Water pipe

Adrift on the Nile

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naguib Mahfouz, 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bibliographical Note

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

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Faint hope

The Search

Naguib Mahfouz, 1964

Published in 1964, The Search is in some ways unlike the other novels of the 1960s. Unlike them, it does not deal with politics. In particular, it does not deal with the politics of the July Revolution and of Arab Socialism.What The Search deals with are themes that recur in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz: crime and sexual splitting. It also deals with isolation.

Crime is also important in the novels of the 1940s. Crime is a theme in particular in Midaq Alley (1943) and The Beginning and the End (1950).

In Midaq Alley, Dr Booshy, the fake dentist, and his partner in crime, Zaita, rob graves. [Midaq Alley, 27.] That is how Dr Booshy obtains the gold for the dentures he makes cheaply for poor people. Zaita create cripples. [7.]

In The Beginning and the End the oldest brother, Hassan, is a thug and a drug peddler. He is introduced to this work by Ali Sabri, a conceited and unsuccessful musician. ‘“The band will be working in this coffeehouse,” [Ali Sabri] said… “On every corner there is a thug…. And who is the right person to deal with them? You. There is also the important trade in narcotics…. And who’s the right person to deal with it? You again,” Ali Sabri said.’ [The Beginning and the End, 37.]

Sexual splitting, the other main theme in The Search, is also important in the novels of the 1940s. It is the dominant theme, although it is handled in very different ways, in both Khan al-Khalili (1945) and The Mirage (1948).
In The Mirage, Kamil cannot consummate his marriage with Rabab, whom he idealises. ‘… [Rabab] was the epitome of ideal womanhood.’ [The Mirage, 38.]

By contrast he finds it easy to have sex with Inayat, his mistress, who by contrast is rather coarse. ‘…there was a boldness in her gaze that caused me to look away bashfully….. She looked to be over forty, and … she was uglier than she was pretty.’ [51.]

The novels written and published in the 1940s are set in the 1930s. There is a hint in the text that this is the period in which The Search is set.
The hint takes the form of a reference to war. ‘“But this impending war? Won’t it guarantee our cotton?”’ [The Search, Chapter 4.]

The clue is in the word ‘impending’. The Arab-Israeli wars and the Suez invasion came as a shock. It is the Second World War that was anticipated.
Curiously this reference to a war is the only clue that allows The Search to be dated. In most of the novels of the 1940s and 1960s Mahfouz is very careful to allow us to date the action quite precisely. We can date these novels to the year, if not the month.

Cairo Modern, for example, is dated by references to ‘the constitution of 1930-35….‘ [Cairo Modern, 6] and ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ [41] to a few months in 1932 and 1933.

The Thief and the Dogs, as another example, is similarly dated by references to historical events. It is not dated to quite such a narrow window. The Free Officers coup occurs while Said was serving four years in prison. The Free Officers staged their coup in 1952. The action of the novel therefore occurs between 1952 and 1956.

In The Search, it seems, Mahfouz was equally careful not to allow us to date the action. This is an indication that, as in The Mirage, we are dealing with personal rather than political matters.

The Mirage is set in the modern period. There are trams, and Rabab works as a teacher. It is likely to be set before the Second World War. There are horse-drawn carriages as well as motor taxis.

It is only the politics of Dr Rida, Kamil’s rival, which allow us to date the novel with more precision than that. ‘“Aren’t you still a radical Wafdist? You were thrown into prison once for the sake of the Wafd party!”’ [The Mirage, 46.] It is most likely that Dr Rida was imprisoned under the authoritarian Ismail Sidqi, who was Prime Minister from 1930 to 1933. This is not however the only time that a radical Wafdist could have been thrown into prison by the government of a rival party.

The careful avoidance of precise dating also indicates, I think, that The Search is not realism in an altogether simple sense. The protagonist’s relationships with contrasting women and with his absent father have symbolic value.

For some commentators The Search represents ‘…mankind’s search for metaphysical truth….’ [El-Enany, 5.]

I disagree. I agree with El-Enany, however, that ‘…of all the 1960s novels, this is the one with the least direct bearing on the political reality of the day.’ [El-Enany, 5.]

I also agree that Naguib Mahfouz is perfectly capable of describing a metaphysical quest if he wants to. In The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983) he does exactly that. Interestingly, like The Search and The Thief and the Dogs, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma ends with death.

What I think is going on in The Search, however, is exactly what I think is going on in The Thief and the Dogs (1961). In The Thief and the Dogs Said Mahran is quite incapable of responding to what the Sufi Sheikh is trying to teach him. The Sheikh knows this. ‘“You seek the walls, not the heart….. You seek a roof, not an answer.”’ [The Thief and the Dogs, 2.]

The only teacher to whom Said Mahran can respond is his political mentor, Rauf Ilwan. ‘…his whole life had been no more than the mere acting out of ideas that had come from that man….’ [3.]

Saber in The Search is materialistic. He is even more of a nihilist than Said Mahran, who at least believed in the revolution. In that way Saber is more like Mahgub Abd al-Da’im in Cairo Modern (1945).

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is described as amoral [Cairo Modern, 31] and a nihilist [7.] His friends call him an anarchist. [10.] Al-Da’im is completely anti-social. ‘His rejection of society and its values was dazzlingly complete.’ [40.]

Saber, unlike Al-Da’im, is not an intellectual. Saber believes in money. ‘”Very little of the price of the house is left…. I must either work or kill.’” [The Search, 11.]

He also believes in sex, which he calls ‘love’. ‘The nights he spent in passion with Karima.’ [7.]

Saber believes in very little else. He has a desire to resist the pull of his life of crime. ‘He needs [his father] not only for his fortune but out of fear of his own dark, tainted past. A life of crime.’ [8.] That desire is the limit of his idealism.

We are given nothing more than hints about Saber’s ‘life of crime’. In this The Search is like The Thief and the Dogs and Autumn Quail (1962). There is very little back story. That is another way in which The Search is something other than conventional realism.

Isolation is also a theme in The Thief and the Dogs and Autumn Quail. In both cases the event that triggers the isolation of the respective protagonists is the July Revolution of 1952.

Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs is isolated by a combination of personal and political circumstances. Mahran is a professional thief with a revolutionary background. Most of his associates are those like his friend Ilish, his wife and the owner of the café he frequents, who share his criminal milieu. The only person from his revolutionary past he appears to have kept in touch with is his former mentor, Rauf Ilwan.

Mahran is betrayed to the police by Ilish. Mahran is sent to prison. While he is there the July 27 Revolution takes place. Mahran loses the revolutionary justification for his crimes.

Mahran’s mentor embraces the revolution. He does well as a journalist. He betrays the revolutionary ideals that he and Mahran once shared.
Mahran becomes isolated. He goes mad. He attempts to kill both Ilish and Ilwan. He fails. Both times he kills an innocent third party.

Mahran’s homicidal madness alienates even the woman who loves him. He dies alone, in a shootout with the police. He is hiding in a cemetery. The dogs are barking.

Isa al-Dabbagh in Autumn Quail is isolated partly by his ambition. Despite his youth, he has risen high in the civil service. He is a party man.
Isa has little feeling for people. At one point in the novel, he lives with a prostitute. At another, he marries. He has no feeling for either woman.

Isa is demoted after the riots in the Canal Zone. He is purged and pensioned off after the July revolution. He could get a job. He chooses solitude.
Without the party and the ministry Isa is nothing. He has no role. He has been cast aside by history.

Like Said Mahran and Saber, Isa reaches despair. Isa however is an educated man and not without resources. He does not stoop to murder. He does not die.

Isa and Said Mahran are brought to isolation and despair by the revolution. There are other factors, but the revolution is the final cause.

Saber is brought to isolation and despair by the death of his mother. There are other factors in his case too. In particular, there is Saber’s relationship with his mother. She has indulged him. In doing so she has unfitted him for any other life than that of a pimp. ‘“May God have mercy on her soul. She loved you and ruined you for any other kind of life.”’ [2.]

It is the excessive closeness to his mother and the absence of his father that are the root cause of Saber’s sexual splitting. ‘Leave Elham. She’s like your father, full of promise but only a dream. Karima is just an extension of your mother. She represents pleasure and crime.’ [8.]

In The Mirage, similarly, there is a controlling mother and an absent father. This is also presented as the cause of sexual splitting.

Kamil Ru’ba Laz’s mother has been abandoned by her husband. She overcompensates through her relationship with her son. She is possessive, and over-protective.

Kamil blames his relationship with his mother for his sexual difficulties. Kamil also blames his mother for his anxiety, and his sense of failure. ‘My mother was the source of these torments. Yet, she was also my sole refuge from them….’ [The Mirage, 4.]

The novel is resolved, to the extent it is resolved at all, by the death of Kamil’s wife Rabab in a bungled abortion. ‘“If the cause of death were known, the illegal operation you were performing would have come to light…. the patient didn’t die from the first perforation. Rather, you killed her when you made a hole in the peritoneum.”’ [63.]

Death has no spiritual significance here. It is pure melodrama.
In Khan al-Khalili Ahmad Akif does not have the same unhealthy closeness to his mother, nor has his father abandoned the family. Ahmad’s father was however pensioned off from civil service very young.

Ahmad has had to step up. He gave up his chance of higher education to give his younger brother a chance. What Ahmad has in common with Kamil is the sense of failure, and the crippling anxiety.

Ahmad ‘…had been compelled to abandon his studies after his high-school graduation…. The major reason for the decision was that his father had been pensioned off before he had even reached the age of forty…. Ahmad had been forced to terminate his studies and take a minor administrative post in order to provide for his shattered family and support his two younger brothers.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

The sexual splitting is dramatised through Ahmad’s relationship with his playboy younger brother, Rushdi. They both fall in love with the same girl. Rushdi is successful. Ahmad hesitates.

The novel is resolved, once again, through death. Rushdi dies of tuberculosis. In this case also, death has no spiritual significance.
In The Search, sexual splitting is dramatised through Saber’s simultaneous involvement with two women. Karima represents passion. Elham represents love.

Both women are very much involved, though in different ways, with Saber’s search for his father. Saber meets Karima at the seedy hotel he chooses when he arrives in Alexandria. ‘In the middle of the corridor stood the reception desk presided over by a seated old man, and beside him stood a woman. What a woman!’ [The Search, 2.]

Saber meets Elham at the newspaper office where he goes to place an advertisement about his father. ‘He greeted [the woman] and asked for the advertising department. “Come with me, I’m going there myself.”’ [3.]
Elham becomes very involved with the search. Saber does not tell her the truth. ‘“He’s my brother,” he lied.’ [4.]

Karima is less interested in the search. She has a purpose for Saber. ‘“When I saw you ten days ago I said to myself, this is it …this is the man I’ve been waiting for.”’ [5.]

Both Elham and Karima, in different ways, offer Saber money. Elham offers Saber her savings so that he can set up in business and marry her. ‘“I haven’t wasted a minute…. The capital you need… is now available…. All that I’ve saved for the future. Also some of the jewellery I never wear.”’ [14.]

Karima offers Saber her husband’s money. ‘“But let me tell you that money is not a problem…! The hotel, the money, they’re all in my name.”’ [5.]

Karima tells Saber that her husband is suspicious. ‘“When I returned to my flat the last time I was here, [my husband] was awake…. I think Aly Seriakous, the porter, saw me.”’ [10.]

Saber understands what she wants. ‘“There’s nothing we can do.” “There is…. I must kill him!”’ [10.]

The search keeps Saber in Alexandria. It keeps him involved with both women. It is not successful.

Saber finds a respectable professional who has the same name as his father. The doctor does not recognise himself in the photograph. ‘“This is not your photograph?” “Definitely not,” [the doctor] answered with a laugh.’ [3.]
He does not recognise Saber’s mother. ‘“Who is that beautiful woman?”’ [3.]

Saber publishes the photograph in the advertisement and is contacted by someone who claims it is his. ‘“Is it your photograph?” “Yes…..” “Why are you looking for me?”’ [5.]

The caller gives Saber an address. Saber cannot find it. When the caller speaks to him again it is clear he is playing a cruel joke. ‘“What an ass you are.”’ [5.]

No one else contacts Saber. Someone contacts the newspaper. ‘“A woman enquired about you.”’ [6.] We never learn who she is or what she wants.

Saber ends the novel in jail. He has been convicted of murder.

Elham hires a lawyer for him. The lawyer does not think he is wasting his time. ‘“We might get you a life sentence instead of death.”’ [17.]

The lawyer has an acquaintance who knew Saber’s father. ‘“My friend… said that he married, very frequently, all sorts of women, old, young, rich, poor, widowed, married, divorced, even maidservants and prostitutes! …He was a millionaire!”’ [17.]

Saber’s father is real. The reader had almost certainly come to doubt this.
What is not real is the possibility of any kind of filial relationship. Saber’s father’s promiscuity means that there is nothing special in Saber’s relationship with him. Indeed there was nothing special in Saber’s father’s relationship with Saber’s mother.

The murder for which Saber is in jail is the murder of Karima.
When Saber offers to murder her husband it becomes obvious that Karima has thought the matter through. ‘“What happens after the crime?” “…We wait a while. We can meet secretly, then I’ll be yours. Me and the money…. Study the neighbouring building carefully…. You can cross over to our side easily. You must wait for him in the flat….” She was just like his mother. Utterly ruthless.’ [10.]

Karima joins him in the crime. They are neither of them hardened criminals. ‘Her eyes were sparkling but her face was deathly pale…. They hugged, nervously and without passion… like two frightened, lost children…. “I’ve taken the money and some jeweller. I… threw some clothes on the floor. Did you get gloves…? Very good; here is the iron bar.” …Saber realised his plight and brought his arm crashing down…. the old man uttered one soft cry, then a whimper, then silence.’ [10.]

After the crime Saber believes he sees his father. ‘He rushed towards the taxi and asked the driver to take him to the Nile…. Now you can get rid of the glove and the bar….. It happened while he was crossing the Kasr el-Nil bridge…. That face? Was it possible…? Sayed el-Reheimy!’ [10.]

The police arrest the wrong man, the porter. ‘“He already has been arrested…. Aly Seriakous.”’ [13.]

The doorman keeps Saber up to date with the gossip. Saber learns that Karima has been married before, and that her husband divorced her to allow her to marry Mr Khalil. ‘“But a good-for-nothing, as you describe her ex-husband, wouldn’t divorce a beautiful woman.” “Everything has its price.” The old man immediately regretted his remark.’ [13.]

From passion Saber’s feelings turn to hatred and contempt. This is typical of splitting. ‘A pimp’s whore. A purchased slave. A coolheaded animal, a vessel of unbelievable pleasures, your torturer to the end.’ [13.]

The doorman remarks prophetically: ‘“I think the killer will strike again.”’ [15.]

Saber succumbs to murderous rage. ‘Saber was now lost in a raging tempest of madness. The smell of blood was strong in his nostrils.’ [15.]

Saber is convinced that Karima has used him. Like Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs, he wants revenge. ‘No one is going to make a fool of me. Karima will not escape me.’ [16.]

Even as he kills Karima, Saber leads the police to them. ‘“They’ll arrest us, you fool. Today….” “Whore! Liar! You destroyed my life with a lie.” …Karima screamed loudly. “The police! It’s too late!” He pounced on her savagely, blindly, his hands closing around her neck.’ [16]

We never really know if Saber would have been caught if he had not killed Karima. We never really learn how cynical Karima was being. The Search is a realistic novel, but it is not as realistic as all that.

The psychological point, I think, is that while murder is difficult, once a crime has been committed it leads to more killing. ‘When night falls you are going to sign a bloody pact as your gateway to crime.’ [10.]

The social point is about the difficulty of escaping one’s origins. ‘“I’m a criminal descended from criminals,” [Saber] cried out as he left the shop. The grocer laughed; brandy does strange things to people!’ [10.]

The Search is, as so often with Mahfouz, a variation on a theme.

Bibliographical note
El-Enany, Rasheed, Naguib Mahfouz: Egypt’s Nobel Laureate, 2007

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Abandoned by history

 

 

 

 

Autumn Quail

Naguib Mahfouz 1962

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliographical note

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

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