Naguib Mahfouz's haunting novella of post-revolutionary Egypt combines a vivid pychological portrait of an anguished man with the suspense and rapid pace of a detective story.
After four years in prison, the skilled young thief Said Mahran emerges bent on revenge. He finds a world that has changed in more ways than one. Egypt has undergone a revolution and, on a more personal level, his beloved wife and his trusted henchman, who conspired to betray him to the police, are now married to each other and are keeping his six-year-old daughter from him. But in the most bitter betrayal, his mentor, Rauf Ilwan, once a firebrand revolutionary who convinced Said that stealing from the rich in a unjust society is an act of justice, is now himself a rich man, a respected newspaper editor who wants nothing to do with the disgraced Said. As Said's wild attempts to achieve his idea of justice badly misfire, he becomes a hunted man so driven by hatred that he can only recognize too late his last chance at redemption.
About the Author
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. His nearly forty novels and hundreds of short stories range from re-imaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Of his many works, most famous is The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1952. In 1988, he was the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in August 2006.
Read an Excerpt
ONEOnce 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 gym shoes.As the prison gate and its unconfessable miseries receded, the world--streets belabored by the sun, careening cars, crowds of people moving or still--returned.No one smiled or seemed happy. But who of these people could have suffered more than he had, with four years lost, taken from him by betrayal? And the hour was coming when he would confront them, when his rage would explode and burn, when those who had betrayed him would despair unto death, when treachery would pay for what it had done.Nabawiyya. Ilish. Your two names merge in my mind. For years you will have been thinking about this day, never imagining, all the while, that the gates would ever actually open. You'll be watching now, but I won't fall into the trap. At the right moment, instead, I'll strike like Fate.And Sana? What about Sana?As the thought of her 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.I wonder how much the little one even knows about her father? Nothing, I suppose. No more than this road does, these passersby or this molten air.She had never been out of his thoughts, where bit by bit she'd taken shape, like an image in a dream, for four long years. Would luck now give him some decent place to live, where such love could be equally shared, where he could take joy in being a winner again, where what Nabawiyya Ilish had done would be no more than a memory, odious, but almost forgotten?You must pull together all the cunning you possess, to culminate in a blow as powerful as your endurance behind prison walls. Here is a man--a man who can dive like a fish, fly like a hawk, scale walls like a rat, pierce solid doors like a bullet!How will he look when he first sees you? How will his eyes meet yours? Have you forgotten, Ilish, how you used to rub against my legs like a dog? It was me, wasn't it, who taught you how to stand on your own two feet, who made a man of a cigarette-butt cadger? You've forgotten, Ilish, and you're not the only one: She's forgotten, too, that woman who sprang from filth, from vermin, from treachery and infidelity.Through all this darkness only your face, Sana, smiles. When we meet I'll know how I stand. In a little while, as soon as I've covered the length of this road, gone past all these gloomy arcades, where people used to have fun. Onward and upward. But not to glory. I swear I hate you all.The bars have shut down and only the side streets are open, where plots are hatched From time to time he has to cross over a hole in the pavement set there like a snare and the wheels of streetcars growl and shriek like abuse. Confused cries seem to seep from the curbside garbage. (1 swear I hate you all.) Houses of temptation, their windows beckoning even when eyeless, walls scowling where plaster has fallen. And that strange lane, al-Sayrafi Lane, which brings back dark memories. Where the thief stole, then vanished, whisked away. (Woe to the traitors.) Where police who'd staked out the area had slithered in to surround you.The same little street where a year before you'd been carrying home flour to make sweetmeats for the Feast, that woman walking in front of you, carrying Sana in her swaddling clothes. Glorious days--how real they were, no one knows--the Feast, love, parenthood, crime. All mixed up with this spot.The great mosques and, beyond them, the Citadel against the clear sky, then the road flowing into the square, where the green park lies under the hot sun and a dry breeze blows, refreshing despite the heat--the Citadel square, with all its burning recollections.What's important now is to make your face relax, to pour a little cold water over your feelings, to appear friendly and conciliatory, to play the planned role well. He crossed the middle of the square, entered Imam Way, and walked along it until he came close to the three-story house at the end, where two little streets joined the main road. This social visit will tell you what they've got up their sleeves. So study the road carefully, and what's on it. Those shops, for instance, where the men are staring at you, cowering like mice."Said Mahran!" said a voice behind him. "How marvelous!"He let the man catch up with him; they said hello to each other, hiding their real feelings under mutual grins. So the bastard has friends. He'll know right away what all these greetings are about. You're probably peeking at us through the shutters now, Ilish, hiding like a woman."I thank you, Mr. Bayaza."People came up to them from the shops on both sides of the street; voices were loud and warm in congratulation and Said found himself surrounded by a crowd--his enemy's friends, no doubt--who tried to outdo one another in cordiality."Thank God you're back safe and sound.""All of us, your close friends, are overjoyed!""We all said we wished you'd be released on the anniversary of the Revolution.""I thank God and you, gentlemen," he said, staring at them with his brown, almond-shaped eyes.Bayaza patted him on the shoulder. "Come into the shop and have a cold drink to celebrate.""Later," he said quietly. "When I'm back.""Back?"One man shouts, directing his voice to the second story of the house: "Mr. Ilish! Mr. Ilish, come down and congratulate Said Mahran!" No need to warn him, you black beetle! I've come in broad daylight. I know you've been watching."Back from what?" said Bayaza."There's some business I have to settle.""With whom?" said Bayaza."Have you forgotten I'm a father? And that my little girl's with Ilish?""No. But there's a solution to every disagreement. In the sacred law.""And it's best to reach an understanding," said someone else."Said, you're fresh out of prison," a third man added in a conciliatory tone. "A wise man learns his lesson.""Who said I'm here for anything other than to reach an understanding?"On the second story of the building a window opened, Ilish leaned out, and they all looked up at him tensely. Before a word could be said, a big man wearing a striped garment and police boots came from the front door of the house. Said recognized Hasaballah, the detective, and pretended to be surprised."Don't get excited. I have come only to reach an amicable settlement," he said with feeling.The detective came up and patted him all over, searching with practiced speed and skill. "Shut up, you cunning bastard. What did you say you wanted?""I've come to reach an understanding about the future of my daughter.""As if you knew what understanding meant!""I do indeed, for my daughter's sake.""You can always go to court."Ilish shouted from above, "Let him come up. Come up all of you. You're all welcome." Rally them round you, coward. I've only come to test the strength of your fortifications. When your hour arrives, neither detective nor walls will do you any good.They all crowded into a sitting room and planted themselves in sofas and chairs. The windows were opened: flies rushed in with the light. Cigarette burns had made black spots in the sky-blue carpet and from a large photograph on the wall Ilish, holding a thick stick with both his hands, stared out on the room. The detective sat next to Said and began to play with his worry beads.Ilish Sidra came into the room, a loose garment swelling round his barrel-like body, his fat round face buttressed by a square chin. His huge nose had a broken bridge. "Thank the Lord you're back safe and sound!" he said, as if he had nothing to fear. But no one spoke, anxious looks passed back and forth, and the atmosphere was tense until Ilish continued: "What's over is done with, these things happen every day; unhappiness can occur, and old friendships often break up. But only shameful deeds can shame a man.Conscious that his eyes were glittering, that he was slim and strong, Said felt like a tiger crouched to spring on an elephant. He found himself repeating Ilish's words: "Only shameful deeds can shame a man." Many eyes stared back at him; the detective's fingers stopped playing with his beads; realizing what was passing in their minds, he added as an afterthought, "I agree with every word you say.""Come to the point," the detective broke in, "and stop beating about the bush.""Which point?" Said said innocently."There's only one point to discuss, and that's your daughter."And what about my wife and my fortune, you mangy dogs! I'll show you. Just wait. How I'd like to see now the look you'll have in your eyes. It would give me respect for beetles, scorpions, and worms, you vermin. Damn the man who lets himself be carried away by the melodious voice of woman. But Said nodded in agreement.One of the sycophants said, "Your daughter is in safe hands with her mother. According to the law a six-year-old girl should stay with her mother. If you like, I could bring her to visit you every week."Said raised his voice deliberately, so that he could be heard outside the room: "According to the law she should be in my custody. In view of the various circumstances.""What do you mean?" Ilish said, suddenly angry."Arguing will only give you a headache," said the detective, trying to placate him."I have committed no crime. It was partly fate and circumstances, partly my sense of duty and decency that drove me to do what I did. And I did it partly for the sake of the little girl."A sense of duty and decency, indeed, you snake! Double treachery, betrayal, and infidelity! Oh for the sledgehammer and the ax and the gallows rope! I wonder how Sana looks now. "I did not leave her in need," Said said, as calmly as he could. "She had my money, and plenty of it.""You mean your loot," the detective roared, "the existence of which you denied in court!""All right, call it what you like. But where has it gone?""There wasn't a penny, believe me, friends!" Ilish protested loudly, "She was in a terrible predicament. I just did my duty.""Then how have you been able to live in such comfort," Said challenged, "and spend so generously on others?""Are you God, that you should call me to account?""Peace, peace, shame the devil, Said," said one of Ilish's friends."I know you inside out, Said," the detective said slowly. "I can read your thoughts better than anyone. You will only destroy yourself. Just stick to the subject of the girl. That's the best thing for you."Said looked down to hide his eyes, then smiled and said, in a tone of resignation, "You're quite right, Officer.""I know you inside out. But I'll go along with you. Out of consideration for the people here. Bring the girl, someone. Wouldn't it be better to find out first what she thinks?""What do you mean, Officer?""Said, I know you. You don't want the girl. And you can't keep her, because you'll have difficulty enough finding some accommodation for yourself. But it's only fair and kind to let you see her. Bring in the girl."Bring in her mother, you mean. How I wish our eyes could meet, so I might behold one of the secrets of hell! Oh for the ax and the sledgehammer!Ilish went to fetch the girl. At the sound of returning footsteps Said's heart began to beat almost painfully, and as he stared at the door, he bit the inside of his lips, anticipation and tenderness stifling all his rage.After what seemed a thousand years, the girl appeared. She looked surprised. She was wearing a smart white frock and white open slippers that showed henna-dyed toes. She gazed at him, her face dark, her black hair flowing over her forehead, while his soul devoured her. Bewildered, she looked around at all the other faces, then particularly at his, which was staring so intently. He was unable to take his eyes off her. As she felt herself being pushed toward him, she planted her feet on the carpet and leaned backward away from him. And suddenly he felt crushed by a sense of total loss.It was as if, in spite of her almond-shaped eyes, her long face, and her slender, aquiline nose, she was not his own daughter. Where were the instinctive ties of blood and soul? Were they, too, treacherous, deceptive? And how could he, even so, resist the almost overwhelming desire to hug her to him forever?"This is your father, child," said the detective impatiently."Shake hands with Daddy," said Ilish, his face impassive.She's like a mouse. What's she afraid of? Doesn't she know how much I love her? He stretched out his hand toward her, but instead of being able to say anything he had a fit of choking and had to swallow hard, managing only to smile at her tenderly, invitingly."No!" said Sana. She backed away, trying to steal out of the room, but a man standing behind stopped her. "Mommy!" she cried, but the man pushed her gently and said, "Shake hands with Daddy." Everyone looked on with malicious interest.Said knew now that prison lashings had not been as cruel as he used to think. "Come to me, Sana," he pleaded, unable to bear her refusal any longer, half standing and drawing closer to her."No!" she shouted."I am your daddy." She raised her eyes to Ilish Sidra in bewilderment, but Said repeated emphatically, "I am your daddy, come to me." She shrank back even further. He pulled her toward him almost forcibly. Then she screamed, and as he drew her closer, she fought back, crying. He leaned forward to kiss her, disregarding his failure and disappointment, but his lips caught only a whirling arm. "I'm your daddy. Don't be afraid. I'm your dad." The scent on her hair filled his mind with the memory of her mother; he felt his face go hard. The child struggled and wept more violently, and finally the detective intervened: "Easy, easy, the child does not know you."Defeated, Said let her run away. "I will take her," he said angrily, sitting bolt upright.
Reading Group Guide
There are nineteen works of fiction currently available in paperback from Anchor. Because of the many universal themes of Mahfouz's work, and the variety of titles from which one can choose, this guide has been designed to provide you with questions that can apply to any or all of the books by Mahfouz which you choose to read. The questions offer new perspectives and context for your conversations.
Although each of Mahfouz's novels is a unique reading experience, in an effort to guide you in making a selection, it is suggested that you might particularly be interested in one of the four following titles, each of which represents a different decade of his career: Palace Walk (1956), Midaq Alley (1966), The Harafish (1977), and The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983). For your convenience, a complete listing is included in this guide.
1) How would you identify the novel you are reading in terms of style and genre? What does it have in common with Western literature you have read? What about it appears to be particularly "Middle Eastern"?
2) What did you find familiar in Mahfouz's stories? What parallels can you find in your own culture or experience to the life in Egypt he describes?
3) What elements of this novel are unfamiliar/alien to you? Do these merely reflect cultural differences or do they also address larger, more universal themes?
4) It has been suggested by many writers that there is a great contrast between the men and the women in Mahfouz's novels; that the men are weaker and more flawed than the women, who are strong and dependable. Does this appear to be true in the novel(s) you have read? How would you characterize the women in Mahfouz's fiction?
5) Mahfouz once said "If I had traveled, like Hemingway, I'm sure that my work would have been different. My work was shaped by being so Egyptian." Focusing on the particular works you have read, in what ways do you imagine the tone of the narrative and the perspective might change had the text been written by a more "worldly" author?
6) How does Mahfouz's literary rendering of Egypt affect your political perception of the country? Does it alter any preconceptions you may have brought to the work for better or for worse?
7) In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Mahfouz stated: "Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases." In what ways is this dictum borne out in his writings?
8) Many of Mahfouz's characters are derived from the lower and middle class strata of society. Yet he chooses to imbue all of his characters with a language that is considered to be classical literary Arabic as opposed to the colloquial dialects that would be more natural to their stations in life. Why do you think he does this? What effect does he achieve through the employment of this universal tongue?
9) When Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize, many Arab and Egyptian intellectuals responded with mixed feelings. While on the one hand they were both pleased and proud that one of their own had achieved such recognition, on the other they wanted the world cautioned that his political views were not necessarily representative of the average Egyptian. What examples do you find in his writing that lead you to believe that there is a more "Western" sensibility at work here?
10) From 1949 to 1957, the books that Mahfouz produced were semi-autobiographical works of social realism. From 1961 to 1967, his output changed, with the pieces becoming existential and concerned with souls in a state of spiritual crisis. Since then, his approach has been eclectic. Consulting the publication chronology provided at the back of this guide, locate the period in which the book you have read came out, and discuss what elements there are in the writing style that identify it as belonging to that particular genre.
11) The novels, while possessing a timeless quality, are very much informed by a sense of place. Can you picture the events depicted here or the sensations of the characters occurring in our own society at any given point in our history? If so, when?
12) The Koran instills the belief and deference to one God. Often, the characters will refer to the "work of God" or view their fortunes as being "in God's hands." Discuss the theme of fate vs. personal determination that runs throughout the novels. How do religious beliefs protect and hinder us? How do they affect our ability to act?
13) With our Western ideology, we would view the lives of many of these women depicted as being
little better than that of prisoners. But what does Mahfouz-- with the advantage of his Egyptian heritage-- think of their lives? Do you imagine that he shares our opinion that they are repressed, or do you think that he finds their existence satisfying and as it should be?
14) Discuss the role of women's complicity in their own repression-- both in Cairene society and in our own-- as typified by classic examples in the text of blaming the victim.
15) Like all societies, this one has superstitions that are specific to it. Identifying them, discuss the negative and positive functions that these superstitions serve for Cairene society.
16) The narratives are almost completely serious in tone, with occasional pinpoints of humor brightening the way. Discuss the techniques employed by the author to inject humor into the tales, and your opinion as to whether or not he is successful.
17) Can we-- hampered by our Western vision-- appreciate the inherent beauty of a culture so different from our own, or does our perception of the wrongness of human oppression blind us to this?
18) Usually, the author refers to his characters by name. But, now and again-- particularly during more dramatic moments-- he will refer to them as "the man" or "the woman." What effect do you suppose that Mahfouz is trying to achieve through his fashioning of this style?
19) In 1919, Egypt experienced a brief period of rebellion against the British colonial rule. In 1952, there was a revolution. Situating the piece you have read against this historical backdrop, how does Mahfouz's writing speak to you about a nation experiencing internal unrest before, during, and after these periods of turmoil?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novella by the Nobel Prize winning author is set in Egypt after the 1952 Revolution, and describes the events following the release of a young man who is released from a Cairo prison after serving a four year sentence for grand theft. He was betrayed by two former colleagues, who both have become wealthy from their gains, which began in a noble quest to steal from wealthy residents of the city in support of the Revolution. Upon his release he visits the first traitor, who has married his wife and taken in his young daughter, who screams in horror and refuses to greet him when he sees her. He is consumed with anger, and with the help of former companions, he plans his revenge on the two men and his ex-wife. He is unsuccessful in his attempts, and he becomes more desperate, as the city and state police slowly descend upon him.This was a good read, in the existential style of Camus' The Stranger.