A Review of: Three Novels of Ancient Egypt by Naguib Mahfouz
In October 1994, six years after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside his Cairo home. The assailant was carrying out a death sentence pronounced by Umar Abd al-Rahman, a Muslim religious leader who believed that Mahfouz’s novel Awlad Haratina was blasphemous. Mahfouz survived the attack—he died in August 2006, at ninety-four—but his wounds prevented him from holding a pen for the rest of his life. Abd al-Rahman eventually left Egypt for New York, where he helped to plot the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
For the first time, Everyman’s Library has collected Mahfouz’s trilogy of novels about ancient Egypt in one volume. Compared to his better known and dustily realistic Cairo Trilogy, which portrays mid-twentieth-century Cairo in all its menace and squalor, these earlier novels seem grandiose and melodramatic, like a Cecil B. DeMille movie, complete with chariots and a cast of thousands.
The pleasure of this trilogy, like that of all good historical fiction, is in the intricate re-creation of the past. Mahfouz was a famously voracious researcher and an inveterate plotter—Nadine Gordimer, in her introduction, aptly compares him to a detective novelist—but these are also archetypal stories. Khufu’s Wisdom has the pharaoh Khufu trying to circumvent fate by killing the boy prophesied to succeed him on the throne. The irony is biblical: fate eventually wins out, despite man’s vain attempts to thwart it. Rhadopis of Nubia is a thriller of palace intrigue in which the young
pharaoh sacrifices his duty to his country for the love of Rhadopis, an ambitious prostitute as smart and scheming as any woman in Mahfouz’s fiction. Thebes at War, the bloodiest of the three novels, is the story of a people in exile, waiting to reclaim their country from foreign occupiers. It is at once a survey of class in the Nile Valley and an allegory of European colonialism in Africa. “Everything appeared to me that it would proceed according to my own desire, and I was not troubled by doubt of any kind,” says Pharaoh Khufu. Like his British contemporary Graham Greene, Mahfouz believed that desire in the absence of doubt was humanity’s tragic flaw. These are your garden-variety tales of love, war, betrayal, and death—or they would be, if it weren’t for Mahfouz’s deeply felt mistrust of unchecked wealth and power alongside his sardonic bewilderment at the bone machine of history. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the closing lines of Rhadopis of Nubia. Benamum, a sculptor in love with Rhadopis, has come to collect her corpse. “He sighed from the depths of his broken heart, his eyes fixed on the shrouded body upon which his hopes and dreams had been wrecked… like sweet dreams put to flight when one awakes.” Benamun, like all victims, bears the burden of both his own innocence and the sins of others. Mahfouz rarely left Cairo, yet he seemed to live in a space between the great forces of history. A practicing Muslim and committed socialist, he was as disgusted by the material decadence of King Farouk as by the decadent purity of Islamic fundamentalism.“I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these… is the Pharaonic civilization; the second… is the Islamic one,” wrote Mahfouz in his Nobel acceptance speech.“It was my fate, ladies and gentlemen, to be born in the lap of these two civilizations, and to absorb their milk…”