Adrift on the Nile
AN ANCHOR BOOK
PUBLISHED BY DOUBLEDAY
a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036
ANCHOR BOOKS, DOUBLEDAY, and the portrayal of an anchor are trademarks of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Adrift on the Nile was originally published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1993.
First published in Arabic in 1966 as Tharthara Fawq al Nil. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with The American University in Cairo Press.
I would like to thank Dr. Sabry Hafiz of SOAS London for his enthusiastic advice on the final draft of this translation. Any remaining faults are mine alone. —Frances Liardet
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Maḥfūż, Najīb, 1912–
[Thartharah fawqa al-Nīl. English]
Adrift on the Nile / Naguib Mahfouz; translated by Frances Liardet.
1. Egypt—Social life and customs—Fiction. 2. Nile River—Fiction. I. Title.
eBook ISBN 9780525431619
Copyright © 1966 by Naguib Mahfouz
English translation copyright © 1993 by Francis Liardet
About the Author
Books by Naguib Mahfouz
April. Month of dust and lies. The long, high-ceilinged office a gloomy storeroom for cigarette smoke. On the shelves the files enjoy an easeful death. How diverting they must find the civil servant at work, carrying out, with utterly serious mien, utterly trivial tasks. Recording the arrival of registered post. Filing. Incoming mail. Outgoing mail. Ants, cockroaches, and spiders, and the smell of dust stealing in through the closed windows.
“Have you finished that report?” the Head of Department asked.
Anis Zaki replied indolently. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve sent it to the Director General.”
The Head gave him a piercing look that glinted glassily, like a beam of light, through his thick spectacles. Had he caught Anis grinning like an imbecile at nothing? But people were used to putting up with such nonsense in April, month of dust and lies.
The Head of Department began to be overtaken by an odd, involuntary movement. It spread through all the parts of his body that could be seen above the desk—slow and undulating, but visibly progressing. Gradually, he began to swell up. The swelling spread from his chest to his neck, to his face, and then over his entire head. Anis stared fixedly at his boss as the swelling obliterated the features and contours of his face and finally turned the man into a great globe of flesh. It appeared that he had grown lighter in some astonishing way, for the globe proceeded to rise, slowly at first, and then gradually more swiftly, until it flew up like a gas balloon and stuck, bobbing, to the ceiling…
“Why are you looking at the ceiling, Mr. Zaki?” the Head of Department asked.
Caught again. Eyes stared at him in pitying mockery. Heads were shaken regretfully in ostentatious sympathy for the boss. Let the stars bear witness to that! Even the midges and the frogs have better manners. The asp itself did the Queen of Egypt a great favor. But you, my colleagues? There is no good in you; my only comfort lies in the words of that dear friend who said: “Come and live on the houseboat. You won’t have to pay a millieme. Just get everything ready for us.”
With sudden resolution he began to deal with a pile of letters. Dear Sir: With reference to your letter reference number 1911, dated February 2, 1964, and to the communication pertaining, reference number 2008, dated March 28, 1964: I have the honor of informing you…Filtering in along with the smell of dust, a song from a radio in the street: “Mama, the moon is at the door.” He paused, pen in hand, and muttered: “Wonderful!”
“Lucky you, with no worries,” said a colleague on his right.
Damn the lot of you. Timeservers every one. Waiting for a dream that will never come true, you turn your silly tricks. I am the only miracle here, speeding—without a rocket—into outer space…
The office boy came in. Anis felt his stomach rumble, and asked for one coffee, no sugar.
“You’ll find it on your desk,” the office boy replied, “when you come back from seeing the Director General.” And so Anis, tall and big—heavy-boned, though, not fat—left the room.
Once in the Director General’s office, he stood meekly in front of the desk. The Director’s bald head remained bowed over the papers he was perusing, looking to Anis like an upturned boat…With his last scrap of willpower Anis drove away such distracting thoughts. Distraction at this point would have the most dire consequences.
The man lifted his lined, angular face to fix Anis with a bristling glare. What error could have crept into the report that he had taken such pains to compile?
“I asked you to write a detailed report on the movement of incoming correspondence for last month,” the Director said.
“Yes, sir, and I’ve presented it to you, sir.”
“Is this it?”
Anis glanced at the report. On the cover he read, in his own handwriting: Report on Incoming Correspondence for the month of March—for the attention of the Director General of the Archives Department.
“That’s it, sir.”
“Look at it and read it.”
He saw one line, clearly written, followed by a blank space. Dumbfounded, he turned over the remaining pages. Then he gaped like an imbecile at the Director General.
“Read it!” the man said angrily.
“Sir—I wrote it out word for word…”
“Would you care to tell me how it has vanished?”
“Really, it’s a complete mystery to me!…”
“But you can see before you the marks made by the pen nib?”
“Marks made by the pen nib…?”
“Give me this magic pen of yours!” the Director said, and, brusquely taking the pen from Anis, he began to score lines on the cover of the report. None of the lines came out on the paper. “There isn’t a single drop of ink in it!” said the Director.
Consternation spread over Anis’ broad face.
“You began writing this line here, and then the ink ran out,” the Director continued caustically. “But you carried on!”
Anis said nothing.
“You failed to notice that the pen was not writing!”
Anis made a perplexed gesture.
“Can you tell me, Mr. Zaki, how this could have happened?”
How indeed. How did life first creep into the mosses in the cracks of the rocks, in the ocean depths?
“You’re not blind, as far as I’m aware, Mr. Zaki.”
Anis hung his head.
“I shall answer for you. You did not see what was on the page, because you were…drugged!”
“It’s the truth. And a truth which is known, furthermore, to
“Enough sir-ing and demurring. Be so good as to comply with my humble request and leave your habit at home.”
Anis protested. “As God is my witness—I am ill!”
“The eternal invalid, that is what you are.”
“Don’t believe what…”
“I only have to look into your eyes!”
“It’s illness—nothing else!”
“All I can see is that your eyes are red, cloudy, heavy…”
“Don’t listen to talk!…”
“…and they look inward, instead of outward like the rest of God’s creatures!”
The Director’s hands, covered with bushy white hairs, made a threatening gesture. Sharply, he said: “There are limits to my patience. But there is no end to a slippery slope. Do not tumble down it. You are in your forties, which should be a time of maturity. So stop this tomfoolery.”
Anis took two steps backward, preparing to leave.
“I shall only cut two days’ pay from your salary,” the man added. “But beware of any repetition of this episode.”
As he moved toward the door, Anis heard the Director General say contemptuously: “When will you learn the difference between a government department and a smoking den?”
On his return to the department, heads were raised and turned inquisitively in his direction. Ignoring them, he sat down and gazed at his cup of coffee. He became aware of a colleague leaning over to him, no doubt to ask him all about it. “Mind your own business,” he muttered angrily.
He took an inkwell out of the drawer and began to fill his pen. He would have to rewrite the report. “Movement of Incoming Correspondence.” It was not a movement at all, really. It was a revolution around a fixed axis, round and round, distracted by its own futility. Round and round it went, and the only thing that came of it was an endless revolution. And in the whirling giddiness everything of value disappeared: medicine and science and law, family forgotten back home in the village, a wife and small daughter lying under the earth. Words once blazing with zeal now buried under a mountain of ice…
Not a man was left on the road. The doors and windows were closed. And the dust flew up under the horses’ hooves, and the Mameluke soldiery let loose yells of joy on the road to the hunt; any man abroad in the quarters of Margush or Gamaliya was made a target for their skill, and the victims’ cries were drowned by the yells of mad joy, and the bereaved mother screamed: “Mercy, O kings!” and the hunter bore down on her on that day of sport; and the coffee grew cold and the taste of it changed, and the Mameluke still roared, grinning from ear to ear, and a headache came and the vision fled, and still the Mameluke laughed. And they hurled down curses and made the dust fly, reveling in splendor, reveling in torture…
A cheerful animation spread through the gloomy room. It was time to go home.
The houseboat lay still on the leaden waters of the Nile, as familiar to him as a face. To the right there was an empty space, once occupied by another houseboat before the current swept it away, and to the left, on a wide bank of the shore, a simple mosque surrounded by a mud-brick wall and spread with shabby matting. Anis approached the houseboat, passing through a white wooden gate in a hedge of violet and jasmine.
Amm Abduh, the night watchman, rose to greet him, his gigantic frame topping the slats and palm branches that composed the roof of his mud-brick hut. Anis made for the gangway of the houseboat, walking down a tiled path that was flanked on each side by a grassy space. To the right of the path, in the middle of the grass, there was a watercress bed, while far over to the left, a wilderness of hyacinth bean lay like a backdrop behind a towering guava tree. The sun’s rays beat down, fierce and insistent, through an arbor of eucalyptus branches that spread from the roadside trees to shade the small garden.
He changed his clothes and went to sit, dressed in his long white tunic, in the doorway of the balcony overlooking the Nile. He welcomed the gentle breeze, letting it caress him tenderly, letting his eyes wander over the expanse of water, which could have been still and motionless, not a ripple, not a sparkle could he see. But it carried the voices clearly from the houseboats moored in a long line on the opposite bank, beneath the evergreens and acacia trees. He sighed, loud enough for Amm Abduh—who was setting the small table next to the right-hand wall, a couple of meters from the refrigerator—to ask him: “All’s well, I hope?”
“A disgusting, rotten atmosphere today,” Anis muttered, turning toward him. “Drove away my good mood.”
“But you always come back in the end to the good atmosphere here.”
The old man never ceased to excite his admiration. He was like something great and ancient, rooted in time. Vitality leaped from his deeply lined eyes. Perhaps those deep furrows were what awed him; or perhaps it was the clump of thick white hair that sprang like date blossoms from the neck of his robe. And the robe itself, coarse calico, hanging like a drape over a statue, hanging straight down unhindered. No flesh, really, just skin and bone. But what bones! He was built like a giant, and his head grazed the ceiling of the houseboat. There was an attraction about his whole being that was irresistible. He was a true symbol of resistance in the face of death. That was why Anis liked talking to him so much, in spite of their acquaintance of barely a month.
Anis rose and took his place at the table. He began to eat a chop, holding it in his fingers. He gazed at the wooden partition, painted with sky-blue distemper. He followed the progress of a small gecko as it scuttled across the partition to secrete itself behind a light switch. The gecko reminded him of the Head of Department. Why was that? A sudden question plagued him. Did the Fatimid Caliph Mu‘izz li-Din Illah have any living descendants who might one day rise to claim the throne of Cairo as their own? “How old are you, Amm Abduh?” he asked.
Amm Abduh was standing behind the folding screen that concealed the outer door, and looking down at him from above like a cypress tree towering among the clouds. He smiled, as if he had not taken the question seriously. “How old am I?”
Anis nodded, licking his lips.
The old man spoke again. “Who knows?”
I am no expert when it comes to guessing ages, but more than likely he was walking the earth before a single tree was planted along this street. He is still so strong, given his age, that one can hardly believe it. He looks after the big floats under the houseboat, and pulls the boat on a rope to a new berth whenever it is necessary, and it follows him obediently; he waters the plants, he leads the prayer, and he is a good cook.
“Have you always lived alone in that hut?” Anis continued.
“There’s only just enough room for me on my own!”
“Where did you come from, Amm Abduh?” he asked next, but the old man merely said: “Ah!”
“Don’t you have relatives in Cairo?”
“We have that in common at least…You are an excellent cook, by the way.”
“And you eat more than is good for someone of your age.”
“I eat what I can digest.”
Anis contemplated the remains of the chop. One day, all that would be left of the Head of Department would be bones like those. How he would love to see him being called to account on Judgment Day! He began to peel a banana, and continued his inquiries. “When did you come to work on the houseboat?”
“When they brought it to this berth.”
“When was that?”
“And does it have the same owner now as it did then?”
“There has been one owner after another here.”
“And do you like your job?”
“I am the houseboat!” Amm Abduh replied proudly. “Because I am the
His simple pride was appealing. Anis chuckled, and gazed at him for a moment before asking: “What is the most important thing in the world?”
“To be hale and hearty.”
There was something mysterious and magical about his reply that made Anis laugh for a long time. Then he asked: “When was the last time you loved a woman?”
“Have you found nothing else to make you happy, after love?”
“Prayer is my comfort now.”
“Your voice is beautiful when you call them to prayer,” Anis remarked, and then he added merrily: “Even so, you’re not too holy to go and fetch the kif, or bring back one of the street girls for us!”
Amm Abduh guffawed, throwing back his head with its white skullcap. He did not reply.
“Isn’t that so?”
Amm Abduh passed one big hand over his face. “I serve the gentlemen,” he said simply.
But no. No, it was not just that. He was the houseboat, as he had said. The ropes and floats, the plants, the food, the women, the prayers.
Taking a towel, Anis went through a side door to wash his hands at the basin, and came back, saying to himself that it was due to excess alone that most of the Caliphs had not lived long. He saw Amm Abduh busily wiping the table, his back bent like a bowed palm tree. Playfully, he asked him: “Have you ever seen a ghost?”
“I’ve seen everything,” Amm Abduh replied.
Anis winked. “So there has never been a good family living on this houseboat?” he asked.
“O guardian of our pleasures! If you did not like this life, you would have left it on the first day!”
“How could I, when I built the mosque with my own hands?”
Anis looked now at the books on the shelves, which covered the whole of the long wall to the left of the door. It was a library of history, from the dawn of time to the atomic age, domain of his imagination and storehouse of his dreams. At random, he took down a book on monasticism in the Coptic period in order to read, as he did every day, for an hour or two before his siesta. Amm Abduh finished his work, and came to ask if Anis wanted anything else before he left.