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

Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives on Visual Hunt /  No known copyright restrictions