Egypt’s Troubles Reflected in Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Mirrors

By Paul Sullivan


By Naguib Mahfouz

Translated by Roger Allen

Illustrated by Sief Wanli

AUC Press and Zeitouna Press, 1999; 186 pp,  paperback.

This book could be of interest to the many fans of Naguib Mahfouz, as well as people interested in Egypt in general and scholars of Egyptian history during the 1930s through 1960s. This is not light, happy reading for a summer outing, but a heavy work that explores a very wide range of emotions.

Mahfouz gives us a melancholy, beautiful, sometimes violent, sometimes sad, sometimes hopeful, and often heart-wrenching series of vignettes about some of the people the narrator (who seems to be  Mahfouz) has known. It is almost as if someone had asked the narrator to describe his friends, loves, teachers, co-workers, and acquaintances from his entire lifetime — and hold nothing back — and explain these people in around five pages each.

The work is a series of stories packed with complex and manifold emotions. Within these vignettes, life is tragedy intermixed with some victories, while sporting a veneer of comedy.

Mahfouz’s writing is often a series of nuances — of shadows, lighting and shades of color — reflecting these characters. The vignettes not only display Mahfouz’s astonishing writing skills but also his powerful skills of observation. This book is clearly written by someone who has spent a large part of his life closely observing people. Moreover, it also presents the subtle insights of a man who has compassion for the more fragile sides of life and people.  Mahfouz explores people who are adrift, who seem to be simply waiting for something that will never arrive; he also exhibits a fascination with the seamier sides of life.

Yet among — and even within — the weeds of people in the vignettes, we find flowers and strong trees. The narrator revels in the ways these people seem to miraculously survive the storms that hammer them or the trifles that eat away at them. On page 162, we find one of the rare rays of shining hope in the book: “I was delighted with the happy ending — it had attracted them to a steadfast life… Day after day, my faith confirms that man’s purity is as much from the outside as it is from the inside, and that we must provide light and clean air if we want beautiful flowers.”

The reader can practically feel, touch, smell, hear, and taste the Cairo of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s through this book. For this reason alone, it is a worthy read. Few people have Mahfouz’s skill in presenting people, eras and places. Egyptians and those who have visited Egypt will find significant resonance in the problems these characters face in the short stories. Many of these same problems still exist in Egypt: the inadequacy of the education system, unemployment, poverty, corruption, and so forth.  Many of the problems, victories, and losses that these people faced are common to the human condition, and these are but Egyptian examples of people struggling to survive in a very difficult environment. Nearly every reader will find an emotional connection with some character in this book.

Mahfouz uses the revolution and similar events as a uniting theme connecting the characters and their stories. We see some of the narrator’s friends and schoolmates killed, injured or in many other ways affected in the pre-revolution riots and demonstrations. The revolution’s effects on the lives and beliefs of different economic and social groups become clear through the lens of vignettes and personal stories, presenting a very different angle than one might obtain through studying economic statistics.

One also senses that the people Mahfouz describes so eloquently are characters in a revolutionary environment rather than a revolutionary people. Many are victims, while others are just caught up in the wave of change. Some lost their family fortunes and lands. Others look at the revolution as a sort of religion, and still others see that no real change has occurred and are just plain surviving — or trying to. The vignettes may encourage a deeper understanding of the personal sides of Egypt’s 1950s and 1960s land reforms and ownership reforms, socialization (or whatever it is that happened back then), and the increasing dominance and oppression by the state during the time of Nasser. This work of fiction flirts with the razor-thin edge of reality.

One often hears about the effects of the 1967 “disaster” on Egyptians, and truly the 1967 war was a shattering experience for many. Their sense of self, of Arabness, of Egyptianness, and confidence in life in general shifted beneath them. Some of Mahfouz’s vignettes bring these losses to a personal level, allowing many in the region and elsewhere to understand.

For example, one vignette captures a son talking to his father soon after the 1967 war. The son wants to leave Egypt for a “better life” in the West. As the argument heats up, the father says, “How happy Israel would be with you!” The son replies, “I challenge Israel to do to us what we’ve done to ourselves!” The son emigrated.

His father resigned to this fate and concludes in the passage, “We old men have simple needs. My daily happiness is complete with a cup of coffee with milk and two biscuits.” This could be a metaphor for all of those Egyptians who have accepted their fates of grinding poverty or intellectual and political repression with malesh.  

In a later vignette, one of the characters states, “We’re fugitives pursued by backwardness — which is our real enemy, not Israel. Israel is our enemy only because it threatens to freeze backwardness.” There may be some truth in this even today. 

In many ways, this book could be a literary accompaniment to studying the history of Egypt during those time periods. Mahfouz brings some of that history alive, alive in the sewers of society as well as the “upper crust” that live in another sort of sewer, alive in the poor and the middle class who are struggling to survive not only economically, but also are trying — and sometimes failing — to keep their morals intact.

The narrator focuses on the stresses of life, and the effect they may have on a person’s equilibrium and imbalances. We find many unbalanced people in the vignettes, and one of the narrator’s favorite disequilibrating behaviors is hypocrisy. He implies, brilliantly, that hypocrisy is sometimes a form of schizophrenia. In the Egypt he describes, people were forced into hypocrisy in order to survive. This splintered the people’s personalities; we see both their private thoughts and their public ones — often quite different.  Mahfouz expertly presents stories of the  “walking wounded.”

The narrator has touched many lives, and these lives reflect back on him. He does not reveal much of himself, except through these characters. However, the narrator’s focus on failed love affairs, crushed intellectuals, moral invertebrates, and difficult father-son relations may betray more than he intended. Sometimes Mahfouz makes his most powerful points obliquely. 

One must wonder why paintings by Seif Wanli are set in these vignettes. He may be a popular figure on the art scene in Egypt, but his paintings do not measure up to the brilliance and subtlety of Mahfouz’s writing. They often lack in detail, and even the outlines of the portraits are indistinct. They do not match the depth of character that Mahfouz infuses in his writing. It could be that the mirror image is the portrait, and from that mirror Mahfouz builds the stories of the lives.

Many of these vignettes are thinly veiled and unsettling attacks on Egyptian society, culture, government, economic realities, and so on. Mahfouz is a treasure in Egypt, but he is also a powerful intellectual gadfly — or perhaps hornet. He presents significant challenges to the norms, and to the apparent stagnation of those norms. He looks upon some aspects of Egypt with bitterness, at others with a deep longing for what could have been, and at still others with a sense of marvel that such goodness can exist in such a difficult environment.

Overall, the greatest gifts of this book are the brief snippets of the great Mahfouz’s melancholy wisdom.

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.7, no. 36, Summer 2001).
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid