Naguib Mahfouz was one of the most prominent writers of Arabic fiction in the twentieth century. He was born in 1911 in Cairo and began writing at the age of seventeen. His first novel was published in 1939. Throughout his career, he wrote nearly forty novel-length works and hundreds of short stories. In 1988 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 2006.
THE FOLLOWING TITLES BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ
ARE ALSO PUBLISHED BY ANCHOR BOOKS:
The Beggar, The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail
Respected Sir, Wedding Song, The Search
The Beginning and the End
The Time and the Place and Other Stories
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
Adrift on the Nile
Arabian Nights and Days
Children of the Alley
Echoes of an Autobiography
The Day the Leader Was Killed
Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth
Voices from the Other World
Rhadopis of Nubia
Thebes at War
The Thief and the Dogs
Morning and Evening Talk
The Cairo Trilogy:
Palace of Desire
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, FEBRUARY 2012
Copyright © 1948 by Naguib Mahfouz
First published in Arabic in 1948 as al-Sarab
English translation copyright © 2009 by Nancy Roberts
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York,
and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in hardcover in the United States
by The American University in Cairo Press,
Cairo and New York, in 2009.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.
Cover photograph © Peter Adams/Corbis.
Cover design by Eric Fuentecilla
About the Author
Other Books by This Author
I’m amazed at the fact that I feel called to take up the pen. Writing is an art I have no experience with, either as a hobby or as a profession. In fact, it might be said that with the exception of school assignments in my boyhood and the clerical tasks relating to my job, I’ve never written anything at all. Even more amazing is the fact that I don’t recall ever having composed a note or a letter in the entire time I’ve lived on earth, which comes to more than a quarter of a century. The truth is that letters—like speech—are a symbol of social life and an expression of the ties that bind people in this world, and these are all things of which I know nothing. Don’t we prune trees, cutting off the branches that have grown crooked? Why is it, then, that we keep people who aren’t fit for life? Why do we show such tolerance—nay, neglect—by imposing such individuals on life, or by imposing life on them against their will? As a result, they roam the earth as frightened strangers, and sometimes they’re gripped with such panic that they go wandering about like someone gone mad with fever, trampling innocent victims beneath their stumbling feet.
I say once again that I don’t recall having written anything that deserves to be called “writing.” In fact, for as long as I can remember, I’ve found it an exhausting, nearly impossible enterprise even to converse. If I’ve had no choice but to speak, I’ve stammered helplessly, not knowing how to express myself. However, this helplessness goes beyond the matter of speaking or writing. It’s more serious and dangerous indeed, for the inability to express myself and the attendant sense of constriction and impotence are, without a doubt, the most trifling of its consequences. Hence, it’s only fitting that I should wonder what it is that now impels me to write. After all, it isn’t just a letter to be penned. Rather, it’s a vast distance to be covered, so vast it will leave me breathless. I’m astonished at the energy and fervor that compel me to write, feelings I’m not accustomed to. I imagine myself continuing to write, without hesitation and without growing weary, day and night, with a determination that knows no lassitude. But why subject myself to such torment? Haven’t I spent my entire life seeking refuge in silence and suppression? Haven’t the secrets in my heart been unable to find themselves a closed grave in which to rest and die? How to explain this passionate urgency? How is it that I’ve unsheathed the pen to unearth a grave over which the dust of concealment has accumulated? Life has been lost, and the pen is the refuge of the lost. That’s the fact. People who write are, generally speaking, people who aren’t alive. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I was alive before. However, I never ceased looking for a joyful hope by whose light I could find my way, and now that light has been extinguished.
I’m not writing to someone else. After all, it isn’t in the nature of those afflicted with timidity and shame to bare their souls to another human being. Rather, I’m writing to myself, and to myself alone. I went on concealing my soul’s whispers until I lost sight of its reality, and now I need desperately to reveal its hidden face honestly, frankly, and
I make no claim to knowledge. In fact, there’s nothing to which I’ve been more hostile than knowledge, and I confess to being a stupid, lazy man. However, I’ve endured bitter experiences that have shaken me to the core, and there’s nothing like experience to unearth what lies buried in people’s souls. I long to lift the veil and penetrate my secrets, to put my finger on the site of my malady, the seat of my memories, the wellspring of my pain. Perhaps in this way I can avoid a lamentable end and escape this pain that is more than I can bear. I’m feeling my way in the darkness.
In reality, I’m nothing but a victim. I don’t say this in order to mitigate my own guilt or shirk my responsibility. Nevertheless, it’s the honest truth. The truth is that I’m a victim. However, I’m a victim with two victims of my own. And what pains me beyond words is that one of these two victims was my own mother! As unbelievable as it is, it’s the dreadful reality. How could I have allowed myself to forget that she was the secret of my life and happiness, and that I couldn’t bear to live without her? But I was living on the brink of madness, and thus I lost everything and found myself in a terrifying, lightless void. I’m a man of deep faith, and I know for a certainty that I’ll be raised to life on the Appointed Day. I don’t fear the sufferings and horrors of that day—when I’m stripped bare in the presence of God, with nothing to show but my good deeds and my bad—half as much as I fear being raised in a state like the one I’ve endured in this world. I truly desire resurrection to a new life, and when that happens, my sufferings will become as nothing, to be annihilated for all eternity, and I’ll be able to meet my loved ones with a tranquil heart and a pure, untainted soul.
My mother and my life were one and the same. My mother’s life in this world has ended, but it still lies hidden in the depths of my own. Hardly can I think of any aspect of my life without her beautiful, loving face appearing before me. She stands ever and always behind both my hopes and my sufferings, behind both my love and my hatred. She gave me more happiness than I could ever have hoped for, and more misery than I could ever have imagined. It’s as though she herself was everything I’ve ever loved or hated, since she herself is my whole life. Is there anything beyond love and hate in a person’s life? So let me confess that I’m writing in order to remember her and in order to recover her life, since with the recovery of her life, all life will be restored. In this way, I may be able to repair the thread of my life that’s been broken. Perhaps hope will be renewed through such a recovery. At this time, everything seems vague and obscure, as though Satan had cast sand into my eyes. Even so, I feel my way patiently and deliberately, led forward by the hope of rescue to which a drowning man clings.
What moves me is a genuine intention to renew my life and resurrect it as a new creation. So, if the path is too arduous, if despair overwhelms me, or if shame and diffidence get the better of me, nothing will remain for me but death.
What reward do the dead receive from the living once they’ve disappeared under the ground? We flee from their memory the way we flee from death itself. Perhaps this fact conceals a precious wisdom. However, our selfishness insists on concealing it beneath a veneer of bitter, laughable sorrow. I fled in terror from our house, leaving everything behind. Then I began to come to my senses and regain some degree of composure. I realized the terrible momentousness of what had befallen me, and my hands sought refuge in the closet of memories. As I brought out everything that remained there, what should I find but a photograph.
It was a large photograph that showed my grandfather decked out in his medal-festooned military uniform. He was sitting in a large chair with his voluminous body, his big potbelly, and the white mustache that looked like a crescent moon over his mouth. I was standing next to him, the top of my head hardly rising above his knees. I was looking into the photographer’s lens with smiling eyes, my lips pursed like someone who’s trying to suppress a laugh. My mother was standing to my grandfather’s right, resting her left hand on the back of the large chair. Clad in a long dress that enveloped her from neck to feet, its long sleeves revealing nothing but her hands, she stood there with her slender frame, her rectangular face, her delicate, straight nose, and wide green eyes that radiated tenderness, though her glance lacked that luster that bespeaks vigor and sharpness of temper. It was a face that the Merciful One chose to replicate so completely in my own that it used to be said that the only way you could tell us apart was by our clothes!
The picture peered out at me from the world of memories. I fixed my burning eyes on the beloved face for such a long time that I no longer saw anything else. Its features grew larger as I looked at them until I imagined myself a little boy again, living under her protective wing. The silence around me grew so thick, it seemed her closed mouth would open into a smile and allow me to hear the sweet conversation that I’d known until just a short while before. Photographs are an amazing thing. How could I have failed to notice this fact? This was my mother, with her body and her spirit. This was my mother, with her eyes, her nose, and her mouth, and this was the tender bosom that I’d clung to all my life. Lord! How can I convince myself that she’s truly departed from this world? Indeed, photographs are wondrous things, and it now seems to me that everything in this world is wondrous. Curses on habit that kills our spirit of wonderment and awe! This picture used to be hung in such a way that it was visible at all times. However, I was seeing it now as something new. In it I perceived a profound vitality, as though a breath from her liberated spirit were hidden within it. In her eyes I saw a distracted look that stirred up a sense of pain. This photograph was alive without a doubt, and I refused to withdraw my eyes from it even if it drove me mad not to do so.
I pored over it at length. Then I was gripped by a powerful desire to imagine the life of the woman depicted there in all its phases, from the cradle to the grave. I imagined her as a baby crawling, then as a little girl playing with her dolls. If only she’d left me pictures that could help me recapture the happy dreams of her childhood! Then I imagined the period of her tender youth, when she was a lovely young woman looking upon life through those tranquil eyes of hers with hope and delight and enjoying her impassioned adolescence. I’d witnessed a part of that sweet era, and was a fruit of its fertility and freshness. However, its signposts had now been lost sight of and its effects obliterated, enveloped in darkness as though I’d never nestled in her bosom or nursed at her breast. When I brought that era to mind later in life, the thought of it would bring confusion and anxiety, and I would wonder, dismayed and indignant: Didn’t the untamable desires that so preoccupy young people rage in her blood too? Perhaps it was these unexpressed emotions of mine that drove me in my boyhood to tear to pieces the only remaining trace of that early youth.
One day I came suddenly into our bedroom and found my mother leaning over an open drawer in the wardrobe and looking intently at something in front of her. I approached her gingerly, prompted by the mischievousness for which spoiled little boys are known. As I slipped my head under her outstretched arm, I saw her clutching a picture of her wedd
With some effort she put on a happier face and said, “What a contrary child you are! Can’t you see that I’m sorry over the picture of my youth? You’ve torn up your mother’s picture without knowing it.”
Every now and then the memory of that incident would come back and pain me, filling me with consternation and angst. I would wonder what had really led her to keep that picture, and why it saddened her to see me tear it up. Then I would try to penetrate with my imagination to what I’d missed of her life, but the attempt would just leave me preoccupied and distressed.
This was how I lost the picture of her early youth, and I’m truly sorry now to have lost it—very sorry, indeed. But isn’t this a laughable sort of sorrow now that I’ve reached out and destroyed the picture’s very subject?
I took no notice of the one affliction that had been visited on her life. One day she told me the story of her marriage. She did so with great caution and care, especially in view of the fact that she was narrating the happy memories, rare though they were. She would mention them hurriedly, tersely and with restraint, as though deep down she feared me, or as though she feared that the pleasantness of the memory might mitigate the intenseness of my loathing for my father.
It was on the Ismail Bridge that my father had seen her for the first time. Some days in the late afternoon, my mother and grandfather would take an excursion in the Victoria. One day they were passed by another Victoria, in whose front seat there sat a young man with one leg crossed over the other. He appeared to take pride in his youth and his wealth—or, more properly speaking, in the wealth he anticipated. His glance fell upon her face, and before long he had steered his carriage behind theirs and begun following them to our house in Manyal. Whenever the two of them left the house, they would happen upon him in the road as though he’d been waiting. I didn’t allow this chapter of the story to go by without comment. I asked her about how flirtation took place in those days. She received my question warily. However, I kept after her until she gave in to me, surrendering to the geniality of the recollections. She told me that he would cast her furtive glances that subtly concealed a smile. Or he would turn toward her with interest as he twisted his luxuriant black mustache. At the same time, he never overstepped the limits of propriety. I mused for some time, lost in the wilderness of dreamy imagination and feeling astonished, bewildered, and distressed. Then I looked up at her—our sole comfort during those days being that of endless conversation—and I asked her with a smile how she used to receive these flirtatious overtures. Not missing the mischievousness in my question, she giggled. Her body shaking from head to toe as it did whenever she laughed, she told me that she would ignore them, of course, and look straight ahead. She would register no response at all, as though she were a statue clad in a white veil. Unconvinced of what she was telling me, I said I was asking about the inward, not the outward; about the heart, not the face. I was tempted to tell her frankly what was going on in my head. However, my courage failed me and shyness tied my tongue. Yet if I’d consulted my heart, I would have known the answer. After all, my own heart was part of hers, and the same blood flowed through both. Indeed, the two of them beat as one. And could I possibly have forgotten the many times when I myself had remained unmoved as a statue even though my heart was ablaze?