Miramar by Nagib Mahfouz – A Review

Nagib Mahfouz

Nagib Mahfouz’s comparably brief novel, Miramar, captures a moment of great change in the history of Egypt through the lives of the inhabitants of a the pension Miramar. Although politics are ever present in the background, the novel focuses on the way the lives of the inhabitants of the pension have been changed by the Nasarite revolution of the late 50s. Mahfouz, the great story teller he his, uses the personal disappointments brought on by the revolution to draw a picture of a country trying to radically change, yet tied to the past and unable to change many of its ways despite official policies. His subtle focus on the relationships between the characters of the pension, drawing out the conflicts between the shifting class of people, lifts the book above politics and draws a fascinating picture of classes rising and falling.

Miramar is divided into four chapters, each told by a different resident of the pension. Amir Wagdi, the first to narrate, is a retired journalist who provides a historical memory to the story. He had seen the uprising against the British in the twenties and later the revolution. A long time friend of the proprietor of the pension, Mariana, he has returned an old man, content to live in his memories and accept what his life has given him. He has a sage like quality that in conversation with his contemporary the Pasha, a rich man now disposed of most of his lands, he is able to avoid arguments about politics. Much of his chapter has a dream like feel of the lost, and his interactions with the Pasha and Mariana recall the days when he was amongst the action, before their respective lives and the movements they belonged to failed and faded into the past.

When a young peasant girl, Zorha, comes to work at the pension, everything changes for the boarders. For Amir Wagdi, he takes on the role of a grandfather, hoping for her to succeed as she attempts  leave the country side and survive in a world where everyone wants to take her independence. Zorha is a defiant woman who had left the village when her family wanted her to marry someone she didn’t want to marry. Surrounded by men in the pension, she stands up to them and though shy she, she is strong enough to fight back against all the things that befall her. She is one of the few characters in the book that really is looking towards the future and doing it on her own terms. She is illiterate, but hires a teacher to learn to read even though most people tell her it is a waste of time. She is also one of the few, perhaps the only, who is good hearted. One read could see Zorha as the future of the new Egypt, but Mahfouz is too clear eyed for that simplicity, because all the young who live in the pension either want the old society, or are just looking for ways to exploit the new corruption that has replaced the old corruption. Nor is the country side a bastion of wisdom. If it were, Zorha wouldn’t have needed to leave the country side. Instead, Mahfouz celebrates an individuality that is strong and not tempted by the faults of society.

The other men, Husni Allam, a rich playboy, Mansour Bahi, an indecisive radio host, and Sarhan al-Behairi, a low ranking party man whose is looking to make money on the black market, have only one interest: what they can get for themselves. They are consumed by lust, which varies in cruelty, but is all consuming and is an attempt themselves in a position of power, using women without care. The hustling nature puts them in conflict with each other, especially as they fight for Zorha’s affections. Ultimately, the mix of hustling, sexual tension and the close confinement leads to the murder of Sarhan al-Behairi, who is found on a street one morning. As each of the three men narrate their section, the events that lead up to al-Behairi’s death become clearer. It is obvious that none of these men are particularly praiseworthy. Yet even in a character such as Husni Allam, Mahfouz creates evocative characters that also express the frustrations of men who, in many ways, don’t have many options. On the one hand, the rich are loosing their lands, and on the other those are part of the new regime can’t get ahead either. The frustrations add complexity to what might have otherwise been a simple tale of lust and envey.

Ultimately, it is not important if al-Behairi’s murderer is found, what is important is Mahfouz’s picture of post revolution Egypt. The conflicting interests and impulses he presents avoids the pessimistic, yet there is an air of fatalism in the characters who cannot get beyond their pasts. Only Zorha offers hope, but it is unclear what that it is. It is not for Mahfouz to describe the future. Still, one hopes Zorha will survive, for it suggests there is a future worth having.

Arabic Summer Reading Challenge at Arabic Literature (in English)

Arabic Literature (in English) is having a summer Arabic reading challenge. There are prizes too!

To participate: Simply post at the bottom which ONE of these Arabic books (in translation or not) you will read this summer.* I will select a reading-challenge winner on August 20, 2010** and ship her (or him) a bundle of Arabic fiction new to English in 2010.***

It is a nice list of books and I know several are classics and worth the read. I’ve read these and if you have any doubts, they are all great booksa dn it would be a good addition to any summer reading list.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayib Saleh

Elias Khoury, Yalo

Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Trilogy

Zayni Barakat,

Sons of Mahfouz – An Egyptian Novelist After Mahfouz

Al Ahram weekly (via Literary Salon) has a good article about the youngish (b. 1967) Novelist Ibrahim Farghali and the evolution of post Mahfouz writing. I’m not sure if I agree with the author of the article’s implicit idea that after realism comes magical realism:

[…] Yet from a history-of-literature point of view, Abnaa Al-Gabalwi is probably the closest we have come to a fulfilment of the prophecy that a home-grown magic realist movement would emerge in the new millennium.

Such books would combine the realism and social commitment of the Sixties narrative tradition with the individualism and physicality of the Nineties (the latter thus far accommodated mainly by the prose poem). It would give substance to the notion of an “age of the novel”, espoused by critic Gabir Asfour at millennium’s end, and express a range of recent influences from Gabriel-Garcia Marquez and Jorge-Luis Borges to Umberto Eco to Jose Saramago — all of whom demonstrated how elements of the fantastical could be deployed to intensify reality and/or infuse the public realm with private experience.

That said, I think the book has some promise and certainly sounds interesting if it ever makes it into English, which it may not because it sounds very writerly.

This, basically, is the premise of Abnaa Al-Gabalwi, which nonetheless incorporates numerous other frameworks, notably the appearance of flesh-and-blood reincarnations of some of Mahfouz’s characters both in and outside their original settings, the government’s efforts to do what it can to have the books back — some people apparently know the texts by heart, others attempt to reconstruct them with the help of their knowledge of Mahfouz’s work from translations — and the very complex, gradual intermingling of the fictional world and the world to which it supposedly refers. There are not only characters but narrators, character narrators, doubles, triples, even quadruples. Subplots take on lives of their own, and there are multiple scenarios with a range of possible resolutions.

The fictional acrobatics are of such intensity they frequently if no doubt intentionally disrupt what suspension of disbelief the reader has managed to maintain, but they also undermine the book’s popular appeal and seem to have no purpose beyond themselves.

“The fictional acrobatics are an end in themselves” Farghali insists, “not a means to something else. You could put it down to taste. I like complexity in a novel. More than one time frame, more than one character, more than one voice. My wish is to alter my voice till it becomes a multiplicity of voices in the manner of the Portuguese writer Fernando PesÓo, although of course there is a huge difference and I am still a student compared to him. I managed that somewhat in previous works, I created parallel time frames, but in general I totally incline towards this kind of layering. I like The God of Small Things, for example, for that same reason.”

As in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night’s a traveller (which is made up of novel openings), by the time you have turned the last page, you have read not a novel as such but a range of possible novels. More than any one character or story-line, you retain a sense of what an Arabic novel is, or what Farghali thinks it might be. More importantly, perhaps, you appreciate the disappearance of Mahfouz’s work as a metaphor for the general social-political malaise the book selectively and somewhat fitfully depicts: corruption, purposelessness, physical and mental repression, and the existential loss not only of the private but of the public self all come to mind. Mahfouz’s books stand in for Egypt and all it means.

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature – A Review

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature truly is a brief introduction, but for anyone who is unacquainted with modern Arabic Literature, this book is a good introduction. The book covers literature from the 20th century and primarily from the eastern part of the Arabic speaking world. The book focuses heavily on Egypt followed by Lebanon and Palestine, while other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria rate an occasional mention.

The book traces the development of modern Arabic literature from the early 20th century, finding its first exemplar in Taha Hussein in Egypt. What makes the literature modern is its break from Arabic poetry, which was the primary form of literature, towards prose based, in part, on western models. The early works, especially in Egypt, were concerned with defining what the new Arab states would be like and what is the role of tradition and western influence. Usually these works were written in a realistic manner. Illustrating that point, the book focuses on the works of Mahfouz and shows how his earlier works fit that model.

Latter as disappointment and dissolution came to the Arab world, it too was reflected in the literature. Authors like Al-ghitani began to use more post modern (although in his case he goes to much earlier times for source material) approaches to describe the problems besetting the countries of the authors, such as the the power of the west, the despotism of Arab regimes, and an uncertainty about the future.

Each author he covers, with the exception of Mahfouz, receives about a page or two of coverage. A Brief Introduction sticks to works, primarily novels and short fiction, available in English and originally written in Arabic. This approach leaves out authors such as Assia Djebar, who writes in French, and doesn’t examine the breath of a writers work which would be useful to non Arabic speakers. However, in reading the book a reader will find a great list of books to read, if the reader can find them.

While A Brief Introduction is a useful introduction its brevity makes for some choppy sections and the inclusion of poetry, a subject in itself, seems forced and might have been left for a different book. That said, his descriptions of the books he does write about make for a good guide and should arouse one’s curiosity.

Gamal al-Ghitani Wins Zayed Book Award in Literature

Gamal al-Ghitani won the Zayed Book Award for Literature recently. I don’t know how important the award is (are any awards important?) but there is a nice list of his works. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what the Arabic names are, not that I can speak Arabic, but it makes it a little easier to compare different lists of his books. It also makes it easier for to figure out which books of his I have read. I only see three listed that I have read:  Zayni Barakat; Pyramid texts; Naguib Mahfooz Remembers. I have also read the collection of stories A Distress Call and the novel Incidents in Zanfrani Alley, or as it is known in German, Der safranische Fluch oder Wie Impotenz die Welt verbessert, which, if you can believe Google, means Saffron curse or how the world improves impotence, certainly a more fun sounding title and one that gives you a better sense of the book. As far as I know there is also one story in the collection Sardines and Oranges and one in the Columbia Modern Arabic Fiction, both of which I’ll be reading this year. A Distress Call and Incidents in Zanfrani Alley are almost impossible to find. I’ve never found them on the Internet. Fortunately, there is a large university near by if I were to want to read them again.

For someone who is one has been called one of the great Arabic fiction writers, it is too bad more isn’t translated. But then again since so little is translated it is a wonder this many of his works have been translated. I have posted a review of  Naguib Mahfooz Remembers (published as The Mahfouz Dialogs).


  • Chronicles of a Young Man Who Lived a Thousand Years Ago
  • Al Zayni Barakat
  • Pyramid texts
  • Siege from Three Directions
  • Stranger’s Tales
  • Book of Revelations (3 vols.)
  • Midnight of Exile
  • Jungles of the Town


  • Watchmen of Eastern Gate
  • Naguib Mahfooz Remembers
  • Mustafa Ameen Remembers
  • Views of Cairo a Thousand Years Ago
  • Endowments in Cairo
  • Pigeon Fever

Arabic Translation – A History

The Complete Review has a link to a review in the National of a new history of translation and Arabic, Prison-house of Language. The author raises some interesting issues about translation and power, but what caught my eye was this paragraph.

The translation of Arab literature into western languages yokes it to western sensibilities and conventions. As Kilito muses, “Who can read an Arab poet or novelist today without establishing a relationship between him and his European peers? We Arabs have invented a special way of reading: we read an Arabic text while thinking about the possibility of transferring it into a European language.” That long thread of Arab language and culture unravels under the heat of the European gaze. “Woe to the writers for whom we find no European counterparts: we simply turn away from them, leaving them in a dark, abandoned isthmus, a passage without mirrors to reflect their shadow or save them from loss and deathlike abandon.”

I have had the feeling at times when I read a story that was originally writen in Arabic, that it is so different in style and approach from the common ways of writing stories in the US and Europe that I’m not sure what to make of it. Is it good? Os it considered good there and I just don’t understand? Hassouna Moshbahi’s The Tortoise in Sardines and Oranges is a perfect example. Using the refrains “that was my first adventure” and “they beat me” the story mixes day dreams, boyish adventures and descriptions of everyday life in Tunisa. There is no ephinanic moment, no Frytag’s triangle, so what is going on? At such moments I think of the reverse, too, when Nagib Mahfouz talks about looking for models for his fiction. In each case, the cultural associations on each side make it difficult to know what the tradition is.

The Mahfouz Dialogs

The Mahfouz Dialogs
Gamal Al-ghitani

Sometime ago I made it my mission to read everything in English written by Gamal Al-ghitani who some commentators have suggested is Naguib Mahfouz’s literary heir. Why I seized on this I don’t quite know, but it has led me to this interesting book, which gives a few insights into Al-ghitani as it examines the life of Mahfouz.

Structurally, it is the compendium of conversations and sayings Mahfouz had given over the last 30 years of his life, roughly from the early 70s when Al-ghitani met him to when he died in 2006. The short first and third sections read like compendiums of fragmentary texts, as if we were reading the remaining 50 pages of dozens of lost works from centuries past. Often phrased “then master said…”, they provide some insights into his views, often more liberal than those of his friends. The second section, though, is a collection of interviews between Mahfouz and Al-ghitani that Al-ghitani shaped into an autobiography, one that relived Mahfouz of the task of writing. The richness of the interviews produced an interesting work, not only an examination of the life and works of Mahfouz, but a examination of how Al-ghitani fits within the Egyptian literary world.

The interviews cover three general subjects: his life, his writing, and the Cairo Trilogy. Reading about his life, I was struck just how dedicated to writing. He never made much money from writing until he won the Nobel, but he continued on. It was something he had to do, made even more impressive since he stopped writing every summer because of an eye allergy. He typically plotted out his ideas before writing and only wrote when he had a story worked out. He was, though, influenced by European writers and read as many novels as he could. For years he was a poor civil servant and did his daily work in obscurity. His literary world, though, was quite rich and the book is filled with descriptions of the weekly meetings he had with his friends, many who were famous Egyptian thinkers and writers. Honestly, I was a little envious of the café culture that existed. When he grew older he became the sage of conversations and would often make the final pronouncement on a topic. The book makes quite clear how much Mahfouz was respected by all those he met with, even if he didn’t share the same political views.

For someone like myself who is not familiar with Cairo and Egyptian writing, The dialogs provide invaluable insight into the Cairo Trilogy and his other works. His descriptions of the alleys and streets in his novels are taken directly from the real places. Over time the alleys have changed (something Mahfouz was quite saddened by), but they still look the way he described in the books. For Mahfouz the parts of Cairo were more than just settings, but his home, the manifestation of everything he was.

As you get older, you both feel and comprehend that the place where your life started will also be your final refuge. As though recapitulating the cycle of life, your encounter a new world that seems, at first blush, not to be your world. It is not enough to understand any given word for it to become your won private world. Feeling truly at home in that world demands something deeper then that. We are heading toward a new world, but that world is assuredly not one in which I shall feel completely at home. I am at the end of a stage, of a life, let me say. What is the total life experience that I have undergone? You will find it incarnated in the old, by which I do not mean a return to the latter’s values, or a rejection of the new. I mean it in the sense of its being your own private refuge, because you have been at home in it and have understood it.

Finally, Al-ghitani reveals details about himself quite freely but often en contrast to Mahfouz. Al-ghitani, one gathers, is more conservative, or at least less western that Mahfouz. When talking about the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Mahfouz looked negatively at them, but Al-ghitani, one suspects, is in the camp of those say the US deserved it. I’m not 100% sure of this, but it is obvious from reading the book, and Al-ghitani’s comments, that they disagreed about the Egypt and its relations to the west. To his credit, Al-ghitani’s love for Mahfouz prevents him from trying rewrite those ideas.