Voices From the Other World
Table of Contents
Chronology of Ancient Egypt
King Userkaf’s Forgiveness
The Mummy Awakens
The Return of Sinuhe
A Voice from the Other World
About the Author
THE FOLLOWING TITLES BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ ARE ALSO PUBLISHED BY ANCHOR BOOKS:
Chronology of Ancient Egypt
Predynastic Period (Neolithic Period–Dynasty ‘0’)
Early Dynastic Period (1st–2nd Dynasties)
Old Kingdom (3rd–6th Dynasties)
First Intermediate Period (7th Dynasty–Early 11th Dynasty)
Middle Kingdom (Late 11th Dynasty–14th Dynasty)
Second Intermediate Period (15th–17th Dynasties)
New Kingdom (18th–20th Dynasties)
Third Intermediate Period (21st–23rd Dynasties)
Late Period (24th–31st Dynasties)
332 BC–395 AD
Principal source: Donald B. Redford, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001).
The five little-known stories that make up this volume— drawn from the vast output of Egypt’s (and the Arab world’s) greatest modern writer—are all in some way inspired by his country’s ancient past. Written in the 1930s and 1940s, in the early phase of Naguib Mahfouz’s novelistic career—which he began by publishing three books of fiction set in pharaonic times—they may well have been intended as the bases for longer works. Some are in a kind of fable form, as though adapted from folk literature or ancient texts—which, in part, they were. Yet he utterly remade them into his own, and placed them in the cutting-edge literary journals of the day, including three of them (“Evil Adored,” “The Mummy Awakens,” and “A Voice from the Other World”) in his first collection of short stories, The Whisper of Madness (Hams aljunun, the date of whose appearance is still debated). The other two—“King Userkaf’s Forgiveness” and “The Return of Sinuhe”—have languished in the crumbling pages of aging magazines, uncollected and largely ignored.
Critics have occasionally discussed the stories (with the apparent exception of “Sinuhe”), yet they remained untranslated (but for “The Mummy Awakens,” published in English in Pakistan in 1986 1 —and so they moldered unknown to those whose who do not read Arabic. That is, until now, when, like Sinuhe himself, and the born-again warrior unhappy with the changes since antiquity in Mahfouz’s mummy adventure, they have come back to remind us of our more than half-century neglect of their undeniable charms.
In his pharaonic stories as in his others, Mahfouz combines historical observation with a timeless imagination. The story here with the least direct connection to any known events or legends is the first one, “Evil Adored.” Set in still little-understood Predynastic Egypt, after the first few sentences—which explain that the country had at one time been divided into autonomous districts—it bears little resemblance to any confirmed ancient source or reality. Yet this hardly diminishes its allegorical appeal.
Likewise, the second tale, “King Userkaf’s Forgiveness,” while featuring the true founder of the Fifth Dynasty as its title character, and liberally marbled with allusions to real places and people (including Userkaf’s son and successor, Sahura), is not based upon any known incident. Indeed, the real Userkaf’s scarcely documented reign (2513–2506 BC) offered a nearly clean slate for Mahfouz’s fictional agenda. An avid reader of ancient Egyptian literature, Mahfouz may well have taken Userkaf’s final state of mind from The Teaching of Amenemhat, a renowned poem from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. In this poem, Amenemhat I, founder of the Twelfth Dynasty (r. 1991–1962 BC), appears in a dream—after his assassination in an intrigue hatched by his chief vizier and women from his harem—to his son, Senwosret I, confirming his succession to the throne. Amenemhat sadly warns (as translated by Richard B. Parkinson): “Trust no brother! Know no friend! Make for yourself no intimates—this is of no avail!”
The next story, “The Mummy Awakens,” is perhaps the only one that Mahfouz has published that features an outright political tirade—though delivered in the 1930s by a mummy from the Eighteenth Dynasty. A tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the standard plots of Hollywood mummy movies then in vogue (as they are again today), the mummy’s character is perhaps loosely based on Horemheb, the general who served under the “heretic king” Akhenaten (r. ca. 1372–1355 BC), who later became pharaoh himself (r. 1343–1315 BC).
Further testifying to Mahfouz’s lifelong fascination with the literary heritage of the pharaonic age, the fourth story is fashioned in part from a classic Egyptian text, The Tale of Sinuhe. In “The Return of Sinuhe,” Mahfouz includes many of the ancient story’s elements— but adds a crucial one only vaguely implied in the Middle Kingdom original: the romance. Parkinson, one of The Tale of Sinuhe’s most famous translators 2 and a renowned expert on ancient Egyptian literature overall, calls the nearly four-thousand-year-old poem “a fictional work of the highest artistry.” He is equally enamored of Mahfouz’s version—which Parkinson has hailed as “wonderful.”
The fifth and final story offers an appropriately spiritual exit from Mahfouz’s ancient Egyptian universe. “A Voice from the Other World” astoundingly anticipates, by at least three decades, the popular wave of “out-of-body experience” literature that swept the publishing world in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet it is almost certainly set in the time of Rameses II (r. 1198–1166 BC), as the story’s protagonist appears loosely modeled on Pentaweret (Pentu-wer)—once thought to have composed the epic poem that he inscribed on this king’s monuments trumpeting the (much-disputed) triumph over the Hittite forces at Qadesh. Likewise, the other period details are for the most part plausible. These include Mahfouz’s description of the tomb and its contents, his reference to the feast of Isis, plus his repeated use of the ancient (and still extant) Egyptian identification of the West—the land of the sunset—as the abode of Death. And, with one or two minor exceptions, Mahfouz renders the methods of mummification employed in the New Kingdom with gruesome precision. Even more importantly, however, he creates a truly vivid glimpse into that other existence after this one—and his vision is sanguine.
And so this quintet of vintage tales has been saved from the near oblivion that for many years had claimed them. The same fate had befallen his three early pharaonic novels, as well: ‘Abath al-aqdar (Khufu’s Wisdom, 1939); Radubis (Rhadopis, 1943), and Kifah Tiba (Thebes at War, 1944). They had been overshadowed by his splendid Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire , and Sugar Street) and other works set in modern Cairo and Alexandria. But no more. Thanks to the American University in Cairo Press, which brought out his brilliant 1985 novella al-‘A’ish fi-l-haqiqa, set in ancient Egypt, under the title Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth (translated by Tagried Abu-Hassabo), in 1998, these hidden historical gems will soon make their debut in English. (They began to appear in Europe, principally in French, Italian, and Spanish, in the 1990s.)
Together with this book, they launch a much-deserved introduction of some of the master’s finest (but most unusual, and least familiar) works to readers of English. Like their ninety-year-old author, their spirits, for all their wisdom, remain f
The translator thanks Roger Allen, Kathleen Anderson, Hazem Azmy, Brooke Comer, Gaballa Ali Gaballa, Zahi Hawass, Prince Abbas Hilmi, Shirley Johnston, Klaus Peter Kuhlmann, Mark Linz, Bojana Mojsov, Richard B. Parkinson, Donald Malcolm Reid, Veronica Rodriguez, Rainer Stadelmann, Paul Theroux, Peter Theroux, and David Wilmsen for their helpful comments on the present work, as well as Kelly Zaug and R. Neil Hewison for their excellent editing. And, above all, he thanks Naguib Mahfouz—for patiently, as always, answering endless questions about these stories.
Before the first king ruled on the throne of Egypt, the great valley of the Nile was divided into independent districts, each with its own god, religion, and sovereign. One of these nomes, called Khnum, was famed for its fertile soil, favorable climate, and plentiful population. Yet its fate was cruelly wrought by hardships and woes, for while the opulent lived in sin, the peasants went without food. As the wicked dwelt on the land in wanton corruption, disease and pestilence claimed the wretched and the weak. The men in charge of the district—chief among them the magistrate Sumer, the constable Ram, and the physician Toheb—set to work on reform. Their fierce campaign to suppress crime and depravity became the model far and wide for righteousness, integrity, and moral resolve.
During one of the generations that passed in this district, there came a stranger—an elderly gentleman, clean-shaven on both his head and his face (as was the custom for Egyptian priests), tall and gauntly built. His gaze bore a sharp expression, mocking his advanced age, radiating the light of intelligence and wisdom. He truly was peculiar, for no sooner would he set foot in a land than its people would begin to ask in amazement, “Who is this man? . . . What country drove him out? . . . What does he want? . . . And how does he roam the earth at a time when he really should rest in pious peace of mind while awaiting his crossing to the world of Osiris?”
His eccentric character knew no bounds. He left behind him a vortex of disorder and a whorl of uproar wherever he settled down—and wherever he headed. He prowled the markets and the temples, inviting himself to parties without knowing their hosts, injecting himself into what did not concern him. He would talk to husbands about their wives and to wives about their husbands, to fathers about their sons and to sons about their fathers, engaging in argument with the lords and the nobles. He also spoke with the servants and the slaves, leaving in his wake a deep and powerful influence that stirred defiant revolt in their souls, around which disputation and mutual hostility grew ever stronger.
The stranger’s way of life aroused the fears of Ram, the protector of order. He followed him around like his shadow, observing him closely, filled with suspicion about his intentions. At length he seized him and led him to the magistrate, so that he could examine his astounding case. Sumer the magistrate was a man of advanced years and vast experience: he had spent four decades of his magnificent life in heroic struggle under the banners of Truth and Justice. He had personally dispatched hundreds of rebels to their proper fate, and filled the prisons with thousands of evildoers and criminals, as he labored faithfully and sincerely to cleanse the district of the enemies of peace and tranquility.
But when this odd man came before him, Sumer felt astonished and confused. He wondered to himself what this used-up old coot could have done—then, casting an appraising glance upon him, he asked in his weighty voice, “What, venerable sir, is your name?”
The man did not answer. Instead, he remained silent, shaking his head as though he did not wish to speak—or did not know what to say.
The judge, annoyed by his unreasonable silence, demanded harshly, “Why don’t you answer? State your name!”
The man replied in a murmur, a faint, ambiguous smile upon his lips, “I do not know it, sire.”
The magistrate’s anger redoubled, and he demanded scoldingly, “Do you really not know your name?”
“Yes, sire—I have forgotten it.”
“Do you really claim that you have forgotten your own name—the name that people call you?”
“No one uses any name for me: my family and close friends have all passed away. I have wandered in this world for a very long time, but no one addresses me by name. No human being calls out to me, and—with my head overflowing with ideas and dreams—I have forgotten it.”
Sumer berated the old man for his feebleminded senility —then turned away from him in despair to the protector of order. “What drove you to bring this man to my courtroom?” he asked.
“He is, sire,” said Ram, “a man who neither rests nor permits others to rest. He imposes himself upon people and makes them debate both good and evil—and does not bid them farewell until dissension and division have rent them apart.”
The magistrate tilted toward Ram and inquired, “What does he want, behind all that?”
The old man fixed a sharp look upon him. In a voice strong in tone but quavering from the many years that he had dwelt in this life, he replied, “I want to reform this beastly world, my lord.”
The judge smiled and asked him, “Do we not find those who give their lives unstintingly to this noble work when they can? What does the judge, the police chief, or the doctor do? Be reassured, old man, and put yourself at ease, for your great age cannot shoulder this grueling task—there are others more capable than yourself.”
The man shook his head stubbornly and said, “All those that you have cited have been around since the beginning of creation. Yet they have not yet been able to alter this brutality that so disfigures the world. We still see, in every corner of the earth, the harbingers of evil and the plain signs of crime.”
“And are you succeeding, then, even as all these amassed forces have failed?”
“Indeed, sire . . . bear with me, and I will show you.”
Amused, the magistrate smiled again, then asked, “And what means do you possess that they do not?”
“My lord, they drive out wrongdoers, treat the sick, and bind up the wounded. But as for me, my method is to eliminate the malady entirely. Disease is a sneak attack on the refuge of our well-being. Those others care only about its symptoms. I have examined this very carefully, and discovered that the stomach is the basis of the malaise in this region. I found many that could not fill its gaping emptiness, so that they howl from hunger. At the same time, others are not only not empty, but consume greedily all that they wish. And from the mutual attraction and revulsion of these two stomachs comes looting, pillage, and murder. So the disease is clear—and the treatment is clear, as well.”
The judge rejoined, “To the contrary: the disease that you have diagnosed has no cure!”
“That is what they say, sire. And they say this only because they lack something crucial to Our Lord: that is, faith in Him, the belief in Virtue. They do not have the proper faith in goodness. They struggle for its sake using passive tools that have no feeling, and labor for wages, status, and glory. And if they retreat unto themselves, worn out by what they declare to be their disgust with sinfulness, then that is their business, sire. As for myself, I believe properly in Virtue—which bids me to proceed down my path, and to do so slowly and gently.”
The man’s speech stirred anger in the constable’s soul, the more so as he seemed to be slandering him right in his presence. But the magistrate, being more broad-minded and softhearted, showed forebearance to what the man said. Finding nothing in his actions to warrant punishment, Sumer released him with a word of caution.
The man left the courtroom, charged with the elation of youth. The approval on high for his mission seemed even more certain, as he stalked the earth with the strength of a giant, gushing forth in speech with the zeal of a youngster, his heart bursting with the optimism of a prophet. His tongue spat out a kind of white magic—a way of reasoning that even the haughty could not resist. In a brief time he was able to monopolize the ears of the tribe, to enchant their hearts, arouse th
The results were breathtaking, dazzling the seers and the wise men alike. They wiped out crime, put evil to flight, and remedied all ills. The spreading wings of happiness sheltered the district. The civic leaders rejoiced, praising and putting their faith in the man whom they had previously disbelieved. They reveled at finally reaching the noble end that they had spent their whole lives trying vainly to achieve.
Time marched on, smoothly and quietly, in an atmosphere of calm—as things changed into a state that people had never before seen.
The authorities were the first to feel the coming of the new age. In truth, they found themselves with nothing to do—and leisure delights only those who work for a living. The empty hours grew heavier and heavier upon them—as, with mournful eyes, they watched their majesty fade, their wind blow away, and their radiance dim into gloom.
In the past, the constable had the power to spread panic wherever he paused for an instant. But now he had become a thing that people looked back at defiantly, with blatant contempt—to the point where they trod blithely past him as they would a broken idol.
And the magistrate, who had wielded his sacred power with a divine dignity, was now sheepish with anguish and sorrow. He heard not a greeting nor an urgent request, nor did he return the welcome of those who called out to him. He felt only loneliness and isolation, until he became like an abandoned temple in the desert.
As for the doctor, groaning from hidden complaints, he locked himself in his house—neither receiving guests, nor visiting anyone else. Before this, he had hoarded money in a cooking pot, but now he had started to use up what he had saved, while his heart pounded with worry.