The Maze of Justice

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The Maze of Justice

by Tawfiq al-Hakim


A novel set in Egypt in the early 1930s; published in Arabic (as Yawmiyyat Na’ib fil-Aryaf) in 1937, in English in 1947.


A prosecutor assigned to a village in the provinces investigates a local murder.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in Alexandria in 1902 to an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother, Tawfiq al-Hakim completed his secondary education in Cairo, where he was able to indulge his passion for novels and the theater. He obtained his law degree in 1925 and then traveled to Paris to study for a doctorate. In 1927 he returned to Egypt, became a civil servant in the office of the Public Prosecutor in Alexandria, and was posted to numerous villages in the provinces. Literature was al-Hakim’s true vocation, however. Upon his return to Egypt he embarked on a parallel, prolific career as a playwright, novelist, and essayist. Al-Hakim is internationally acclaimed as the founder of modern Arabic drama. Among his novels, The Return of the Spirit (1933) is considered a literary masterpiece and influenced a whole generation of nationalist intellectuals, including the leader of the 1952 revolution, Gamal Abdul Nasser (also spelled Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir). Al-Hakim’s death in 1987 marked the end of a golden era in Arabic letters. The Maze of Justice, which provides a scathing critique of the justice system in early twentieth-century Egypt, is considered by contemporary critics to be one of his finest and most original works.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Political background

Between 1516 and 1805, Egypt was ruled from Istanbul as a province of the Ottoman Empire. In 1805 Muhammad ʿAli, commander in chief of the Albanian forces of the Ottoman Army, was appointed governor of Egypt, which led to the founding of the independent dynasty that would rule Egypt until its overthrow in 1952. By 1876 Muhammad ʿAli’s grandson, Isma’il had, because of his extravagant expenditure of public funds, plunged the country into a major financial crisis. Both the British and the French had long been eyeing Egypt. Already they owned controlling stakes in the newly built Suez Canal, which linked the Mediterranean and Red Seas. They proceeded at this point to take over the country’s crumbling finances and began to interfere in its domestic affairs. Using the excuse of an Egyptian army-instigated nationalist rebellion, the British occupied Egypt militarily in 1882 and became “advisors” to the king.

From the 1920s until 1952, when a military coup put an end to both the monarchy and seven decades of British occupation, Egypt was ruled by a triangle of competing but unequal institutions: the British High Commissioner’s Office, the Egyptian royal palace, and a fractious parliament.

In 1922 a limited constitution was drawn up, and in 1924 a popular opposition parliament, supported by the urban nationalist intelligentsia as well as the Egyptian peasantry, was elected. In what was to become a recurrent pattern, the scandalous political assassination nine months later of Sir Lee Stack, the British commander in chief of the Egyptian army, prompted the Egyptian king, in complicity with the British, to dissolve parliament. A series of fractious and shortlived coalition governments followed, and in 1930, when a Wafd prime minister injudiciously resigned, the king seized the opportunity to appoint a cabinet headed by Isma’il Sidqi Pasha, who suspended parliament, amended the constitution to diminish suffrage, and ruled with an iron fist until 1933. “His government,” says one historian, “was to become a byword for corruption and the abuse of power” (Sayyid-Marsot, p. 88). Sidqi’s government, though allied with both the King and the British, did not go unchallenged by the larger Egyptian population, particularly the peasantry. During the early 1930s nationwide student strikes and demonstrations spread throughout the provincial towns and villages and found much support amongst the radicalized and rebellious peasantry.


The party Wafd took its name from the delegation of Egyptian politicians formed in 1918 with the express purpose of lodging Egypt’s demand for independence at the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. Sa’d Zaghlul, the party’s charismatic leader, appealed directly to the patriotism of the oppressed Egyptian masses, particularly the peasantry to which he himself claimed to belong. Under his leadership, the Wafd enjoyed massive support; in 1919 the British authorities had Zaghlul arrested and sent into exile, whereupon revolutionary insurrection broke out throughout the entire country, in cities and villages alike. In fact, the revolution of 1919 helped bring about the radicalization of the Egyptian peasantry, ushering in an era of periodic rural revolt that would last until the revolution of 1952.

The land and the peasantry

Egypt has always been primarily an agricultural country, with most of its population concentrated in the extremely fertile land of the Nile Delta and along the narrow strip of the Nile Valley. Given the scarcity of rainfall, irrigation has, from antiquity to the present, relied on the waters of the Nile and an elaborate network of canals and drainage systems. This type of hydraulic engineering has been highly labor-intensive and costly to construct and maintain. Some historians argue that this alone has been responsible for the development and continued existence of a strong, authoritarian central state in Egypt. While the effect on government is debatable, more certain is the fact that the Egyptian peasant has been forced to deal with the tyrannical interventions of exploitative authorities from such a state. The peasant has had to contend with heavy taxation, forced labor, military conscription, and often brutal social and economic conditions, not to mention the unceasing contempt of the educated and urbanized elites.

Historically, all agricultural land in Egypt was owned by the state. It oversaw a semi-feudal arrangement of lifelong land tenure, in which vast properties were parceled out to individuals who collected taxes for the state. Gradually, the system gave way to outright individual legal ownership of the land, which by the mid-nineteenth century led to the formation of a landed oligarchy of Turco-Circassian elites, aligned for the most part with the royal family.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Lord Cromer, the notorious British High Commissioner, had successfully transformed Egypt’s agricultural economy into an export-based monoculture based on cotton. Cotton, destined exclusively for England’s textile mills, became the country’s primary crop. This focus resulted in the gradual destruction of traditional subsistence farming; the concentration of lands into ever larger, privately owned estates; spiraling stockmarket speculation that further enriched the landowning elites; and growing landlessness among the peasantry, who formed 82 percent of the Egyptian population. By 1926 half of Egypt’s arable land was controlled by 2 percent of the population (Sayyid-Marsot, pp. 86-87). The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s, which hit Egypt extremely hard (due to its connection with the British economy), accelerated rural patterns of land dispossession, unemployment, violent crime, and government repression.

Prime Minister Sidqi’s government, made up mostly of wealthy landowners, was avowedly antilabor; it repeatedly blocked legislation that would have created peasant labor unions and minimum wages for landless agricultural workers. By 1933 wages had fallen to pre-World War I levels and inflation had skyrocketed. Outrageously high taxes, spiraling rents, periodic land confiscations, and forced labor all provoked the peasants (or fellahin) to violent rebellion, which broke out in various locations throughout the 1930s.

Illiteracy, disease and poverty were endemic. Some 65 percent of the peasantry suffered from chronic bilharzia (a potentially fatal kidney disease peculiar to Egypt) and 75 percent from degenerative eye disease, while most were severely malnourished. Modern healthcare and basic hygiene were virtually nonexistent in peripheral rural areas. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s generation of Westernized, urban intellectual reformers decried these conditions and questioned Egypt’s ability to modernize and achieve true independence while more than two-thirds of its population still lived in such misery and squalor.

The legal system

In the 1930s the Egyptian judicial system was comprised of three main institutions: the Muslim Shari’a Courts, the Mixed Courts, and the Native Courts. It is the latter that figures most prominently in The Maze of Justice. The Shari ʿa Courts predated European influence. They administered the traditional Islamic law of one of four major schools of jurisprudence through a qadi—a Muslim legal scholar usually trained at al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest and most venerated university in the Islamic world. The jurisdiction of these traditional courts was increasingly restricted throughout the nineteenth century due to the rapid social and economic


Forced, unpaid labor (known as corvee) had deep historical roots in the Egyptian countryside. The annual flooding of the Nile basin required a massive labor effort (roads, dikes, and canals throughout the country had to be strengthened and repaired on a regular basis). By the nineteenth century, the corvee system of forced labor had developed into a well organized and particularly brutal state enterprise. The Suez Canal was actually constructed with corvee labor; 100,000 Egyptian peasants died digging the Canal with their bare hands since the Canal Company “refused to provide them with either tools, food or shelter” (Sayyid-Marsot, p. 66). Though corvee was officially abolished late in the century, both the state and wealthy private landowners continued to make use of massive rural work gangs, who received poor payment, if any, and labored under miserable working conditions.

transformations taking place in Egypt. A haphazard secular court system based on French law—the Code Napoleon—was to increasingly replace Shari ʿa jurisdiction. By the turn of the twentieth century, Shari’a Courts were permitted to hear cases only on personal status issues: marriage, divorce, and inheritance.


Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, came to Egypt as “Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul-General and Agent” after service in India. He established “the Granville Doctrine,” which installed British advisors in key ministries, institutionalized British control over them, and inaugurated the “veiled protectorate,” Britain’s thinly disguised military and administrative occupation of Egypt. A ruthless conservative, he made no attempt to hide his contempt for Egyptians and the growing nationalist movement, nor to conceal the fact that he was the real power behind Egypt’s throne. in 1906 a violent fight broke out between a group of British officers who were pigeon hunting in the village of Dinshaway and the local peasants to whom the pigeons belonged. One of the officers was injured and subsequently died of sunstroke. The villagers were arrested and subjected to a court martial, which ended in shockingly severe sentences (presumably for the murder of the officer): four men were hanged, two sentenced to penal servitude for life, six faced seven years’ imprisonment, and the rest received public floggings. Egyptians everywhere were outraged. In London, a newly elected liberal government forced Cromer to resign; he returned to England amid the jubilation of the Egyptian masses. Meanwhile, the peasant came to symbolize nationalist resistance to the British occupation.

The Mixed Courts, established in 1875, were an attempt to soften the judicial inequities of the European Capitulations, a provision worked out with the Ottoman Empire that allowed foreign nationals in Egypt to be tried before their own consular court administering its own system of national law. This extra-judicial system guaranteed that foreign communities enjoyed total freedom from native authority. The Mixed Courts operated under a tribunal of European and Egyptian judges (with Europeans in the majority), administered French law, and exercised jurisdiction over commercial and civil cases involving either foreigners or a foreigner and an Egyptian. Though these courts set out to mitigate bias, in practice they were used by European powers to prosecute any important case in which Europeans felt they had a strategic interest, even if it involved only Egyptian nationals.

The Native Courts were reformed and institutionalized in the 1880s. They too administered an exact replica of France’s Code Napoleon, which was based on the political and economic principles of modern French society—the sanctity of private property and the liberty and equality of citizens. Egypt’s Native Courts were responsible for trying civil and criminal cases involving only Egyptians. By the 1930s these courts were staffed by Egyptian judges trained at the still-young Cairo University Faculty of Law (or like al-Hakim himself, at the Sorbonne in Paris), and included three main levels of tribunals: central tribunals in the governorates, Markaz (district capital) tribunals in the provinces, and summary tribunals in the outlying rural areas. It is this third tier of courts that is lampooned in al-Hakim’s novel.

Were these courts successful in controlling the rising rural crime rate and in ensuring easy access to justice for the peasantry? According to observers (including al-Hakim), the answer is “no.” Even with the establishment of the summary tribunals, peasants still had to travel a long way to use the courts. “Most did not have the leisure time or money, for court procedure was expensive and slow [and] the courts were always in arrears in their cases” (Tignor, p. 139). Echoing al-Hakim’s indictment of the Code Napoleon almost 30 years earlier, historian Robert Tignor comments that “French law was not well-suited to Egypt. Much of it was completely incomprehensible to the Egyptian populace”—especially in the countryside, where illiteracy, traditional forms of piety, and a much older kind of communal, customary law still held sway (Tignor, p. 140). Moreover, Tignor notes that the administrative structure of the French system often resulted in serious friction between the judicial authorities and the police—a subject dramatized in The Maze of Justice. The former were responsible for collecting evidence and preparing the case for prosecution while the latter were merely supposed to render any assistance necessary to this end. Disputes over respective spheres of authority arose often, further complicating and slowing the administration of justice.

As always, the capital exercised undue influence over the provincial court system, since all members of the judicial and police administration were appointed from Cairo, which gave rise to party politics, cronyism, and corruption. There was, moreover, a massive Cairo-centered legal bureaucracy, and it demanded adherence to the letter of the law and proper procedure through a highly centralized system of endless and complex paperwork, making justice for the peasant a secondary priority. Cairo-appointed officials were frequently less than enthusiastic about their rural postings, which they often viewed as a kind of political exile. Their main concerns tended to be making their lives as comfortable as possible in such adverse circumstances and continually plotting to get a muchcoveted post in Cairo.

Intellectuals and reformers

Al-Hakim’s generation was a product of the Nahdah—the great cultural renaissance that swept the urban centers of the Arab world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Nahdah was essentially an ambitious and inspired movement for reform of all aspects of the social, political, and cultural life of Arabs, who were perceived as inadequately prepared to meet the demands of an increasingly global modernity. In Egypt, as elsewhere in the region, the dominant model for this new modernity was identified as the secular, sovereign, liberal nation-state as exemplified by the European powers (England and France) and the United States. By the revolution of 1919 Egypt was no longer content to be ruled as a province of a distant empire. Self-determination and independent nationhood were the ideals that motivated millions of Egyptians to take to the streets in the early 1900s. On the cultural level, a concerted attempt was made to reform and modernize the Arabic language and its literature, and the great medieval Islamic traditions were subjected to renewed scrutiny and reformulation in light of the demands of an increasingly secular, scientific climate. The Egyptian University (later renamed Cairo University) was established during this period; its scholars championed modern educational methods and curricula as the means by which the new Egyptian citizen of a proud, healthy, democratic nation would be formed.

How rosy could the immediate future be, though? More than 70 percent of the population remained illiterate, living at subsistence level without much awareness of the great changes sweeping the cities. Control of the country lay in the hands of a coterie of native and foreign elite—the British colonial authorities, Egypt’s royal family, European financial and commercial interests, and the native landed oligarchy. Egypt’s urban reformist intellectuals, including al-Hakim, tended to belong to this last, self-interested class. Under such conditions, true reform often remained hostage to the tension between imported ideals and grassroots realities, between progressive social theories, and veiled economic and political interests. In fact, many of the great politicians and reformers who glorified, romanticized, and championed the cause of the Egyptian peasantry in public, harbored a powerfully ingrained contempt for the illiterate, impoverished peasants; al-Hakim’s novel itself likens them to cattle, flies, worms, and monkeys at the zoo. It is this crucial, quixotic tension that forms the thematic background to The Maze of Justice.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Al-Hakim’s novel takes the form of a journal that spans 11 entries from October 11 to October 22. The exact year in which the events take place is not identified, but we can assume that it is in the early 1930s—the time of the author’s judicial posting in the Egyptian countryside. Like the author himself, the narrator is a young district prosecutor assigned to a small village in the Delta. The plot is loosely


In a typical Delta village, the Umdah or “mayor” was recruited from one of the wealthy local landowning families. Appointed from Cairo, he became responsible for resolving local disputes, maintaining order and public safety, and overseeing the collection of taxes. He personally commanded a body of ghafirs, or armed guards, also recruited locally, to help him fulfill his duties. The Ma’mur, or Chief of Police, and the District Prosecutor were also appointed from Cairo, but they usually came from the ranks of the Westernized, urban, middle classes, and their jurisdiction encompassed the cluster of villages that belonged to the larger District, or Markaz. The local Umdah was subordinate to the Ma’mur and ceded jurisdiction to him in felony cases. In practice, while Umdahs often exercised absolute power in their home villages, they were mere underlings of the Ma’mur. Unlike the Umdah and the Ma’mur, who were both employees of the Ministry of the Interior, the District Prosecutor was appointed by the Ministry of Justice and hence maintained a degree of administrative and political independence within the rural hierarchy.

structured around a murder mystery but generally the novel is a scathing social and political indictment of the provincial judiciary and bureaucracy in Egypt.

October 11. The novel opens with an obscure summons in the dead of night to investigate a murder that has occurred in a neighboring village:

Tonight at 8 pm, while Kamar al-Dawla Alwan was walking on the river-side, near our village, a shot was fired at him from a sugar-plantation by a person or persons unknown. On being interrogated the victim was unable to divulge anything. His condition is grave. For your information—The Umdah.

(al-Hakim, The Maze of Justice, p. 15)

After hastily gathering the official team of investigators—his legal assistant, the Ma’mur, the inspector and a few policemen—the prosecutor sets out on the long journey (by car, ferry, and mule) to the village in question. On the way, they pick up a local Sufi shaykh (also spelled sheik) by the name of Asfur who figures prominently in the unfolding mystery.

Shaykh Asfur is known to the authorities as a vagrant quack who speaks only in riddles and rhymes but nonetheless serves as a local guide and informant from time to time. Upon arrival at the scene of the crime, the team examines the unconscious victim and proceeds to question one villager after another, to no avail. As the prosecutor had expected, the locals are either unable or unwilling to assist the investigation. Even the Umdah has no information to offer. Shaykh Asfur is consulted as a last resort and he replies with yet another of his riddle-like couplets:

Watch out for women; they’re the mark
Of ruin to men’s pride;
My loved one’s eyelash, long and dark,
Would span an acre wide!
     (Maze of Justice, p. 26)

The prosecutor is intrigued by this reference to a female suspect. He suddenly remembers that the victim, whose wife had died some years previously and who lived a solitary life with his aging mother, had a baby daughter. Upon further inquiry he discovers that this child has been in the care of the dead wife’s 16-year-old sister. This mysterious sister, Rim, is summoned and all present, including Shaykh Asfur, are stunned by her beauty and innocence. When questioned, she tells the prosecutor that her brother-in-law, who was also her legal guardian, had repeatedly refused to accept offers of marriage on her behalf. The last such rejection was directed against a young man whom she, Rim, had taken a liking to. When she hears the news of the attempted murder, she faints and the investigation is postponed until the afternoon.

October 12. Meanwhile, the prosecutor rushes back to his village in order to attend the morning session in court. This gives the narrating prosecutor the opportunity to describe, at humorous length, the vagaries of the provincial court bureaucracy, the indifference and corruption of the judges who administer it, and the ignorance of the unfortunate villagers, who find themselves at the mercy of an incomprehensible and inadequate legal code. There are two judges who sit on alternate days: one, the Conscientious Judge, is the prototype of a by-the-book bureaucrat who resides in the village and, out of sheer boredom, conducts interminably long sessions. The other—the Brisk Judge—is a commuter from Cairo who is always rushing to catch the 11:00 train back and whose primary concern is acquiring fresh village meat and produce before returning to the capital. The former judge has a reputation for imposing cheaper fines, and so his courtroom is always full. The latter makes a point of imposing maximum fines in order to guarantee a minimum crowd and hence a speedy departure. In the midst of all this dogmatism and self-interest, the human negotiation of justice becomes irrelevant and the illiterate villagers are condemned to sentences they cannot comprehend.

October 13. Back at his office, the exhausted prosecutor has no choice but to postpone the investigation until the following day. It is decided that Rim will spend the night at the Ma’mur’s house. The prosecutor returns home to sleep but wakes at midnight anxious about Rim’s safety at the lecherous Ma’mur’s house. Luckily, he receives a telegram regarding a minor incident in the next village. Seizing on this excuse, the prosecutor summons the furious Ma’mur and the rest of the team and sets off to investigate. After this pointless investigation, during which the Ma’mur manages to extort a huge homemade feast from the reluctant Umdah, they return to learn that the victim, Kamar al-Dawla, has regained consciousness. They rush to the filthy local hospital. Upon repeated questioning as to who shot him, a barely conscious Kamar al-Dawla pronounces the single word, “Rim.”

October 14. The stunned prosecutor returns to his office and meets with his young assistant—also an exile from the capital. They discuss the boredom of provincial life. A few cases are brought before them. The first is that of an old, destitute man who is accused of stealing a jar of maize. Far from denying the charge, he freely admits that he stole out of hunger. Since he cannot pay bail (“if I had the money, I’d use it to get some food,” the man pathetically declares), he is taken into “preventative custody for four days with the option of renewal” (Maze of Justice, p. 57). The second case involves a lost cargo of clothes. In the middle of the night, a truck passing the village hits a pothole, which dislodges a bag of new clothes headed for a Cairo warehouse. The crate ends up in the canal and the next morning the impoverished villagers make off with the providential gifts. The villagers are brought before the prosecutor and charged with theft. They cannot understand the logic of this law but are led away in chains nonetheless. Suddenly, the Ma’mur turns up and informs the prosecutor that Rim has disappeared with Shaykh Asfur.

October 15. Later that day, the prosecutor goes off in search of the Ma’mur, who also seems to have disappeared. His search takes him to “the Club,” a ramshackle room above the only café in


Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, emerged in the ninth century and emphasized the personal, individual experience of divine love and ecstatic ritual practice over the literal formalism of orthodox Islam. Sufis formed orders or brotherhoods, which were usually organized hierarchically around a series of masters and disciples and were associated with a local saint’s shrine. A number of these Sufi orders became entrenched in the Egyptian countryside from the Middle Ages onwards and contributed to the formation of a popular rural Islam. Disciples commonly wandered through the countryside, at times establishing temporary residence in some village or other, dispensing blessings and spells and charms against various ailments, from infertility to impotence. To the urban reformist intellectuals of the Nahdah, these shaykhs were nothing more than charlatans who made a living by exploiting credulous villagers. In The Maze of Justice, Shaykh Asfur’s rhymed riddles and demeanor of the divine fool are used to mask the shrewd cunning and opportunism regarded as typical of the vagrant village Sufi. At the same time he is associated throughout the novel with the famous and mysterious popular saint al-Khidr, through the emblematic green staff he always carries and through his clever folksy rhymes.

town that serves as a meeting place, gaming room, and watering hole for the small group of inexorably bored local bureaucrats and professionals. At the club, the prosecutor hears the latest gossip and learns that the Ma’mur is a rapacious gambler. He leaves the club, lost in thought about the mysterious triangle that connects the beautiful Rim, the lunatic Shaykh Asfur, and the dying Kamar al-Dawla. Suddenly he spots Rim and the Shaykh sitting outside the hospital. He rushes back to the police station and finds the Ma’mur, who has been out all day searching for the pair. They send a police detail to pick them up, but it is too late: Rim has once again disappeared, and a handcuffed Shaykh Asfur refuses to provide any information on her whereabouts, taking refuge once more in his rhymes. The prosecutor begins to wonder whether he only imagined seeing Rim earlier.

October 16. The prosecutor releases Asfur. The next morning the prosecutor attends yet another court session, this time with the Brisk Judge, who sentences all the misdemeanors in absentia (regardless of whether the accused are present or not) in order to save time. The felonies are dealt with in an equally summary manner, and sentences handed down without recourse to witnesses or legal arguments. One such case involves a man who is charged with having eaten his own crop of wheat, which had been “reserved” by the government in lieu of unpaid taxes. The hungry man cannot comprehend why it should be a crime to eat one’s own food. He is sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labor.

Back at the office the prosecutor discovers that the Ma’mur has arrested Shaykh Asfur on vagrancy charges. He then receives an anonymous letter implicating Rim and Kamar al-Dawla in Kamar’s wife’s death: another potential piece in the jigsaw-puzzle investigation. He makes preparations to exhume the wife’s body in order to confirm the accusation of death by strangulation. The expectation of new elections forces the prosecutor to conduct a sham “surprise” prison inspection in which everything has been prepared beforehand. When he is finally free to proceed with the exhumation, he confirms that death occurred by strangulation. On the way back to his village, the prosecutor sees more evidence of the ruckus caused by the new government: a new Umdah has been appointed and the old Umdah is forced to cede the official telephone in an ignominious ritual of political and social rivalry.

October 18. Further questioning of Shaykh Asfur and the village barber who signed the murdered wife’s death certificate yields nothing new. The prosecutor muses on the appalling health system in Egypt and remembers a case described to him by the local doctor, in which a midwife stuffed a pregnant woman’s uterus with straw in the belief that this would assist in the delivery. Both the woman and the baby were dead by the time the doctor arrived two days later. The prosecutor concludes that “human life has no value in Egypt” (Maze of Justice, p. 89).

Believing that the anonymous letter may have been written by an Azhari-trained court clerk, the prosecutor pays a visit to the qadi of the Shari’a Court to consult him on its handwriting. There follows a highly amusing portrait of this qadi, an avaricious, ignorant, and hypocritical opportunist; consultation with him yields nothing. The prosecutor heads for the police station only to discover that the entire staff is too busy with electioneering business to assist the investigation any further. The Ma’mur himself is giving an assembly of local Umdahs an earnest lesson in election-rigging. Returning to his office, the prosecutor attempts to question one of Rim’s neighbors on the identity of Rim’s mystery suitor, but the garrulous, senile old woman’s testimony proves fruitless. This gives the prosecutor the opportunity to muse on the general physical, mental, and moral deficiencies of the Egyptian peasantry.

October 20. The next morning the Conscientious Judge pays the prosecutor a visit at his office in reference to a political intrigue instigated against him by the Ma’mur. The judge, who is a client of the outgoing national ministry, is afraid that the Ma’mur will use his opportunistically acquired position with the new ministry to have the judge transferred to an even more remote corner of the country. The prosecutor promises to intervene and goes to see the Ma’mur. Outside the police station, he spots Shaykh Asfur getting into the back of a truck with a group of policemen. Upon inquiry, he discovers that the shaykh has been recruited to help keep order during the upcoming voting.

October 21. The prosecutor receives news of Kamar al-Dawla’s death. He sends his assistant to attend the postmortem. He is then summoned to investigate a poisoning case. The woman in question is practically unconscious and “drowning in the contents of [her] own stomach,” but is nonetheless expected to respond to a variety of precise, detailed questions that are issued as part of the standard government form for such cases (Maze of Justice, p. 116). This provides the prosecutor another opportunity to denounce the irrelevancy of the national legal bureaucracy. Back at his office, he hears the sudden news of Rim’s death—her body was discovered in the village canal. The prosecutor is stunned and saddened, “not because … Rim was one of the keys to the case. It was because she had been such a dazzling spectacle and had moved us all deeply—the mad and the sane amongst us alike” (Maze of Justice, p. 122). A delirious Shaykh Asfur is sighted in the street, running amok, mad with grief. He recites a rhyme that implies that Rim was murdered, but after some deliberation, the prosecutor refuses to order a postmortem in deference to Rim’s beauty and decides to close the whole bizarre investigation, which is filed away as just another insignificant and unsolved rural crime.

October 22. On the last day of his journal entries, we find the prosecutor up to his ears in end-of-year reports and trivial complaints. In search of help, an overburdened colleague drops by to unload two suitcases of his own reports and complaints onto the conscientious prosecutor, who grudgingly agrees to lend a hand. The two friends commiserate about their professional exile in the provinces and discuss the corruption of the legal bureaucracy. The prosecutor is left alone with his endless files and papers to reflect on the abysmal political, legal, and social condition of contemporary Egypt.

Parliament and the national hierarchy of power

The Maze of Justice uses the corruption of the political system in Egypt as a metaphor for the general hypocrisy, inefficiency, and chaos of national life in the early 1930s. Towards the end of the novel, the description of the new parliamentary elections—possibly those called by Sidqi in 1931—reflects the way that corruption and cronyism filtered down into the lowest levels of society.

In the novel, al-Hakim presents the rivalry between two unnamed national parties. Power and influence are traded back and forth between these parties in a tragicomic game of opportunism and patronage that reflects the clan-oriented political rivalries of village life. No one is free of this intrigue, from the Ma’mur, who hastens to declare allegiance to the new cabinet and who is responsible for rigging the village elections for their benefit—“I let the people vote as they like … then I simply take the ballot-box and throw it in the river and calmly replace it with the box which we prepare ourselves”—to the local Umdahs, who are appointed and dismissed according to the whims and machinations of those newly in power (Maze of Justice, p. 112). The hilarious scene in which the narrator describes the procession accompanying the transfer of the village telephone—symbol of the Umdah’s authority—from the home of the old Umdah to that of the new one captures the essence of this farcical game of power and the absurdity of both its winners and losers.


The two major parties of the day—the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutionalists—were banned by Sidqi from political organizing prior to the elections of April 1931. They nonetheless issued a manifesto proclaiming loyalty to the abrogated constitution of 1922 and repudiating Sidqi’s elections. The manifesto also declared that no acts of the current government were binding on the nation. Sidqi responded by calling in the army to “supervise” the elections, which were held despite widespread accusations of fraud. Meanwhile, the police terrorized the provinces. Political demonstrations were met with violence by provincial authorities: indiscriminate mass arrests and torture were common.

Even the Conscientious Judge is a potential victim of the system. Since he is a known supporter of the outgoing government and since he and the Ma’mur have an ongoing personal rivalry, he justifiably fears that the Ma’mur will use his influence with the incoming government to have him transferred to an even more distant provincial post. In the middle of all this political jockeying, justice is sacrificed: the judge cannot force the newly appointed Umdah to comply with a civil judgment. The Umdah can simply ignore the judgment because he is protected by those in power. The police will do nothing because their chief, the Ma’mur, is a client of the same new government—a government that has come to power through blatant fraud. Outside the novel, in 1930s Egypt, the consequence of such political jockeying was real-life injustice, which resulted in widespread disillusionment among the masses and intellectuals alike.

Sources and literary context

When al-Hakim wrote The Maze of Justice, the Egyptian countryside and the peasant were already the subject of debate among intellectuals and politicians, and there existed a well-established body of literature dealing with these issues. The 1906 Dinshaway incident was responsible for pushing the cause of the oppressed peasantry to the fore of national consciousness. Urban elites who had traditionally despised and shunned this marginalized sector of the population suddenly came to see it as the very heart of the authentic, resistant Egyptian nation. Immediately following Dinshaway, Muhammad Tahir Haqqi, a journalist, published a novel based on the incident (The Maiden of Dinshaway), in which the heroine is a beautiful young peasant girl whose father leads the rebellion against the British. This was the first time that the peasantry had been endowed with central heroic status in Egyptian literature. The novel became an immediate bestseller and went into multiple editions. In 1913 Muhammad Husayn Haykal, the Paris-educated son of a wealthy landowner published his first novel, Zaynab, which told the tragic story of another lovely young peasant girl and described in great detail the serene beauty of the Egyptian countryside as well as its manners and customs. Haykal, like many young men of his generation, was much influenced by French romanticism and in Zaynab he gave his readers a highly romanticized, pastoral image of the noble Egyptian peasant and his millennia-old way of life. Other writers of the period, like Taha Husayn and Ibrahim al-Mazini, wrote about the countryside, and in an earlier novel (The Return of the Spirit, 1927) Tawfiq al-Hakim himself paid tribute to the noble, self-sacrificing Egyptian peasant, whose way of life and dedication to the service of his masters had not changed since the days of the pharaohs.

In 1937, the same year in which The Maze of Justice was published, Henri Ayrout, a French Jesuit missionary, published a highly influential book of nonfiction about the Egyptian peasant. At the American University in Cairo, a respected female essayist and novelist, Bint al-Shati’, lectured on the reform of the peasant’s wretched condition. Also it became immensely popular to pay lip service to the authenticity and nobility of the Egyptian peasant during this period. A popular weekly magazine described him as “a pearl in its shell, a moon hidden by clouds” (Berque, p. 490). Politicians, who inevitably had votes and mass popularity in mind, hastened to claim lineage from these long-toiling sons of the soil. The Wafd Party’s Sa’d Zaghlul, the millionaire parliamentarian Muhammad Badrawi, and King Faruq himself were all self-described peasant Egyptians!

Al-Hakim’s Maze of Justice is thus a highly political intervention into the dominant romantic reformist discourse on the fellah. It is an expose of sorts that seeks to demonstrate the essential incompatibility between myth and reality, between the grand prototype of the nation that was being developed by urban elites and the squalid condition of the people who were supposed to exemplify the living heart of this nation. On a deeper level, it is an indictment of the very hypocrisy of the reformist project itself.


In the midst of all this highly charged rhetoric, The Maze of Justice was received by contemporaries like a breath of fresh air. Critics were duly impressed by its candor, humor, and most of all, by the uncompromising realism of its style. Writing in the weekly al-Risalah, Mahmud al-Khafif praised the novel’s original use of “the element of suspense” in the form of a murder mystery, and the realistic portrayal of a cast of characters heretofore completely unknown (and perhaps unbelievable) to complacent urban audiences (Al-Khafif, p. 1719; trans. S. Selim). The reviewer for al-Hilal, Egypt’s most popular cultural monthly, praised the author’s “sensitivity” and “gentle sense of humor” in dealing with the squalor and criminality of the countryside. He went on to call the novel “a new type of reformist literature” that imaginatively combines social consciousness, entertainment and instruction (al-Hilal, p. 234; trans. S. Selim).

However, the novel was quickly forgotten in favor of al-Hakim’s next novel, Bird of the East (1938), which attracted much more attention and critical commentary than The Maze of Justice. Because of its uncompromisingly satiric and realist style, The Maze of Justice can be seen as something of an anomaly in al-Hakim’s larger oeuvre. The author continued to be identified with his grander, philosophical plays and nationalist novels (like Shahrazad and The Return of Consciousness) until the 1950s, when social realism became the dominant literary school of the day and The Maze of Justice was once again revived as an example of the corruption of the old regime in Egypt.

—Samah Selim

For More Information

Allen, Roger. The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982.

Berque, Jacques. Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Cachia, Pierre. An Overview of Modern Arabic Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

Gershoni, I., and J. P. Jankowski. Redefining the Egyptian Nation, 1930-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

al-Hakim, Tawfiq. The Maze of Justice. Trans. Abba Eban. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

al-Khafif, Mahmud. Review of The Maze of Justice, by Tawfiq al-Hakim. Al-Risalah, 18 October 1937, p. 1719.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1789-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Review of The Maze of Justice, by Tawfiq al-Hakim. Al-Hilal, December 1937, p. 234.

Sayyid-Marsot, Afaf Lutfi. A Short History of Modern Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Study of Tawfiq al-Hakim. St. Anthony’s Middle East Monographs, no. 19. London: Ithaca Press, 1987.

Tignor, Robert. Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Wendell, Charles. The Evolution of the Egyptian National Image from its Origins to Ahmad Lutfi al- Sayyid. Los Angeles: UCLA Press, 1972.

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The Maze of Justice

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