Adrift on the Nile
Naguib Mahfouz, 1966
Adrift on the Nile is about a group of friends who meet on a houseboat on the Nile to smoke hashish. Some of them also use the houseboat to engage in illicit sexual relations. It was a book that very nearly got Mahfouz into serious trouble with the military regime.
Abd al-Hakim Amir wanted Mahfouz punished for Adrift on the Nile. Al-Hakim Amir was vice-president, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. There can hardly be many people more powerful under a military dictatorship than the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
The decision to tolerate the novel was taken finally by Nasser himself. It is remarkable that the decision on a single novel was finally taken by the head of state. It is also remarkable that Naguib Mahfouz had the support he needed at that level of government. One of his supporters was Mohammed Haykal, the editor of Al-Ahram. Samia Mehrez gives an interesting account of Mahfouz’s negotiation of the power relationships and his dealings with censorship. [Mehrez, Respected Sir, in Beard and Haydar, 1993.]
The dating of the novel is precise. Anis Zaki, who is in effect the protagonist of the novel, works at a menial level in the civil service. In the first chapter of the novel, Mahfouz gives a hint, through an extract from correspondence, of the tedious nature of the work that Zaki does.
The correspondence includes some precise dates. Knowing Mahfouz’s methods, that is deliberate. ‘Dear Sir: With reference to you letter number 1911, dated February 2, 1964, and to the communication pertaining, reference number 2008, dated March 28, 1964: I have the honour of informing you….’ Some people might think it is not surprising, if Zaki spends his day dealing with correspondence as boring as that, that he smokes dope. [Adrift on the Nile, Chapter 1.]
Mahfouz knew the civil service well. He was a career civil servant, and a successful one. ‘The great writer was employed in the government for more than fifty-four of his seventy-eight years.’ [Mehrez, Respected Sir, in Beard and Haydar, 1993.] Mahfouz eventually became a consultant in the Ministry of Culture [Wikipedia].
Mahfouz writes about the civil service in Cairo Modern (1945), Khan al-Khalili (1945), The Mirage (1948), The Cairo Trilogy (1956-7), Autumn Quail (1962), Mirrors (1972) and Respected Sir (1975). The civil service is part of the world in which Mahfouz’s petty-bourgeois characters live.
We do not know how promptly Zaki is dealing with the correspondence. We suspect it is not very promptly at all. These dates however give us a terminus post quem.
There is also a reference to a public event, a dating technique that Mahfouz resorts to routinely. In Cairo Modern the reference is to the rise of Hitler. Towards the end of the novel there is a remark about ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ [Cairo Modern, 41.]
In Adrift on the Nile the reference is to the Vietnam War. ‘American planes had made strikes on North Vietnam.’ [Adrift on the Nile, 7.] Operation Rolling Thunder, as the bombing campaign was grandly known, began on March 2, 1965. [Wikipedia.]
When a novel of Naguib Mahfouz is precisely dated it is usually political or social in significance. The novels in which a more personal theme is paramount are also dated, but more loosely.
There is also, rather unusually for Mahfouz, a reference to an Islamic festival. ‘Amm Abduh replied that it was on this day that the Prophet left the unbelievers – curses be upon them – for a new place.’ [14.]
The feast of Al-Hijra commemorates the departure of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca and their journey to Medina. The emigration represented a separation of the Muslims from the unbelievers.
Al-Hijra occurs on the first day of Muharram, the New Year in the Muslim lunar calendar. The first of Muharram in 1965 was Tuesday the 11th of May in the Western calendar.
Ragab’s response to the festival is to propose that the friends make a journey of their own. Ragab al-Qadi is a successful film actor. He is also a sex god. ‘Ragab… is the god of sex, the provider of women for our boat.’ [3.]
Ragab’s comparison of a drive in the country with the Emigration of the Prophet is at best frivolous. I am not sure if it is blasphemous. I think it may be. ‘Ragab said: “The best way to celebrate the prophet’s journey is to make one of our own…. What do you say to a trip to the country in my car?”’ [14.]
Ragab is irresponsible. He has already introduced an under-age girl to the houseboat. ‘[Ragab] was slender, dark and fine-featured… he announced in a melodious voice: “This is Miss Sana al-Rashidi, a student at the Faculty of Arts.”’ [3.]
It is a setting where men seduce women and smoke hashish. His friends are aware of what Ragab is doing. ‘Now that [the underage girl] is here we have broken every rule in the book.’ [4.]
The friends eventually challenge Ragab. ‘…Sana had finally become acquainted with the water pipe – at which Ahmad Nasr had whispered in Ragab’s ear, “She’s a minor!”’ [5.] They do not stop him.
Ragab’s irresponsibility, on the drive to the country, is to set off the crisis of the novel. Ragab could of course have proposed a trip to the country without any reference to the Prophet Mohammed whatsoever. Mahfouz is also making a deliberate point about irreligion.
Samara is a young journalist who is introduced to the houseboat by Ali al-Sayyid, the art critic. She is twenty-five. Samara is in a sense the antagonist of Anis Zaki.
Samara sees herself as a serious person. She is preoccupied with the absurd. ‘Absurdity is the loss of meaning, the meaning of anything.’ [10.]
Samara is not apparently religious. She nevertheless associates the loss of meaning with the loss of traditional religious faith. She also sees faith as creating a standard for belief. ‘It is also necessary that our belief has the sincerity of true religious faith, plus faith’s astonishing power to inspire acts of heroism.’ [10.]
The friends who gather on the houseboat are six men and two women. Two other women, Sana and Samara, join them temporarily in the course of the novel.
The friends are outwardly respectable. Layla Zaydan is in her thirties and unmarried. She is a translator at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ahmad Nasr is a senior civil servant. He is the Director of Accounts at the Ministry of Social Affairs. Mustafa Rashid is a lawyer, Ali al-Sayyid is an art critic and Khalid Azzuz is a short-story writer. Ragab al-Qadi is of course an actor. Saniya Kamil is a married woman, who periodically leaves her husband.
In another culture – in another city, perhaps – the group might be seen as bohemian. Three of them have artistic occupations, they all take drugs and some of them engage in what would in another context or another culture have been called free love.
They resemble in some ways the friends of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy. Abd al-Jawad and his friends drink alcohol, which is of course forbidden to Muslims. They frequent singers and in the case of Abd al-Jawad have sexual relationships with them. That is also forbidden. Abd al-Jawad and his friends are united by their love of music, not hashish.
One would not describe Abd al-Jawad and his friends as bohemian. They are petty-bourgeois businessmen. Abd al-Jawad and his friends remind one more of the hedonism described by Omar Khayyam. There is a reference to Omar Khayyam in Adrift on the Nile. This is surely deliberate. ‘But if the plaints of Omar Khayyam lose their ardour, say goodbye to ease.’ [7.]
Abd al-Jawad and his friends are also not unlike Haroun al-Rashid and his vizier, Yahya bin Barmak, who roam Baghdad at night in several of the stories of the Thousand and One Nights. The resemblance is almost certainly deliberate. Mahfouz was to make use of al-Rashid, Barmak and Scheherezade in Arabian Nights and Days (1982). Mahfouz changes the names.
There is a superficial resemblance between the friends who gather on the houseboat and the hashish smokers in Khan al-Khalili. In Khan al-Khalili the hashish smokers start their evening in the Zahra café. They smoke their hashish in the local brothel. They are undistinguished. Ahmad Akif, the protagonist, joins them once. [Khan al-Khalili, 32.]
It is important I think that with the exception of Zaki the friends on the houseboat are middle class professionals. Zaki, like Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili, is an unsuccessful civil servant. Middle class professionals can perfectly well live a bohemian lifestyle. Sometimes they do. I do not however think that is what Mahfouz intends.
The friends are united by their drug smoking. ‘“[The waterpipe] is the focal point of our gatherings. None of us is really happy except when we are here.”’ [6.]
The political and social point is the nihilism of a group of Egyptian bourgeois: an actor, a critic, a writer, a lawyer and a senior civil servant. ‘…we would be considered – in the eyes of some – nihilism itself!” [Adrift on the Nile, 6.]
They have no interest in the Egyptian state or in Arab socialism. ‘“…the truth is we are not Egyptians or Arab or human; we belong to nothing and no-one – except this houseboat.”’ [6.]
It is the dissolution of these successful people which may have been shocking for the commander-in-chief. “I am one of you, O dissolutes of our time, and whoever is like his friends has done no wrong.” [6.]
Like Isa ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail, and Omar al-Hamzawi in The Beggar (1965), the friends on the houseboat have lost all sense of meaning. Their only concern, in the new world that the July revolution has created, is their own material welfare. ‘Ragab announced that he planned to raise his asking fee to five thousand pounds per film, and Khalid congratulated him, for reaffirming in this way his loyalty to Arab socialism.’ [14.]
They have no sense of their responsibility towards the Egyptian people. This will be demonstrated by the crisis of the novel.
The women in the group might in another context be called ‘new women’. Even by being in male company they are taking a degree of sexual freedom which the conservative traditional culture did not permit. Sexual freedom for women is a topic which Mahfouz will address again in Love in the Rain (1973).
Layla and Saniya are both having sexual relations with men to whom they are not married. Layla is said to love Khalid Azzuz, the short-story writer. Ali al-Sayyid, the art critic, is Saniya’s lover when she leaves her husband, as she periodically does . Samara and Sana, according to conventional norms, should not be on the houseboat on their own. Both are clearly tempted by the possibility of sexual relations with Ragab.
The particular difficulty for progressive women in Egypt was the honour culture. This would presumably also have been the case in other Arab countries. In the honour culture women did not make their own decisions, either about sexual relations or working outside the home. Their male relatives made the decisions.
In The Beggar Warda could not have been a singer if she had had male relatives. ‘”You know most people have a low opinion of the art. For that reason I left my family. It’s just as well I have no brother or father.”’ [The Beggar, 9.]
In the extreme case the honour culture permitted – indeed, encouraged – what was known as ‘honour killing’. The police officer in The Beginning and the End (1950) releases Nefisa into Hassanein’s custody. ‘”This… has to do with your sister…. She was arrested in a certain house in Al Sakakini.”’ [The Beginning and the End, 89.]
The officer clearly expects Hassanein to carry out an ‘honour killing’. ‘“I hope you’ll help me do my duty without making me regret the measures I’ve taken to protect your reputation.”’ [89.]
Mahfouz clearly does not like the idea of honour killing. In The Beginning and the End he does not seem to know how to challenge it. He resolves his dilemma by means of a double suicide.
Hassanein initially has no compassion. ‘“Drown yourself in the Nile,” he said bluntly.’ [90.] Almost immediately he has doubts. ‘There might have been another solution, he thought.’ [91.]
Hassanein’s doubts lead him to follow Nefisa into the water. ‘Hassanein reached the same place on the bridge. He climbed the rail, looking down into the turbulent waters.’ [92.]
Nefisa has been working as a prostitute. She is motivated both by poverty and sexual need. ‘However, in addition to the feeling of despair, an intense desire boiled in veins, clamouring for gratification; she felt helpless before it.’ [41.]
Mahfouz makes it clear Nefisa would have preferred to be married. ‘A deceiver, an impostor, and a liar. What would she do…? Only one hour before she had considered him her man, and herself his wife.’ [33.]
Mahfouz’s portrait of Nefisa is not sympathetic. ‘Nefisa, [Samira’s] daughter …had the same thin oval face, short, coarse nose and pointed chin. She was pale, and a little hunchbacked’. [5.]
In the honour culture, any woman who had sexual relations outside marriage would be seen as a whore. This applied whether or not she benefited financially. For the new women on the houseboat, love is very important. Love can justify sex outside marriage.
Mahfouz explicitly recognises Layla as a new woman. ‘Layla Zaydan… was thirty-five and unmarried, which was appropriate for one of the first explorers of the space of female liberty….’ [3.]
Love is important to Layla. She is not however immune to the norms of the honour culture. Love justifies Layla’s relationship with Khalid. If she engaged in sexual relations without love, the stigma of the honour culture would apply. ‘[Layla] loved Khalid, and on account of that could not give in to Anis, in spite of their friendship – if she did, she would be a whore.’ [3.]
It is less obvious that love is important to Saniya Kamil. She comes to the houseboat only when she is temporarily separated. The friends understand this. ‘“That means that your husband has left you!” “Or that I have left him.”’ [3.]
Sana, the young student, is not initially comfortable. She is aware that hashish smoking is against the law. ‘Sana appeared uneasy…. “Aren’t you afraid of the police?”’ [4.]
Sana is also aware of the impropriety of her situation. ‘“I should be studying with a girlfriend.”’ [4.]
Amm Abduh, the watchman, is traditional. He calls the faithful to prayer at the local mosque. ‘”Your voice is beautiful when you call them to prayer,” Anis remarked….’
Amm Abduh assumes that the women in the group are whores. ‘“The street girls are nicer – and cheaper.” [4.]
Anis defends his friends. ‘“They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.”’ [4.]
The insistence that they don’t take money is a rebuttal of the traditional categorisation of sexually liberated women as whores. Anis is also insisting that the women are independent. They make their own decisions.
The presence of liberated women in the group does not guarantee that the men will treat women well. Ragab neglects Sana for Samara. ‘Sana turned her gaze out to the Nile like a fugitive, and [Ragab] put his arm apologetically around her.’ [4.]
Layla defends her own position in a comment on the way Ragab is treating Sana. ‘…Layla Zaydan had pronounced: “Woe betide those who respect love in an age when love has no respect!”’ [5.]
Mahfouz presents Samara as an independent, spirited and intelligent women. He also presents her, as we shall see, as someone with flaws. He cannot prevent himself portraying her also in traditional terms. ‘…she was definitely a woman of character, but she was also quite charmingly feminine.’ [6.]
Anis is very taken with Samara. He sees her very much as a woman. ‘This visitor is interesting even before she opens her mouth. She is beautiful. She smells wonderful.’ [6.]
Samara does not initially take Anis seriously. She is nevertheless not offended when he declares himself. ‘“Your turn now, master of ceremonies; what is the most important thing for you?” Anis answered without a second thought. “To be your lover.”’ [7.]
The other friends also see Samara in sexual terms. ‘“Could she possibly be thinking that she might win us over one day…? In that case, we should try to win her over into one of these three bedrooms.” ‘[7.]
They take Ragab’s interest in Samara very seriously. ‘When the friends noticed his total absorption in Samara, Rashid said: “How fortunate we are, to witness in our age the story of a grand passion.”’ [13.]
It is the introduction of Samara to the houseboat that prompts the action of the novel. Dope smokers do not act. They talk.
Samara is introduced to the houseboat by Ali al-Sayyid. Ali apparently knows Samara. We are not told the details. We are allowed to assume that Ali and Samara know each other professionally. He describes her as ‘”My beautiful and renowned colleague.”’ [5.]
Ali’s announcement is rather dramatic. ‘“Samara Bahgat wishes to visit the houseboat!” “…The journalist?” ‘[5.]
The friends are worried that Samara’s presence will ‘constrain’ them. Ali is reassuring: ‘…she was coming for no other purpose than to get to know them.’ [5.]
To make her more interesting, Ali tells them that Samara has interests in areas other than journalism: ‘“…she has ambitions in the artistic sphere which she hopes to realise one day.” ‘[5.] These ambitions turn out to be very significant.
The friends are concerned that Samara intends in some way to investigate them. They also think she won’t participate. ‘“Why do you want to invite such a dangerous woman to the houseboat… when she can’t entertain us in the least?” ‘[5.]
Samara, like a good journalist, has done her homework. She tries to put the friends at their ease by flattering them. Samara complements Ragab on his acting. “I saw you in your last film…. I can say you played your part extraordinarily well.”’ [6.] Samara shows that she knows one of Khalid’s stories. ‘”The last story of yours I read was the tale of the piper….”’ [6.]
The friends see Samara as serious. This worries them. ‘”If we are to judge her on the strength of what she writes, then she is an alarmingly serious person,” Ragab said.” [5.] There is an opposition between Samara’s seriousness and the friends’ nihilism. ‘”Your articles pour forth bitter criticism of nihilism….”’ [6.]
Samara does not smoke hashish. ‘“Coffee and cigarettes – nothing else.” ‘ [6.] She does however drink alcohol. ‘She accepted a glass [of whisky] gladly….’ [6.]
Samara reveals her artistic ambitions. ‘“I am mad about the theatre, first of all.”’ [6.] The friends are disparaging. ‘”…the theatre is nothing but talk.”’ [6.] They are also witty. “…just like our little society here.” [6.]
The novel in some ways resembles a play. It is not inconceivable that it was first conceived as a play. In two chapters Anis is at the ministry. In another chapter the friends drive to the country. Other than that, all the action is confined to the houseboat.
The scene in the houseboat is set. It is very much like a stage. ‘The mattresses were arranged in a large semicircle just inside the door to the balcony. On a brass tray in the middle of the semicircle stood the waterpipe and a brazier for the charcoal.’ [3.]
Samara defends her chosen art. ‘”No…! the theatre is concentrated; everything has to have a meaning.”’ [6.] This may or may not be a valid statement about the theatre. It is certainly true that Samara seeks meaning.
The dynamic changes when Anis finds, and decides to keep, Samara’s notebook. ‘Anis’ eyes fell on a large white handbag on the mattress where Samara had been sitting…. He stretched out his and to the bag and opened it…. He decided to take fifty piasters to give to the girl Amm Abduh would bring…. Then another, reckless notion occurred, one uniquely capable of stirring up all kinds of mischief: he took her notebook and slid it into his pocket.’ [9.]
Until that point we have been able to observe Samara’s behaviour and hear her words, much as in a play. The notebook gives us access to her thoughts. Until that point, also, Anis has been the silent observer. Now he becomes a significant actor.
Anis is the most bohemian of the friends. He is completely cynical about the ministry where he works. ‘On the shelves the files enjoy an easeful death.’ [1.]
Anis is more committed to the drug-smoking lifestyle than the others. He is the only one of the friends who lives on the houseboat. Anis takes responsibility for the water pipe and the hashish. He is the ‘master of ceremonies’, or the ‘master of pleasures’. ‘”Come and live on the houseboat. You won’t have to pay a millieme. Just get everything ready for us.”’ [1.]
Anis is the only one of the friends whose work is affected by drug-taking.
At the opening of the novel he manages to write an entire report without any ink in his pen. ‘[Anis] saw one line clearly written, followed by a blank space.’ [1.]
The Director is furious. ‘“There isn’t a single drop of ink in it!” said the Director.’ [1.] The Director explicitly blames Anis’s drug-taking. ‘“You did not see what was on the page because you were… drugged!” [1.] Anis is penalised. The penalty at this stage is not severe. “I shall only cut two days from your salary… but beware of any repetition of this episode.” [1.]
His books are the only sign that Anis is a cultivated man. ‘It was a library of history, from the dawn of time to the atomic age, domain of his imagination and storehouse of his dreams.’ [2.] Sometimes Anis loses himself in historical fantasies. ‘And the dust flew up under the horses’ hooves, and the Mameluke soldiery let loose yells of joy on the road to the hunt….’ [1.] At other times Anis frankly hallucinates. ‘The whale came no closer; and then it winked, saying: I am the whale that saved Jonah.’ [3.]
The notebook that Anis finds contains Samara’s notes for a play. This is unmistakeable. The notes are headed: ‘SCENARIO FOR A PLAY ‘[10.] The scenario is based on the friends in the houseboat, ‘…under their own names, for the time being.’ [10.] Later, to Anis, Samara defends herself weakly. ‘”What is written in the notebook – it’s not my opinion of you….”’ [12.]
Samara’s notes reveal her opinion of the friends. They also reveal more than Samara might want about her personality. The notes are systematic. Samara states her intention clearly at the outset. ‘The major theme of the drama is the Serious versus the Absurd.’ [10.]
The Absurd is a key term in the works of Camus and Sartre, the French writers who were identified in the popular mind with existentialism. Existentialism was very fashionable in Europe in the 50s. ‘The Serious’ is not an existential term. The idea that Sartre in particular would oppose to absurdity was commitment. Mahfouz wishes the reader to be quite sure that it is existentialism he has in mind. One of the friends says, in a comment on an article by Samara, ‘”I thought that the article smacked of ‘commitment’.”’ [8.]
Samara defines absurdity. Her approach is very much intellectual. ‘It is a passage through life propelled by absurdity alone, without conviction, without real hope. This is reflected in the character in the form of dissipation and nihilism, and heroism is transformed into mockery and myth.’ [10.]
To the existentialists, commitment was about action. By implication, that action was often political. The intellectuals on the houseboat are not Europeans. However much they deny it, they are Egyptians and Arabs. However secular they may be, their background is Muslim. They live in a world in which the truths of Islam no longer have authority. Their problem in the first place is not action. It is belief.
Samara defines her idea of seriousness in terms of lack of belief. ‘As for seriousness, it means belief.’ [10.] To make sure that the point about religion is not missed, Samara equates belief with science. ‘Let us look at the scientists for example and method.’ [10.]
Samara discusses her intentions for the play. She reveals herself as conceited and, in some ways, traditionally feminine. Samara is of course a character in her own play. ‘A young woman launches an attack on a group of men in order to change them.’ [10.] The reader will be aware of the arrogance of this ambition.
Samara puts herself at the centre of the play. ‘I require a love story. It would be truly interesting if they were all to fall in love with her and she had to choose one of them….’ [10.] Samara also sees herself as the triumphant love rival of Sana. ‘…the heroine’s victory over [Sana] in the field of love can be taken as a symbol of the victory of the Serious over the Absurd in the female domain….’ [10.] Samara is dismissive of the other women. ‘…Saniya Kamal, who practices her own special brand of polyandry; or the blond translating spinster….’ [10.]
This is a kind of vanity which in the world of Naguib Mahfouz is normal with attractive women. There are also some quite deep ironies. Samara also considers the possibility that ‘she should fall, without knowing it, in love with one of them.’ [10.] Samara is of course, though she does not appear to acknowledge it, in love with Ragab. “‘“You are only here because of Ragab.”’ [12.]
The deepest irony is contained in Samara’s uncertainties about the development of the plot. ‘And how, and when, will the plot develop to a conclusion in an artistically convincing way…? I lack some essential thing; what is it? How can absurdists find any kind of creed?’ [10.]
Samara does not change the friends. The plot is brought to a conclusion through the pointless and avoidable death of a poor man. It is a horrifying absurdity. It makes for pessimism which is much deeper than Samara’s assumption about progress.
Samara came not because she wanted to get to know the friends but because she was collecting material. What she has betrayed is friendship. “But you are a… vile girl…. You came not for friendship, but for snooping around.” [12.]
In her notes, Samara comments on the friends one by one. Ahmad Nasr, the civil servant, is the most conventional. Samara has least to say about him. She wonders why he is there. ‘Why does he smoke the water pipe?’ [10.]
Samara is contemptuous of Mustafa Rashid, the lawyer. It is hard to know whether her arrogance is that of the intellectual, or of youth. ‘He is completely aware of his spiritual emptiness…. he is apparently unaware of the deception he is practising on himself.’ [10.]
Samara reserves much of her venom for Ali al-Sayyid, the critic. As it was al-Sayyid who introduced her to the houseboat, it is hard not to feel she is using him. She condemns his sexual behaviour. ‘…he is a swine, as can be seen by his strange relationship with Saniya Kamal.’ [10.] Samara despises Ali’s professional activity. ‘As a critic, he is a great scoundrel. His aesthetic is focused on material gain….’ [10.] Samara also dismisses him as a person. ‘Harried by feelings of worthlessness and treachery and futility….’ [10.]
Khalid Azzuz, the short story writer, is dismissed as a rentier. ‘He inherited an apartment block….’ [10.]
Samara is of course most interested in Ragab. ‘He is the hope of the drama. If he does not yield to development, then I can say farewell to the play.’ [10.]
This is deeply ironic. Ragab does not develop. It is arrogant of Samara to imagine she can make him. Ragab does however produce the dramatic action of the novel. It is so powerful that it overwhelms the friends and destroys their little society.
Samara underestimates Anis. ‘Useful for comic exploitation, but he will not play a positive role in the play.’ [10.] Anis is not impressed by Samara’s analysis. ‘“Your observations are inane, believe me.”’ [12.]
The reader will probably feel that Samara’s remarks are shrewd, if over-confident. He or she will also probably feel that they reveal Samara to have some unpleasant character traits. She is arrogant, she is competitive, she is judgemental and she is capable of being devious.
Something prompts Anis to embarrass Samara. Mahfouz makes clear the impulse is not benign. ‘Deep inside [Anis], the demons began to incite him to malice.’ [11.] Anis quotes remarks about the friends from the notebook in front of Samara. ‘“You are all modern-day scoundrels, escaping into addiction and groundless delusions….”’ [11.]
Samara returns to the houseboat, and challenges Anis. ‘“I want my notebook.” “You are accusing me of theft!”’ [12.] Samara is worried that Anis will betray her. “Do you intend to tell everyone about it?” [12.] Samara fears humiliation. ‘”I would prefer simply to disappear than be driven away.”’ [12.] Anis, finally, reassures Samara. ‘”If that were my intention, I would have done it.”’ [12.] Perhaps unexpectedly, their open clash brings Anis and Samara closer together. ‘They shook hands in farewell. “Thank you,” she said, like a close friend.’ [12.]
Without knowing that Anis has found the notebook, Khalid discusses Samara’s play with her. He asserts that she cannot be serious. This is of course exactly the point at issue. ‘Khalid turned to Samara. “If you were thinking of writing a play about people like us, then I would advise you as a fellow writer to choose the comic form. I mean farce or absurdism – they’re the same thing.”’ [13.]
Khalid makes a valid point about nihilists and dope smokers. They are not capable of inner development and they do not do anything. They show none of the characteristics that Samara regards as essential to her play. ‘“People like this do not act, do not develop; so how can you begin to succeed in constructing a play around them?”’ [13.] Samara understands perfectly well what Khalid is saying. ‘“You are practically telling me to give up writing.”’ [13.]
There is no very obvious reason why Ragab proposes the trip to the country in his car. It is unmotivated. We have to assume that it is a purely frivolous impulse.
Ragab drives too fast. He is irresponsible. ‘The car went faster. “Slow down,” said Saniya to Ragab.’ [15.] On the way back Ragab is even more reckless. ‘…they set off, faster and faster, until they were travelling at an insane speed.’ [15.] The friends remonstrate, as they did when Ragab introduced an under-age girl to the club. It made no difference then. It makes no difference now. ‘“Madness – this is madness!” “He’ll kill us in cold blood.”’ [15.]
There is an accident. ‘Suddenly a horrifying scream rang out. [Anis] opened his eyes, shaking, to see a black shape flying through the air.’ [15.] Ragab insists that they flee. ‘“We must get out of here!” Ragab said decisively…. “It’s the only solution!”’ [15.] They do not even get out of the car to see how badly injured the person they have hit is, or whether they need help. ‘They drove without stopping until they reached the houseboat. They got out of the car without speaking.’ [15.] The women weep. This is I think another minor piece of sexism. ‘Layla was still crying, which made Saniya start as well.’ [15.]
Samara is the one who is aware of the legal implications of leaving the scene. ‘“But to run away is a crime,” said Samara.’ [15.] Ragab resorts to blackmail. ‘“We must forget; any other action would ruin the reputation of three ladies, and confound the rest of us – and send me straight to court.”’ [15.] Samara refuses to get back in Ragab’s car. Her disgust is clear. ‘“…come with me now, so that I can take you home.” [Samara] shook her head in revulsion. “Not in that car.”’ [15.]
The newspaper the next day confirms that the person Ragab’s car hit is dead. He is so poor that no-one knows who he is. “The body of a man in his fifties…. Half naked. Sustaining fractures to the spine, legs and skull. Hit by a car. The perpetrators fled. His identity, and therefore next of kin, have not been discovered.” [17.]
The trip to the country was unmotivated. There was no reason for Ragab to drive so fast. The result was that someone was killed. Symbolically, this is an acte gratuit. The idea of the acte gratuit is important in some versions of existentialism. It is held to demonstrate the freedom of the individual. Mahfouz has made a reference to the acte gratuit earlier in the novel. ‘One might find a killer without a motive in a novel such as L’Etranger, but in real life?’ [7.] In the case of the death of the stranger, the unmotivated action does not demonstrate that the friends are free. It shows they are reckless, selfish and finally very dangerous.
The next morning there is no kif. ‘The fact that there was no kif on the houseboat redoubled his anxiety and his sense of foreboding.’ [16.] The world has changed. ‘He came out to the street clearheaded for the first time.’ [16.] Anis does not know how to deal with it. ‘But how on earth did the sober man get through the day?’ [16.]
Anis is exhausted. He is no longer even capable of pretending to work. ‘[Anis] arrived at the Ministry early…. He rested his head on the desk and sank into a deep slumber.’ [16.] Anis has a violent quarrel with the Director General. ‘“I saw you with my own eyes…. Sleeping like a baby…..” Anis, without thinking, seized the blotter and threw it at the Director General.’ [16.]
Anis is disciplined. At best he is liable to be pensioned off. Ragab’s act of madness has destroyed Anis’s world as well as the life of an innocent person. ‘“I am sorry to inform you that there has been an order for your dismissal, and that you are to be sent to the civil service tribunal.”’ [16.]
Samara has the same sense that life has changed. ‘“Can life really go on as before?” she murmured.’ [17.] The friends are afraid that Samara will report the incident. ‘They fear trouble from Samara, Anis thought.’ [17.] The friends try, unsuccessfully, to put pressure on Samara. ‘“The newspapers will report that you were in the company of men with a bad reputation, and in the dead of night, involved in criminality, in murder! Doesn’t that mean anything at all?” “No, it does not.”’ [17.] Samara succumbs to emotion. ‘Samara…. burst into a storm of crying.’ [17.]
Ragab attacks Anis. ‘…Ragab [threw] himself at Anis, yelling: “You! You!” And he gave him a great slap in the face.’ [17.] Anis retaliates. ‘Then suddenly [Anis] leaped upon Ragab and fastened his hands around his throat.’ [18.] The fight ends with Anis brandishing a knife to protect himself. ‘[Anis] soon returned with a kitchen knife in his hand.’ [18.]
Anis insists that they must put matters right. ‘“We must inform the authorities of our involvement at once – “’ [18.] He will act if the friends do not agree. ‘“But I will simply go to the police myself,” said Anis.’ [18.] In a temper, Ragab declares he will turn himself in. ‘“I will go to the police myself, and nothing will stand in my way….”’ [18.]
Alone with Samara, Anis acknowledges that his motives are not straightforward. “…jealousy was one of the motives for my strange behaviour.” [18.] This is not about right or wrong. It is about profound irrationality. Amm Abduh has his own perspective on that. ‘“The devil had his fill of him with you tonight.”’ [18.] Samara reciprocates with a confidence. ‘“I confess…. that I try to be more serious than I really am.”’ [18.] Anis and Samara have a genuine intimacy. None of the other friends on the houseboat seem to have achieved that. Samara shows genuine concern. ‘“Do you have the right to a pension if – God forbid – you are actually dismissed?”’ [18.]
We do not find out who goes to the police. We do not find out what happens. In a more conventionally realistic novel we would do.
Like some of Mahfouz’s other novels of the sixties Adrift on the Nile is something of a parable. Mahfouz is not so concerned about outcomes. He is making a point about nihilism. Nihilism is an important theme in the other novels of the 1960s. Bourgeois characters are typically portrayed as nihilistic, materialistic and selfish. They are unable to adjust to the July Revolution.
Said Mahran, in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), has just got out of prison. ‘Once more he breathed the air of freedom. But there was stifling dust in the air, almost unbearable heat, and no one was waiting for him; nothing but his blue suit and his gym shoes.’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 1.]
Said has no occupation other than burglary. ‘My profession will always be mine, a just and legitimate trade….’ [4.] Rauf Ilwan is Mahran’s former mentor. It is from Ilwan that Said acquired his revolutionary ideas. ‘…his whole life had been no more than the mere acting out of ideas that had come from that man….’ [3.] Ilwan has done well out of the revolution. He has become a successful journalist. Said is perversely impressed when he sees Ilwan’s office at the newspaper. ‘Rauf was now a very important man, it seemed, a great man, as great as this room.’ [3.] Ilwan abandons Said. ‘“In the past you were both a thief and my friend…. If you go back to burglary you’ll be a thief and nothing else.”’ [3.]
Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail (1962) is pensioned off after the revolution. ‘…the decision had been taken to pension him off….’ [Autumn Quail, 8.] Isa has been involved in corruption. ‘All the accusations applied to the appointments of umdas….’ [7.] ‘Umdas’ are village headmen. Isa is a Wafd party loyalist. ‘“We’re the legitimate rulers of this country and there are no others besides us.”’ [3.]
Without a job and without the Wafd party Isa has lost his sense of himself as someone with a role in history. ‘“We were the vanguard of a revolution…. and now we are the debris of one!”’ [10.] Isa cannot bring himself to find another job. It would have no meaning. ‘“We won’t be working, whatever job we take… because we’ve no role to play.”’ [13.]
Omar al-Hamzawi in The Beggar (1965) is a successful lawyer. ‘”You look like a business tycoon from the past, nothing missing except the cigar!”’ [The Beggar, 1.] Omar was once involved in politics. ‘”Tell me, do you remember those days of politics, demonstrations, and dreams of Utopia?”’ [1.] Omar was also a poet. ‘”No, no, I’m not a poet. It was a childish pastime.”’ [4.]
Omar has lost interest not just in his work but his life. ‘”I suppose I could still work, but I have no desire to…. Very often I’m sick of life, people, even the family…. I don’t want to think, to move or to feel. Everything is disintegrating and dying.”’ [1.] Omar visits his doctor. ‘“You’ve got a bourgeois disease, if I may use the term our newspapers are so fond of.”’ [1.]
Omar has a moment of epiphany in the desert. That is as much resolution as Mahfouz allows. ‘His heart danced with an intoxicated joy, and his fears and miseries were swept away…. Let the end come now, for this is my best moment.’ [13.]
These novels are rather consistent. They all concern bourgeois professionals who are unable to adapt to the revolution. The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail and The Beggar are individual stories of nihilism. In Adrift on the Nile, dealing as it does with a group of friends, the nihilism is collective. It suggests that nihilism was widespread among the Egyptian middle class.
It is perhaps no wonder, under Arab Socialism, that the Commander in Chief was displeased.
Beard, Michael, and Haydar, Adnan (eds), Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, 1993
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