that Kamil’s condition has its origin in the way he was brought up and his relationship with his mother. Kamil’s emotional dependence on his mother makes it difficult to escape the condition. ‘My mother was the source of these torments. Yet, she was also my sole refuge from them….’ [4.]

Kamil’s high levels of anxiety affect his concentration adversely. This is realistic. His lack of concentration harms his education. ‘When the first lesson ended, I hadn’t heard a word the teacher said.’ [6.] Later lack of concentration affects Kamil’s ability to perform the routine clerical tasks of his low grade civil service job. ‘I made careless errors time and time again….’ [18.]

As well as being anxious, Kamil is extremely shy. ‘…I’m painfully shy. I love solitude and isolation, and I’m wary of strangers.’ [7.] Shyness can occur quite independently of anxiety. It can also be caused by it.

School is torture. ‘School was the bane of my existence, and I genuinely and profoundly detested it.’ Kamil does not do well. ‘…eventually I put the era of secondary school behind me and finished the baccalaureate when I was twenty-five years old.’ [14.]

Kamil’s anxiety makes him avoidant. He has nothing to do with anyone except his immediate family, and no involvement in activities outside school and home. This becomes unbearably painful. ‘Trapped in an isolation that distanced me from life’s other spheres, I wondered in anguish how I would ever break free.’ [11.]

Mahfouz makes clear that this is pathological. ‘I began to think seriously of committing suicide. I was seventeen years old at the time….’ Kamil lacks the resolve to see his intentions through. ‘My wobbly legs carried me back to the end of the bridge, where the carriage was waiting for me, and I got back in.’ [11.]

By the time Kamil reaches university his anxiety has a powerfully negative effect on his ability to cope. It is openly disabling.

Mahfouz dramatises this in an incident in which Kamil is asked to give a speech in front of the other law students. ‘Then something happened to me that may have been trivial in itself, but that changed the course of my life…. “Come up to the podium,” said the professor…. “Why?” “Why? So that you can give a speech like all the others.” “…I don’t know how to give a speech.”’ [17.]

Kamil has what appears to be a panic attack. ‘The place was filled with noisy clamour and laughter. My head spun and I started having difficulty breathing.’ He gives up. ‘“There’s no use my going on with my education.”’ [17.]

This leads to one of the fairly frequent accusations of effeminacy.  ‘“Are you really a man? If you’d been born female, you would have made the best of girls.”’ [17.]

Kamil’s anxiety makes his wedding ceremony excruciatingly painful. ‘“But this is a procession!” I said heatedly. “And I can’t do it! Please don’t make me do it, Sir!”’ [39.]

This foreshadows the crippling anxiety he will suffer in his intimate relations with his wife. ‘…I was consumed with despair, and that this entire scene was nothing but a farce. [41.] Kamil’s anxiety affects every significant area of his life.

The other significant characters are also dominated by one personality trait. This is true even of some of the minor characters, like Kamil’s brother Medhat.

Rabab’s dominant trait is the traditional Muslim and Middle Eastern femininity that Hamida, in Midaq Alley, so conspicuously lacks. Kamil’s father, Ru’ba Bey Laz, is in his own way more of a recluse than Kamil.

Kamil’s mother Zaynab is also reclusive. Reclusiveness is not however Zaynab’s dominant trait. Zaynab’s dominant trait is her possessiveness towards Kamil.

Just in case we miss the point about Rabab’s perfections, Mahfouz makes it explicit for us. ‘[Rabab] was the epitome of ideal womanhood.’ [38.]

The best description, in my opinion, of Rabab’s attractiveness comes towards the end of the novel. Kamil is staking out the school where she works and spying on her in an attempt to find proof of infidelity. ‘[Rabab] walked along in her pin-striped, lead-grey coat with her tall, svelte frame, her charming, refined gait, and her usual modesty and endearing poise.’ [51.] It is not a coincidence that Rabab’s attractiveness should be most clearly emphasised when Kamil has come to suspect her of having an affair.

What makes Rabab even more attractive than her dignity is that her features are not African. In Egypt being fair-complexioned is associated with higher social status: ‘…those large green eyes, that straight, delicate nose and that long, fair-skinned, well-proportioned face.’ [16.]

Green eyes were said to be typical of Circassian beauties. Circassians were sought after in the harems of the sultans. [Wikipedia.]

By contrast Inayat, Kamil’s mistress, is not modest. ‘…there was a boldness in her gaze that caused me to look away bashfully.’ [51.]

Inayat is not attractive. ‘…She looked to be over forty, and … she was uglier than she was pretty.’ [51.]

Inayat is not a Circassian. She has quite distinctly African features: ‘…a short, flat nose, full lips, rounded puffy cheeks, and kinky hair.’ [51.]

Having an affair is not of course particularly modest. The affair however is not described and we do not see Rabab behaving in ways which conflict with Kamil’s ideal.

In addition to the affair, there are two displays of temper. One happens just after the death of Kamil’s grandfather plunges Kamil and his grandfather into poverty. It is not possible for Kamil to ask for her hand. ‘…no sooner had she seen me than she turned away from me in a kind of fury. Then she got up and left the balcony.’ [28.] The other is when Rabab quarrels with her mother about her affair with Dr Rida. [57.]

In Kamil’s mind all these incidents – the affair, the display of temper, and the quarrel – are the result of his own inadequacy. They do not detract from Rabab’s idealised femininity.

Ru’ba Bey Laz, Kamil’s father, is even more of a recluse than his son. His best friend is his gatekeeper, ‘Uncle Adam.’ ‘Uncle Adam is father’s long-time confidant and hears everything that’s on his mind….’ [13.] There is no real explanation of Ru’ba Bey Laz’s reclusiveness. That is just the way he is.

Drink is part of Ru’ba Bey Laz’s reclusiveness. We are told that Ru’ba Bey Laz was always dissipated. ‘[My grandfather] …was told frankly that he was a young man with untameable passions and that he was a riotous drunkard.’ [3.] Kamil, of course, also takes to drink. ‘“I want liquor….” Released at last from indecision, I ordered beer.’ [22.]

Kamil has very little contact with his father. Until his sister runs away from their father’s house to get married, he has very little contact with his siblings either. “…we found [Radiya] living with a kind, respectable family. We met her husband, a young man by the name of Sabir Amin who works at the Ministry of Justice.” [8.]

We are told that Kamil and his mother hear gossip. ‘…we heard it said that the man virtually imprisoned himself at home, fleeing from the world and those in it by keeping himself in a state of perpetual inebriation.’ [3.]

When his father dies, Kamil produces a very bleak formulation. ‘…my father …had lived most of his life as though he were dead, cut off from people and the world…. He seemed to have left the world without anyone who would grieve his loss, and this, to me, was a tragedy more terrible than that of death itself.’ [32.] It is the kind of life that might have been in store for Kamil without his mother, his wife and finally his mistress.

Kamil’s mother is also reclusive. As a divorced woman she has returned to her grandfather’s house. She keeps to herself. ‘I found it strange that my mother herself didn’t mix with people very much….’  [5.]

Zaynab’s reclusiveness is associated, quite realistically, with what looks like a form of depression.’ …the minute she found herself alone she’d be engulfed by a cloud of melancholy.’ [5.]

With both of his parents being reclusive, it is perhaps unsurprising that Kamil should be reclusive as well. The point is not made explicitly. Perhaps it does not need to be.

We are not given any detail of Zaynab’s early life. There is no more explanation of her reclusiveness than there is in her husband’s case. It is however an established part of her character as an adult. ‘[My mother] was thin, reclusive, full of fears and worries, and almost abnormally attentive and affectionate.’ [5.]

It is the excessive affection – the possessiveness – that is more damaging than Kamil’s mother’s reclusiveness. ‘I didn’t realise until it was too late …it was an unwholesome affection which had exceeded its proper limits, and that there’s a kind of affection that destroys.’ [5.]

Kamil and his mother spend all their time together. ‘We rarely left the house…. We would even take baths together…. The one place we visited regularly was the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab.’ [4.]

This excessive closeness inhibits normal development. ‘Was I going to stay in her lap forever as though I were part of her body? I was all of four years old, and the time had come for me to want to play and have friends.’ Kamil’s mother protests against his desire for independence. “If you really love me, don’t leave me.” [5.]

Apart from a difficulty in making friends, Kamil’s dependence affects his education. ‘This state of affairs between my mother and me led to a delay in my school enrolment. I got to be nearly seven years old without having received the least bit of education’ [6.]

The dependence persists well into adulthood. ‘One day, though, my grandfather said to me derisively, “Have some shame, man, and buy yourself your own bed! Do you plan to go on sleeping in your mother’s arms forever?” …I did buy myself a bed…. I set it up in the same room… which went on accommodating the two of us together.’ [18.]

Kamil’s most significant attempt to gain independence is marrying Rabab. His mother does not welcome this. ‘…what I sensed was that my mother hated the thought of my marrying at all….’ [20.]

Zaynab loses her role in life. ‘… [my mother] seemed like someone who feels helpless and who’s been relegated against her will to life’s periphery.’ [38.]

Zaynab becomes even more reclusive. ‘…my mother had only visited my fiancée’s house once since our engagement, and then only under duress.’ [39.]

After the wedding, Zaynab’s reclusiveness becomes extreme. ‘[My mother] had become withdrawn, making her bedroom into a prison she barely left, and she seemed to have devoted herself entirely to prayer and worship.’ [45.]

Zaynab blames Rabab. “Your wife doesn’t like me, and that’s all there is to it.” [45.]

Zaynab’s marriage broke down very early. This is a result of ill-treatment by her husband, Ru’ba Bey Laz. ‘…barely two weeks after their wedding night, my mother returned to my grandfather’s house, tearful and broken-hearted.’ Zaynab is pregnant with her eldest child, a daughter. [3.]

Zaynab is persuaded to return. ‘…my mother and her baby girl returned to the Laz mansion once again. Her stay there lasted for two months….’ On this occasion she is pregnant with Kamil’s elder brother, Medhat. ‘…my grandfather took a hard stance with him and insisted that he divorce her. Some months passed and my mother gave birth to my elder brother.’ [3.]

As a result of a chance encounter, Ru’ba Bey Laz has an opportunity to ask Colonel Abdulla Bey Hasan, Kamil’s grandfather, to send his wife and children back to him. ‘“Lord, I’m fed up with this world. It’s nothing but fever, delirium and madness without end. …Send me my wife and my children and let my family be with me. Please!” …However, this new life only lasted for two weeks.’ [3.]

Ru’ba Bey Laz’s cruelty towards his wife is shown by his denying her contact with her children. [3.] Zaynab is isolated by her divorce. She is further isolated, not just because Ru’ba Bey Laz takes her children – which he is perfectly entitled to do under Islamic law when they reach the age of nine – but because he stops her seeing them. As an officer’s daughter, with no formal education that we are aware of, Zaynab would not of course consider working outside the home. This does not even need to be said.

We are not told that Zaynab’s social isolation is the cause of her psychological reclusiveness. That however is what we are allowed to think.

Zaynab has only Kamil. She is very worried that Ru’ba Bey Laz will take him as well. ‘In just a few months I would be nine years old, and once reached that age, my father would have the right to reclaim me.’ [7.]

The rationalisation for Laz’s not reclaiming his son is his meanness. “If I’m asked for a single penny in the coming days, I’ll take him away from you, and you won’t lay eyes on him as long as I live.” [7.]

Kamil’s mother becomes dependent on her son. It is a dependence that lasts the whole of her life.

The seclusion of women in well-to-do, socially conservative households was still common in Egypt at that date. Mahfouz places such a household at the centre of The Cairo Trilogy. In The Cairo Trilogy Amina, the secluded wife, invests too much emotionally in her youngest and favourite son, Kamal. Amina however has social contact with female relatives and neighbours. It is the lack, to any very great extent, of this kind of permissible contact that makes Zaynab’s reclusiveness extreme.

These – Kamil, his mother Zaynab, his father Ru’ba Bey, his wife Rabab – are the main examples of extreme characterisation. We also have extreme events and behaviour.

The clearest examples of extreme events are Rabab’s death from the abortion and Zaynab’s heart attack. Kamil’s surveillance of his wife is surely also fairly extreme.

The most obviously extreme behaviour Ru’ba Bey Laz’s attempt to poison his father. It is not dramatised for us – the novel is about Kamil, not Ru’ba Bey – and we are not given very much in the way of detail. ‘…the reckless young man had tried to poison his father…. …the father had discovered the crime through the cook and banished his son from the mansion. …Ru’ba Laz woke up to find himself in relative poverty.’ [3.] We are not told of legal consequences. If there had been any, there would not have been much of a novel.

The novel relies heavily on coincidence. There is even an explicit discussion of the subject of coincidence. ‘Then something happened to me that seemed trivial, but that nearly turned my life upside down. Strangely, it came to light as a result of a coincidence, and it seems only right for me to wonder: Would my life have taken a difference direction if it hadn’t been for that coincidence? Then again, what is a coincidence? Doesn’t life seem at times to be an endless chain of coincidences?’ [49.]

Life does indeed sometimes seem to be ‘an endless chain of coincidences’. It usually seems like that particularly when the life in question is being described in a genre novel. The perception of ‘an endless chain of coincidences’ is also characteristic of paranoia. In paranoia which everything is meaningful and everything relates to the observer.

The discussion of coincidence in this way in a novel which is to a large extent driven by coincidence is somewhat unusual. It seems to me that a writer of melodrama – as Mahfouz then was – who feels the need to discuss coincidence in this way may be on the point of giving it up, and moving on to something more sophisticated.

There is a whole string of coincidences in The Mirage. Many of the most important plot developments depend wholly on coincidence.

Rabab’s family moves into a flat overlooking the tram stop just when Kamil starts going to university. ‘I stood on the sidewalk waiting for the tram… I wasn’t without a feeling of pride…. As I stood there waiting, I heard the clattering of a window shutter as it opened forcefully and struck the outside wall…. My glance fell on a girl who stood on the balcony drinking tea…. The sight of her had a joyous effect on me.’ [16.]

Girls on balconies and girls at windows are a very important part of Mahfouz’s novels. It would seem these incidents were also an important part of flirting and courting in a socially conservative society.

Ali Taha in Cairo Modern sees Ihsan from the window. ‘“How did you meet her? On the street?” “Of course not! From the window!”’ [Cairo Modern, 9.]

Ahmad Akif, the protagonist of Khan al-Khalili, has an encounter with Nawal in the corridor. The significant moment, however, is when from the window of his room, quite by accident, he sees her on the balcony. ‘He left the window, went over to the other one that looked out on the old part of Khan al-Khalili, opened it, and leaned on the sill…. A young girl was sitting [on his neighbour’s balcony] embroidering a shawl.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 10.]

Hamida in Midaq Alley watches her pimp from the window as he watches her. ‘She hesitated and then, turning the catch, she opened up the window a bit, carefully standing behind it as though watching the celebration in progress.’ [Midaq Alley, 19.]

There are obstacles to Kamil’s suit, as there should be in any tale of true romance. The death of Kamil’s grandfather plunges the family into poverty. ‘“May God grant you length of days. Your grandfather has died, son.”’ [24.]

The family have relied on Colonel Hasan’s officer’s pension. ‘“All we have is God,” [my mother] said to me sorrowfully.’ [25.] With only Kamil’s meagre salary, they are plunged into relative poverty. ‘“Maybe we can find a small flat in the neighbourhood for just a hundred fifty piasters…. We’d have to let the servants go.”’ [25.]

Kamil cannot ask for the hand of his bride. ‘.…I was languishing under the burden of poverty and despair. Consequently, my beloved was a lost cause.’ [26.]

Equally coincidentally, the death of Kamil’s father rescues him. ‘“Our father has died. Come to Hilmiya.”’ [32.] Kamil’s situation is transformed by his inheritance from his father. ‘I was no longer the indigent, destitute person I had been….’ [33.]

Kamil happens to see Dr Rida’s sign when he is thinking of consulting a doctor about his impotence. ‘…one day as I was on my way to the ministry, my eye fell upon a large sign fixed to a balcony on Qasr al-Aini Street. The words “Dr Amin Rida, Specialist in Reproductive Disorders, University of Dublin,” were written on it in large script.’ [44.] Kamil has no idea that Dr Rida is a relative of Rabab. He learns this only though another coincidence. Both Kamil and Rida attend: ‘…a lunch banquet for family members and relatives….’ [46.]

One of the most striking examples of the use of coincidence in the novel comes in the chapter which opens with the discussion of coincidence quoted above. This is hardly likely to be coincidence either.

‘As I left our room, I encountered my mother in the living room and discovered she wasn’t feeling well. Consequently, I went with her to her room and we sat there talking for quite a long time. …As I was on my way out, I happened to glance in the direction of our bedroom. The door was open as it had been before, and I saw Rabab sitting on the edge of the bed and reading a letter.’

Kamil asks Rabab about the letter. “It isn’t a letter. It’s just some comments I wrote down relating to my work at school.”

Then suddenly I saw her tear it up, walk over to the window and throw it out.

“If it was a letter, who sent it?” “I don’t know.”

This in itself is a chain of coincidences. Zaynab is not well. Rabab has not noticed that Kamil has not left the apartment. The postman brings a letter. Rabab has left the door open. It is as good as a play.

Kamil becomes paranoid. ‘A fear came over me that numbed my joints. …as though some unnamed, ominous presence was gathering on my already cloudy horizon.’ [49.]

After many agonies Kamil decides to spy on Rabab. ‘The right thing to do, I decided, was to ask for a vacation from the ministry, then devote myself entirely to surveillance from a vantage point no one else would know about.’ [50.]

The decision to spy on Rabab is one Kamil does not come to without revisiting the world of superstition in which his mother brought him up. He visits the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab: ‘…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.” [50.] From this point the progress towards the denouement is rather rapid.

The post Kamil chooses in the Nubian café for his surveillance just happens to be opposite Inayat’s house.

‘I turned, instinctively, to look across the street, and what should I find but a woman looking out a window on the second floor of a large building.  …she examined me with such consummate daring that I could feel my face flush with embarrassment.’ Inayat is exactly the kind of woman for whom Kamil feels a fatal attraction. ‘…I’d always responded erotically to the ugliest, filthiest of women.’ [52.]

The coincidence, here, is not just Kamil’s chance encounter with Inayat. It is that he finds a lover while he is spying on his wife. ‘I’d gone trailing after my wife, suspecting she’s been unfaithful to me, and I ended up being unfaithful myself….’ [56.] It is difficult to avoid the impression that Mahfouz enjoys his coincidences.

In a number of respects The Mirage is different from Mahfouz’s other novels of the period. The Mirage is a psychological novel, and has a first person narrator: the protagonist, Kamil Ru’ba Laz.

The Mirage is also socially different. Cairo Modern, Khan al-Khalili and Midaq Alley focus on the poor and the petty bourgeoisie. Kamil and his mother are reduced to the level of the petty bourgeoisie when his grandfather dies and they lose his pension. The novel nevertheless focuses on a higher social class.

The Laz family are marginal aristocracy. Colonel Hasan has nothing except his army pension. He nevertheless keeps a carriage till he loses too much at the tables. Ru’ba Bey Laz, though a reprobate, is the son of a notable: that is to say, a landowner.

Rabab’s family are upper-middle class. Her father is an irrigation inspector for the Ministry of Labour. The upper-middle class relies on education rather than land-owning for their prestige.

Zaynab is contemptuous. ‘“Girls who come from nice families don’t work as teachers.”’ [34.] There is a world of prejudice in that simple remark. There is a socially conservative disdain for women who work outside the home, and a snobbishness about the need for employment.

The social element in The Mirage reflects the growth of the modern state in Egypt. The notables, whose power is based on the ownership of land, are losing status. The professional bourgeoisie, whose status is based on Western education and whose power comes from direct involvement with the state, are on the up. The two groups have reached a point where their status is roughly equivalent. Their children marry each other.

Cairo Modern, Khan al-Khalili and Midaq Alley are all precisely dated. They are dated by rather precise references to current affairs, involving the Western powers. This suggests the impact on Egypt of the world beyond its frontiers.

Cairo Modern is dated by reference to the constitution of 1930-35. [Cairo Modern, 6.] It is also dated by reference to ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ in 1933. [Cairo Modern, 41.] The action of Cairo Modern is spread over a few months. It takes place in 1932 and 1933.

Khan al-Khalili is set eight or nine years later. It begins in September 1941, during the Second World War. It ends in 1942, just as the Axis forces under Rommel have reached the westernmost point of their advance into Egypt: ‘…when the invasion reached as far as al-Alamein, general panic reached its height.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 50.]

Midaq Alley is also dated with reference to the war. Hussain Kirsha gets a job with the British at Tel el-Kebir. Improvident and feckless, he is not prepared for being let go when the fighting in North Africa winds down. “How can the war end so quickly?” [30.] This would make it 1943, when the last remnants of the Axis forces were pushed into Tunisia.

The Mirage is not so precisely dated at all. Of the five novels from this period, it is the only one which is psychological rather than social. Psychological novels, perhaps, are more universal.

There are trams. Trams were installed in Cairo at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. [Wikipedia.] The tram stop where Kamil sees Rabab every day has huge importance in the novel. ‘As I stood waiting for the tram alone for the first time in my life, I had a sense of independence that I’d never had before.’ [14.]

There are also horse-drawn carriages. Kamil’s grandfather keeps a Victoria. The Shaddad family in Palace of Desire, set in the 1930s and published in 1957, keep a car. The Shaddads are of course much wealthier than Colonel Hasan.

Rabab working as a teacher might seem indisputably modern. Women’s education became an issue for feminists in the 1920s, which helps a little. It is however Dr Rida, the Western-educated professional, who provides a link to the modern world.

Dr Rida is political. “Aren’t you still a radical Wafdist? You were thrown into prison once for the sake of the Wafd party!” [46.] Dr Rida could have been imprisoned any time after 1919.

Dr Rida is also an admirer of Umm Kalthoum. “Don’t you see anything in Egypt that deserves your admiration?” “Umm Kalthoum.” [46.] Umm Kalthoum became famous in the 1930s. That is about as precise as it gets.

I mentioned that The Mirage is a psychological novel. The psychological element embraces Kamil’s anxiety condition, which affects everything that he does. It also includes sexual splitting.

Sexual splitting, in essence, is the simultaneous idealisation and devaluation of the other: in Kamil’s case, women. Sexual splitting is one of Mahfouz’s great themes. Mahfouz sees sexual splitting as the fate of a man brought up in a culture in which women are secluded.

Their mothers invest too much emotion in them. The men idealise their mothers and their sisters. They are unable to have sexual relations with the women they are expected to marry, women of the same social class. They can only have sex with women, often prostitutes, for whom they have no respect.

I have argued elsewhere (Two Brothers http://ravensdaleandco.org/two-brothers) that sexual splitting is dramatised in Khan al-Khalili through the feelings and behaviour of the two brothers towards the same woman. The inhibited brother Ahmad fails in love. The irresponsible Rushdi falls in love. Since however splitting cannot result in a successful relationship Rushdi has to be disposed of. He dies of tuberculosis.

In Cairo Trilogy it does not even occur to the teenage Kamal al-Jawad that his love for his schoolmate’s sister Aïda could be requited. Kamal carries a torch for her for the whole of his adult life. He never marries, and has recourse to prostitutes. This is portrayed against a background of the very different sexual relations of Kamal’s father and brothers.

There are some signs of Kamil’s later sexual development in his early life. Kamil’s first sexual explorations occur not with a girl of his own class but with a servant whom his mother has hired as a companion for him. ‘Some time after this my mother brought us a young servant girl whom she allowed to play with me under her supervision’. [5.] What happens next is not unusual in a period when the middle classes can still afford to keep domestic servants. ‘The servant girl volunteered to reveal that which had so perplexed me and fired my imagination…. It wasn’t long before my mother caught us in the act.’ Kamil’s mother’s response is exactly calculated to instil anxiety and guilt. ‘…she spoke to me about the punishment such things call for in this world and the torments they merit in the next. [9.]

The next step in Kamil’s sexual development, in his teens, is completely normal. Only the language, perhaps, belongs to a particular time. ‘I discovered on my own… that fiendish boyish pastime.’ Kamil’s splitting, even in his masturbation fantasies, is already set. ‘The strange thing is that in its ardour, my imagination never went beyond the realm of the servant women in Manyal…. If I saw a bright, lovely face that emanated light and beauty, I would be filled with admiration, but my animal instincts would grow cold.’ This is reflected in his feelings. ‘…I felt increasingly timid, estranged, and fearful, especially towards women.’ [11.]

When Kamil sees Rabab he deliberately avoids using her as the object of masturbation fantasies. ‘I banished her from the realm of my vile habit.’ [16.] When they marry, Kamil is incapable of having sexual intercourse with her. For sexual feeling, he substitutes an inappropriate spirituality. ‘I was filled with a dazzling, spirited intoxication that was joyous and sublime.’ 40

Kamil becomes capable of having intercourse with Rabab under the influence of drink. ‘I took the tram to Ataba, and from there I made my way to Alfi Bey Street.’ Alfi Bey Street is the location of the pub Kamil resorts to. ‘What was happening between us was like a dream so blissful, so incredible, that even slumber yields only grudgingly. …I was certain that my worries were over forever.’ [47.]

Rabab however is already having an affair. The reader knows this. Kamil does not. Mahfouz is very fond of irony. ‘It seemed to me that Rabab wasn’t as happy with my recovery as I was…. She seemed to be afraid for the night to come….’ [48.]

It is hard on the heels of this rejection that Kamil encounters Inayat. Inayat is Rabab’s opposite, just as Rushdi in Khan al-Khalili is Ahmad’s opposite. She is coarse where Rabab is refined, forward where Rabab is modest, plain where Rabab is pretty. These qualities have a direct sexual effect on Kamil. ‘…I was fully aware of the sexual tension that was being aroused by the woman’s uncomely face and chubby legs.’ [51.]

Inayat gives Kamil a rendezvous. ‘“Wait for me at seven sharp this evening at the bridge at the end of the tram line.”’ [54.] She seduces him in her car. ‘I didn’t know where the confidence came from, but this woman was fully in charge of the situation, and in her I found the guide that I’d lacked all my life.’ [55.]

Kamil produces a poetic formula for his dilemma. ‘One of them was my spirit, and the other was my body, and my torment was that of someone who isn’t able to reconcile his body with his spirit.’ [56.]

The protagonist of The Mirage, Kamil Ru’ba Laz, is the narrator. The ‘point of view’, as the creative writing teachers call it, is consistently that of Kamil. No other characters are important.

Something similar is true of Cairo Modern. In that novel the point of view only moves to Ma’mun Radwan’s friends at the end, when Ma’mun has been disgraced.

The effect is similar. Ma’mun Radwan is a nihilist. He is completely obsessed with his own interests. Kamil is obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings. Both men, in different ways, are narcissistic.

The narcissism also serves to heighten the melodrama. It does so by creating opportunities for irony. Mahfouz often lets the reader know of impending doom before his protagonists are aware of it.

Mahfouz is somewhat coy about his first person narration. ‘I’m amazed at the fact I feel able to take up the pen. Writing is an art I have no experience with, either as a hobby or a profession.’ Yet Mahfouz’s narrator is not quite as naive as that. A few lines later he comes up with a rather sophisticated, if romantic, formulation: ‘Life has been lost, and the pen is the refuge of the lost.’  The narrator also acknowledges, in a way a naïf might not, the significance of the act of writing: ‘Perhaps my beginning write is a sign that I’ve given up the notion of suicide once and for all.’ [1.]

The narrator – I am somewhat cautious about assuming that the narrator is in fact Kamil, though this is what the reader is encouraged to assume – also attempts to justify the remarkable degree of candour that his account exhibits: ‘…I’m writing to myself, and myself alone.’ [1.]

Kamil’s education is a disaster, and as far as we know he never reads a book. Yet his voice is often sophisticated. ‘…I realised she was my delight and joy, that she was my spirit and my life, and that the world without the sight of her face wasn’t worth a pile of ashes.’ [16.] Neither Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern nor Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili would ever use a phrase like ‘the world … wasn’t worth a pile of ashes.’

The language of the narrative is more literary than Kamil, realistically, could ever manage. There is also a remarkable degree of self-awareness. ‘…herein lies the secret of this regrettable malady of mine.’ [4.]

The first-person narrative is a device. Mahfouz exploits it to the full. The world of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of the narrator. In Cairo Modern and Khan al-Khalili, through the use of free indirect speech, we get a very full account of the protagonist’s subjectivity.

Mahfouz uses first-person narrative in other novels. In Karnak Café (1974) and Heart of the Night (1975) the narrator is an interlocutor. In The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983) the narrator is very much the protagonist.

Mahfouz is perfectly capable of giving an account of subjectivity without using a first person narrative at all.  He does so with the character of Kamal in the Cairo Trilogy.

The primacy of subjective experience is one of Mahfouz’s great themes. To that extent Mahfouz, the arch-realist of the novel in Arabic, was also a romantic.

The Mirage is technically highly competent. Mahfouz is completely in control of the requirements of melodrama, and the tone of the novel is completely consistent. Mahfouz touches on a theme which will become important later, the relations between the declining aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie. Mahfouz also further explores his great theme of sexual splitting, perhaps his most important contribution to the understanding of a culture in which women are segregated.

The limitation of the melodrama is quite simply that it is a melodrama. Finally we don’t believe in the people. And we don’t really care.

 

Bibliographical note

Le Gassick, Trevor (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Naguib Mahfouz, 1991

Photo credit: lunaman on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Glorious past

Midaq Alley

Naguib Mahfouz, 1947

 

Midaq Alley, like Cairo Modern (1945) and The Beginning and the End (1950) is about poverty. What is perhaps surprising to readers who are familiar with the reputation that Mahfouz gained based on his later novels, is that the treatment of poor people is disdainful. Midaq Alley is a form of satire. The butt of the satire, which is very unlike Mahfouz’s later work, is the poor.

Most of the inhabitants of the alley know little about the world beyond it. Even Salim Alwan, the prosperous merchant, is quite simple. ‘The trouble was that Salim Alwan scarcely understood anything apart from the world of commerce, and his opinions and beliefs were hardly above those of Abbas, the barber, for example.’ [Chapter 8.] In his remark about ‘Abbas the barber’ Mahfouz is making assumptions about social superiority, education and an understanding of the world which are condescending to a degree.

Most of the inhabitants of the alley are fatalistic about their situation. Uncle Kamil, the sweet seller, is so poor he cannot even afford a shroud. His friend Abbas, the barber, pretends he has bought him one and teases him. ‘”So I have bought him a nice shroud as a precaution and put it away in a safe place until the inevitable time comes.”’ Kamil does not realise he is being teased. ‘”Is it true what you said, Abbas?”’ Kamil is ridiculous. [1.]

A few of the inhabitants are greedy. Mrs Saniya Afify, the landlady of one of the alley’s two three-storey houses, is notoriously mean. ‘Like all her tenants, Dr Booshy disliked Mrs Saniya Afify and never missed a chance to criticise her miserliness.’ [21.]

Some of the greedy, particularly Hamida – the bad-tempered beauty of the alley – and Hussain Kirsha, the son of the café owner, are aggressive. Hamida is notoriously quarrelsome. ‘Her temper had always… been something no-one could ignore.’ [3.] Hussain’s aggression finds an outlet through ambition. ‘[Hussain] was known for his energy, intelligence and courage, and he could be most aggressive at times.’ [4.]

Hamida and Hussain are in effect foster siblings. Hamida is an orphan. Her adoptive mother, Umm Hamida, had her nursed by Mrs Kirsha, the café owner’s wife.

Hamida and Hussein both despise their origins. Hamida engages in sarcastic soliloquy. ‘“Hello, street of bliss! Long life to you and all your fine inhabitants…. Oh, what a pity, Hamida, what a shame and a waste.’” [3.] Hussain is desperate to leave. ‘Finally [Hussain] decided to alter his life no matter how much it cost him…. “I must get away from this alley….All my friends live in the modern way. They have become ‘gentlemen’, as they say in English.”’ [14.]

Hussein rebels against poverty by working for the British Army. He loves the lifestyle his wages give him. ‘… [Hussain] went to work in a British Army camp. His daily wages were now thirty piasters…. He bought new clothes, frequented restaurants, and delighted in eating meat…. He attended cinemas and cabarets and found pleasure in wine and the company of women.’ [4.]

There is no hint of nationalistic sentiment, on the part of any of the alley’s inhabitants, about Hussain’s employers. The British occupation is something they just seem to accept.

Curiously, Hussein’s mentor – the man who lets him into the black market – is called ‘Corporal Julian’. This is the name of the English soldier in Palace Walk, the first novel in The Cairo Trilogy, who makes a pet of Kamal. It is also Julian with whom Maryam flirts. Maryam is the woman Kamal’s elder brother Fahmy, the martyr of the rebellion of 1919, is in love with and wishes to marry. In The Cairo Trilogy, unlike Midaq Alley, nationalism is a fundamental part of the dynamic of the narrative.

Hussein’s friend Abbas, the barber, is diametrically opposite to him as a character. Mahfouz had a tendency to construct his novels on the basis of pairs of opposite characters at that time. The brothers Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili and Rushdi, his younger brother, are opposites in a similar way. In Cairo Modern, Ma’mun Radwan the Islamist and Ali Taha the secularist, both foils for Mahgub Abd al-Da’im, are also opposites.

Abbas is passive. ‘Abbas was gentle, good-natured, and inclined to peace…. Abbas had a lazy dislike for change….’  Abbas only takes action when Hussain prompts him. ‘Hussain peered at himself carefully in the mirror…. “Women are an extensive study and one doesn’t succeed with wavy hair alone.” “I’m just a poor ignorant fellow,” laughed Abbas in reply…. “And Hamida?…Shake off this miserable life, close up your shop, leave this filthy alley behind…. Work for the British Army.”’ [4.]

Abbas would neither have become engaged to Hamida or left the alley to work in Tel el-Kebir if it was not for Hussein’s goading. It is of course being engaged to Hamida, and being absent from the alley while working for the British, that lead ultimately to Abbas’s violent death at the hands of the soldiers. [34.] It is difficult not to feel that Abbas is not just quiet and simple. He is also a bit of a fool. Mahfouz does not respect him.

At the time Abbas takes his fateful decisions, and makes the decisive steps, there is no hint of the final outcome. In a realistic novel, this would be a flaw. Mahfouz wishes to retain an element of surprise for his ending. This desire onthe author’s part overrides the need to anticipate events. This over-emphasis on surprise is, I think, very typical of melodrama.

Fatalism and aggression are responses to poverty in Midaq Alley. Fraud is another. Fraud, in Midaq Alley, is rather common.

The nearest the alley has to a professional man, the dentist Dr Booshy, is an impostor. Dr Booshy has no training. ‘Dr Booshy began his professional life as assistant to a dentist in the Gamaliya district…. He charged one piaster for the poor and two for the rich…. He was, perhaps, the very first doctor to receive his title from his patients.’ [1.]

Dr Booshy’s partner in crime, Zaita, represents the ultimate degradation of poverty. He is simply disgusting. He rents ‘…a grimy little outbuilding smelling of dirt and filth….’ from the bakeress Husniya. [7.]

Zaita has an unusual occupation. ‘It was his profession to create cripples….’ [7.] There is apparently a great deal of faking in this. “Do you know that making a person appear crippled is a thousand times more difficult than really crippling him?” [16.] This is another version of fraud.

I am prepared to believe that there were at some period people in Cairo whose business it was to create cripples. I am even prepared to believe it was still happening at the time about which Mahfouz writes. I feel however that the portrayal of Zaita owes more to light literature than to any observation of life.

Radwan Hussainy, despite appearances, is also a fraud. ‘Radwan Hussainy was a man of impressive appearance….’ [1.] ‘All agreed [Radwan Hussainy] was truly a saintly man of God.’ [11.] Hussainy is not however qualified as a cleric or a jurist. ‘He had spent a considerable portion of his life within [al-Azhar’s] cloisters and yet had not succeeded in obtaining a degree.’ [1.]

The inhabitants of the alley turn to Hussainy as they might to a qualified man of religion. His interventions fail. Mrs Kirsha seeks Hussainy’s help in persuading her husband to give up the boy with whom he is having a homosexual relationship. ‘“For the last time I am asking you to leave him or let me get rid of him in peace….”’ Kirsha refuses. ‘”All men do many things that are dirty and this is one of them….. What can a man do to control himself?”’ [11.]

Umm Hamida seeks Hussainy’s approval when Hamida wants to break her engagement to Abbas and marry Salim Alwan, the businessman. ‘Umm’ is an honorific, meaning ‘mother of…’. Umm Hamida is not Hamida’s mother. She is her foster mother. Umm Hamida is also a fraud.

Hussainy does not approve. ‘“[Radwan Hussainy] would not agree at all.”’ [18.] Hamida and her mother ignore him. ‘“And the recitation of the Qur’an?” “…I don’t give a damn!”’ [18.]

Hussainy’s ambiguous status and his ineffectuality appear to give his pronouncements an ironic quality. ‘[Radwan Hussainy] then generously placed some coins in [the poet’s] hand and whispered in his ear, “We are all sons of Adam. If poverty descends on you then seek help from your brother. Man’s provider is God and it is to God that any excess is due.”’ [1]

Mahfouz’s irony will no doubt amuse the secular. He is however playing a dangerous game. He has already been in minor trouble with the religious authorities over the scandalous content of Cairo Modern. [Mehrez, 1993.]

Sheikh Darwish has seen better days. ‘In his youth, Sheikh Darwish had been a teacher in one of the religious foundation schools. He had, moreover, been a teacher of the English language….. When the religious foundation schools merged with the Ministry of Education… he became a clerk in the Ministry of Religious Endowments and went down from sixth to eighth grade…. he began a constant rebellion…. He deserted his family, friends and acquaintances and wandered off into the world of God….’ [1.]

Sheikh Darwish is harmless. He is also absurd. He is given to making pronouncements. They are vacuous in content and portentous in form. ‘”The poet has gone and the radio has come. This is the way of God in His creation. Long ago it was told in tarikh, which in English means ‘history’ and is spelt h-i-s-t-o-r-y.”’ [1.]

The ladies of the Alley are often described as behaving aggressively. It is a lack of feminine refinement that betrays their inferior status.

We have already mentioned Hamida’s verbal aggression. Mrs Kirsha, in a splendidly lurid scene, is physically aggressive. She mounts a public attack on her husband’s paramour in the café. ‘[Mrs Kirsha] fell upon the boy, punching and slapping him forcefully.’ [12.]

The ‘bakeress’ Husniya – as the translator calls her – does not need a special occasion. She beats her husband regularly. Zaita spies on them. ‘He… would sit cross-legged, eating or smoking or amusing himself by spying on the baker and his wife…. watching [Husniya] beating her husband, morning and night.’ [7.] Zaita is disgusting. This makes his voyeurism particularly offensive.

Midaq Alley is also about prostitution. Hamida, the central figure, becomes a prostitute. The steps by which Hamida evolves from a poor girl in an alley to a successful prostitute constitute the main story of the novel.

Prostitution is seen, although not entirely, as a response to poverty. Hamida is presented, when we first meet her in the novel, simultaneously in terms of her beauty and the degrading effects of poverty. ‘…Hamida came in combing her black hair, which gave off a strong smell of kerosene…. Her mother gazed at her dark and shining hair…. “What a pity! Imagine letting lice live in that hair!” [3.] The contrast between beautiful hair and the infestation of lice would, I imagine, have been rather shocking for some of Mahfouz’s middle class readers.

Hamida is very conscious of her poverty. This is very often expressed by an embarrassment about her shabby clothes. ‘She was well aware of her attire; a faded cotton dress, an old cloak and shoes with timeworn soles.’ [5.]

Hamida is vividly conscious of the limitations of the life that the alley offers her. ‘…she asked herself what her life would be like under [Abbas’s] protection…. He was poor…. She would only have sweeping, cooking, washing, and feeding children to look forward to.’ [10.]

Hamida has an intense desire for finery. ‘”What’s the point of living if one can’t have new clothes?” [3.] She is intensely interested in the clothes that the factory girls can afford, and very critical. ‘This girl’s frock, for instance, was too short and immodest, while that one’s was simply in bad taste.’ [5.]

Hamida’s choice of occupation, however, is not simply determined by poverty. Mahfouz makes clear that it is also her character. Hamida lacks many if not most of the traditional virtues of femininity as they are understood in Muslim culture.

Hamida behaves seductively. ‘Nevertheless, she draped her cloak in such a way that it emphasised her ample hips and her full and rounded breasts. The cloak revealed her trim ankles, on which she wore a bangle….’ [5.] Hamida lacks modesty.

Hamida picks quarrels. ‘She was constantly beset by a desire to fight and conquer.’ [5.] Hamida is domineering rather than traditionally submissive.

Hamida’s desire to dominate is strongly associated with a desire for money. ‘Anyone could have told her that her yearning for power centred on her love for money…. she dreamed constantly of wealth…. [5.] Hamida is ambitious.

Hamida is rejected by other women. They see through her. ‘…all [the women of the alley] hated her and said unkind things about her.’ [5.]

In particular the other women notice what is to them a fundamentally unfeminine trait. ‘Perhaps the most commonly said thing about her was that she hated children and that this unnatural trait made her wild and totally lacking in the virtues of femininity.’ [5.] Hamida is not motherly.

Seductive, vain, domineering, ambitious, lacking in maternal instinct; it is a caricature. The highly traditional view of women that is implied by this particular portrayal may not represent Mahfouz’s general view. Nevertheless it is how he chooses to portray the protagonist of this novel.

Mahfouz only shows sympathy for the character he has created when he portrays her behaving, atypically perhaps, in a traditionally feminine way. There is an example when she becomes engaged to Abbas Hilu. ‘For this one brief period in her life, she brimmed with emotion and affection, feeling that her life was forever bound to his.’ [14.]

Hamida’s chosen occupation, prostitution, is something that interests Mahfouz a great deal. Prostitution, in the exact sense, also occurs in The Beginning and the End (1950). The portrayal of prostitution in The Beginning and the End is socially and psychologically more nuanced, and to that extent more sympathetic. Prostitution in The Beginning and the End is however strongly stigmatised.

Nefisa in The Beginning and the End is not pretty. The death of the father of the family – with which the action begins – reduces the family to poverty. They cannot afford a dowry. Nefisa is ‘a girl of twenty-three, without beauty, money or father.’ [The Beginning and the End, 4.] Her chances of marriage are slim.

Nefisa, as a girl, is less important than the boys. They are introduced and named in the first chapter, as they should be in a good story. Nefisa does not occur until the second chapter. In that chapter she is identified only as the sister. She is not dignified with a name until the fourth.

Nefisa’s family are in constant need of money. Nefisa, as an unmarried adult woman, has unmet sexual needs. A young man takes advantage. ‘She was quivering, trying in vain to collect her scattered thoughts as he covered her arm with kisses from his coarse lips.’ [The Beginning and the End, 27.]

This is more realistic than the stories of Ihsan and Hamida. It is not judgemental. The resolution of the story is however quite difficult.

Nefisa at the end of the novel is arrested in a house of assignation. Her brother Hassanein, who has managed despite the family poverty to become an army officer, is summoned. The police officer makes it clear he expects Hassanein to carry out an ‘honour killing’. ‘I’ve done my duty. The rest is up to you.’ [The Beginning and the End, 89.] Nefisa then drowns herself in the Nile.

Nefisa sees herself as culpable. ‘”I’m a criminal, I know. I won’t ask for forgiveness. I don’t deserve it.”’ Hassanein is absurdly judgmental. ‘”You filthy prostitute! You’ve already done me incalculable harm!”’ Nefisa’s fate is seen as a tragedy. ‘Life was worthless; death would rescue her from its painful humiliation.’ Yet Nefisa’s death provides a resolution. [The Beginning and the End, 90.]

Mahfouz is not quite comfortable with this. Hassanein also commits suicide. This however is melodrama.

The double suicide means that the novel, in effect, is about Nefisa and Hassanein. This only underlines the structural flaw I pointed out earlier. Nefisa, as well as Hassanein, should have been mentioned in the first chapter; and she should have been named.

The portrayal of the position of women in a conservative society seems however accurate, if not typical. I would have also preferred a stronger comment on the values of that society.

In Cairo Modern the version of adultery portrayed is very cynical. Ihsan is not technically a prostitute. She is unchaste. In a conservative society, women who are seen as unchaste are readily characterised as prostitutes. This applies whether or not they are promiscuous, and whether or not there is a direct commercial transaction involved.

In nineteenth-century British English, the word ‘whore’ was often used in the same way. It could simply mean ‘sexually available’. This was a male point of view.

Mahgub, Ihsan’s husband, certainly sees himself as a pimp. [Cairo Modern, 29.] Before he marries Ihsan Mahgub has rather sordid relations with a prostitute. ‘His girlfriend was by profession a cigarette butt collector…. One evening… he spotted her behind a fig tree with a doorman…. …he accosted her with his normal audacity and… said with a smile, “I saw everything….””What do you want?” “….The same.” “….Three piasters!” [Cairo Modern, 5.]

In Khan al-Khalili Rushdi, the younger brother, is said to engage in illicit sex. There is also one scene in which Ahmad Akif visits the hashish den, which is also where Aliyat al-Faiza, the local prostitute – ‘…whom they all called “husband lover”….’ – works. [Khan al-Khalili, 32.] In The Mirage, there is seduction and adultery.

Mahfouz in his later novels is clearly interested in sex and relationships. There is no reason to suppose there is not also a serious interest in the adultery, prostitution, seduction, and illicit sex that are portrayed in these early novels. Mahfouz, a writer working in a conservative society, is I think amongst other things claiming an essential freedom of the novelist to write on sexual subjects.

There is also, however, a certain sensationalism; a desire to shock and titillate, and attract readers. In the later, more serious novels, the element of sensationalism may be judged to persist. This would be problematic.

In Midaq Alley, Mahfouz develops the attempt to portray the life of one of Cairo’s old quarters that we first saw in Khan al-Khalili. In Khan al-Khalili a few scattered locations – the family flat, the Zahra Café, the hashish den, the family tomb – stand in for the quarter as a whole. In Midaq Alley, the physical location is more integrated. The alley, I think, stands in for the larger quarter. The physical location is important. We are introduced to the buildings before we meet the people.

The alley ‘…was enclosed like a trap between three walls…. One of its sides consisted of a shop, a café, and a bakery, the other of a shop and an office. It ends abruptly, just as its ancient glory did, with two adjoining houses, each of three stories…. Two shops …that of Uncle Kamil, the sweets seller …and the barbershop …remain open till shortly after sunset.’ [1.] The alley is not just a community, though it is also that. It is physically very real.

The importance of the alley in Midaq Alley anticipates, or is possibly even a rough sketch for, the alley in Children of the Alley (1959). The alley in Children of the Alley stands for Cairo, Egypt and finally the Middle East.

There are even verbal echoes. Umm Hamida proclaims to her daughter that: ‘“The people who live [in the alley] are the best in the world!”’ [3.] The alley is so small that it is strange to hear Umm Hamida talk like that.

In Children of the Alley, when Shafi’i and Abda return from exile in Muqattam Marketplace, Abda similarly says: ‘Your people are here, the best people in the alley.’ [Children of the Alley, 45.]  Their son, Rifaa, comes to reject this attitude. ‘”The Al Gabal are not the best people in the alley. The best people are the kindest ones.”’ [Children of the Alley, 54.]

In Midaq Alley Mahfouz develops the device of the café. Mahfouz was himself a notorious frequenter of cafés, and two of his novels – Karnak Café (1974), and The Coffeehouse (1988), his last novel, are set almost entirely in cafés.

In Khan al-Khalili the café is simply a place where a group of friends meet. Their conversations and their characters give an impression of the poor, socially conservative quarter where they live. In Midaq Alley, the lives of some of the café denizens are more developed. We learn something about them.

The social interest of Midaq Alley comes from the – admittedly rather lurid -presentation of poverty in a conservative quarter. The melodrama is provided by the relationship between Hamida and Abbas Hilu, the barber. While Abbas is absent, working in Tel el-Kebir for the British Army, Hamida is lured into prostitution. Abbas is provoked into unaccustomed rage by seeing her in the company of admiring British soldiers in a tavern. Abbas attacks Hamida, and the soldiers kick Abbas to death. Hussein, outside the tavern, can do nothing. [34.]

In Cairo Modern and Khan al-Khalili the plotting is very tight. Little happens that does not advance the story towards the eventual outcome. In Midaq Alley, by contrast, there are several stories which do not advance the plot at all. They would be independent stories if it was not for the personal connections of the characters with other characters in the novel.

Interestingly, these separate stories are not resolved. There are not in the precise sense sub-plots, since they do not have conclusions. By definition, a story without a conclusion cannot be a plot. These stories are in effect vignettes. They serve to enrich the picture of the popular quarter. Mahfouz is moving away from the novel of character, and towards a form of social realism. He is not there yet.

The vignettes also create a commentary on the main action. The theme of each vignette parallels an element in the main story of Hamida and Abbas. This use of a subsidiary story to make a comment is a technique that Mahfouz develops strongly in The Cairo Trilogy.

The stories are those of Mrs Saniya Afify, one of the property owners; Umm Hamida, Hamida’s adoptive mother; Hussain Kirsha, the café owner’s son and the friend of Abbas the barber; Mr Kirsha, the café owner; Dr Booshy, the fake dentist and Zaita the cripple maker (theirs is one story); and Salim Alwan, the prosperous merchant. Radwan Hussainy is also the subject of a vignette, though it is so slight it is hardly a story. I present them more or less in order of appearance of the characters in the novel.

Mrs Saniya Afify is fifty years old. She is apparently a divorcée, and has never remarried. ‘“No more of the bitterness of marriage for me!” In her youth, Mrs Afify had married the owner of a perfume shop. Her husband treated her badly….’ [2.]

When we meet Mrs Afify, she is in front of her mirror. ‘She gazed into the mirror with… eyes gleaming with delight.’ [2.] Mrs Afify, like the much younger and genuinely beautiful Hamida, is vain.

Mrs Afify, at the age of fifty, has decided to get married. She has engaged the services of Umm Hamida, the matchmaker. ‘“You are going to get married in accordance with God’s law and the practice of the Prophet.”’ Mrs Afify is ridiculous. This is part of the satire. Mrs Afify’s idea of what constitutes a distinguished husband is also ridiculous. ‘“A civil servant…. In the government!” “He wears jacket, trousers, a tarboosh, and shoes! …He sits at a big desk piled almost to the roof with folders and papers…. His salary is not a penny less than ten pounds.”’ [2.]

Mrs Afify’s vanity extends to a concern for the appearance of her teeth. She engages the services of the fraudulent Dr Booshy. ‘“Well now, the best thing is for you to have a new set.”“It must be done in a month.”“I could make you a gold plate. It could be put in immediately after the extraction.”….everyone in the alley knew that Dr Booshy’s fees were reasonable and that he somehow got plates that he sold at ridiculously low prices.’ [21.] As we shall see later, the decision to go for gold enables the introduction of what is perhaps the most melodramatic element of the novel.

We learn the bare fact that Mrs Afify does in fact get married. Mrs Afify’s husband is there when she learns the truth about her new dentures. ‘Her new husband was in the bathtub, and when he heard her screams, panic struck him. Throwing a robe over his wet body, he rushed wildly to her rescue.’ [27.] We learn nothing more about Mrs Afify’s husband, or her subsequent matrimonial life.

Umm Hamida is also one of the greedy ones. ‘”Oh no you don’t, my woman. You will have to reward me well enough with money and a great deal of it. We will go to the savings bank together, and you won’t be stingy.”’ [2.] Umm Hamida is also greedy when there is a possibility of Hamida breaking her engagement with Abbas Hilu the barber in favour of Salim Alwan the merchant. [Umm Hamida] was aware that half the money this anticipated marriage would bring [Hamida] would go to her, and that she would be amply rewarded for each blessing that fell on the girl.’ [18.]

Umm Hamida’s activities parallel those of Ibrahim Faraj. Umm Hamida, in effect, is a pimp.

Hussain Kirsha is irresponsible. He thinks the war, and consequently his employment with the British, will last forever. “How can the war end so quickly?” [30.] He has not saved. He returns to his family with a wife and no money. ‘”You lived like a king with electricity, water and entertainment and now you’re back a beggar, just as you were when you left.”’ [25.] Hussain is not ready for the responsibilities of a family. “Worst of all, my wife vomited last week….” [30.] We are not told how things work out for Hussain Kirsha and his wife.

Hussain Kirsha encourages his friend Abbas Hilu to drink alcohol. “How on earth can you live among the British and not drink?” In the same way he encouraged him to work at Tel el-Kebir.

Hamida is also irresponsible. She enters into her engagement with Abbas just as casually as she throws him over. Between them, they are responsible for his death.

Abbas Hilu is naive and gullible. He is not a tragic hero. Midaq Alley is not a tragedy. It has most of the hallmarks of melodrama.

Mr Kirsha, the café owner, is a married man and the father of a family. It is also notorious in the alley that he pursues homosexual relations with young men. There is a more nuanced and in some ways sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality in The Cairo Trilogy. The portrait of homosexuality in Midaq Alley is prejudiced and conventional. ‘Now his heart beat faster still…. a faint glint of evil seemed to issue from his dim eyes.’ [6.] ‘Was it the same old reason? That filthy disease? “Men like you really deserve to be punished.”’ [9.]

Mahfouz gets away with his scandalous material by introducing conventional judgements that serve, I would imagine, to placate conservative opinion.

The vignette involving Mr Kirsha is about seduction. ‘Leaning against one of the shop’s shelves…. was a youthful-looking lad…. “Why don’t you honour our café?” [6.] It is another parallel to the activities of Ibrahim Faraj, the pimp.

We don’t find out what happens to the lad. The story is not resolved.

Booshy and Zaita rob graves. Booshy’s fraud is based on criminality of a frankly outrageous kind. This is where he finds the gold for the cheap dentures.

Booshy and Zaita are quite organised. ‘“Won’t you lose your way in the dark?” ”Oh, no. I followed the burial procession and took particular note of the way. In any case, we both know the road well, we’ve often been on it in pitch dark.” “And your tools?” “They’re in a safe space in front of the mosque.”’ [27.]

They have been doing this for a while. “The days are over when people left the jewellery of their dead in the graves.” “Those were the days!” sighed Dr Booshy. [27.]

Booshy and Zaita are caught. ‘A loud voice shouted out in an Upper Egyptian accent, “Up you come, or I’ll fire on you.” [27.] There is no indication why, on this occasion rather than all the others, Booshy and Zaita are arrested. This is pure coincidence.

We learn nothing else. We do not learn if Booshy and Zaita are put on trial or what the outcome is. We do not learn if they return to the alley.

I do not find the idea of graves being robbed impossibly difficult. The idea that gold from graves is used to make cheap dentures is not completely impossible. It stretches credibility a little. The internal parallel is, I think, with the outrageousness of the school for prostitutes that Ibrahim Faraj, the pimp, is said to run. This is another element of Midaq Alley that belongs more to light literature than to life.

Grave robbing was of course industrial under the pharaohs, and the pharaonic period is something that Mahfouz is very interested in. He constantly refers to Egypt’s Pharaonic past, and wrote about it several times: in Khufu’s Wisdom, (1939), Rhadopis of Nubia (1943), Thebes at War (1944), Before the Throne (1983) and Akhnaten: Dweller in Truth (1985). There are Pharaonic allusions in Children of the Alley, The Search (1964) and – very strongly – in The Harafish (1977).

When Arafa and his brother Hanash dig under the wall of the mansion, they identify themselves symbolically as tomb robbers. The mansion becomes a pyramid and Gabalawi becomes a pharaoh. [Children of the Alley, 93.] Grave robbing in Midaq Alley is crude and sensational. In Children of the Alley it is subtle and significant. Twelve years makes a great deal of difference.

Salim Alwan is making money on the black market. ‘This second war had so far been even more lucrative for his business….’ [8.] As a prosperous merchant Salim Alwan is in many ways, perhaps rather extraordinarily, a sketch for Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy. Salim Alwan even dresses in the same, traditional style: ‘[Salim Alwan] …struts off, dressed in his flowing robe and cloak…. [1.]

Like Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, Salim Alwan is ambitious for his sons. One is a judge. Like Mrs Saniya Afify, Salim Alwan is greedy and mean. ‘He had heard of rich merchants who had ended up penniless or worse, had committed suicide or died of grief.’ [8.]

Like Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, Salim Alwan is over-sexed. ‘…he indulged his marital pleasures in a most immoderate fashion.’ Like Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, Salim Alwan becomes obsessed with a younger woman and thinks of marrying her. ‘[Salim Alwan] quite frankly desired [Hamida’s] pretty face, that body of sensuality and those beautiful buttocks…. But how could Hamida become a fellow wife of his present wife, Mrs Alwan?’ [8.]

Like Abbas Hilu, Salim Alwan wants to possess Hamida. Like Abbas Hilu, he fails. ‘Hamida’s disappearance had been a shattering blow to Salim Alwan…. When the gossip reached him about her having run off with an unknown man, he was extremely upset…. His heart burst with resentment and revenge towards the fickle girl.” [29.] Salim Alwan’s money makes no difference. Hamida has her own destiny.

Towards the end of Midaq Alley Radwan Hussainy makes the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. ‘Hussainy had hoped God would choose him to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina this year and so he had.’ [33.] This confirms his image in the novel as a man of God. It has no relevance whatsoever to anything else that happens in the novel and has no effect on the action. I can only think that the pilgrimage, like most other things Radwan Hussainy says and does, are there to placate conservative opinion. Like the conventional judgements of homosexuality and prostitution, they enable Mahfouz to get away with what is in fact rather a sensational and quite salacious novel.

There is an episode in Midaq Alley which is even more curious than the episode of Radwan Hussainy’s hajj, and that is the episode of the election party. ‘One morning Midaq Alley awoke in a tumult of great noise and confusion. Men were setting up a pavilion in a vacant lot in Sanadiqiya Street…. “…it’s for an election campaign party!” ‘Mahfouz uses it to introduce Ibrahim Faraj, who watches Hamida watching the fun. ‘When Hamida returned from her afternoon stroll she found the party in full swing. …she moved her head until her eyes met those of a man staring at her with insolent intensity.’ [19.] As such it is a clumsy device. The election doesn’t even work as a justification for Faraj being in the alley. It is true that Faraj is a stranger. ‘His tidy appearance and European dress made him seem oddly out of place in the crowd’. We are not however told that Faraj has any interest in politics.

The description of the candidate suggests a potential for violence. ‘…Ibrahim Farhat …was surrounded by his retinue… most of whom appeared to be weightlifters from the local sports club.’ Corruption is made explicit. ‘Farhat had offered [Kirsha] fifteen pounds for his support.’ The candidate’s whole approach is venal. ‘“And don’t forget there will be rewards for all, if I win…. And before the results are out, too.”’

Introducing Kirsha links the description of the election to the main narrative. It involves giving Kirsha a biography. ‘[Kirsha] had taken an active part in the rebellion of 1919 and was reputed to have planned the great fire which destroyed the Jewish Cigarette Trading Co in Hussain Square.’ After the revolution ‘…he had found a new …outlet for his energies in the subsequent election battles.’ This of course is not only irrelevant to Kirsha’s behaviour in the novel. It completely contradicts his character as it has been described, and Mahfouz knows it. ‘All the spirit of the old revolutionary was gone….’ [19.]

Mahfouz is not writing about politics in Midaq Alley because it is relevant to the novel. It is not. He is writing about politics because he is interested in politics. Politics is to be one of the great themes of his work.

In The Cairo Trilogy, nationalist politics drive much of the action. The treatment is nuanced and sophisticated. By the end of the novel we have been introduced, via the medium of Kamal al-Jawad’s nephews, Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad, to Islamism and Marxism as well.

Politics in Midaq Alley is described as violent and venal. The treatment is superficial. As in the portrait of Salim Alwan, Mahfouz is making a very rough preliminary sketch. It will be developed later.

Hamida’s character does not change. Her experience does not touch her. It is only her situation that changes. This is one of the characteristics that makes Midaq Alley a melodrama rather than a work of realism.

The change in Hamida’s situation is shown through her relations with three different men: Abbas Hilu the barber, Salim Alwan the merchant and Ibrahim Faraj the pimp. Hamida moves from a young man who is poor but presentable to a rich, middle-aged man who is already married and from there to a pimp.

Prostitution is presented as her destiny. ‘The truth was that without realising it she had chosen her path…. She asked herself what people would be saying about her on the street the next day…. “A whore!”’ [24.] Faraj also recognises this. ‘“She’s a whore by instinct.”’ [23.]

Hamida’s progression from man to man curiously parallels Nawal’s progression from brother to brother in Khan al-Khalili. In both cases the relationships with different men serve to portray the personality of the young woman fully.

Nawal is a teenage girl from a conservative family. She values marriage. ‘For her, life was entirely focused on a single goal: heart, home and marriage.’ [21.] She does not value education. ‘”Haven’t you thought about what you want to do at university yet?” …this young man was trying to mould her into the kind of woman that he wanted her to be….’ [21.]

Despite the restrictions placed on her Nawal is able to engage in courtship and the search for a mate. Ahmad Akif is inhibited. Ahmad spots Nawal on the balcony from his window. ‘He left the window, went over to the other one that looked out on the old part of Khan al-Khalili, opened it, and leaned on the sill…. A young girl was sitting [on his neighbour’s balcony] embroidering a shawl.’ [10.]

Ahmad can’t deal with it. ‘At that fleeting moment, when their eyes met, his emotions overcame him and he blushed deep red in sheer embarrassment. He did not know how to behave or what was the best way to get out of his predicament.’ [10.] Nawal nevertheless continues to encourage him. ‘…when she reached [the shelter door], she turned and gave him a very meaningful look.’ [14.]

Rushdi is much bolder. ‘”How can this boy be so brazen?”’ [21.] That enables Nawal to respond. Even though Rushdi is obviously ill, ‘…[Nawal] encouraged him to resume their walk together since she was keen for them to be alone together.’ [37.]

Through her relations with the brother’s we see that Nawal’s freedom of action is limited by her conservative environment and the personality of the two brothers. Within those limits, Nawal – a very ordinary girl – finds some space for agency. It is rather a charming portrait.

The portrait of Hamida is not charming at all. She is greedy and domineering.

Hamida is aware that Abbas Hilu cannot give her what she wants. ‘…she was aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions….’ Nevertheless she allows herself to be seduced. ‘“Let’s turn off into Azhar Street. It’s quieter there….” She turned off toward Azhar Street without a word.’ Rather passively, she becomes engaged. ‘“We have reached an agreement, Hamida, and the matter is decided.”‘ [10.]

Hamida has no qualms in abandoning Abbas Hilu for Salim Alwan. He is a better bet. ‘This at last was the man who could give her all the luxury and freedom from drudgery she longed for.’ Yet as soon as Salim Alwan is introduced into Hamida’s life as a prospective fiancé he is removed by a heart attack. ‘The next morning Umm Hamida cheerfully set out for Alwan’s office to read the Qur’an and to confirm the engagement…. Salim Alwan had suffered a heart attack.’ [18.] Hamida and Salim Alwan do not in fact become engaged, and – as with other vignettes in Midaq Alley – there is no outcome. Salim Alwan exists in the novel simply to demonstrate that Hamida is faithless and mercenary.

In a similar way, Ibrahim Faraj exists solely to introduce Hamida to prostitution. He has no other existence. We learn nothing else about him. In the last few chapters, when Hamida has found her calling, he disappears. This is typical of melodrama.

With Faraj, Hamida behaves seductively and shows some passion. In a behaviour that is classic for forward young women in the novels of Mahfouz, Hamida flirts with Faraj through the window. ‘She hesitated and then, turning the catch, she opened up the window a bit, carefully standing behind it as though watching the celebration in progress.’ [19.] Faraj can inspire her to real feeling. ‘She clung to him, her head raised toward his face, her mouth open and trembling with passion….’ [26.]

Faraj seduces her. ‘He walked behind her and, with indescribable boldness, stretched out his arm and gripped her hand…. “Good evening, my darling.”’ He pays her compliments. ‘“Why, you are as beautiful as the stars…. don’t you go to the cinema? They call beautiful film actresses stars.”’ What really charms Hamida, however, is wealth. ‘In her whole life she had only ridden in a horse-drawn carriage and the magic of the word “taxi” took time to die away.’ [23.]

Hamida rapidly realises that Faraj is not a lover. ‘“You are trying to corrupt me! What an evil, wicked seducer you are! …You are not a man; you are a pimp!” [23.] Faraj denies he is a pimp. This is where Mahfouz introduces an element of the novel that is so sensational that it is frankly absurd. ‘“Your lover is the headmaster of a school, and you will learn everything when the time comes.”’ [24.]

The school for prostitutes is not in fact complicated. There are only three departments’. ‘“This is the first class in the school… The department of Oriental dancing.”’ Then there is: ‘“The department of Western dancing.”’ And finally: ‘“This department teaches the principles of the English language…!”’ The English language is apparently best learned while the young ladies are naked. [26.]

I can believe that there have been people at various historical epochs who have undertaken to teach young ladies the accomplishments they need in order to do better in their chosen profession. This however is absurd. I am afraid I think, just as with Zaita and Booshy stealing gold teeth from graves, that this belongs more to light literature than life.

Hamida already realises that Faraj is a pimp. Now she realises he is grooming her. ‘“Do you think I am going to do the same as they?’” She also realises just how cynical he is. ‘“American officers will gladly pay fifty pounds for virgins.”’ She is still resisting. ‘…she slapped his face with such force that the blow cracked through the room.’ It is almost as if this is what Faraj was waiting for. ‘…he struck her right cheek as hard as he could. Then he slapped her right cheek just as violently.’ [26.]Faraj gives Hamida something that neither Abbas Hilu nor Salim Alwan does. He gives her the opportunity for a dominance struggle.

Abbas comes back from Tel el-Kebir in western clothes. ‘Abbas… was dressed in a smart white shirt and grey trousers.’ He has a trinket in a box. ‘“It’s Hamida’s wedding present.”’ He is in for a shock. “She’s gone…. No one knows what’s happened to her.” Hussein is probably lying. ‘Did he really have no suspicion of the truth of her disappearance?’ The truth is not hard to discover. Hamida’s friends are quite eager to tell on her. ‘“We saw her several times with a well-dressed man in a suit, walking in the Mousky.”’ [28.]

Hamida is doing well. ‘She was a favourite of the soldiers and her savings were proof of her popularity.’ Her dominance needs are not entirely satisfied. ‘Not entirely ruled by her sexual instincts, she longed for emotional power.’ She has lost the limited freedom she used to have in the alley. ‘Perhaps the only hour of her past life that Hamida missed was her late afternoon walk.’ She hasn’t gained the larger freedom she wanted. ‘She no longer had the freedom for which she had risked her whole life. Hamida only felt a sense of powerful independence when she was soliciting on the street or in a tavern.‘ She is aware that Faraj, her seducer, is no longer her lover. She challenges him. “Let’s get married and get out of this kind of life.” She has regrets. ‘How had everything come to an end so quickly?’

What Hamida does not expect is to encounter Abbas again. ‘Just then she heard a shrill cry rend the air: “Hamida!” She turned in terror and saw Abbas, the barber, only an arm’s length away from her.’ [31.] This is of course a coincidence of the type that is typical of melodrama.

Mahfouz now describes Hamida as explicitly evil. She persuades Abbas to murder Faraj. ‘Her mind raced with devilish inspiration. It occurred to her that she could conscript Abbas against the man who was using her so heartlessly.’ [32.] The only other character in Midaq Alley who is described as evil is Kirsha, the café owner, in respect of his homosexual desires.

One might have thought the attribution of evil could be as easily made of Faraj, the pimp, or Booshy and Zaita, the grave robbers. Mahfouz, however, seems to reserve the category of evil for those who violate conventional sexual norms. It is a game he is playing, I think, with his conservative readers.

Mahfouz thoroughly dislikes Hamida. He also dislikes Mahgub Abd al-Da’im, the nihilist in Cairo Modern. A dislikeable protagonist is a sign, if nothing more, of a satirical intention.

Abbas takes the bait. ‘“I won’t be happy until I smash his head in.  Where can I find him?”’  He tries to get his friend Hussein Kirsha to help him. Hussein has reservations. ‘“Hamida is the real culprit.”’ Abbas persists. ‘“…isn’t it still an insult to us that we should avenge?”’ He persuades Hussein to come on a reconnaissance. ‘“Wouldn’t it be better to go to the tavern where we’ll meet them on Sunday, so that you’ll know where it is?”’

There is another melodramatic coincidence, this time with a thoroughly melodramatic coincidence. ‘[Abbas] saw Hamida sitting amongst a crowd of soldiers…. He charged madly into the tavern, roaring out in a thunderous voice, “Hamida….” …he hurled an empty beer glass at her…. …angry men fell on Abbas from all sides like wild animals.’ [34.] Abbas is beaten to death. Instead of murdering Faraj, he has been murdered. Hamida, either way, is responsible.

Hamida’s desire for sexual freedom, portrayed as being a ‘whore’, her need for independence, portrayed as dominance, and her ambition, portrayed as greed, lead to murder. It is a suitable subject, perhaps, for melodrama. It is a very negative portrayal by Mahfouz of a woman with non-traditional desires and needs.

Midaq Alley is also a story about the impact of the present on the past. When the alley is introduced, it is presented in terms of physical remains of the past: ‘…the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.’ [1.]

Kirsha’s café also has traces of the past: …it retains a number of secrets of a world now past…. its walls are covered with arabesques. The only things which suggest a past glory are its extreme age and a few couches placed here and there. [1.]

Mahfouz tends to identify the traditional quarters of Cairo with a pre-modern past. In Khan al-Khalili the old quarter gives ‘…to the viewer an impression of the Cairo of al-Mu’izzi’s time.’ [1.] Al-Muʿizzi was apparently the most powerful of the Fatimid caliphs, whose armies conquered Egypt and who made the newly founded Al-Qahirah, or Cairo, his capital in 972–973. (Britannica). In Children of the Alley (1959) the remote past is of course the Garden of Eden.

It is in the café that Mahfouz places a scene which dramatises the impact of the present on the past. The traditional poet with his fiddle is replaced by a radio. The poet is blind and mentally impaired. The last representative of a vanished age is himself decrepit. It is a vivid image. It is worth quoting at some length. ‘In the café entrance a workman is setting up a second-hand radio on a wall.…. A senile old man is now approaching the café…. A boy leads him by his left hand and under his right arm he carries a two-stringed fiddle and a book.He played a few introductory notes just as the café had heard him play every evening for twenty years or more…. The café owner shouted in angry exasperation, “Are you going to force your recitations on me? That’s the end – the end! Didn’t I warn you last week?People today don’t want a poet. They keep asking me for a radio.”’ [1.]

In Children of the Alley, the poets play a vital role. They preserve the oral history. They are valued. ‘This was the poet, and these were the tales. How often had [Rifaa] heard his mother say, “Our alley is the alley of tales.” And truly those tales were worth his love.’ [Children of the Alley, 46.] The poets are however too fearful of authority to be reliable. ‘The poets of the coffeehouses in every corner of our alley tell only of heroic eras, avoiding public mention of anything that would embarrass the powerful.’ [Children of the Alley, 24.]

The most powerful impact of the present on the alley in the novel is of course the effect of the money that the British Army brings to Cairo. Hussain and Abbas both go to work at Tel el-Kebir. They wear Western clothes. Hussain lives in a flat with electricity and drinks alcohol. Hamida becomes a prostitute. Her customers are the soldiers.

Very briefly, at the end of the novel, Mahfouz mentions what he sees as the attitude of the inhabitants of the alley to history and time: ‘This crisis too, like all the others, finally subsided and the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfulness.’ [35.]

This parallels strikingly the formula Mahfouz uses several times in Children of the Alley: ‘Good examples would not be wasted on our alley were it not afflicted with forgetfulness. But forgetfulness is the plague of our alley.’ [Children of the Alley, 43.]

Midaq Alley is a melodrama. The main story – the story of the protagonist Hamida – is driven by plot and relies on coincidence.

Midaq Alley is sensational. It has lurid and improbable accounts of prostitution, homosexuality and crime.

In Midaq Alley Mahfouz develops his portrayal of the old quarters of Cairo. In Khan al-Khalili the quarter was witnessed by an outsider. In Midaq Alley the portrayal of the lives of a group of related characters is quite intimate.

In Midaq Alley Mahfouz uses the vignettes of the secondary characters  – Mrs Saniya Afify, Hussain Kirsha, Dr Booshy, Salim Alwan and others – to enrich his story. He creates, in a primitive form, the social realism which he will later do so splendidly in The Cairo Trilogy and Morning and Evening Talk (1987.)

Midaq Alley is in itself a rather forgettable novel. It has no very great merits. If it were not for The Cairo Trilogy and Children of the Alley we should probably never have heard of it. In the context of those later works, however, Midaq Alley – for what it foreshadows and anticipates – becomes interesting.

Bibliographical note

Mehrez, Samia, ‘Respected Sir’, in Beard, Michael, and Haydar, Adnan, Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, 1993

Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives on Visualhunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

Two Brothers

Khan al-Khalili, Naguib Mahfouz, 1945

Khan al-Khalili is about failure and disappointment. It is about professional failure, and it is about failure in love.

Khan al-Khalili involves poverty. Unlike Cairo Modern (1945), Mahfouz’s preceding novel, Khan al-Khalili does not depict absolute poverty.

Ahmad Akif, the protagonist of Khan al-Khalili, certainly does not earn much money. Akif has been in the lowest grade of the civil service for twenty years. His father was compulsorily retired at forty, and has only a small pension.

Akif is often worried about small sums. Yet he usually manages to save a small amount each month. This is a form of poverty, but it is relative. It is not destitution.

Khan al-Khalili is even more precisely dated than Cairo Modern. The action of Cairo Modern takes place in over a few months in 1932 and 1933. Khan al-Khalili begins during the Second World War, in September 1941. It ends in 1942, just as the Axis forces under Rommel have reached the westernmost point of their advance into Egypt: ‘…when the invasion reached as far as al-Alamein, general panic reached its height.’ (Chapter 50).

This is ironic. The reader knows, though the characters do not, that the Germans and their allies are about to be forced back.

While the war affects the inhabitants of Cairo – particularly, in Khan al-Khalili, in the form of air raids – it is not their war. Many of them support the Germans. There are rather wild rumours circulating about the favourable treatment that Hitler is planning for the Muslims when Germany wins. ‘” [Hitler] is going to restore Islam to its former glory. He will unite the Muslim peoples.”’ (8).

The disruption caused by German air raids is also important in Sugar Street (1957), the last part of The Cairo Trilogy, and in Midaq Alley (1947). In Sugar Street the patriarch, Al-Sayyid Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad, who is already bedridden, dies after leaving his house to take shelter in an air-raid. In Midaq Alley, the importance of the war is the economic opportunities, both legitimate and illegitimate, presented – particularly for the ordinary inhabitants of Cairo – by the presence there of British forces and their headquarters and depots.

Khan al-Khalili blends, as every good novel should do, several stories. There is a story about Ahmad Akif, a civil servant who after twenty years is still in the lowest grade of the service. The date, Akif’s social status and his alienation are all made clear right at the beginning of the novel. ‘It was half-past two in the afternoon on a September day in 1941, the exact time when civil servants left their government offices…. Their minds had long since become preoccupied with a combination of hunger and sheer boredom….’ (1). Mahfouz was himself a lifelong civil servant. He writes about the civil service often. Sometimes he writes about the civil service quite bitterly.

There is another story about Ahmad’s immediate family – himself and his parents – leaving the district of al-Sakakini, where they have lived for a long time, in a panic over an air raid, and moving to the popular quarter of Khan al-Khalili.

The air raid, the first of the war, was unexpected and distressing. ‘Maybe tonight would turn out to be the first time he managed to get any sleep since that terrible night, the one that had given the people of Cairo such a terrible shock.’ (1).

The air raid is not however described in detail for another couple of chapters. There was ‘… an incredibly bright light in the sky. It was followed by a horrible screeching sound and a loud explosion that reverberated across the city of Cairo…. the ground shook and the house kept on rattling.’ (3).

It is not the air war between the European powers that is important. It is the disruption of family life.

The move is not particularly rational. ‘”Don’t you realise, Papa, that the airmen flying over Cairo aren’t going to distinguish between al-Sakakini and Khan al-Khalili?”’ (1). Ahmad’s father tries to rationalise the move on religious grounds. ‘”The Germans are too intelligent to bomb the heart of Islam [the mosque of al-Husain] when they are trying to win us over.”’ (1).

The mosque of al-Husain is an important Cairo monument. Husain ibn Ali was the grandson of Muhammad. Husain was a Shia imam and a martyr. Husain’s head was believed to be buried in the al-Husain mosque. The mosque was a shrine. Visiting shrines, such as tombs of the saints, is an important part of a popular tradition in Islam which is sometimes identified with Sufism.

Khan al-Khalili is a quarter that was ‘…of lower status in both prestige and educational level.’ (1). It is, as we shall see, a socially conservative quarter. Khan al-Khalili is also one of the old quarters of Cairo. It gives ‘…to the viewer an impression of the Cairo of al-Mu’izzi’s time.’ (1).

Al-Muʿizzi was apparently the most powerful of the Fatimid caliphs, whose armies conquered Egypt and who made the newly founded Al-Qahirah, or Cairo, his capital in 972–973. (Britannica). The idea of the connection of Cairo with a remote past is something that Mahfouz explores again in Children of the Alley (1959).

The description of the quarter in the novel is fairly limited: a neighbour family, the walk their teenage daughter takes to school past the Cairo necropolis, a café that Ahmad takes to frequenting, a visit – just one – to the neighbourhood brothel which doubles as a hashish den, and the air raid shelter – several times. This is however the first time that Mahfouz has described a quarter of modern Cairo in one of his novels. It is something he often does later, and clearly loves doing.

Mahfouz was born and spent his early childhood in the popular quarter of Gamaliya, which he describes in the Cairo Trilogy, and again – with extraordinary imagination – in Children of the Alley. Gamaliya is near Khan al-Khalili. ‘Abd al-Jawad, the patriarch, leads his sons to the al-Husain mosque every Friday for prayers. When al-Jawad stops secluding his wife Amina as strictly as he does originally, Amina likes nothing better than to visit the shrine of al-Husain.

At the end of Khan al-Khalili, following the death of Ahmad’s younger brother Rushdi, the family leave the quarter. Ahmad’s father wanted to move there. Ahmad’s mother wants to leave. ‘”This is an unlucky quarter. Let’s get out of here…!”’ (48).

The family move at the beginning of the novel, and leave at the end. Their stay in Khan al-Khalili is neatly co-extensive with the novel. This gives the novel a precise formal unity.

Mahfouz’s formal ‘experiments’, as they are often known, come later. They start with Children of the Alley, in which Mahfouz adapts episodes from the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions to make a political allegory. They continue with Mirrors (1972), a novel in the form of character sketches. Mahfouz was to write several other explicitly ‘experimental’ novels. Form, however, is something at which Mahfouz was always skilful, if sometimes unostentatiously so.

In addition to the story of Ahmad, the unsuccessful civil servant, and the story of his family’s unexpectedly short-lived move to Khan al-Khalili, there is a story of the pursuit of Nawal, the teenage daughter of new neighbours, by both Ahmad and his younger brother. There is also a story about Rushdi, the younger brother, and his sickness and death from tuberculosis. It is through the integration of the stories of love and death that both the deeper meaning of the novel, and also its connection with later – and, it must be said, better – work is revealed.

Mahfouz’s description of Ahmad Akif, the protagonist of Khan al-Khalili, is almost as contemptuous as that of Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern. Ma’mun Radwan is immoral; Ahmad Akif is inadequate.

Ahmad resents the fact he was unable to continue his education and take a university degree. He thinks this has held him back: ‘…he had been compelled to abandon his studies after his high-school graduation…. The major reason for the decision was that his father had been pensioned off before he had even reached the age of forty…. Ahmad had been forced to terminate his studies and take a minor administrative post in order to provide for his shattered family and support his two younger brothers.’ (2).

Ahmad spends many years and much effort trying to compensate for this sense of loss. He feels he is a victim: ‘…he kept searching for ways to rid himself of his chains and beat a path to freedom, glory and authority.’ (2).

Ahmad studies privately for the law. ‘He failed in two subjects…. He was scared to try the exam again….’ (2).

Ahmad spends a year reading science texts, with no better result. He rationalises his lack of success. ‘The intellectual atmosphere in Egypt in general was not yet ready for science.’ (2).

Ahmad decides to try literature. ‘When [the piece] was finished, he sent it by mail to a journal….’ (2).His efforts are ignored. Ahmad rationalises his failure. ‘It was all a question of malice and evil intent….’ (2).

Finally Ahmad resorts to magic. He borrows ‘… some ancient tomes dealing with magic and the invocation of demons….’ (2). Ahmad has at least the sense to get out before he gets too far in.  ‘His health deteriorated rapidly and he felt the approach of insanity and death.’ (2).

Despite the failure of his academic and literary efforts, Ahmad remains bookish: ‘…his beloved books, all of them in Arabic…. were his entire life.’ (2). His reading is however superficial: ‘…there was no specialisation or depth involved.’ (2).

Ahmad’s repeated failures turn him against the world. ‘”The whole world consists of lies and vanities; in such a context the quest for glory is the acme of lies and vanities.”’ (2).

Mahfouz does not like his protagonist. He did not like Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern either.

There is I think a problem with unsympathetic protagonists in novels. If readers cannot empathise with the central figure, it is quite difficult to care about the world of the novel.

In addition to being a failure, Ahmad is unattractive. He is ‘…approaching his forties.’ (1). He has a ‘…shining, elongated face….’ (1). He has ‘…teeth yellowed by smoking.’ (1).

He does not look after himself: ‘…a combination of despair and thriftiness, followed by a peculiar adaptation to look like an intellectual, had robbed him of any concern about either his person or his manner of dress.’ (1). Despite this, he has a ‘…secret craving for sex…’ which ‘…gnawed at him….’ (1). Ahmad’s unattractiveness and his interest in sex, in a novel which deals in large part with delusions of love, are important traits.

Ahmad never accepts his failure. He never accepts his humble position in life.

Ahmad’s father is also a failure. He withdraws.

In the new flat Akif Effendi Ahmad is ‘…huddled in his room as usual.’ (1). Akif Ahmad reads the Qur’an and attends the mosque. ‘After he had been pensioned off in the very midst of his working life… he had imposed a severe isolation on himself. He seemed to be spending his entire life on devotions and Qur’an recitation.’ (4).

Ahmad not only takes over the financial responsibility for the family. He takes many of the decisions which would normally be the responsibility of the head of the household, and has a parental relationship with his younger brother. ‘…Ahmad followed the instructions of the doctor… and immediately started making arrangements to have Rushdi admitted to the sanatorium.’ (39).

Mahfouz does not however allow this consciousness of responsibility to enhance Ahmad’s self-esteem. That would be inconsistent with the emphasis on Ahmad’s failure.

Father and son are both failures. They are both passive. Akif Effendi Ahmad does not object to Ahmad taking over his role. There is thus no conflict – as there is very strongly in The Mirage (1948), The Cairo Trilogy and Children of the Alley – between father and son.

Akif Effendi Ahmad is not a patriarch. Ahmad Akif does not have to struggle for his freedom. The focus of the novel, therefore, is not the struggle between generations and within families that is so important in Mahfouz’s later work. We will need to identify later what the focus in fact is.

The main action of the novel concerns the romantic interest of both the brothers in Nawal, the teenage daughter of their neighbour Kamal Khalil Effendi. Ahmad sees her first.

Rushdi is mentioned, if indirectly, right at the beginning of the book, ‘… the second [of the two rooms off the hallway] was to be put aside for [Ahmad’s] brother and kept empty for him.’(1). He does not appear until much later; a third of the way through the book. This is when Rushdi receives an order ‘…transferring him from Asyut [where he works in a branch of Bank Misr] to the headquarters in Cairo.’ (15).

Since the dramatic climax of the book is Rushdi’s death from tuberculosis, this delay in introducing him is rather curious. Important characters all ideally need to be introduced in the first two or three chapters. This is a consequence of the over-riding rule of story, that the end of a story is always contained in the beginning.

Ahmad first meets Nawal on the stairs of the building. It is an unexpected encounter.

Ahmad is shy. ‘Looking round he saw a young girl wearing a blue school-jumper with a satchel of books under her arm. For a fleeting second their eyes met, then he looked away feeling all confused, something that always happened when he looked at a female.’ (4).

Ahmad is anxious and inexperienced: ‘…his love for women was the forbidden love of a middle-aged man that made his as afraid of them as a shy novice.’ (4). The phrase ‘forbidden love’ suggests an element of guilt.

Ahmad is inhibited and withdraws in the face of difficulties. We are offered an explanation of this behaviour in terms of parental relationships. ‘His early childhood had had a profound effect on his peculiar instincts in this matter: he had been exposed to a father who dealt with him strictly and a mother who doted on him.’ (4).

Ahmad has never been successful with women. The parallel with his professional and academic failures is explicitly drawn. ‘If his complete failure to achieve anything turned him into an enemy of the entire world, then his failure with women made him their enemy too.’ (4). We are told that Ahmad has recourse to prostitutes. In the novel, this is not described.

A number of Mahfouz’s important protagonists, like Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili, are sexually conflicted. These include Kamil Ru’ba in The Mirage (1948), Kamal al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy, and Saber Omran in The Search (1964).

The explanation in these other novels is more sophisticated, and more specific to Egyptian culture. In The Mirage and The Cairo Trilogy the mother is secluded, initially at least, and invests too much emotionally in a favourite or only son. The father is patriarchal. In The Search the mysterious, patriarchal father is largely absent, and he is given explicitly Pharaonic traits.

Ahmad is not looking for love. He has noticed how pretty Nawal is, but he has not been thinking of ways of seeing her. When he sees her again, it is by coincidence. It happens during the holy month of Ramadan. Setting some of the action during Ramadan gives Mahfouz the opportunity to show that his characters are conservative, though – with the exception, perhaps, of Akif Effendi, Ahmad’s father – not particularly religious. The holy month doesn’t stop people flirting.

Ahmad is spending time alone in his room before sundown, when he can break his fast. ‘The last hour before people broke their fast was known to be by far the toughest to live through… he decided that the best way of killing time was to open the window and look outside…. He left the window, went over to the other one that looked out on the old part of Khan al-Khalili, opened it, and leaned on the sill…. A young girl was sitting [on his neighbour’s balcony] embroidering a shawl.’ (10). It is noteworthy that Nawal, although she goes to school, is seen engaged in embroidery. Embroidery is a traditional feminine occupation.

Ahmad Rashid, Ahmad’s friend in from the Zahra Café, tutors Nawal and her brother privately. (12.)  Nawal thinks Ahmad Rashid mocks her, and dislikes him. ‘”Haven’t you thought about what you want to do at university yet?” …this young man was trying to mould her into the kind of woman that he wanted her to be….’ (21). Education, for women at that date, is modern and progressive. Nawal, beyond a certain point, is not interested.

Ahmad’s inhibitions leave him anxious, ambivalent and uncertain how to act. ‘At that fleeting moment, when their eyes met, his emotions overcame him and he blushed deep red in sheer embarrassment. He did not know how to behave or what was the best way to get out of his predicament.’ (10).

Things do not get easier for Ahmad during the following days. ‘Would it not be better, he wondered, to leave the window shut and forget about the implications involved in opening it?’ (12).

Ahmad is unable, however, to avoid the temptation of going to the window for a glimpse of the girl. ‘For a fleeting second their eyes met, but then she stood up straight, turned around, and went inside again.’ (12).

When Ahmad meets the girl and her mother in a more or less normal social situation, he cannot deal with it. ‘When he opened [the door], he found himself facing Sitt Tawhida and her daughter Nawal.’ (12).

Ahmad is so bashful that Sitt Tawhida notices: ‘…she could not understand why a man of his age could be so awkward and act so bashfully simply because he had met two women.’ (12).

Despite the fact that Ahmad is unattractive and middle aged, Nawal shows interest. ‘He no longer doubted for a single moment that the girl was well aware that her new neighbour was deliberately appearing at the window every afternoon and directing that bashful, timid glance at her.’ (13).

Ahmad finds himself unable to deal with the situation he has created. ‘Was he actually capable of launching himself into life again…?’ (13).

His response, which Mahfouz has already given us to understand is typical for him, is to feel sorry for himself. ‘Why did God create people like him who could not handle life?’ (13).

The climax of Ahmad’s interest in Nawal comes on the Night of Power, towards the end of Ramadan. The Night of Power, in Islamic belief, is the night when the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the prophet Muhammad. On this night the blessings and mercy of Allah are thought to be abundant.

In a banal contrast, it is on the Night of Power that the air-raid sirens sound again. Ahmad’s family and Nawal’s both take refuge in the neighbourhood shelter. When the all-clear sounds and the families leave, Nawal makes eye-contact: ‘…when she reached [the shelter door], she turned and gave him a very meaningful look.’ (14). Ahmad’s blessings are abundant indeed.

The day after Ahmad experiences a happiness that is quite untypical of the personality that Mahfouz has described for him, and which does not occur again in the book. ‘That morning his emotions were pure, completely unclogged by feelings of hatred and rancour.’ (15).

Almost immediately Ahmad’s hopes are dashed. The timing of Ahmad’s disappointment, just after his hopes reach their height, and the completeness of Ahmad’s frustration, are pure melodrama.

Rushdi spots the girl in exactly the same way as his brother did. He sees her by accident from the window of his room. ‘…he could see the face of a young girl, an exceptionally beautiful face….’ (17).

This is another moment of irony. We know who the girl is. Rushdi doesn’t.

In the same situation, the brothers react differently. ‘Their eyes met. Her look was one of disapproval, but his was that of a hunter who’d just spotted his prey.’ (17).

Nawal’s disapproving look gives a clear hint that she knows she has already encouraged Ahmad, and that she knows what that means in a conservative culture. Rushdi’s look reveals he is a playboy. ‘Where love was concerned, he had limitless self-confidence, based on one success after another.’ (17).

We are explicitly reminded that Rushdi does not know of Ahmad’s prior interest, and it is strongly suggested that if he did know he would behave differently: ‘…he had no way of knowing the kind of blow he was about to aim at the happiness of his elder brother whom he both loved and revered.’ (17).

Somehow it is important to the novel that the brothers are not conscious rivals. In real life, we might feel it was highly likely that Rushdi would find out something. That is not however the kind of tension that Mahfouz wants.

Rushdi is very different from Ahmad. In some ways he is like his mother. ‘She was a beautiful woman…. she was known everywhere for her sense of humour…. She had lots of friends.’ (3). Rushdi is like his brother in some ways. ‘They were of roughly the same height and had the same thin build.’ (16). Rushdi is however more attractive: ‘…his eyes had a glow to them that suggested a sharp mind, a propensity for fun, and a willingness to take risks.’ (16).

Rushdi has been deprived of parental guidance: ‘…neither of those two dear people [his mother and his elder brother] had the necessary resolution to provide him with guidance and restraint.’ (15).

At university he falls in with bad company. ‘He found himself drawn toward a certain group of young men who indulged in heavy drinking, betting on card games, and in general living a dissolute life.’ (15). Rushdi becomes a habitué of the Ghamra casino.

Rushdi’s response, from the start, is in complete contrast to Ahmad’s. This is surely deliberate. Mahfouz is making the two brothers into opposites. Rushdi acts, and he does so immediately. Rushdi waits outside the apartment building and follows Nawal on her way to school.  He does so quite blatantly. ‘Now he was sure that she realised he was deliberately following her.’ (20).

Rushdi is taking advantage of a degree of freedom Nawal has because she attends school. Mahfouz’s first readers would be aware that allowing a girl of Nawal’s age to leave home on her own was, in conservative social circles, a fairly recent social development.

Nawal however is traditional. Despite her youth she is open to approaches from men. ‘For her, life was entirely focused on a single goal: heart, home and marriage.’ (21).

As an adolescent, Nawal’s movements are somewhat restricted. ‘Now she could no longer play with the younger girls in the street, the roof had become her favourite spot.’ (21). Rushdi takes advantage of this also. He stalks her there. ‘She was amazed to find him standing there, his tall frame filling up the doorway.’ (21).

Ahmad meanwhile is oblivious of Rushdi’s interest in Nawal. His own relationship with Nawal seems to be progressing. ‘He… plucked up the courage to give her a smile….’ (19).

Ahmad still does not know what to do. The contrast with Rushdi’s self-confidence could not be greater. ‘What comes next after a smile?’ (19).

Ahmad discovers what is going on by accident. It is by accident that both he and Rushdi realise they have a pretty girl as their neighbour. Ahmad realises that Ahmad is interested in Nawal because he spots her from the window. Both he and Rushdi first become interested in Nawal when they see her from the window. ‘From the middle of [Rushdi’s] room [Ahmad] managed to spot Nawal’s head – no-one else’s – which proceeded to withdraw at lightning speed! …Ahmad was totally shocked by what he had seen….’ (23).

Khan al-Khalili is realistic in style and technique. The unobtrusive formalism, however, makes the structure strong.

The effect on Ahmad is devastating. He responds by completely changing his opinion of Nawal: ‘…the girl had been deliberately deceitful, and that meant an end to all his futile hopes.’ (24.) This is the process that Freud has taught us to think of as ‘splitting’.

More interestingly, perhaps – because it is more unusual – Ahmad refuses to compete: ‘…it was out of the question for him to lower himself so far as to engage in any rivalry with another human being…. It was also out of the question to let his younger brother know about his secret love.’ (24). This is surely an expression of his low self-esteem, and an expectation of failure that has been conditioned by the past.

Ahmad, nevertheless, is angry. ‘It was his younger brother who had forced him – twenty years ago now – to sacrifice his own future in order to devote himself to his brother’s education. Now here was Rushdi plucking the fruits of the happiness that should have been his and trampling all over his hopes….’ (26).

Ahmad responds by self-criticism. ‘How could he possibly be so abjectly incapable of finding any kind of happiness in life?’ (26).

Ahmad is also taken over by nihilism. ‘A strange and terrifying idea occurred to him: how would it be if the world could be devoid of human beings.’ (27). This nihilism, though it shocks him, links him with Ma’mun Radwan in Cairo Modern and with Said Maran in The Thief and the Dogs (1961).

Rushdi is as oblivious of Ahmad’s devastation as Ahmad was of Rushdi’s interest in Nawal. This reinforces the parallelism.

Rushdi continues his pursuit. ‘When [Rushdi] reached the New Road, he spotted the girl just in front of him….’ (27).

Rushdi is remarkably confident. ‘From the outset he had had no doubts concerning his eventual triumph, nor for that matter had she.’ (27).

Rushdi not only engages her in conversation. He talks to Nawal about love.  ‘”Don’t you believe in love at first sight? …God willing, we will never be parted.”’ (27).

There now occurs a highly significant symbolic incident. The route that Nawal takes to walk to school leads her and Rushdi past the Cairo Necropolis: ‘…the City of the Dead was looming ahead to their left, shrouded in its eternal gloom and all-pervasive silence.’ (27).

The City of the Dead is a large area of tombs and mausoleums near the Mokattam Hills, which are a significant location in Children of the Alley. What Mahfouz does not mention is that many people live among the tombs. It is not relevant here.

‘”That’s our family tomb,” [Rushdi] said… “Then let’s recite the Fatiha,’ [Nawal] said.’ (27). The Fatiha, known as the Opener, is the first sura of the Qu’ran. It has an important role in Islamic prayer.

Nawal’s suggestion that they should pray underlines her traditional upbringing. The family tomb however has a significance that will be clear to many readers. It is not made explicit until much later.

Rushdi, on account of his health, has given up his walks with Nawal.  Nawal is keen that the walks should resume. ‘… [Nawal] encouraged him to resume their walk together since she was keen for them to be alone together.’ (37).

Rushdi is bitter. ‘Would fate soon decree that this girl of his would be walking past the tomb and reciting the Fatiha over his departed spirit?’ (37).

By the time that Rushdi and Nawal first walk past the family tomb, the alert reader will already have noticed that Rushdi is ill. The alert reader may also have realised, because of the emphasis on weight loss and pallor, that Rushdi’s illness is tuberculosis.

Rushdi’s dissolute way of life has affected his health. ‘He grew thinner and downright skinny…’ (15). This is the first hint of tuberculosis. Rushdi’s mother also notices his weight.  ‘…Rushdi had not gained a single pound while he was away.’ (17). This serves to further underline the point for the reader.

When he walks past the tomb with Nawal the first time, Rushdi is not aware that he is ill. This is another instance of the irony that, with the formalism, is so important to the structure of the novel.

The young people are fairly clearly in love. ‘He took her hand and held it tenderly. “Good-bye until tomorrow morning,” he said…. If only dreams could come true, [Nawal] told herself.’ (27).

Rushdi experiences elation, just as Ahmad did when he thought Nawal was interested in him. Ahmad attains peace. Rushdi, in keeping with his lifestyle, feels intoxicated. ‘That Saturday afternoon Rushdi seemed drunk with happiness….’ (28).

Rushdi makes friends with Nawal’s father. This is a conservative society. If he wants to woo the daughter, Rushdi has to woo the family. ‘Kamal invited Rushdi to the Zahra Café….’ (29). Rushdi is on the same footing as Ahmad.

Rushdi soon does better than Ahmad. He reaches position of intimacy with Nawal’s family that Ahmad had never dreamed of. ‘Soon afterwards Kamal Khalil invited him [Rushdi] to visit his home.’ (29).

Rushdi then proceeds to establish a relationship of trust which allows him a degree of licensed intimacy with Nawal. ‘[Rushdi] now managed to portray himself as a serious thinker and put on a display of solid conservatism. As a result he found himself taking over Professor Ahmed Rushdi’s position as tutor to Nawal and Muhammad.’ (29).

The rapid progress of Rushdi’s suit indicates an element of romance in this particular sub-plot. As we already know, however, that this is a melodrama, we can assume with confidence that Rushdi’s world is about to come tumbling down.

And it does. Rushdi falls sick. ‘Rushdi Akif got influenza…. His health collapsed incredibly quickly, and he lost a lot of weight….’ (30.)

The reaction of the family to Rushdi’s illness that Mahfouz describes is realistic. It is proportionate and empathetic. ‘[Ahmad] found Rushdi in bed moaning and his mother beside him rubbing his back…. They all stayed by his bed until dawn.’ (30.)

This is the climax of the novel. The emphasis is no longer on Ahmad’s inhibited and indecisive interest in Nawal, or Rushdi’s active pursuit of her. The emphasis is on the steady deterioration in Rushdi’s health, and the inevitable end.

Rushdi’s illness is now obvious to his family. ‘[Rushdi] was still very skinny, and his complexion was turning paler and paler….’ (31).

Initially this does not prompt Rushdi to look after himself any better. He cannot restrain his impulses. ‘…Rushdi continued his reckless ways….’ (33).

This affects Rushdi obviously. ‘He began to cough violently and lost his appetite.’ (33).

Rushdi eventually suspends his dissipated habits. ‘He stopped going to the Ghamra Casino….’ (33).

It is however too late. Rushdi’s symptoms become worse. At Eid al-Adha Rushdi coughs blood. Eid al-Adha is the Feast of Sacrifice. It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. It is one of the two most important festivals of Islam. The other is Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan.

It seems extraordinary that Mahfouz would use something as holy as Eid al-Adha to create an irony, but that is clearly what he does. It is on the Feast of Sacrifice that we learn beyond a doubt that Rushdi’s family are going to lose a son.

Mahfouz is taking a chance. Secular literature, at that date in Egypt, was not by any means immune from the attentions of the clergy.

Rushdi now does something the reader will assume he should have done several chapters earlier, or indeed before he even appeared in the novel. ‘”Finally I went to see the doctor…. He told me I had incipient tuberculosis in my left lung.”’ (33). If Rushdi had consulted the doctor in time, there would have been no melodrama and no novel.

Rushdi is fatalistic. ‘”People say… that there’s no cure for tuberculosis.”’ (34). The doctor pooh-poohs this. ‘The doctor gave him a disapproving look. “Don’t let the word ‘tuberculosis’ alarm you,” he said.’ (35).

The reader may well feel that Rushdi is dramatising his situation. Rushdi’s self-pity will however also confirm that reader’s intuition that Rushdi is going to die.

Rushdi is still not willing to take responsibility. Rather than being afraid of death, he fears he will lose his job and his girl. (34).

Ahmad does not understand. ‘”But people with this disease normally go to the sanatorium,” Ahmad said. Once again Rushdi lied to his brother. “The doctor doesn’t think it’s necessary.”’ (35.)

Rushdi becomes very obviously ill. ‘Rushdi’s health went from bad to worse, and he became even thinner and paler…. “Are you trying to commit suicide?” Ahmad would rail at him.’ (38).

This is the beginning of a process that Rushdi dreads: ‘…he shared with his mother his fears that the true nature of his illness might become public knowledge….’ (39.)

This is partly I think a fear of the stigma surrounding a contagious and potentially fatal disease. It is also Rushdi’s inability or unwillingness to take responsibility.

First his colleagues notice. ‘His fellow workers in the bank noticed how badly he was coughing and became suspicious.’ (38).

Rushdi becomes so ill that he can no longer hide it. ‘Rushdi retired to his bed.’ (38).

The doctor puts his foot down. ‘”The sanatorium now!”’ (38).

Word that Rushdi is ill gets out. The brothers are still able to conceal the true nature of Rushdi’s illness. ‘Kamal Khalil Effendi came to visit and assured Rushdi that fluid in the lungs was nothing to worry about. Sitt Tawhida and her daughter, Nawal, also called in…. the mother told [Rushdi] that his insistence on staying so thin was what had made him so ill….’ (39).

Both families visit. ‘The family had to wait impatiently until Friday, which was visiting day at the sanatorium. Kamal Khalil decided that he and his family would go with them.’ (40.) The reader will now be pretty sure that Kamal Khalil has been thinking of Rushdi as a suitable husband for his daughter.

They find, to their surprise, that Rushdi’s is more ill, not less. ‘… [Rushdi’s] condition had actually worsened….’ (40).

Ahmad receives a letter. ‘“That’s strange…. It’s Rushdi’s handwriting.”’ (41). Rushdi knows he is dying. He wants to die at home.

It is now Ahmad’s turn to see the family tomb as a symbol of Rushdi’s imminent death. ‘He could envisage the family tomb far away….’ (41).

This is another irony. The reader knows, though Ahmad does not, that Rushdi has already seen the tomb in this symbolic way.

It is now clear to all the family that Rushdi is really ill. ‘When Rushdi finally appeared, everyone was completely shocked, and no one made any effort to hide their feelings.’ (42).

The inevitable consequence is what Rushdi most fears. ‘Now came the really dreadful days…. with April came a change. Nawal no longer came to visit him.’ (43).

Rushdi feels betrayed. ‘”The worst thing in life,” Rushdi went on… “…is for a friend to shun you for no good reason….”’

Ahmad has of course felt betrayed in a very similar way. ‘With that he turned toward the window – Nawal’s window – that was now firmly locked. “Closed forever,” he said angrily, “closed forever!”’ (24).

Kamal Khalil fairly clearly feels he cannot approach Rushdi’s family directly. This makes it clear that tuberculosis is a taboo subject. Kamal Khalil is however, unlike either of the brothers, a resourceful and responsible adult. ‘Kamal Khalil… went to visit a friend of his in Bank Misr and inquired about Rushdi’s illness.’ (44.) Mahfouz treats this demarche quite sympathetically.

Kamal Khalil takes steps to protect his daughter: ‘”… from today you cannot visit our dear sick neighbour any more.”’ (44.)

Nawal reacts, as we would expect her to, like a teenager in love. ‘”How can you be so unkind?”’ (44.)

Mahfouz makes clear that Nawal is not only affectionate. She is innocent. ‘The only thing she knew about death was the word itself.’ (44.)

Rushdi has lost the girl. Now he loses his job as well. The company doctor makes a home visit. ‘”…you’ll have to be fired by the bank as of May 31.”’ This is May 1942.  (45.)

Mahfouz allows Rushdi a touch of dignity. ‘Rushdi asked if he could borrow the Qur’an.’ (46.) Someone as irreligious as Rushdi is only going to borrow the Qur’an when know he is dying.

However Rushdi then spoils the impression of dignity and acceptance that borrowing the Qur’an gives. When Sitt Tawhida and Nawal visit, Rushdi is angry. He tells them he has tuberculosis. (46.)

Acknowledging tuberculosis in this way, for Rushdi, is very nearly the end. He decides to go back to the sanatorium. ‘[Ahmad] was delighted that his brother had decided to go back to the sanatorium in Helwan.’ (47.)

Rushdi does not think he will last long. ‘”I’m sharing a truth before parting. You may not see me any more after today.”’ (47.)

He lasts even less long than he thinks. That same evening: ‘Their mother emerged, holding her hands above her head as though begging for help. Then she lowered them and started slapping her cheeks violently, crazily….’ (47.)

Once again Ahmad has to take the paternal role. He has to buy the shroud and register the death. The deliberately ugly image of a putrefying dead dog in the street reminds him of the physical realities of death. ‘Good heavens, that foul smell was still there, the terrifying stench of death! …On the sidewalk he could see a dead dog….’ (48.)

The use of the sanatorium in Khan al-Khalili is peculiar. If we understand it correctly, it will tell us something about the essential nature of this novel.

The sanatorium can be used in fiction in a number of ways. It can be the locus of suffering, or the site of death or cure. It can be the stage for altruism and sacrifice, or for solidarity between the afflicted. With a more decadent writer like Thomas Mann, it can become a symbol of the pathology of art and indeed of civilisation.

With Mahfouz, it is none of these things.

Rushdi goes to the sanatorium when the doctor loses patience and gives him a direct instruction. He returns almost immediately. The first visit to the sanatorium has no practical effect. It simply communicates to the reader and, importantly, to the other characters, that Rushdi is seriously ill.

When Rushdi decides to return to the sanatorium, he is about to die. He does not even get there. His decision has now practical effect whatsoever. What Rushdi’s decision communicates to the reader and to the other characters is that Rushdi is at the point of death.

What is being done here? What is said?

There is a social message, a message about the stigma and the fear surrounding tuberculosis at that date in Egypt, and the realistic basis for that fear. There was a third brother who died, and tuberculosis is still not well understood.

Something is communicated by making Rushdi’s doctor – somewhat implausibly perhaps – speak on the radio. ‘The doctor talked about the way the microbe responsible for the illness had been discovered….’  (45). The doctor believes the government should establish ‘…a kind of isolation facility.’ (45). Mahfouz is making the point that the scientific understanding of tuberculosis is at a very early stage, and that effective treatment is almost non-existent.

Something about the kind of novel we are reading is expressed, if not perhaps communicated, by the inevitability of Rushdi’s death.

The inevitability of death has a distinguished pedigree in literature. It is one of the signs – to us, if not in quite the same way to the Greeks – of tragedy.

Tragedy however requires heroes. Rushdi is not a hero. He is ordinary to the point of banality. When the inevitability of death is banal, it is not tragedy. It is melodrama.

The way the novel ends is also interesting.

The family moves. ‘At the end of August Ahmad Akif found an empty apartment in the al-Zaytun neighbourhood.’ It is Ahmad who takes responsibility and acts on his mother’s wishes.

Unexpectedly and untypically things start looking good for Ahmad. There is a possibility, though it is quite general, that his position at work will improve. ‘People started talking about fair treatment for workers who had been overlooked for a long time.’ (51).

In the new apartment there appears to be a prospect of marriage with someone more suitable than a teenage schoolgirl. ‘… [the owner’s sister] was a cultured and attractive widow of fifty-three.’ (51).

Ahmad, it would appear, has grounds for optimism. ‘Tomorrow he would be living in a new home, in a different quarter, turning his back on the past…. a past with all its hopes and dashed aspirations.’ (51).

This is quite ambiguous. Ahmad has no reason to assume that a discussion of fairness will lead to action, or that action, if it takes place, will affect him. However he is hopeful. Ahmad also has no reason to assume that the ‘cultivated and attractive widow’ will be interested in him. The reader, knowing Ahmad’s history of romantic disappointment, may well assume it will probably come to nothing. Yet Ahmad is clearly encouraged.

Finally, of course, there is no reason to suppose that a new home in a different quarter will enable Ahmad to leave the past behind. The new home in Khan al-Khalili brought the death of Ahmad’s surviving brother, and another in a series of romantic disappointments.

Ambiguity, in Khan al-Khalili, is unusual. There is irony, but no ambiguity. What is going on?

The melodramatic disaster – and a disaster is required in all melodramas – is the death of Rushdi. Rushdi comes home just as Ahmad’s romantic hopes are at their height. Rushdi, in a sense, takes over the courtship. Rushdi’s romantic disappointment is bound up with his death from tuberculosis.

The outcome for Ahmad is some encouragement and some hope. There are other possible outcomes. One is acceptance of his position in life, and the maturity that comes with it. The other would be, in effect, the opposite; a continuing denial of reality.

In either case – and I think this is the point – the emphasis would shift back from Rushdi to Ahmad. Mahfouz, clearly, does not want that.

Ahmad, initially, appears to be the protagonist. When Rushdi arrives, he in effect takes over the courtship of Nawal from Ahmad. Rushdi does not, however, take over the narration.

Ahmad’s self-involvement makes him a better narrator than Rushdi’s unselfconscious hedonism would do. The point of view remains Ahmad’s. The disaster, however, is Rushdi’s death and Rushdi’s loss of love. Ahmad is left curiously free.

I mentioned earlier that Kamil Ru’ba in The Mirage, Kamal al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy, and Saber Omran in The Search are all sexually inhibited, like Ahmad Akif. That is however not the whole story. They are inhibited or even impotent with refined, attractive women. They are not always inhibited or impotent.

Kamil Ru’ba cannot make love with his wife. He has no difficulty with a vulgar and forward woman who flirts with him. Kamal al-Jawad gives himself up, possibly quite mistakenly, to a lifetime of unrequited longing. He visits the same prostitute every weekend, and has to get mildly drunk before he has sex with her. In the case of Saber Omran, the conflict is so violent it leads to homicide. Omran ends the novel in the death cell, waiting to be hung.

This is splitting; the simultaneous idealisation and devaluation of – in this case – women. In Khan al-Khalili, it is splitting – not poverty, and not intergenerational conflict – that is the focus of the novel.

The reason that Rushdi arrives late in the novel, and the reason Ahmad is left free at the end, is that Rushdi and Ahmad are the same person. There is only room for one narrator, Ahmad. There is only room for one protagonist. When Rushdi takes over, Ahmad must retreat. And only one person can experience a disastrous denouement. There is not room for two.

Mahfouz has described splitting, in Khan al-Khalili by splitting, though not completely, his central character. Ahmad and Rushdi remain conjoined.

In The Mirage Mahfouz employs a more sophisticated approach. In The Cairo Trilogy, ambiguity is at the centre of the novel.

There are a number of qualities that make Khan al-Khalili a melodrama. The scenes in Café Zahra do not, admittedly, tend to advance the action; other than that, Khan al-Khalili has the tight plotting that is typical of genre fiction. Khan al-Khalili also turns on the death of Rushdi. Without Rushdi’s death, the novel is not very interesting. It also shows, in Ahmad’s case as well as Rushdi’s, the typically melodramatic trait of disaster striking at the moment of greatest happiness.

In addition, the characters in Khan al-Khalili are one-dimensional. Ahmad is a failure, and only a failure. Rushdi is a playboy and nothing more. This superficiality does not define melodrama. It occurs in other kinds of writing. It is, however, perfectly consistent with melodrama.

The social interest of Khan al-Khalili, I think, is the portrayal of courtship in a socially conservative Egyptian community. Mahfouz identifies social conservatism with the lower middle-class. The conversations in Café Zahra serve to underline this. There is also a portrayal of the stigma surrounding contagious disease. This serves, I think, to add depth to the portrayal of a conservative social group.

I do not accept the consensus view that Khan al-Khalili is realism. I would say, like Cairo Modern, that it is better described as social melodrama.

19/1/2018

Photo by Bakar_88 on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The precariousness of twenty-first century writing

I have just found two online publications that recommend books that I think I might like. This feels like a breakthrough.

One is a blog. The other calls itself a magazine. They are both based in the UK. Both do weekly posts.

I am not too sure what the difference is between a blog and an online magazine is. In practice the online magazines tend to have better layout, clearer navigation and more disciplined publication schedules. Even the best of the blogs can have a more chaotic feel, which can be quite appealing.

The blog I have found is called Bookmunch. The magazine is Shiny New Books. In both cases the work they have decided to do is recommending books. Bookmunch does occasional articles. No self-publicising, and no tips on creative writing. That to me is already a relief. Bookmunch feels quite funky. Shiny New Books is respectable. Nobody on either publication gets paid. Shiny New Books say emphatically they don’t review self-published books. Bookmunch don’t say anything in particular.

The books I have found include War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans, American War, by Omar el-Akkad, Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I have put them all on Amazon lists.

Except for Sing, Unburied, Sing they are all translated. Ward is an American writer. Sing, Unburied, Sing was the winner of last year’s National Book Award. As such it may well have had exposure in the mainstream media in this country. I hadn’t heard of it. American War had turned up in my recommendations on Amazon, presumably because I have browsed dystopian fiction. I hadn’t heard of any of the others. All of them have something to do with trauma, which is an interest of mine.

I don’t like contemporary English fiction. I don’t think it’s very good. This selection tends to confirm my view. I am not very impressed by contemporary European or American fiction, either. It’s striking that when I find European and American novels I want to read, I find them on publications that are outside the mainstream.

It is fairly easy to find stuff that was written in the second half of the twentieth century. I am a huge fan of Naguib Mahfouz, and a fan of Lao She and Ma Jian. Notice that this is all translated. It is hard to find good contemporary stuff.

One reason it is hard to find good contemporary fiction is that regular publishing, in this country and probably the United States, isn’t working very well. I don’t think they are capable of finding and publishing genuinely original work. The other reason it is hard is the sheer volume of self-publishing. Most blogs won’t touch self-published fiction. The ones that will review self-published either deal exclusively with genre or charge a fee for reviews. No-one is sifting the bulk that is out there.

I am convinced that if anyone is writing good stuff in this country now – and that’s if, and only if – it is either being self-published, or not published at all. I can’t find it. And as a writer – a writer who is quite confident he is writing good stuff – I can’t find readers.

Until I found Bookmunch and Shiny New Books I was convinced there were a lot of book blogs out there. There are. Most of them are vulgar. They do genre. They are decorated with pictures of flowers and sunsets. Some are pretentious. They are literary and intellectual. Many are not being updated any more. In some cases this is because the owners have gone on to social media. Blogs aren’t fashionable any more. They leave a forwarding address, and mumble about the archive. In other cases the owners have just disappeared. It was obviously too much work.

There are probably 200,000 books being published in the UK by regular publishers every year. Not all of them are novels. Many are. There are probably a couple of hundred thousand self-published books.

I have found two publications to help me sift through them. I don’t know how long their owners will be able to keep up the unpaid work. I don’t know where I will go when they close.

What I really need is to find other writers who are doing similar stuff and have similar values. I need to feel I am not alone. With the help of Bookmunch and Shiny New Books I may be able to find regularly-published writers I feel an affinity with. That will be something.

I don’t know how I’m going to find the self-published writers I like. And I don’t know how I will find readers.

I have sent Bookmunch a copy of The City that Walked Away. I don’t know what they will do.

I have emailed Shiny New Books. I have suggested they need a procedure for making exceptions.

I don’t expect a reply.

Photo credit: Whiskey Monday on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Reading and marginalisation

I am marginalised as a reader of fiction.

I don’t read genre. I don’t read literary fiction. I think literature is a problematic concept.

I don’t like the English novel. I don’t like European and American novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

I like Naguib Mahfouz. I like Lao She and Ma Jian. I like Dostoyevsky. I would probably like some of the other nineteenth-century Russians if I got around to reading and re-reading them.

I am not a book lover.

I would like to make contact with people who read the same things as me.

Photo by jvoves on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Melodrama and reality

Cairo Modern

 

 

 

 

 

Naguib Mahfouz, 1945

Cairo Modern  was the fourth novel that Naguib Mahfouz published. It was the first of his novels to have a contemporary theme.

The first three novels that Mahfouz wrote had been set in the Pharaonic past. They were not romances as such. They were however romantic in their treatment of their historical themes.

Mahfouz had apparently read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe at school. He wanted to write a sequence of forty novels – modelled on Walter Scott’s Waverly novels – describing the history of Egypt. Although he abandoned that particular project, he never lost interest completely in the Pharaonic past. I would guess, though I cannot be certain, that Mahfouz also never abandoned the goal of creating a complete description in fiction of Egyptian life.

Cairo Modern is the first of five novels with contemporary themes published between 1945 and 1950. They were followed between 1956 and 1957 by the Cairo Trilogy, as it is known in English.

The Cairo Trilogy is Mahfouz’s acknowledged masterwork. With the Trilogy, Mahfouz is said to have ‘established’ the novel in Arabic. He continued publishing fiction until 1988. He was never to write anything again on quite the same scale as the Trilogy.

The five early contemporary novels are sometimes described as realistic. I do not think that is quite accurate. I would be inclined to say they are a form of ‘social melodrama’.  While they are undeniably competent, and their themes are interesting, they are genre novels. They sacrifice the depiction of reality to the demands of plot. As fiction, these early novels do not reach the same aesthetic level as the realistic novels Mahfouz was to write between 1961 and 1967, after the brilliantly allegorical banned novel Children of the Alley (which was serialised in 1959).

I would describe Cairo Modern as social, like the other novels written at the same period, because of its themes. The themes that Cairo Modern deals with are corruption and poverty. Corruption and poverty were important social issues at the time Mahfouz wrote. Both corruption and poverty, sadly, remain important issues in Egypt today.

Egyptian poverty is above all rural. It is the fellahin scraping a living on the banks of the Nile. The poverty that Mahfouz describes in Cairo Modern, however, is urban. While Mahfouz himself grew up in a modestly prosperous petty-bourgeois environment, the family home was originally in the traditional Cairene quarter of Gamaliya. At that date, or so I understand, the streets and alleys of Old Cairo were socially very mixed. Mahfouz as a boy would have had an opportunity to observe poverty at close hand.

On joining the civil service after graduation Mahfouz worked briefly in what would now be called a micro-credit scheme. This, one imagines, would have given him the opportunity to gain a more mature understanding of poverty.

Mahfouz never lost his fascination with the area where he grew up. He returned to it repeatedly in fiction.

The corruption that Mahfouz describes in Cairo Modern was in the civil service. Mahfouz knew the civil service well. He was a career civil servant who never attempted to live on the income, such as it was, from writing. After graduation, Mahfouz worked for a while in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. ‘Religious endowments’, or waqf, are an important part of Muslim culture. Mahfouz later transferred to the Ministry of Culture, and was to rise to a senior position. For much of his career he had posts dealing with the film industry.

The civil service occurs frequently in Mahfouz’s novels. Mahfouz describes idleness, incompetence, bribery and the corruption surrounding entry to the civil service and promotion through the grades. Most of the time, Mahfouz got away with it. He enjoyed a relative immunity, and a degree of freedom to comment. This may have been due in part at least to the standing he gained in Egyptian cultural life, and to the national pride that international recognition of his work was to engender.

Corruption and poverty in Cairo Modern have a precise relationship. Cairo Modern is in fact among other things a roman à thèse. The proposition it advances is that an educated young man in extreme poverty will be forced to become corrupt in order to survive.

Cairo Modern does not belong, as far as I can tell, to a particular genre. It is however in some ways very much a genre novel. It is tightly plotted. The plot is often driven by coincidence. The action is fast-paced. It does not allow for relationships or reflection of much depth.

Cairo Modern is also a melodrama. It is a story of crime and illicit sex. The characters are larger than life. The main actors are villains, and the outcomes are disastrous. It meets the definition.

If there is a model for Cairo Modern, it is probably a loose one. Someone with knowledge of the popular Egyptian fiction of the time might be able to suggest what it was.

Cairo Modern describes a scandal in the civil service. The protagonist, towards the end of the novel at any rate, is shown to be aware of this. ‘For his life story to be made public would constitute a scandal.’ [37.]

When it was published there had apparently been a recent scandal concerning the civil service. Mahfouz was interviewed by the mufti of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. None of the available English-language sources give any detail of what was said. There do not, however, appear to have been consequences.

Cairo Modern opens with a description of four young men commenting on a group of women on the university grounds. ‘The presence of women at the university was still a novelty….’ These young men are ‘final year students who were almost twenty-four, and their faces shone with pride in their maturity and learning.’ [Chapter 1.] From this opening we learn that the novel will deal, among other things, with the changing relations between men and women in the educated classes of Egyptian society.

The young men are Ma’mun Radwan, Ali Taha, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im and Ahmad Badir.  Ma’mun Radwan is handsome, like the hero of melodrama or genre fiction. He is idealised in the same way. ‘…his good looks and nobility were evident. Had he wished to be a lothario like Umar ibn Abi Rabia, he could have succeeded, but he possessed unique blend of chastity, rectitude and purity.’ [3.] Unlike a hero, however, Ma’mun Radwan has very little to do with the action.

Ma’mun Radwan is not just religious but an Islamist. ‘”There is only one cause: the cause of Islam in general and of the Arabs in particular.”’ [3.] Ali Taha, by contrast, is a secularist. ‘He adopted a materialist explanation of life….’ He has taken his ethics from the writings of Auguste Comte. ‘He believed in human society and human science and held the conviction that the atheist – like the monotheist – has principles and ideals if he so chooses….’ [4.]

Ali Taha is also heroically good-looking. ‘He was a handsome young man with green eyes and blond hair that was almost golden and that suggested a distinguished pedigree.’ He looks, in other words, like a Circassian, an ethnic group – originally of Christians from the Caucasus – that had considerable prestige under the Ottoman Empire.

Ali Taha’s function in the plot is to have a romantically beautiful girlfriend who is also very poor. Ihsan Shihata ‘… was a girl of eighteen and her countenance was illuminated by ivory skin. Her black eyes’ clarity and her lashes had a special magic.’ [4.] Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is intrigued as to how Ali Taha met Ihsan. ‘“How did you meet her? On the street?” “Of course not! From the window!”’ [9.] Girls who stand at their windows are considered bold. Girls who meet boys on the street are even bolder.

Poverty, in the Cairo that Naguib Mahfouz describes, is not romantic. When his father become ill al-Da’im returns to Qanatir, where he grew up, and visits the house where he was born. ‘… The look of the place suggested not merely simplicity but squalor.’ [7.]

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is the protagonist. The premise of the story is that poverty is corrosive, and can erode all values. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is described as amoral [31] and a nihilist [7.] His friends call him an anarchist: ‘”You, more than anyone, deserve the title anarchist.”’ [10.]

‘Anarchist’ is not quite correct. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im entirely lacks a class analysis. He does however share the rejection of some ‘individual anarchists’, as they are known, of the idea of any moral restraint or obligation. Al-Da’im is also, though Mahgub does not use the term or an equivalent, anti-social. ‘His rejection of society and its values was dazzlingly complete.’ [40.]

Mahfouz returns to the anti-social personality as a subject in other novels. Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), for example, is a powerful treatment of the theme. Mahran is a criminal, a burglar who goes armed and eventually a killer. There is also a political dimension. It is a more complex novel.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is not heroically handsome. He is also poor. ‘Mahgub Abd al-Da’im … did not change his clothes, because unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night.’ He is aware of Ali Taha’s fiancée. ‘He saw Ihsan Shihata … as breast, butt and legs.’ Unlike Ali Taha and Ma’mun Radwan he is neither a secularist nor an Islamist. ‘His philosophy called for liberation form everything: from values, ideals, belief systems and principles, from social culture as a whole…. His objective in life was pleasure and power…. without any regard for morality, religion, or virtue.’ [5.]

Mahfouz has created a religious young man and an ethical materialist as foils for the amoral Abd al-Da’im. The didactic intention is clear.

The fourth of the group is Ahmad Badir, who is a journalist as well as a student. When he graduates he becomes a full-time journalist. His function in the plot is to supply Abd al-Da’im occasionally with information that Abd al-Da’im could not otherwise plausibly obtain.

When Abd al-Da’im goes to a charity event in search of a patron, Ahmad Badir is there. Ahmad Badir explains who is who.  ‘“Aziz Darim… was forced to resign on a morals charge…. His business is his elegant apartment, which contains a gaming table and superbly endowed young women.”’ Abd al-Da’im appreciates his help. ‘… it was vexing to plunge into a new world without a guide.’ [21.]

Cairo Modern is rather precisely dated. There are references to the 1923 Egyptian constitution [3] and to ‘… pamphlets opposing the new constitution….’ [6.] The ‘new constitution’ must be the constitution of 1930-35.

Towards the end of the novel there is a remark about ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ [41.] This would be a reference to Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933. The context makes clear this is a recent event. The action of the novel, spread over a few months, therefore takes place in 1932 and 1933.

There were at that date many issues in Egyptian politics. The over-riding issue was of course independence from the British. The British were in effect – though not in international law – the colonial power. Mahfouz reminds the reader that once independence was achieved the fault line in Egyptian politics would become the division between the secularist and Islamist groups represented by the two young friends. ‘”Do you suppose we’ll become sworn enemies in the future?”’ [46.] It remains a fundamental division in Egypt today.

A few months before he graduates, Al-Daim is plunged into extreme poverty. This is precipitated by his father’s illness. Al-Da’im’s father has a stroke. ‘He suddenly fell down and lost the ability to speak.’ [7.] The prognosis is clear. Abd al-Da’im’s father ‘“… won’t be able to return to work.”’ [8.]

Mahfouz describes Al-Daim’s new depths of poverty in some detail. Al-Daim now has to manage on one Egyptian pound a month, rather than three.

He finds a rooftop room. He pays forty piasters rent. That leaves him two piasters a day for food, kerosene and laundry. He eats stewed beans in pita-bread from a stall patronised by labourers. [11.]

He is desperate. ‘If only he knew how to pick pockets.’ [14.]

Like many Egyptians in similar circumstances, Al-Daim applies to a relative. In Al-Daim’s case it is Hamdis Bey, a relative of his mother’s who has done well. This is unsuccessful.

Al-Daim then applies to Salim al-Ikhshidi, someone he knows from Qanatir who is already established in the civil service. By one of the coincidences that drive the plot of Cairo Modern, Al-Daim bumped into Al-Ikhshidi at the station on his way to visit his sick father. ‘…he found himself face-to-face with a young man… who was casting a completely self-confident, vain and supercilious look at everyone around him.’ [6.] Al-Ikhshidi, even more than Al-Daim, is a caricature.

Al-Ikhshidi introduces Al-Daim to a newspaper editor. ‘Mahgub… met the editor of The Star and was commissioned to translate some pieces at the rate of fifty piasters a month.’ [18.] This is at least honest. Mahgub is using the English and French he has learned during the course of his studies.

Al-Ikhshidi is not honest. Before he graduated he had been distributing ‘… pamphlets opposing the new constitution….’ on campus. He then met the minister, dropped his protests and was appointed to the civil service. [6.] It is clearly implied that the civil service job is a quid quo pro for the cessation of political activity. That is Al-Ikhshidi’s form of corruption.

After graduation Al-Daim’s situation is if anything worse than before. His father ‘…was expecting his son’s support from that time forward.’ Al-Da’im ‘…was panic-stricken…. His sole concern was fending off death by starvation and that meant finding a job that paid a living wage.’ [18.]

A friendly librarian then explains to Al-Da’im facts about degrees and employment that most of Mahfouz’s readers would probably already know. ‘”Listen, son. Forget your qualifications. Don’t waste money on applying for a job. The question boils down to one thing: Do you have someone who will intercede for you?”’ [18.]

Presumably someone in Al-Da’im’s position would have known this before embarking on a prolonged course of education. To reveal this information now, however, has a more dramatic impact.

There now follows quite an odd episode. It violates the rule of genre that all incidents should advance the plot. Al-Da’im applies again to Al-Ikhshidi. ‘Al-Ikhshidi… despised the young man and scorned his poverty and need.’ Al-Ikhshidi explains to Al-Da’im the costs of finding someone to intercede. ‘[Abd al-Aziz Bey Radwan’s] cut from his nominees is a guarantee of half of the salary for a period of two years.’ [19.]

There is also Mrs Ikram Nayrus, a philanthropist with a charity. She ‘… doesn’t ask for money but is fond of fame and praise.’ Al-Ikhshidi suggests Al-Da’im should write something in the newspaper. ‘”Attend the [benefit next Sunday] and I’ll introduce you to her…. You’ll have to purchase a ticket for fifty piasters….”’ [19.]

The benefit is a picture of aristocratic decadence and un-Islamic practices. There is social dancing. There is ‘…a troupe of upper-class maidens in ravishing pharaonic costumes’. Mahfouz does not need to explain to his readers that ‘pharaonic costumes’ violate Islamic canons of modesty.

The guests speak French – ‘… those fallen Muslims!’ Mrs Ikram Nayrus cannot even speak Arabic properly. ‘She delivered her speech in Arabic, but there was scarcely a sentence that lacked a grammatical error, or an ill-chosen word.’ [21.]

Ahmad Badir is able to identify a number of the guests for Al-Da’im. They exemplify different forms of corruption. We never meet them again. They have no function in the plot.

To help him with his article Abd al-Da’im makes a list of points in two columns, headed ‘The Truth’ and ‘What I Should Write’. Only one point is the same on both lists: ‘Her guests are just like her.’ He is then summoned by Al-Ikhshidi, who has a new proposal for him. ‘”Drop that article and forget about Ikram Nayruz.”’ [22.]

An entire chapter has been given over to the description of a charity event which as it turns out does not advance the plot in the slightest. It does however support the roman à thèse. That is its function. It portrays a blatant, pervasive corruption in the Egyptian elite.

It is with Al-Ikhshidi’s new proposal that the novel descends into sheer melodrama. Al-Ikhshidi’s superior, Qasim Bey Fahmi, is besotted with Ihsan Shihata, Ali Taha’s former girlfriend. ‘Qasim Bey Fahmi… pursued her affections without regard to rank, family or children.’ [36.]

The Bey is married. The proposal is that Mahgub Abd al-Da’im will marry Ihsan. Qasim Bey Fahmi will pay the rent and expenses of a flat. [29.] Abd al-Da’im and Ihsan will live together. The bey will visit Ihsan when he pleases. In exchange Abd al-Da’im will get something he wants desperately: a job in the civil service.

There is nothing unusual about rich, powerful men keeping pretty young mistresses. Cases could probably be found of complaisant young husbands being rewarded in their careers. What is implausible is the rich, powerful man looking for a husband for his pretty young mistress in order to install her in a discreet love-nest.

The ceremony of signing the marriage contract, the Islamic marriage, is an embarrassment. Ihsan is described, in what appears to be the standard formula, as ‘…an adult virgin of sound mind….’ Sound in mind she would seem to be. She is not however a virgin. It is quite clear that Qasim Bey Fahmi has already had his way with her. ‘This constituted fraud in an official document. His marriage was a fraud. His life was a fraud.’ That is objective. ‘The whole world was a fraud.’ That is a rationalisation. [26.]

Egypt at that date was socially very conservative. A woman in an irregular sexual relationship was likely to be called a prostitute, even if she was not in fact a sex industry worker. Since Ihsan became the bey’s mistress for financial reasons, many readers would see her in this way. She is, in the eyes of conventional people, a whore.

Abd al-Da’im gains a beautiful wife, whom he would never attract under normal circumstances. When we meet Al-Da’im his ‘girlfriend’ makes a living from collecting cigarette butts and reselling the tobacco. She charges three piasters for sex. She smells. They have sex behind a tree. [5.] Now that Abd al-Da’im has married Ihsan, he has something to lose.

Abd al-Da’im benefits from his wife’s unchaste behaviour. That makes him a pimp.

Despite the irregular nature of the relationship, Abd al-Da’im seeks sexual satisfaction. ‘Could a pimp and a whore find happiness together?’ This is not love. ‘All he wanted was… a lust that mirrored his own.’ [29.] To achieve this he uses alcohol. ‘Only a little [booze] sufficed for both of them.’ [31.] Al-Da’im has corrupted Ihsan. ‘… she felt the emptiness and ennui of a young woman whose heart has been deprived of love.’ [36.]

This is perhaps a somewhat sentimental version of womanhood. The point, I think, is that in a socially conservative period Mahfouz does not unequivocally condemn a young woman whose conduct violates the restrictive social norms. It is a hint of the compassion he will often show for women in his novels later.

Al-Da’im intends to support his parents. ‘He fully intended to send his parents two pounds every month, in fact to increase that to three if he could.’ [27.] He doesn’t do it.

The plot moves on very rapidly. There is a political crisis. Quite oddly, it is announced before it happens. Ahmad Badir, the journalist, tells Al-Da’im about it. ‘”The prime minister has lost the palace’s confidence….” “How about the English?”’ [37.] Ahmad Badir has however anticipated events. ‘… this information was premature, for there was no echo if it in the newspapers.’ [38.]

The anticipation gives Al-Da’im an opportunity to reflect on the extreme precariousness of his situation, without however the development of the plot being affected in any way. ‘“If the bey is pensioned off, I’ll definitely be transferred to some obscure position – unless I’m banished to the most rural district… if I’m not fired outright.”’ [38.]

Al-Da’im’s sense of insecurity also prompts him to decide he cannot help his parents. ‘…his parents… were the first victims of the political crisis.’ [37.] This is a decision that contributes significantly to the eventual denouement.

Qasim Bey Fahmi turns the crisis to his advantage. ‘[Al-Da’im’s] telephone rang, and it was his wife, Ihsan. ”Do you know who the new minister is? … Qasim Bey Fahmi.”’

Al-Da’im exhibits his characteristic audacity and greed. ‘”I must join his office staff.”’ Ihsan, like a loyal wife, supports him. ‘”I don’t think he would refuse me my request.”’ [38.]

Al-Daim excites the jealousy of Al-Ikhshidi, to whom he owes his position in the first place. Al-Ikhshidi makes Al-Da’im an offer. ‘”If you take my position and let me have your new job, that will realise all our hopes.” Al-Da’im, not without some trepidation, refuses. ‘This was a man – just like him – who had no morals and no principles and who knew everything…. This time he was assailed by fear.’ [39.]

The young people go on a boat-trip down the Nile to Qanatir to celebrate. Al-Da’im is nervous. ‘Wasn’t it possible that his desire for vengeance would be so great that he would spill the secret in some manner to his parents?’ [40.] On the trip there are a couple of odd incidents.

In one of these, a louche young man in the party attempts to seduce Ihsan. ‘She realised her had tricked her into his own cabin.’ Ihsan refuses him. She ‘…shoved him away violently, and shouted at him in an angry voice, “Please leave me alone. Leave me!” [43.]

The point here is I think that while Ihsan is the mistress of a rich, powerful man and her marriage is arranged in the worst possible sense, she is behaving as Egyptian society would expect a wife to behave in the circumstances. Mahfouz is not making a wholly conventional judgement.

Mahfouz has emphasised of course that it is her parents who are responsible for her downfall. ‘… her parents had no moral scruples….[they]… were Satan’s wily allies plotting her downfall.’ [4.] The reference to ’Satan’ is, I think, a concession to religious views.

The young people, before the young man attempts to seduce Ihsan, have of course been engaging in social dancing and drinking alcohol. The prejudices of more religious readers are catered for by this Westernised dissipation. An attempt at seduction, if not worse, is just the outcome they would expect.

The other odd incident is that when the party go on shore Al-Da’im sees an old man who reminds him of his father. ‘His father, if he were able to leave his bed, would look just like this man, leaning on a stick at every step.’ [42.] This has the emotional impact on Al-Daim that meeting his father might have done. The plot, however, is allowed to unroll as intended. It works in the same way as the anticipation of the political crisis. It is a strategy that compensates for the over-rapid development of the melodramatic plot.

The next morning Al-Daim has a hangover. He is in a morbid mood. ‘He could find only one answer: suicide. That was how a devoted egoist would terminate his life.’ [43.]

The action of the denouement unrolls with a clockwork precision which is so melodramatic that it borders on farce. It is in fact quite visual. One wonders if it has a model in the popular cinema, or even the stage. In quick succession, Al-Da’im’s father, Qasim Bey Fahmi and the Bey’s wife all turn up.

Al-Da’im is not prepared to see his father. ‘He saw his father… standing at the threshold leaning on a stick, casting a fixed, sullen look at him.’ [44.] He is even less prepared for the Bey’s wife.  ‘”Come on, show me the room where my husband is secluded with your chaste wife.”’ [45.]

We assume that Al-Ikhshidi has betrayed Al-Daim. We are not told how he contrived to have everybody arrive at just the right time.

This is the end. ‘”It’s all over. No more job. No more salary. Let’s go beg together!”’ Ihsan, perhaps curiously in the circumstances, but consistently with the way Mahfouz has been portraying her, reacts like a real wife. ‘”What will become of us?”’ [45.]

There are a few loose ends to be tied up in a final chapter. The Bey resigns. His wife divorces him, but does not go to the newspapers.

Mahgub is posted to Aswan. This is a joke. The Aswan governorate is so remote that its southern border is on the Sudanese frontier. Al-Da’im’s prediction that he will be ‘…banished to the most rural district….’ has come true. [38.]

We do not learn what happens to Ihsan. Mahfouz has portrayed her with some indulgence. He is nevertheless writing in a society where women, and outcomes for women, are less important.

I have mentioned that I think that Cairo Modern is in form a genre novel, even if it is not possible to identify a particular genre. I have said that I think it is melodramatic. I have suggested that the portrayal of the four young men is didactic. Consistently with this, I think, Cairo Modern is moralistic.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im violates all the social norms. He tastes success. He is punished. The cup is dashed from his lips. The besotted Bey falls from grace as well. This is pretty much what conventional readers would expect. Mahfouz is not aiming for an alternative, bohemian audience.

Meanwhile, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im’s friends pursue their chosen careers. They are rewarded. The final indulgence for Ihsan, perhaps, is that she is allowed to slip out of the end of the novel without being mentioned at all.

Cairo Modern is a limited novel. It has strengths. As a genre novel, it works well. The plotting is tight. The characterisation is no deeper than it needs be. The motivations, though sometimes crude, are adequate. Nothing is irrelevant.

Its subject matter, the poverty of the Egyptian people, the corruption of Egyptian public life and the often bewildering changes at that date in the relations between men and women, could hardly be more serious. Some of the incidents in the novel – the charity event, the marriage of Mahgub and Ihsan, the bedroom farce with which the novel ends – are exaggerated and even absurd. Nevertheless it is a novel which is founded on reality.

Reality, in later novels, is something that Mahfouz does very well.

14/12/2017

Photo by Ed Yourdon on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Ash

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, amongst other things, a post-apocalyptic novel. The holocaust has already happened. It is referred to in a flashback. ‘The clock stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’ We never learn exactly what caused the disaster. All government and all communication have ceased. There is no-one left to communicate explanations. There does not even appear to be anyone to figure out what the explanations might be.

From other flashbacks and from the state of the world we learn what happened after the holocaust. The world burned. The trees burned.

The earth is covered with ash. Ash clogs the rivers and hides the sun. The air is laden with ash. It is difficult to breathe and often impossible to see. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His head rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked towards the east for any light but there was none.’

Nothing resembling civilisation survives. There are one or two references to communes. There is no community. ‘The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and the buildings by the roadside.’

There are two protagonists, a man and a boy. They are father and son. They do not have names. They are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’. This creates a certain universality.

The man is coughing. He is going to die. ‘… he crawled coughing and he coughed for a long time.’ Sometimes he coughs blood. The man carries on until the end.

The boy’s mother has committed suicide. ‘We’re not survivors,’ she says. ‘We’re the walking dead in a horror movie.’

The boy was born after the holocaust. ‘A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing.’

The boy has known no other world. ‘…to the boy [the man] was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed.’

When he boy sees himself reflected in the glass of a window the thinks it is another little boy. ‘A face was looking at him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an outsize wool coat with the sleeves turned back.’

In the burned world there is nothing living except a few humans. There are fewer humans now than there were. ‘In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing.’

All the plants have been either burned or choked by ash. There is nothing for the birds and animals to live on. They have disappeared. ‘Do you think there might be crows somewhere?’ The world is dead.

Some of the humans scavenge. They depend on finding canned goods. ‘He sorted through the cans and went back [to the boy] and they sat by the fire and ate the last of their crackers and a tin of sausage.’

The rest have resorted to cannibalism. The cannibals are violent and cruel. ‘Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burned. The smell was hideous…. Help us, they whispered. Please help.

The cannibals are also frightening. ‘They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe…. Quick, he whispered. Quick…. The boy was frozen with fear. We have to run.’

Some of the cannibals have elaborated a social organisation. They are not just gangs. ‘He woke… in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. …all wearing red scarves at their necks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances…. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves… and after that the women… and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites….’

After the holocaust there was something perhaps worse. The man remembers. ‘Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.’

The homicidal madness seems to be exhausted. ‘No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the blood cults must have all consumed one another.’ All that is left now is an urge to survive that has lost all the humanity that might make sense of the need.

The man and the boy are travelling. The man pushes their few possessions in a grocery cart. ‘They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.’

The world is not safe. They must assume that any other human beings are either cannibals or thieves. They must always take precautions. ‘This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road.’

It is not clear what they are moving for. This is not a world where anything seems to be of much value. It is ‘barren, silent, godless.’ There is a simple, binary ethical distinction. ‘They’re going to kill those people, aren’t they? There going to eat them, aren’t they? And we couldnt help them because they’d eat us too. We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?  Even if we were starving? Because we’re the good guys.’

It is, I think, though the point is not made explicitly, something close to a vision of hell.

In a New York Review of Books article, the author Michael Chabon described the novel as ‘a lyrical epic of horror’. Leaving aside the slightly dubious claim about a book, particularly a prose work, being simultaneously an epic and a lyric, I think Chabon is wrong.

Horror, as a genre, has something of the Gothic about it. It requires an element of the supernatural. Horror, as a feeling, is a reaction to an experience which violates deeply-held norms so completely that it is psychologically difficult, to the point of impossibility, to accept that what is happening is real. The focus of horror in the world of The Road is the cannibalism. Yet in the world of The Road, the cannibalism is real. The people doing it are – or once were – human.

Chabon also claims that ‘the adventure story in both its modern and epic forms… structures the narrative’. This is also I think not true. Action, in the adventure story, derives from the interaction of the personality of the protagonists – the hero, in particular – and the events to which the hero is exposed. The outcome is the mastery of events through the actions of the hero. There is a logic to it.

In The Road, there is no logic. Events are random. The man and the boy encounter marauders. Sometimes they shoot. Usually they run. Always they hide. The outcome of one chance encounter has no influence on the nature of the next. They manage to escape. They find somewhere temporarily safe. They master nothing. They just keep running.

The man and the boy search the buildings that are not too far from the road. Usually they find nothing. Sometimes they come upon a cache of canned food.’ Crate upon crate of canned goods.’ This is equally random.

The personality of the protagonists has little influence on events. It is not quite clear that the man has a personality any more. His interiority is restricted.

He dreams, more often than he would wish. ‘In his dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white.’

He is suspicious of such dreams. ‘He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.’

He remembers. ‘He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music.’ He appears to have no other subjective life.

The man is practical. It is not clear whether he was always practical or whether he has become so since the catastrophe. There is simply no point in character analysis of that literary sort in a world that has been burned.

Like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, the protagonists of the novels of the quintessentially protestant petty-bourgeois Daniel Defoe, the man constantly reviews his stock of goods. ‘He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a tin of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fore and they sat watching the labels char and curl.’ Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe were also survivors.

The man is practical. The shifts he makes to survive are frequent and described in great detail. ‘He checked the valve on the tank that it was turned off and swung the little stove around on the footlocker and sat and went to work dismantling it. He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench.’ Practicality is often a characteristic of the protagonists of post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonists of Walter Miller’s stories Dumb Waiter and Dark Benediction are practical to a degree.

The novel is narrated consistently from the point of view of the man. The boy creates interiority by silence. ‘So when are you going to talk to me again? I’m talking now. Are you sure?’

The boy has two other personality traits. He is ferociously attached to his father. ‘Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was going to cry. No. I want you to wait here. Please, Papa.’

The boy also gets upset when they are unable to help someone they encounter. ‘There’s nothing we could have done. [The boy] didn’t answer. He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too. I know.’

In the same way that personality has been reduced to the minimum, emotion is also restricted. The vocabulary of feeling is reduced to one word. ‘The boy was very scared.’ The only other emotion is occasional anger. We can tell when the man has been angry because when has been impatient with the boy he apologises. ‘The boy didn’t answer. [The man] was close to losing his temper with him and then he realised he was shaking head in the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.’

Apart from fear and anger the world of ash and night is numb. It is traumatised. It is not post-traumatic, despite the need for hyper-vigilance. The trauma has not ended. It seems unlikely that it will ever end.

Like personality and emotion, language is restricted. What appear to be sentences – they have initial capitals and are provided with a full stop, a period, at the end – are often not sentences at all. They lack main verbs. ‘The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of colour. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke.’

Sometimes there are participial phrases. They have, as the term implies, a participle. They lack the auxiliary verb that is needed – though the phrase can be understood without it – to make it grammatically complete. ‘Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.’

There are nominal clauses. ‘He studied what he could see.’ They look deceptively like a relative.

There are compound sentences. The connections between the clauses are made by conjunctions. ‘He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.’

Where there are relative clauses they are not used to express relationships between concepts. They make precise statements about location and place. ‘The shore was lined with birch trees that stood bare pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond.’

This is technically ‘parataxis’. It is language without syntax. Relationships of hierarchy and subordination have gone. Statements are simply juxtaposed.

Parataxis is more typical of speech than writing. Writing, in The Road, consists of old newspapers and a few rain-sodden books.

Parataxis has a primitive quality. That is appropriate. This is a primitive world. The only appropriate feelings here are the primitive feelings. Most behaviours are primitive too. They concern survival.

Abstract, Latinate words – the language of formal writing – have also largely disappeared. Where Latinate terms occur they are words such as ‘glaucoma’ that describe tangible things and have entered colloquial speech.

‘At evening a dull sulphur light from the flames. The standing water in the roadside ditches black with the runoff. The mountains shrouded away. They crossed a river by a concrete bridge where skeins of ash and slurry moved slowly in the current. Charred bits of wood.’

The Latinate terms here are ‘sulphur’, ‘mountains’ and ‘concrete’. The words that convey the meaning are ‘dull’, ‘black’, ‘shroud’, ‘skein’, ‘ash’, ‘slurry’ and ‘charred’. They are Anglo-Saxon words. They are suggestive, deathly, and menacing.

There is one question that inescapably arises. Why carry on?

The man’s over-riding motivation is his attachment to boy. ‘My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.’ The attachment is passionate and spiritual. ‘He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’

At other times the references to God are more ambivalent. ‘Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? O God, he whispered. Oh God.’

The wife of the man who finds the boy at the end seems to believe in God. [She]… would talk to him sometimes about God.’ For the boy this is difficult. ‘He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father….’

It does not appear to be religion that motivates the man to carry on. It is something perhaps more primitive; it is survival. ‘This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.’

It is not clear that there is a purpose to survival. At one point the boy asks his father, ‘What are our long term goals?’ He startles the man with the sophistication of his language. He startles him also, perhaps, with the content of the question.

There is no answer. They carry on until they can go no further and do no more.

The Road is an allegory. It is not, I think, an adventure story as such or a horror story in the usual sense. It certainly is a post-apocalyptic story, but at the same time it is more than that. It is in fact a rather complex allegory.

There is an endless journey. There are random dangers. There is a need for constant vigilance. There are occasional windfalls. Without the windfalls they would not survive.

This is an allegory of life. This is how, for something like 120,000 years, homo sapiens sapiens survived.

The man cares. The boy learns to care from him.

This is an allegory of humanity. One of the things that human beings do that makes us different from the other primates is that we care.

The man finds food. He takes care of the boy. When necessary, he kills.

The man protects and provides. This is an allegory of love.

The man and the boy carry on. They carry on in a ruined world when there is nothing to live for any more. This is an allegory of trauma and survival.

I am sure of the literary value of this novel. It is consistent, vivid, plausible and fully imagined.

I am less sure of the philosophical value. I am bothered by the nihilism. I understand that human beings are cruel, and capable of regression. McCarthy’s imagined world, however, is so self-contained – so complete – that I do not know how to map his dark vision onto the world I am more familiar with.

I need to create a context. I can only do that by reading some more of McCarthy’s books.

Photo credit: afevrier via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Cycle of Destruction

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter J Miller, Jr

A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is one of the most important English-language books of the second half of the twentieth century. It is science fiction. It is as good as anything that was written in the ‘mainstream’ at that time.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about the nuclear Holocaust. It is alternative history. Miller imagines that nuclear war broke out in the 1960s, shortly after his novel was written, and that civilisation was destroyed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is amongst other things a post-apocalyptic novel.

Miller’s history is based on the intellectual history of Europe after the fall of Rome. Miller’s concept of history is cyclical. A very similar intellectual sequence is repeated in the former United States, after the nuclear Holocaust. It is also a pessimistic history, even perhaps fatalistic. After two thousand years the Holocaust happens again.

The novel is in three parts, divided from each other by several hundred years. A Dark Age occurs six hundred years after the Holocaust. Six hundred years later, there is a scientific renaissance, and dynastic states are emerging from the chaos. After another six hundred years, an industrial state emerges. It is sophisticated enough to develop nuclear weapons, and launch another nuclear war.

The action of the novel centres on the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The Albertian order, to my mind, is a wonderful invention of Miller’s. It is a celibate order, modelled rather closely on the Benedictines. Its abbey is in the South-western desert, on the road to ‘Old El Paso’. The members of the order are Bookleggers or Memorisers. They are tasked with preserving the fragments of the scientific knowledge of the ancient ‘Euro-American’ civilisation. They dutifully conserve and copy; they understand very little of the scientific legacy.

Almost all the action takes place in and around the Abbey of the order. Abbots change and the abbey evolves, but the location of the action in the abbey is consistent. It is one of the devices that unites the three parts of the novel.

Much of the record of the ancient culture has been destroyed. The Simplification was a wave of bloody and destructive lynchings and book-burnings that followed the Holocaust – the ‘Flame Deluge’, as Miller dubs it in a passage of biblical pastiche. One of the martyrs of the Simplification is the eponymous founder of the Order, Leibowitz himself.

Leibowitz was a weapons engineer who lost his wife in the Holocaust. He joined the Cistercians, an offshoot of the Benedictines, and became a priest. After some years he was permitted to found his order and preserve the ‘Memorabilia’, as the fragmentary manuscripts are known. ‘Memorabilia’, I think, is another wonderful invention of Miller’s. Albertus Magnus, the patron saint of the order, was a thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian who was very much involved in the revival of science.

The action of the first part of the novel turns on the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz. It is finally successful, and Leibowitz becomes a saint. In the Dark Ages of the opening chapters of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is the miraculous that matters. At the beginning of the novel the simple novice, Francis, encounters an enigmatic, cynical pilgrim in the desert. The pilgrim, in an illiterate age, knows not only Latin but Hebrew. The pilgrim sets off a chain of events which result in Brother Francis discovering relics of the Blessed Leibowitz. The reader, though not Francis, soon realises that the pilgrim is in fact Leibowitz – six hundred years after his death. This concealing of information from the characters while it is revealed to the reader is an example of the irony that pervades the novel.

Leibowitz is a mysterious, subversive and thoroughly delightful figure. He is the most complex of the characters, to call them that, in the novel. He survives, by some no doubt miraculous means which Miller never explains, his very public martyrdom and death. He is the pilgrim in the first part of the novel and the ‘hermit’ in the second. In the third and final part, he becomes the old beggar. He is, of course, a Catholic priest, a Catholic martyr and finally a Catholic saint. Notwithstanding his emphatically endorsed Catholicism, he is also a Jew.

Leibowitz is, in fact, the Wandering Jew of Medieval legend. He waits for a Messiah. The Messiah never comes. In the world of A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is no hope of salvation. Christ the Redeemer is not present in the novel. Miller, who for several years after World War Two was a Catholic, had lapsed.

In the second part of the novel there is a revival of interest in science. Pfardentrott, a rather mad scientist from the newly emerging state of Texarkana, has heard of the documents. He wants them sent to Texarkana so that his collegium can examine them. Finally he accepts that he has to go to the abbey.

Pfardentrott is shocked. He is shocked because some of the monks have managed to build a primitive dynamo which powers an arc light. He is also shocked because the texts he finds in the abbey are of great value, and no-one other than the monks knew of their existence.

Pfardentrott and the abbot try to be civil. Finally they clash. Pfardentrott believes that religion is superstition. The abbot believes that scientific curiosity is Original Sin. He believes it led to the Flame Deluge, and that the revival of science will lead to another holocaust.

The monks dismantle the dynamo. They take down the arc light and put the crucifix back. Pfardentrott leaves. It is a hollow victory. At the beginning of the third and last part of A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Holocaust is already impending.

The Order has acquired a spaceship. It has been busily recruiting spacers as monks. Its role is to take the memorabilia on microfilm and ensure the continuity of the Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church on the colony planets among the stars. The idea of a medieval order of monks with a spaceship is rather wonderful.

Someone starts the nuclear war. The monks give shelter of refugees, many of them sick and injured. An organisation called Green Star relief sets up a Mercy Camp down the road. It offers legalised euthanasia to the incurable. The abbot rows with the doctor who is testing the refugees for radiation. The doctor argues that pain is the only form of evil he can deal with. The abbot responds that in the eyes of the church euthanasia is evil.

This is an argument between the values of humanism and the need for obedience to God’s will. The orthodox interpretation of Original Sin is that it is rebellion against God. It could hardly be more serious.

It is not clear who wins. The doctor leaves. The abbot is nearly arrested for picketing the Mercy Camp. He tries to persuade a very sick woman to refuse euthanasia for her child. He fails.

The small party of monks leave for the stars. The abbot is convinced that human beings will display exactly the same self-destructive tendencies on a new planet. This may be survival, in some sense. It is not salvation.

One of the most mysterious and puzzling stories in A Canticle for Leibowitz is the story of Mrs Grales. Mrs Grales is a tomato seller. She suffers from genetic damage as a result of the Flame Deluge. She has a second head growing from her shoulder. She calls the head Rachel, and wants it baptised.

At the end of the novel there is another nuclear strike. The abbot is dying. Mrs Grales has died, but her second head lives on. The abbot tries to baptise her. Rachel refuses. She is preternaturally innocent. She was not born in sin.

The abbot takes Rachel’s innocence as hope for salvation. It is more ambiguous than that. Rachel is innocent, but she is also a mutant. It is not quite clear that she is human. Is Miller suggesting that humanity can only be saved if it evolves into something else?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is saturated with Catholic images. The theology may be heretical. Miller uses it to make his novel deeply coherent intellectually. A Canticle for Leibowitz prophesies nuclear war. It is prophetic in another sense. It is a fundamentally serious tract for the times.

As a young airman Miller participated in a raid on the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the original house of the Benedictine order. As a young husband, the detonation of a nuclear device over Hiroshima spared Miller being posted to the Pacific theatre to risk his life again. Miller’s reflections on these experiences clearly contribute to the writing of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz won a Hugo. The year before, Miller had won his first Hugo for his short novel, The Darfsteller. In The Darfsteller Miller announces his decision to quit science fiction, and his intention of writing ‘one last great’ before he does so. He also predicts that he will not know what to do with the rest of his life.

The ‘one last great’ was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller was thirty-seven when it was published. He lived for more than another thirty years. He wrote and published very little. After the death of his wife he committed suicide.

He never did figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

Photo credit: RA.AZ via Visualhunt.com / CC BY