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Routes of Egypt- Exploring the Prose of Naguib Mahfouz

Before the construction of the railway carriage, the Trans-Saharan Trade route provided the merchants across the African continent to the Levant with materials for buying and selling. Sometimes these would also be humans, who were sold as slaves to the Dynasties in the North. Bought from various parts of the African Continent, these slaves were working for the Egyptian Dynasty, in the construction of the Pyramids of Giza and so on. Naguib Mahfouz’ novel The Mockery of the Fates, is about the Fourth Dynasty King, Khufu, and the construction of the pyramid of Giza, which is to be the tomb of Khufu.

The story is about how Khufu loses his throne to the son of the Priest of Ra, who was destined from his birth to rule the kingdom. Khufu is told by a sorcerer of the approaching dawn, and he like any other “well meaning” monarch sets out to kill the boy who is to be his successor.  In a twist of fate aided by a servant girl of the priest and priestess, Djedefre, the son of the Priest of Ra, is separated from his mother but grows up to become a member of the Egyptian militia and serve the king himself. The mockery of the fates is unravelled as Djedfre finds himself on a mission to save the king from being assassinated by his own son, who having grown impatient for his title, decided to take a shorter route.

The wisdom of Khufu is embodied in the act where he consigns his fate to the hands of the gods, and agrees to give his kingdom to the son of the Priest. His humility in accepting his destiny is what sets him apart from the other rulers, who like him had set out on an imperial trail. The ‘departure’ from the older module lies in the transfer of power from blood to merit. Merit then becomes the characteristic that makes an individual worthy or capable, endowed with knowledge and skill. To make a good ruler these are some qualities that are essential, and Djedefre is the ideal example of such qualities. Djedfre’s position never falters even after he comes to know of the prophecy, and instead with discipline he carries out his duty of saving the king.

Courage forms an essential component to the narrative, as one finds that even standing by one’s duty, no matter what it is, requires courage and skill. This courage is not something that occurs in a vacuum but takes time to take hold of the individual and face the daily struggles of life. Literature shows such examples of characters whose courage can come to be understood as that whisper that seizes upon the soul and asks it to proceed or even to stop. In the short story, Half a Day, it is this courage that is wanting in a boy who sets off for school for the first time.

In Half a day the protagonist sets off to school anxious about the people he will meet, and afraid of having to leave the safety of home. School turns out to be a place of learning, a new home, with new friends.  As the last bell rings, he waits for his father, who doesn’t turn up. And the boy decides to go back home by himself. The roads outside school, are the streets of Cairo. Filled with people, hawkers and entertainers, the boy encounters all. The noise and the multitude of lives confuse him, and the conjurers on the street send his mind into a dizzying trip. The boy finds himself unable to cross the road, till a young man helps him cross the street, addressing him as Grandpa at the same time.

For a child, humour is an amicable way to face any kind of fear. Stories, conjurers and lies make up the child’s imagination, but so do knowledge, language and humility. The representations of death in these stories do not follow one particular school of philosophy. For instance, one finds the death of the king serving as the backdrop for Mahfouz’ novel The Mockery of the Fates (1939). The backdrop to the story is the construction of the Pyramid of Giza, which is to be the final resting place for Khufu, wherein he plans to write a text on medicine.

It is not entirely one school of philosophy, for in his short story, Blessed Night, one encounters the angel of death, Azrael coming to serve Safwan, a family man, with the notice of having to clear his house, for he has been allotted a new place to rest.  Appearing as a lawyer, this collector of souls asks him to answer two questions honestly, and is intent on making him sign a deal. Safwan answers and is introduced to another man who will show him the way to his new abode. The story ends wherein Safwan is found struggling with pain, his body yearning for release. He asks for help, but instead finds his soul drifting into the skies.

The end suits to explain the separation of the body from the soul, wherein time is allotted for the deceased to understand his/her wrongdoings.  His house served as the isthmus between one world and the other, wherein the word ‘Barzakh’[1] comes to be identified as that limit which like a line separating the shade from the sunlight, represents a realm of possible things. Within this set of possible things, occur these incidents of Safwan’s death and his release from his body.

Like the pyramid which is to be the final abode for the emperor, the house serves as the meeting point of the all things possible within the realm of mankind. With the entry of Sufism and the constant question of the purpose of existence of the individual, these stories provide a map of how things have shaped in the African country called Egypt. Much like the soul which does not wish to leave the body, Egypt has been witness to a series of confrontations due to the extent of its learning and history that acts as the channel, which the Nile has come to represent.

The soul may become subject to annihilation, once it is able to remove the fetters that tie its material existence to the world that is known to it.  In the realm of Literature, this concept of ‘annihilation’ corresponding to the Sufi terminology ‘fanaa’ serves to be identified as the extra literary tool that allows us to negotiate between imagination and perception. It may also lead us to explore the nature of Literature as that which creates a space wherein imagination interacts with reason, and takes us another step towards unravelling the mysteries of life while questioning the boundaries that are perceived. Imagination, Aristotle tells us is something that requires images, and may be false, which could also be in ways which are fantastic.

Perception, on the other hand relies on the senses, and is predominantly the way we observe our experiences. This is why Aristotle claims that imagination is present in dreams whereas perception has a role to play in our waking moments. This may be understood as ‘Ontology’ that which is the study of existence. This may be a way to understand the notion of God and the unpacking of the characteristics that surround it. Ibn Arabi explains that the act of finding contains the fact of being found. In Mahfouz’ story ‘Zaabalawi’, a narrator in search of Zaabalawi, the saint who will cure him of his infirmities, frequents the places where he has been reported to have visited.

The quest begins with the question ‘Who is Zaabalawi’, which initiates the narrator into a hide-and seek game, where we find the narrator reaching all these places from where Zaabalawi had left a moment earlier. Ibn-Arabi explains this as a process of finding, relied on awareness and perception. Light, becomes the metaphor for the goal which is sought after, in this case who is described as the being Zaabalawi. This ability to perceive the one which we cannot see, can only occur by way of having seen that which is known and sensed, and linking it to imagination.

The narrator is told as a child about the saint and his miraculous powers, whereby he begins on the quest, due to his disease. The narrator, finally having arrived at a bar, is introduced to another frequenter, who on being asked of the whereabouts of Zaabalawi, invites him for a drink. Time proceeds, and the narrator wakes up after being heavily intoxicated, to find that Zaabalawi had tried to revive him, by dousing water on him. Unable to do so, he left. Ibn Arabi writes that “for the objects of perception… they first possess manifestation to the perceiver, then they are perceived; and manifestation is light.”[2] However, imagination also plays a crucial role in the story for the narrator believes in the powers of Zabalaawi, having never met him, and completely relying on what people have said about him.

Our notion of God then derives from our experience of having loved God, thereby allowing both imagination and perception a space in faith. The story ends with the narrator, aghast, but not yet dissuaded from his quest of looking for Zaabalawi. The search brought forth an awareness which he later perceived to be Zaabalawi’s presence. This created the conception of Zaabalawi’s presence, thereby allowing the search to continue.  Perhaps Literature also alludes to this concept, which like love contains perception and imagination. But excess of either distorts it.

The words “al-quran” as ‘that which brings together’ can be read in juxtaposition with the word “sahitya” which means “to come together” as is central to the postulates of Sufism and Bhakti. A couplet of Kabir, a saint from the Indian Subcontinent speaks of how the self which goes on a quest, to become better, finds the remedy in herself, but with the help of another.

ऐसी बाँणी बोलिए मन का आपा खोई।अपना तन सीतल करै औरन कैं सुख होई।।

(Translation- speak in such a style, such that you lose your awareness of a self, cool your body down by speaking sweet words to others.)

Therefore, we find in many such instances how diversities in Egypt is one of the reasons why one may still call it a cradle of civilization. It is on such an account that Mahfouz’ stories continue to help one to explore the intricate weaving of commonalities and differences one finds in Egypt. The act of coming together on a commonality is perhaps exemplified by religion which simultaneously unifies and segregates people. Race enters this forum wherein the location of these texts plays a similar role. Located between two continents, and serving as the passage for the Trans-Saharan trade Route, Egypt lies today on the brink of an everyday struggle. The stories of Naguib Mahfouz offer us a guided view of the meeting of cultures and philosophies that form a part of this struggle.


Mahfouz, Naguib, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. The Time and the Place and other stories. 1991. American University in Cairo Press. Anchor Books. Cairo.

Mahfouz, Naguib, trans. Raymond Stock. The Mockery of the Fates. The American University in Cairo Press. Anchor Books. Cairo.

Ibn Arabi. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019.

[1] ‘Barzakh’ as a term enters ontological discourse, via Ibn ‘Arabi, who used it to discuss the role of imagination and image.  In the Koran it is described as that which stands between the salty and the sweet seas. Herein one may find reference to how Safwan while hurrying behind the man, encountered delightful aromas that provided him with experiences he had never felt before. This is perhaps the location of the imagination, as that which acts as the line that separates as well as brings together two distinct elements.

[2] Stanford Ibn Arabi  Ibn Arabi. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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