The Beggar

Naguib Mahfouz, 1965


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a woman in Egypt at that time, and more widely in the Arab world, the decision to become an actress or a dancer would have implications for family honour. ‘”You know most people have a low opinion of the art. For that reason I left my family. It’s just as well I have no brother or father.”’ [9.]

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

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

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

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

The police officer hints strongly at honour killing. ‘“I hope you’ll help me do my duty without making me regret the measures I’ve taken to protect your reputation.”’ [89.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omar drives out to the pyramids – where he has often gone with women – on his own. He has a moment of ecstasy. ‘He parked the car along the side of the deserted road and got out…. He was lost in blackness.… the darkness relented and a line appeared, diffusing a strange luminosity like a fragrance or a secret… His heart danced with an intoxicated joy, and his fears and miseries were swept away…. Let the end come now, for this is my best moment.’ [13]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no resolution. There cannot be.

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


Bibliographical note

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

Photo on Visual Hunt




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