Naguib Mahfouz, 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Autumn Quail, Ad-Dabbagh chooses to live in the Greek quarter. ‘…you could see Greek faces on the balconies, at the windows, and in the street. He was a stranger in a district filled with strangers… you were all strangers in a strange country.’ [Autumn Quail, 13.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ad-Dabbagh moves a prostitute into his flat in Alexandria. ‘The cheap cotton flannel dress, the defiant look untinged by reserve or haughtiness, and the very fact that she was walking alone at night, all these things showed that she was a Corniche girl.’ [14.]

Ad-Dabbagh treats the woman badly. When she gets pregnant he throws her out. ‘“You poisonous little snake!” he yelled at her. “Is this how you pay me back for giving you a home? …Don’t let me see your face from now on, or ever again.”’ [16.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a working definition of evil.




Bibliographical Note

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

Photo credit: omdaa on /  CC BY-NC-ND


The Beggar

Naguib Mahfouz, 1965


The Beggar is dated by two references. One is to what is referred to as the ‘socialist state’, and the other to a possible expropriation of personal assets.

The protagonist of The Beggar is Omar al-Hamzawi. In the first chapter Omar visits a doctor. The doctor, an old school friend, makes a reference to politics: ‘…a great dream was realised. I mean the socialist state….’ [The Beggar, 1.]

The Free Officers, who staged a bloodless coup in 1952, were not originally socialists. In fact, they lacked an ideology altogether. Egypt became more of a socialist state in 1958, following the union of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic. Syria’s Ba’ath party was both nationalist and socialist. The ideas of their Syrian colleagues influenced the Egyptian leadership. [Goldschmidt, 10.]

A few years later legislation was passed that made Egypt – in many people’s eyes – much more of a socialist state. Zeinab, Omar’s wife, has heard rumours that investment properties will be confiscated. ‘Yesterday… we heard our neighbour saying the apartment buildings would be nationalised.’ [The Beggar, 3.] The rumours are never confirmed. Omar and Zeinab do not lose their investments.

This is almost certainly a reference to the July Laws of 1961. I do not know whether the July Laws included any provision for the confiscation of assets. They certainly included measures of income redistribution. These would have affected bourgeois families such as the al-Hamzawi. The fact that there is no confirmation indicates that by the end of the novel the laws have not been passed. The novel is therefore set at some point between 1958 and 1961.

This is a looser time frame than the one established for those of Mahfouz’s novels with a more political content, such as Cairo Modern (1945) or The Beginning and the End (1950). These are dated to within months. The more personal novels, such as The Mirage (1948) and The Search (1964), like The Beggar, are usually dated only within a few years. This suggests that The Beggar is more of a personal than a political novel, despite the fact that there are political references, and some political content. The Beggar nevertheless shares themes with The Thief and the Dogs (1961) and Autumn Quail (1962). Both of those novels are highly political.

The doctor reminds al-Hamzawi of the radical change that has occurred in the state. The doctor also reminds him of his youthful political involvement and his idealism. ‘”Tell me, do you remember those days of politics, demonstrations, and dreams of Utopia?”’ [1.]

In a similar way, Rauf Ilwan in The Thief and the Dogs Said Mahran of the change that has happened while he was in prison. In the case of The Thief and the Dogs, it is historically a somewhat earlier change. ‘“And now you’ve come out of prison to find a new world.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 3.] Ilwan is referring to the July Revolution of 1952.

Like Rauf Ilwan, Omar al-Hamzawi’s best friend Mustapha al-Minyani is a prominent journalist. Unlike Ilwan, Mustapha is a nice man. He is loyal. Unlike Said Mahran, Omar is Mustapha’s equal. They were at school together, and have both become middle-class professionals.

Omar is a prosperous lawyer. ‘”You look like a business tycoon from the past, nothing missing except the cigar!”’ [The Beggar, 1.]

Mustapha is ‘editor of the magazine’s art section. [7.] He also ‘works for radio and television.’ [1.]

There are resemblances to Autumn Quail,  as well as to The Thief and the Dogs. Like Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail, Omar gives up. In Omar’s case it is however for different reasons.

Isa’s reasons for not looking for a new job after he is pensioned off from the ministry are finally personal. He feels that without a political and historical role his life is meaningless.

After the riots in the Canal Zone the government falls. Isa loses his political support. ‘“A decree’s been issued transferring me from my position in the minister’s office to the archives.”’ [Autumn Quail, 3.]

After the revolution there is a crackdown on corruption. ‘…he was summoned to appear before the Purge Committee.’ [7.]

Isa is thoroughly involved in the corruption of the old regime. ‘All the accusations applied to the appointments of umdas on the basis of party bias and gifts….’ [7.] An ‘umda’ is a village headman. Under the pre-revolutionary regime, they were important.

Isa’s cousin Hasan offers him a job. ‘“I’ve got a job for you in a respectable company.”’ [11.]

Isa is not interested. ‘Work is the very last thing that you want.’ [10.]

Isa had dedicated himself to the Wafd. ‘“We’re the legitimate rulers of this country and there are no others besides us.”’ [3.]

Isa has had power. ‘There’s been a time when he’d made several members of the committee tremble even when his party was not in power.’ [7.]

Isa has lost not only the past and the present but the future as well. ‘“My future’s a thing of the past.”’ [12.]

Omar also stops work. It is the result of inner pressure. There is no external crisis. ‘”I suppose I could still work, but I have no desire to…. Very often I’m sick of life, people, even the family…. I don’t want to think, to move or to feel. Everything is disintegrating and dying.”’ [The Beggar, 1.]

Like Isa, Omar is interested in power. ‘In the agony of failure, I sought power, that evil which we’d wanted to abolish.’ [4.]

Othman Khalil is another old friend of Omar and Mustafa. He shared their beliefs. ‘“He was an enthusiastic socialist like you, but the most committed of all, without question, was Othman Khalil.”’ [1.]

Othman does not appear in person until the last third of the novel. He is not a significant actor. Yet he is mentioned in the first chapter. He is important.

Othman, like Said Mahran, has been in prison. ‘“He’s in jail….”’  [1.]

Othman protected his friends. ‘Omar had been in the heat of danger, but his friend had not confessed. In spite of torture, he had not confessed.’ [2.]

Omar, unlike Rauf Ilwan, feels guilty. ‘There’s no use trying to escape. Your sense of guilt increases by the moment.’ [15.]

Othman, unlike Said Mahran, builds a new life. He works in Omar’s law firm. ‘“My office is at your disposal.” “Excellent. The authorities have no objection to my practicing.”’ [15.]

Othman is concerned about whether Mustapha and Omar have given up their beliefs. ‘“Are you a true believer as you once were?”’ [15.]

Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs has a similar concern about Said Mahran. ’What if Rauf should prove to have betrayed those ideas?’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 3.]

There is an important element in The Beggar that does not have a parallel in either The Thief and the Dogs or Autumn Quail. That is art, or – more precisely – the abandonment of art.

Omar al-Hamzawi started out as a poet. Sometimes he denies this. ‘”No, no, I’m not a poet. It was a childish pastime.”’ [The Beggar, 4.]

Yet the love of poetry goes deep. ‘I find myself caught in a whirlpool from which there’s no escape except through poetry, for poetry is the very aim of my existence.’ [4.]

Omar’s poems, like the jailed Othman Khalil, are mentioned in the first chapter. They are important. ‘”…the face I remember most vividly is that of Omar the poet….”’ [1.]

Omar published one book of poetry. ‘”But your collection of poems, Papa.” “…No one listened to my songs.”’

Omar’s friend Mustapha started out as a dramatist. ‘One day Mustapha announced happily that the Tali’a troupe had accepted his play…. Mustapha slumped on the couch…. “I have to reconsider my life as you have.”’ [4.]

Omar gave up after one book. It doesn’t suggest a lot of commitment. Now Zeinab has discovered that their teenage daughter, Buthayna, is writing poetry. ‘”I discovered something unexpected in Buthayna…. She’s a poet, Omar.”’ [3.]

Omar is worried. He believes now that science is more important than poetry. “Buthayna, is it unreasonable to ask you not to give up your scientific studies?” [4.]

Mustapha, the cynic, gives a similar priority to science. ‘“The era of art has ended, and the art of our age is simply diversion, the only art possible in an age of science. Science has taken over all fields except the circus.”’ [4.]

Mustapha dismisses his work for cinema and TV as ‘”…watermelon seeds and popcorn.”’ [2.]

As a poet, Buthayna is romantic. ‘She pointed out a jasmine bud, still barely visible, and exclaimed happily, “The first jasmine. It’s very small but the scent is strong. Shall I pick it for you?”’ [8.]

The first jasmine is a symbol of youth. Poetry, like political enthusiasm, is for the young. ‘“…each of us became involved in his work, we grew older, the Revolution broke out, and the old world collapsed.”’ [15.]

Womanising is important in Autumn Quail. It is a central theme in The Beggar. Isa ad-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail gets mixed up with women.

In Alexandria ad-Dabbagh gets involved with a prostitute. ‘The cheap cotton flannel dress, the defiant look untinged by reserve or haughtiness, and the very fact that she was walking alone at night, all these things showed that she was a Corniche girl.’ [Autumn Quail, 14.]

Isa lets Riri move into his flat. ‘She played her role adroitly, something above that of a servant and yet below that of a mistress of the house.’ [16.]

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

Isa then arranges a marriage for himself with a woman of his own class. ‘Qadriyya needs a husband, he thought with a good deal of sorrow, and I need a wife. He decided to make a few of the usual enquiries, which established that she had been married three times, not once.’ [21.]

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

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

Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs is not a womaniser. When he is on the run he needs a refuge. He hooks up with an old flame. ‘“It’s Nur, remember her…? She’ll be pleased to see you.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 5.]

Mahran has no respect for Nur. ‘She’d hoped to gain his love, but failed. Her face was disguised by heavy makeup, and she was wearing a sexy frock that not only showed her arms and legs but was fitted so tightly to her body it might have been stretched rubber. What it advertised was that she’d given up all claims to self-respect.’ [5.]

Eventually Nur leaves Said. ‘“You’ve killed someone! …How terrible! Didn’t I plead with you?”’ [12.]

The womanising in The Beggar, by contrast, is at the heart of the novel. The women in The Beggar are attractive. They matter to Omar in a way that the women in Autumn Quail and The Thief and the Dogs do not matter to Isa ad-Dabbagh or Said Mahran.

In The Cairo Trilogy (1956-7) both Ahmad ‘Abd al-Jawad and his eldest son Yasin become involved with singers. In The Cairo Trilogy they are traditional singers. In The Beggar the ambience is more Western.

The first woman with whom Omar attempts to form a liaison is a night-club singer called Margaret. Omar’s friend Mustapha takes him to a club called The New Paris.

Mustapha is a habitué. ‘“I envy your expertise in these forbidden pleasures.”’ [7.]

Mustapha sees Margaret as a prostitute. ‘“…You said her name is Margaret.” “…Or twenty pounds a night, not counting the liquor.”’ [7.]

There is a reference to Omar’s search for his lost youth. ‘…for a moment, bewitched by the night’s charms, he was restored to his lost youth.’ [7.]

The doctor has already referred to this in the first chapter. He uses a form of words that anticipates Omar’s philandering. ‘“And now you’re searching for your lost love.”’  [1.]

Omar has a moment of pleasure. ‘Out on the floor, with his arm around her waist and the fragrance of her perfume quickening his senses, he savoured the night.’ [7.]

Margaret is one of the expensive women that Isa in Autumn Quail cannot afford. ‘All these beautiful women belonged to houses now, not to the streets….’ [Autumn Quail, 14.]

On the evening that Omar meets Margaret he is already making plans for a full-scale liaison. It seems that the particular woman doesn’t matter much. ‘“I’ll arrange the right place for us.”’ [The Beggar, 7.]

Margaret stalls him. ‘“…Wait a little.”’ [7.]

Omar’s wish for a relationship with Margaret may be based on self-deception. The feelings that Omar experiences are genuine. ‘“Passing illusion that she was, the heartthrob was real.”’ [8.]

Omar is treating his wife badly. ‘“You should have been asleep.”  “This is the third night.”’ [7.]

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

Margaret’s disappearance has a powerful effect on Omar. ‘This act of faithlessness set off a reaction twice as intense and he felt he was in a desperate race with insanity.’ [8.]

Omar, with barely a pause, continues his search for a woman. Mustapha takes him to another club. The resemblance to high-class prostitution is even stronger. The manager is a pimp. ‘“I thought of asking you to recommend a suitable girl for him.”’ [8.]

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

In an enigmatic phrase Mahfouz makes it clear that Omar’s feelings are not a response to a particular individual. He is searching for someone who will match his need. ‘I came not because I loved but in order to love.’ [8.]

His feelings are nevertheless intense. ‘…he felt his being throb with a strange and unbounded desire, like the mysterious yearnings which assailed him in the late hours of the night. …they exchanged a long kiss, incited by passions as old as the moon.’ [8.]

With Warda, he does exactly what he does with Margaret. ‘He drove out to the desert by the pyramids, racing madly, seeking the shelter of the open sky as he had with Margaret.’ [8.]

Omar treats Zeinab as badly as he did when he was seeing Margaret. ‘“It’s almost dawn…. I haven’t heard this tone from you in all the years we’ve been married.”’ [8.]

This time Buthayna is also worried. ‘On Friday he sought out Buthayna on the balcony while she was watering the flower pots…. “I’ve missed you very much,” she said.’ [8.]

Omar sets up a love nest for Warda, as he had intended to do with Margaret. ‘His creative energies were spent outside now in setting up the flat in Soliman Pasha Square.’ [9.]

Warda has a certain realism. ‘“It’s extravagant to come here every night.”’ [9.]

Warda is worldly, which gives her the appearance of a maturity that Zeinab does not have. ‘“When winter comes, will you still be interested in our affair?”’ [9.]

Warda originally intended to be an actress. “I had aspirations of being an actress. I tried, and failed.” [11.]

For Omar, this has echoes of his own feelings of failure. ‘Failure! The curse that never ends!’ [11.]

Warda also has a lack of confidence in language that echoes Omar’s disillusion with art and literature. ‘“I have no confidence in words, since I was originally an actress….”’  [9.]

For a woman in Egypt at that time, and more widely in the Arab world, the decision to become an actress or a dancer would have implications for family honour. ‘”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.”’ [9.]

For Warda to say in this context that she has ‘no brother or father’ is a reference to honour killing. It is a way of emphasising that in the culture Warda would be seen as a prostitute.

It is probably fair to say that Mahfouz was preoccupied with prostitution. It is certainly a theme to which he returns frequently. In The Beginning and the End (1950) prostitution is connected with the possibility of honour killing.

At the end of The Beginning and the End Hassanein, one of several protagonists from the family of the late Kamel Ali, has just been commissioned as an officer. The death of Kamel Ali, at the beginning of the novel, plunged the family into poverty.

Hassanein is summoned to the police station. His sister Nefisa has been arrested. The implicit suggestion is that she was arrested in a brothel. She is released into Hassanein’s custody. ‘“This… has to do with your sister…. She was arrested in a certain house in Al Sakakini.”’ [89.]

The police officer hints strongly at 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.]

Nefisa offers 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 commits suicide as well. ‘Hassanein reached the same place on the bridge. He climbed the rail, looking down into the turbulent waters.’ [92.]

This is quite melodramatic. Mahfouz acknowledges the existence of the notion of honour killing in the culture. He doesn’t challenge it. The double suicide avoids the issue.

In The Beggar Warda has no male relatives who might have felt obliged to defend family honour. The issue is sidestepped. It is possible to respect Mahfouz’s discomfort without feeling he has dealt with the issue of honour and its effect on women in a satisfactory way.

Honour is an issue in the melodramatic novels that were written before The Cairo Trilogy. It remains an issue in the realistic novels that were written after Children of the Alley (1959). It is not the case that the novels of the 60s are in all respects more mature than the novels of the 40s.

Women in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz are not only at risk from notions of family honour. They value relationships in a way that men do not. This – from the perspective of the early twenty-first century – is also sexist.

Warda believes in love in a way that Omar does not. ‘“What do you want most in life?” “Love….” “Have you never thought of the meaning of life?” “It has no meaning apart from love.”’ [9.]

Nur in The Thief and the Dogs is uneducated. She is a bar girl. She shares Warda’s point of view. ‘“Is there anything more important than love? I often wondered if your heart wasn’t made of stone.”’ [9]

The relationship with Warda gives Omar some relief. It does not take away his misery. ‘When the night is spent and the relentless dawn overtakes us, you’ll return inevitably to the dreary room where there is no music, no ecstasy, where sad eyes and a wall of stone will close upon you.’ [9.]

Zeinab and Buthayna are affected. ‘“Mama’s unwell,” Buthayna said. “… She cries a lot and that’s very painful.”’ [10]

Omar lies to his daughter. ‘“There’s no other woman…? I want an answer, Papa.” …In bitter despair, he said, “There’s nothing.”’ [10]

Warda is afraid the relationship will end. She fears she will fail in love as she has failed as an actress. ‘“I’m so afraid I’ll fail to make you happy.”’ [11.]

Omar is disturbed by strange thoughts. ‘…at times he was overcome by his fantasies, some of them laughable, others more disturbing. He was alarmed by one particular vision: the collision of two cars at a crossroad, a middle-aged gentleman tossed in the air.’ [12.]

It becomes clear that he has been seeking through love to regain the ecstasy he once felt in writing poetry. ‘Dear God, how can ecstasy be aroused again and the dead poetry revived?’ [12.]

Margaret reappears. ‘They went one night to the New Paris and suddenly Margaret appeared on the stage…. One glance exchanged between you and Margaret would be a giveaway.’ [12.]

Omar has no compunction about being unfaithful to Warda. ‘He kissed her and asked, as he’d once asked Zeinab, “You’re still awake?”’ [12.]

Omar is intoxicated by Margaret. ‘He went off to the New Paris congratulating himself on his indifference. The red lights transformed Margaret into a bewitching she-devil, and her slender neck and rich voice thrilled him.’ [12.]

Even Omar is surprised by his indifference to Warda. ‘Could Warda be uprooted so easily from his soul, as if only an artificial flower?’ [12.]

The excitement does not work for him. ‘He sighed with the fullness of pleasure, he sighed with relaxation, but then, dear God, he sighed with the weariness of distress. He looked into the bleak night and wondered where ecstasy was. Where had Margaret gone?’ [12.]

Warda leaves him. ‘Warda sat on the bed. “I’m going away…. I don’t want anything…. What’s sad is that I’ve really loved you.”’ [13.]

Margaret now wants the love nest Omar offered her before. ‘“Wouldn’t it be better to have a place of our own…? I really don’t enjoy affairs in parked cars.”’ [12.]

Omar has lost interest. ‘He drove her back to the hotel without saying another word.’ [12.]

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

Nothing works. ‘Poetry, wine, love – none of them could call forth the elusive ecstasy.’ [13.]

Omar drives out to the pyramids – where he has often gone with women – on his own. He has a moment of ecstasy. ‘He parked the car along the side of the deserted road and got out…. He was lost in blackness.… the darkness relented and a line appeared, diffusing a strange luminosity like a fragrance or a secret… 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]

Immediately after this Zeinab is delivered. This is a coincidence. ‘“Zeinab has gone to the hospital.”’ [14.]

In the melodramatic novels of the 40s Mahfouz was very fond of coincidence. Coincidence was often the cause of plot developments. This is a different case. Coincidence, rather than being causal, is simply being used to move the plot along. It also involves a sacrifice of realism. It is a minor one.

Omar goes home. ‘He returned home, unchanged, feeling neither love nor hatred for Zeinab…. He refrained from his futile night adventures, and was able to find pleasure in his children. But as he watched the Nile flowing incessantly under the balcony he yearned for the peace of that desert dawn.’ [15.]

By another coincidence, Othman Khalil returns to Omar’s life. ‘One afternoon the door of his office opened suddenly and a man entered…. Omar looked at him incredulously for a moment, then stood up and exclaimed in a trembling voice, “Othman Khalil!”’ [15.]

The emphasis on lost youth could suggest that Omar’s unhappiness and the changes in his behaviour are a form of what is now called ‘mid-life crisis’. That is not what Mahfouz seems to intend. Omar’s contemporaries, such as his cynical friend Mustapha al-Minyani, are as baffled as he is. Al-Minyani sees the problem, essentially, as over-work. ‘”What do you think is wrong with me?” “Exhaustion, monotony and time.”’ [2.]

At the beginning of The Beggar Omar consults a doctor. He believes that he is in some way ill. ‘…Omar’s condition was worsening, his eyelids were heavy and his heartbeats sluggish.’ [1.]

At the same time he does not quite believe it. ‘“I don’t believe I’m ill in the usual sense…. It’s not fatigue.”’ [1.]

The doctor refuses to medicate him. ‘“If only we could solve our most serious problems with a pill after eating or a spoonful of medicine before sleeping.”’ [1.]

The doctor uses a self-conscious metaphor to describe Omar’s condition. ‘“You’ve got a bourgeois disease, if I may use the term our newspapers are so fond of.”’ [1.]

Omar is prosperous and successful. ‘“You’re a successful, wealthy man. You’ve virtually forgotten how to walk. You eat the best food, drink good wine, and have overburdened yourself with work to the point of exhaustion.”’ [1.]

The doctor recommends diet and rest. ‘“Be moderate in your eating, drink less, stick to regular exercise such as walking, and there’ll be no grounds for fear.”’ [1.]

He suggests a vacation. ‘“Take a vacation.”’ [1.]

These are material suggestions. It is what one would expect a doctor to do.

Omar has become a materialist. He has given up the ecstasy of poetry and the idealism of politics. His friends, in their different ways, are materialistic too.

Mustapha has completely given up on his artistic aspirations. ‘“Art had meaning in the past, but science intruded and destroyed its significance.”’ [2.]

Othman may not be a Marxist as such. He is definitely a materialist. ‘“You’ll never attain any truth worth speaking of except through reason, science and work.”’ [16.]

Omar cannot tolerate a world in which there is nothing beyond the material. He leaves home again. This time he is slightly more considerate. ‘…he told Zeinab that he would give her power of attorney over his property, and leave his associates in charge at the office.’ [17.]

Omar is seeking a form of transcendence. In the world he lives in, it cannot have a spiritual content. ‘How his soul longed for the moment of victory, the moment of complete liberation!’ [17.]

There are doubts about Omar’s stability. ‘He talked to the animals and objects around him, and held discussions with extinct creatures.’ [17.]

Omar is not however mad any more than he is ill. ‘“Am I insane?” “Oddly enough, your personality doesn’t seem unstable.”’ [12.]

Omar understands transcendence in theory. ‘When your heart achieves its desire, you will have transcended the confines of time and space.’ [18.]

He no longer believes in it. ‘Ecstasy has become a curse, and paradise a stage for fools.’ [18.]

Omar is affected by dreams. In one of them he dreams that his friend Othman is on the run and is captured.  ‘Suddenly the beam of a searchlight flooded the house with light…. “Give up. Othman,” the voice shouted. “Come out with your hands up.”’ [19.]

This is what happens to Said Mahran at the end of The Thief and the Dogs. ‘And suddenly there was blinding light over the whole area…. “Give yourself up…. It’s no use resisting.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 18.]

There is a hint that Omar’s extreme, subjective experiences come to an end. ‘He had the feeling that his heart was beating in reality, not in a dream, and that he was returning to the world.’ [19.]

There is no resolution. There cannot be.

At the end The Beggar approaches the condition of parable. It is a parable about the desperate search for spirituality in a material world.


Bibliographical note

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

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