The Seventh Heaven: Supernatural Tales
The Seventh Heaven
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy and an avid reader, his works range from reimaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Over a career that lasted more than five decades, he wrote 33 novels, 13 short story anthologies, numerous plays, and 30 screenplays. 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 awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first writer in Arabic to do so. He died in August 2006.
Raymond Stock (translator) is writing a biography of Naguib Mahfouz. He is the translator of Mahfouz’s Voices from the Other World, Khufu’s Wisdom, and The Dreams.
THE FOLLOWING TITLES BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ ARE ALSO PUBLISHED BY ANCHOR BOOKS:
The Thief and the Dogs*
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
The Cairo Trilogy:
Palace of Desire
*†published as omnibus editions
The Seventh Heaven
The Disturbing Occurrences
Room No. 12
The Garden Passage
Beyond the Clouds
The Haunted Woods
The Vapor of Darkness
A Man of Awesome Power
The Only Man
The Rose Garden
The Reception Hall
A Warning from Afar
Arabic Text Sources
On Pembroke Road look out for my ghost
Dishevelled with shoes untied,
Playing through the railings with little children
Whose children have long since died.
Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab Nobel laureate in literature, is justifiably known as one of the greatest realist writers of the last century. But he is equally a master of the bizarre, the supernatural, even the macabre.
To be sure, Mahfouz’s oeuvre, encompassing some sixty books covering virtually every style and genre of fiction, is both vast and immensely varied. Best known for straightforward stories of life in his native city, such as his famous Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street), so accurately does he capture the ways of the poor that it is said you can smell the “popular quarters” on the page. Yet in the same works and many others, he is just as adept at portraying the wealthy and the middle class, both women and men.
This same versatility extends to time and place as well: some of his earliest stories are highly readable (though for long, oddly underrated), increasingly allegorical romances set in his country’s rich pharaonic past. His first three “historical” novels, Khufu’s Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia, and Thebes at War, published in 1939, 1943, and 1944 respectively, have only recently appeared in English, along with a book of short stories set in ancient times, Voices from the Other World. His 1985 novella, Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, about the pharaoh who suppressed worship of all deities but the sun god Aton, also came out in English less than a decade ago. These are only a few examples of the complexity of his output in the past seventy years or more.
But not only is Mahfouz brilliant at presenting the living, he is likewise uncanny at conjuring the dead.
For example, Mahfouz’s 1945 story, “A Voice from the Other World” is told from the tomb by Taw-ty, a famous versifier and writer in a Nineteenth Dynasty court, who dies of a sudden illness at age twenty-six. Taw-ty watches as his family and friends mourn, bury, and ultimately forget him, while he himself discovers that one should embrace death, not avoid it. Consider his poetic description of his passing from this existence to the next, when the “Messenger of the Hereafter” comes to collect him:
And I saw the holy aura of life surrender to his will, and depart from my feet and my calves and my thighs and my belly and my chest, and the blood within them freeze and the limbs stiffen and the heart stop, until a deep sigh escaped my gaping mouth. My corpse became quiet as I sank into eternity, and the Messenger took his leave just as he came to me, without anyone’s noticing. A peculiar feeling pervaded me that I had left life behind, that I had ceased to dwell among the people of the world.2
Despite a gap of thirty-four years between them, there is much in common between “A Voice from the Other World” and the title story here, “The Seventh Heaven,” published as “al-Sama’ al-sabi‘a” in the 1979 collection al-Hubb fawq hadabat al-haram (Love on the Pyramids Plateau). Mahfouz says the idea for “The Seventh Heaven” came while reading a book on encounters with spirits of the departed by Raouf Sadiq Ubayd, former deputy chairman of the College of Law at Cairo’s Ayn Shams University. Ubayd’s work, al-Insan ruh la jasad (The Human Is a Spirit, not a Body, 1966),3 among much else about ghostly phenomena, contains previously unknown poetry allegedly recited in posthumous composition by the spirit of Egypt’s “Prince of Poets,” Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932).4
“The Seventh Heaven” begins with the almost cinematically described murder of a twentieth-century man, one Raouf Abd-Rabbuh (literally, the “Kind Servant of his Lord”—and not coincidentally including the same first name as the author whose book inspired the story; Mahfouz’s characters are rarely, if ever, named at random). Raouf comes to incorporeal consciousness in the afterlife following his death at the hands of a friend with whom he is walking home at the end of a night out. Raouf watches dispassionately as his bloodied body is buried by his killer, Anous (derived from “bachelor, man unable to marry”) Qadri (“compelled by fate, fateful”)— just as Taw-ty observes his own death and embalming in “A Voice from the Other World”; and in another story in the present collection, “Beyond the Clouds” (“Fawq al-sahab,” 1989), a likewise disembodied spirit watches his own family in the throes of grief around his corpse at the moment of his death. Raouf’s soul is then received and counseled by a long-expired ancient Egyptian, “Abu, formerly High-Priest at Hundred-Gated Thebes.” Abu takes Raouf on a journey through what turns out to be but the first, or lowest, level of the seven heavens. These, of course, are undoubtedly based upon the “seven heavens, one upon another arrayed” (saba‘a samawatin tibaqan)5 described in the Qur’an—a concept that long predates Islam in the Near East. In Islamic cosmology, the first heaven is that just above the earth, at the level of the astral bodies, planets, and clouds, which sends rain to grow greenery below. The seventh heaven is where God sits on His throne, in firdaws (Paradise), above or near the sacred lote tree, the immortal Tree of Life. The travel distance in time between each heaven and the next in Islamic tradition (not in the Qur’an) is 500 years—for a total journey far short of the “hundreds of thousands of enlightened years” cited in “The Seventh He
Nor does this story’s portrayal of the Other World bear much resemblance to the way the ancient Egyptians conceived it. For them, one either attained an afterlife by surviving the ritual weighing of the heart against the feather of Maat, goddess of order and justice, in the Osiris Court, or died forever as the sin-heavy organ was tossed to the crocodile-headed monster Ammit instead. And, while the number seven was considered fortuitous even in pharaonic times,7 eternity was essentially in the underworld, not in the heavens. Yet according to the tale of Setna and his son Si-Osiris (dating roughly to the first century A.D.), the boy and man pass through seven halls symbolizing the land of the Dead. In the seventh hall— the place of judgment—sat Osiris, ruler of the nether regions, with his divine entourage.8 But whatever the similarities and differences between his own post-mortem cartography and those of Islam and the ancient religion, Mahfouz’s eschatology is even more unconventional in that he does not depict drastic torments for the truly wicked, but something far subtler than hellfire, or even simple non-existence (which the ancient Egyptians feared most). In “The Seventh Heaven,” the twentieth century’s two greatest villains, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, receive nothing more as chastisement than to be reborn in crude conditions on earth, while their quest for Paradise is merely delayed. The banality of evil is matched by the seeming triviality of punishment.
At times, Mahfouz’s judgments in the story, “The Seventh Heaven,” may strike some as counterintuitive. The chief lackey to Hitler’s reincarnation as Boss Qadri the Butcher is none other than Lord Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), whose November 1917 promise on behalf of the British government to provide a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine led to the creation of modern Israel. Yet, as viewed from within the Arab political scene since World War II, Mahfouz—who has denounced the Nazis since their heyday, and who has told this writer that “I really miss” the Jews of Egypt9 (all but a handful of whom left in the 1950s and ’60s)—actually reverses here the popular order of villainy in his neighborhood. Throughout the Middle East, Balfour—whose declaration led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 and later (as well as the establishment of a haven for Jews persecuted throughout the world)—is widely seen as sinister. Yet Hitler—who millions of Arabs believed would “liberate” them from either British or French colonial rule—has unfortunately been seen as a hero by many in the region. Moreover, in “The Seventh Heaven,” Mahfouz makes a sort of benevolent secular prophet out of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), the ruthless founder of Soviet Communism and instigator of an enormous, and merciless, civil war throughout the Russian empire. He uses a common comparison between the allegedly just and saintly figure of Lenin and the malignant menace of his successor, Stalin. This view was and probably still is popular among many who consider themselves socialist—and Mahfouz still holds it today.10
British philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who visited Moscow in 1920 to conduct research as a socialist on the new Bolshevist system established in formerly Czarist Russia, draws a different parallel entirely—between Lenin and the nineteenth-century Liberal statesman William Gladstone (1809-1898). In Unpopular Essays (1950), Russell recalls:
Of the two, I would say that Gladstone was the more unforgettable as a personality…. When I met Lenin, I had much less impression of a great man than I had expected; my most vivid impressions were of bigotry and Mongolian cruelty. When I put a question to him about socialism in agriculture, he explained with glee how he had incited the poorer peasants against the richer ones, “and they soon hanged them from the nearest tree—ha! ha! ha!” His guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.11
Whatever one’s own views, Mahfouz dexterously deploys the series of afterworld scenes in “The Seventh Heaven” to convey, in extremely brief, deft strokes, his feelings about many of his country’s—as well as the world’s—most influential figures. In the course of following the poetically interchangeable personae of the story’s initial hero (Raouf Abd-Rabbuh) and villain (Anous Qadri) as they each return to earth “condemned” to live once again, Mahfouz has more and more fun with the destinies of the exalted dead. They include a number of Egypt’s rulers (such as the “first to bring the news that God is one,” Akhenaten (r. ca. 1372-1355 B.C.), who are each assigned as earthly guides to prominent national personalities living at the time the story was written—some of whom are still with us today. There is even an incongruous parallel drawn between Mahatma Gandhi and the early Muslim general Khalid bin Walid (d. 642), who defeated the Byzantines at Yarmouk in 636, clearing the way for the stupendous expansion of Islam in the decades that followed.
Raouf’s persistent queries disclose the individual verdicts on many major actors. These include a leader of at least two uprisings in Cairo against Napoleon, Umar Makram (1755-1822), dispatched to guide the (still active) newspaper columnist, memoirist, and travel writer Anis Mansur (b. 1924). Another patriotic icon, Ahmad Urabi, leader of the 1882 military revolt that prompted prolonged British control of Egypt, is sent to guide Lewis Awad (1914-1990), the prominent poet, novelist, and critic. Mustafa Kamil (1874-1908), a founder of the National Party, serves Fathi Radwan (1911-1988), an activist in the fascist-inspired Young Egypt movement who later served under Nasser as a minister of information and diplomat. Muhammad Farid (1868-1919), Kamil’s successor at the National Party’s helm, is assigned to the founder of modern Egypt’s greatest construction firm, Osman Ahmed Osman (1917-1999). Only one of the persons that Raouf asks about, Sa‘d Zaghlul—Mahfouz’s lifelong idol for his role in the early nationalist movement in Egypt—is sent upward to the Second Heaven without having first to do penance as a guide on earth, “because of his triumph over his own human weakness!”
But Zaghlul’s successor, Mustafa al-Nahhas—presumably because he was tainted by numerous scandals during his time as Wafd Party leader after Zaghlul, and because he was made prime minister with the aid of British tanks in February 1942—gets off less lightly. First he is sent back down to guide Anwar al-Sadat (still alive at the time this story appeared). But after Sadat’s successful military assault on the supposedly impregnable Bar-Lev Line in Israeli-occupied Sinai on October 6, 1973, al-Nahhas is finally allowed to join Zaghlul in the Second Heaven. This neatly permits Mahfouz to unabashedly praise Sadat, the self-styled “Hero of War and Peace,” while exonerating the most popular historical figures in his own favorite political party (the Wafd), Zaghlul and al-Nahhas. The censors (and Sadat himself) no doubt took note.
One of the most telling historical cameos is that of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who was reviled in Egypt for not pressing one of the basic principles enshrined in his famous Fourteen Points—the self-determination of peoples—upon the British and French empires in the Paris Peace Conference organized by the Allies after World War I. Strangely, in “The Seventh Heaven,” Wilson—who did succeed in founding the League of Nations, yet was unable to get the U.S. Congress to approve America’s membership in it—is chosen as the spiritual guide for Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987), Mahfouz’s own acknowledged mentor and author of Egypt’s first nationalist novel, Return of the Spirit (‘Awdat al-ruh, 1933).
Raouf Abd-Rabbuh asks Abu about Sadat’s former patron and immediate predecessor, Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Abu tells him, “He is now guiding al-Qaddafi.” In other words, Mahfouz is mocking Nasser by making him serve the mercurial young colonel who seized power in Libya one year before the Egyptian dictator-colonel’s own death in 1970. After all, Mahfouz seems to remind us, al-Qaddafi’s idol is Nasser himself; at least in part, we can probably thank Nasser’s guidance for the survival of the erratic leader in Tripoli through his shaky early days in power
Raouf’s greatest shock comes when Abu reveals to him that his mother is none other than Rayya, who, with her sister, Sakina, and their respective husbands, had murdered at least thirty women in Alexandria for their jewelry and other valuables by luring them to their homes. Mahfouz wrote the scenario for a renowned 1953 film, Rayya wa Sakina (directed by the legendary Salah Abu Seif) about the frightening pair of nefarious forty-somethings and their capture in 1921.12
Four years after “The Seventh Heaven” appeared, Mahfouz published a powerful, if peculiar, novel-in-dialogue, Amam al-‘arsh (Before the Throne, 1983). In Amam al-‘arsh, Mahfouz hauls three score of Egypt’s former rulers, from Mina (the possibly apocryphal unifier of ancient Egypt in the First Dynasty), to Anwar al-Sadat, before the Osiris Court for judgment of their performance in power. Asked if “The Seventh Heaven” may have led in any way to his writing Amam al-‘arsh, Mahfouz would only say, “Not necessarily.”13 Yet the Egyptian leaders who star in the foggy firmament of this “long short story,” as the author describes it,14 had their first taste of Mahfouzian justice in its pages, under the guidance of a priest—however deracinated—from ancient Thebes.
Mahfouz’s lifelong obsession with departed spirits also marks his most recent work. The Dreams (Ahlam fatrat al-naqaha), published in English by the American University in Cairo Press in 2004, is a series of extremely brief vignettes, each said to be based on an actual dream. Like most people’s nocturnal visions, Mahfouz’s are frequently inhabited by persons long deceased—though most often they are definitely visiting from the land of the Dead, and not simply seen as they were when alive. An excellent example is his old Arabic teacher, Shaykh Muharram, who telephones the dreamer sixty years after his own passing to confess he has learned that many of the lessons he taught him had turned out to be wrong. As a result, the shaykh has come back to give him the corrections. “Having said this,” Mahfouz writes, “he laid a folder on the table, and left.”15