by Najib Mahfuz
THE LITRARY WORK
A novel set in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1967; published in Arabic in 1967, in English in 1978.
The lives of seven strangers, five men and two women, intersect at an Alexandrian pension called Miramar.
Born December 11, 1911, in the al-Gamaliyah neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt, Najib Mahfuz (also spelled Naguib Mahfouz) is the most renowned figure in Arabic literature today. He has gained this distinction not only because he is the only Arab writer to date to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988) but also because his fiction evinces a profound understanding of human nature at large and of the Egyptian consciousness in particular. To read Mahfuz’s literature is to encounter Egypt and Egyptians in a deeply reflective way. Mahfuz is often described as the writer of Cairo’s middle class because his fiction deals with transformations that have affected it throughout the twentieth century. He is a novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. Mahfuz’s fiction has frequently been divided into four categories: novels that center on history (1939–44); realistic/naturalistic novels (1945–52); symbolic, metaphysical, and existentialist narratives (1960s); and, from the 1970s until today, novels inspired by local sources, folktales, and Sufism. In 1952 Mahfuz completed The Trilogy, his magnum opus, the story of a middle-class family of Cairo before and during the 1919 revolution. He abstained from writing for the next few years, meanwhile studying the new revolutionary regime, and absorbing the sensibilities of the new period. After this silence, he produced another major work, Awlad haratina (1959; Children of Gebelawi, 1981), an allegorical novel about the descendants of a common ancestor. Next came Liss wa-al-kilab (1961; The Thief and the Dogs, 1984) and then novels that broke completely from his earlier techniques and portrayals. Miramar, the last novel Mahfuz wrote in the 1960s, belongs to this phase of experimentation. The novel focuses on the clash between the old and new regimes, exploring the emotional trauma related to the loss of recently espoused nationalist ideals, as well as the coercive reality of Egypt in the 1960s.
Miramar takes place during the 1960s in the city of Alexandria. However, a number of its characters are vestiges of an earlier period of Egyptian society. Egypt underwent some major political and social changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from occupation by the British, to local uprisings against the occupation, to the birth of an uncompromising nationalist movement. Resistance to the occupation persisted, leading to the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 (which abolished the monarchy and established Egypt as a republic), followed by Britain’s evacuation in 1956. Emerging as leader of the Revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser introduced an idealistic program of economic plans and political changes that aimed to forever alter the face of Egyptian society. The program promised to move Egypt away from the old feudal system to a new socialist regime that would redistribute wealth equally among its citizens. Pre-revolutionary Egypt has often been described as the “half-percent society,” meaning only half a percent of the population (the ruling elites and upper class) was rich; everyone else belonged to the lower-middle and poorer classes. There was no upper-middle class to speak of, but this promised to change with the success of the Revolution. The revolutionaries espoused six principles: to end 1) imperialism, 2) the inequitable land system, and 3) capitalist monopolies, and to establish 4) social justice, 5) a strong military, and 6) true democratic rule. As it turned out, some people (for example, the newly established army bureaucracy and landless peasant) would benefit greatly from the transformations that did take place; others (such as politicians, businessmen, and the anti-reformist pre-revolutionary landowners) would suffer huge losses.
The 1950s saw some early reforms aimed at realizing the ideals. In 1952 a sweeping land reform was introduced, limiting landownership to 200 fed-dans per person or 300 per family (afeddan being somewhat larger than an acre). A blow to the wealthy landowners, the reform made the fledgling regime wildly popular with the peasants, obviously less so with the dispossessed landowners. In 1953 Egypt terminated its monarchy and declared itself a republic. A struggle for power ensued, leading to military purges, press crackdowns, pro-democracy demonstrations, and waves of arrests. The regime had begun to take repressive measures.
From pre- to post-revolutionary Egypt
Miramar peeks into the psyche of a few characters who together comprise a sample of Egyptians trying to adjust to the new social order. There is no attempt to glorify the old regime or to side with the new one. The novel simply explores the tensions that arise when supporters of pre-revolutionary Egypt encounter proponents of the post-revolutionary regime.
Pre-revolutionary Egypt was subject to 70 years of occupation by the British. They first arrived in 1882, intending to capitalize on Egypt’s resources and maintain control over British trade routes to India. Almost immediately some Egyptians, led by Colonel Ahmad Urabi, mounted an army revolt against the occupiers, and other revolts followed. In 1919, for example, there was another revolt that saw Egyptian men and, for the first time, women marching down the streets, demanding independence. Prompting the revolt was a British decision to deport Sa‘d Zaghlul, whose Wafd Party led the drive for national independence. By the mid-twentieth century, Egypt had experienced the rise of this and other political groups as well as increasing civil unrest against the British occupation. All this activism was in some measure a response to the weakness of Egypt’s own monarch, King Faruq, and to the growing gap between large landowners and pauperized peasants as well as the rest of the land’s rich and poor. Egypt was ripe for fundamental change.
On July 23, 1952, a group of army officers, the Free Officers, seized power, and forced King Faruq to abdicate. On July 24, Faruq sailed into exile and with this the 150-year-old monarchy (1805–1952) came to an end. The Free Officers established themselves as an army regime and the creators of a new order, distinct from the previous regime and its factions (such as the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood). Seeking independent legitimacy, the officers promoted a moderate brand of Islam and secular rule. Nasser emerged as the undisputed leader of the new order, thanks to his ability to marshal mass support. Stepping into the presidency in 1956, he placed high on his agenda some sweeping objectives: to eliminate colonialism across the Arab world, to unify all Arabs, and to prepare for the struggle against Israel. These objectives amounted to the core of Nasser’s ideology, which won him great popularity in the Arab world. He came to be regarded as a latter-day Arab hero.
In 1961 Nasser introduced some later reforms—a program of decrees characterized as social justice in contrast to the pre-revolutionary capitalism and feudalism. New laws were created to further dispossess the upper class and large landowners. The regime nationalized banks and insurance companies, as well as some heavy industrial and shipping companies. Other companies, textile manufacturers, for example, became partially state-owned. Justifying itself, the regime said the newly dispossessed were foreigners and Egyptian monopoly holders who ought not to be in charge of these important national assets. In 1962 Nasser issued a document, the Socialist Charter, which outlined a new ideology that his regime adopted. The document was based on the idea that a socialist transformation was inevitable, indeed imperative, for the much needed radical changes to transpire. His charter was followed by the formation of a huge political enterprise, The Arab Socialist Union (ASU), an untraditional alliance of peasants, workers, the army, and the intelligentsia. The ASU aimed to guide the masses and protect their rights. Throughout the 1960s, it influenced education, production, aesthetics, prices, and even sports, ultimately turning into a force that coerced society to conform to its policies. Arab socialism made progress on another front too—that of women—committing itself to social and economic egalitarianism across gender lines. The Charter “proclaimed that women and men should be considered equal working partners,” and it took on the responsibility of representing both. As a national coalition that represented popular authority, the ASU would continue to stand at the center of power past the time of the novel, until it was liquidated by President Anwar al-Sadat in 1971.
An element that figures in Miramafs storyline, education was one of the major reform initiatives of the Revolution. Nasser’s Socialist Charter called for free schooling and medical facilities for all. The principles of socialism, Arabism, national consciousness, and freedom were furthermore to be infused into the educational curricula. As the regime became increasingly authoritarian, however, the gap between this lip service to the promotion of freedom and the reality of repression became increasingly clear. There was also a practical problem when it came to providing free education for all. The numbers of students at all educational levels increased to an alarming degree, taxing the existing resources. The result was an inevitable deterioration in the quality of education. No wonder, in view of their own frustrating conditions, that many students went on to become political activists and attach themselves to communist parties and radical religious societies, among other groups, in their search for better solutions. It should be noted here that Nasser always had a tense relationship with the communist elements inside and outside Egypt. He regarded them as a threat to his leadership and worked on rooting them out. One of the characters in Miramax is a young communist.
The turbulent sixties
The 1960s saw Nasser enter into a period of great popularity with the Arab world, in which he was viewed as a hero for his Arab nationalist fervor. His attention during this period was diverted from Egypt to “an inter-Arab international role” (Hopwood, p. 58). To solidify his pan-Arab leadership he unified Egypt with Syria in February 1958. Tension developed between Nasser and rulers across the Arab world, who saw this merger as a latent opportunity for Nasser to centralize Arab rule in Egypt. Some of those tensions escalated into open conflicts. By the mid-sixties, “the Arab world was more divided than ever. Syria was quarrelling with Egypt and Iraq; in Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Jordan, were fighting on opposing sides, and there were other inter-Arab disputes” (Hopwood, p. 67). Egypt intervened on the side of the anti-monarchical rebels in Yemen’s civil war, and the cost turned out to be enormous. To fund the tens of thousands of Egyptian troops sent into Yemen, the Egyptian regime had to drain its coffers of funds needed to address problems at home—in education, for instance, as detailed above. Consequently the line between those who benefited from the 1952 Revolution and those who lost out because of it became more blurred. Now the newly endowed were losing out too. Those who profited from the changes moved closer to those who felt cheated by them.
When the Syro-Egyptian unity dissolved in 1961, the failure weakened Nasser’s position in the Arab world. The next year Nasser acted to restore his leadership of Arab nationalism by issuing the National Charter. This charter outlined the path of Egyptian development by way of Arab socialism (as detailed above) and committed Egypt to exporting its revolution to all Arab states. It was with this commitment in mind that Nasser involved Egypt in the Yemeni Civil War, which pitted a reactionary theocracy against a dissenting faction that called for reforming Yemen into a republic. As with the United States in the Vietnam War, the outside powers who sent troops into Yemen found themselves entangled far longer than anticipated. The soaring costs of Egypt’s involvement (1962–67) threw its whole economy out of balance. Not only did the financial drain cripple its ability to meet domestic needs, it compromised Egypt’s international strength as well. Some of its finest troops were in Yemen when conflict with Israel broke out in 1967 (Hopwood, p. 65).
By then the drive for Arab unity, which Nasser had spearheaded for years, had backfired. The Arab world was more divided than ever and domestic disharmony plagued Egypt too. The Arab Socialist Union (ASU), which considered itself the “guardian and repository of the regime’s ideology,” failed to educate its activists, who were steadily increasing in numbers and forming a wide and unproductive bureaucracy (Baker, p. 113). This, along with the nationalization schemes of 1961 and 1962 (which did indeed lead to state ownership of all large-scale enterprises and resources) bred this inflated bureaucracy, whose members were too ill trained to administer efficiently. Privileges were abused, and the organization developed into a personal power base for its leader, Ali Sabri, among others. The impression spread that the ASU had formed a “spy-system designed to infiltrate the various hierarchies of the state and to report deviations” (Baker, p. 111).
Meanwhile, the Egyptian population increased substantially throughout the sixties, and people recognized the lower quality of education and fewer employment opportunities in the countryside as opposed to the cities. As a result, massive migration ensued from rural to urban centers such as Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said, leading to overcrowding and various economic stresses on these centers.
Ironically, amidst all this unrest, the position of women improved. The number of female students increased steadily, and women entered most areas of white-collar and professional work; indeed, “the only positions they have not occupied are judge and head of state…. By 1957 two women had been elected to the national assembly, and by 1962 a woman, Dr. Hikmat Abu Zayd, had been appointed minister of social affairs by Nasser” (Ahmed, pp. 209, 210). Moreover, the 1950s–70s were active decades on the feminist front; women started to openly discuss traditionally taboo subjects such as contraception and to call for reform of the Personal Status Code, a body of law on issues of direct importance to women (divorce, polygamy, child custody, and so forth).
The northern coastline of Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt, abuts the Mediterranean Sea. In climate and character, the city appears to be more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern. Alexandria’s charm and historical aura have attracted poets, historians, and tourists since Alexander the Great founded the city in 332 B.C.E. It quickly became a pivotal trading port and a crossroads of many cultures. The city contains ruins and monuments of almost all the ancient civilizations, from pagan Egyptian, to Greek and Roman, to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. For centuries, its population was a fusion of Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Maltese, and Lebanese, as well as Egyptians. The lifestyles and businesses of the foreign communities lent the city a cosmopolitan air. After the Revolution, this foreign population gradually left the city, making way for a more thoroughly Egyptian population. The emigration eroded much of the city’s cosmopolitan verve. Over the last 40 years, the foreign community has dwindled to a tiny percentage, made up mostly of elderly people without the energy or strength to revive the past Mediterranean society. Still the city retains a distinct image in Egyptian society.
Alexandria is Egypt’s most celebrated beach city; Egyptians themselves call it the bride (arus) of the Mediterranean. In their consciousness, Alexandria represents freedom from the restraints of serious concerns, and in keeping with its relaxing effect on guests, the city has come to represent a contrast to the stressful hustle and bustle of Cairo. Escaping the summer heat, which sweeps most of the Egyptian heartland, vacationers invade Alexandria in June to August in droves, seeking out its Mediterranean beaches and cool evening breezes. In the fall and winter months, the weather is frequently cold, windy, and rainy. During these seasons, the city often attracts people searching for solitude or for a hiding place. It is this aspect of the city that Najib Mahfuz weaves into the fabric of his novel. His choice of winter, as opposed to summer (the popular season), evokes an atmosphere conducive to hiding.
Unlike many of Mahfuz’s novels, which are set in Cairo and tell the story of middle-class families, Miramar takes place in Alexandria and tells of a brief encounter among strangers. The lives of five men and two women intersect when they encounter one another at an Alexandrian pension (bed-and-breakfast) called Miramar. The five guests are
- Amer Wagdi An elderly retired political journalist in his 80s. Wagdi is a former activist in the nationalist Wafd Party; he participated in its 1919 revolt against the British.
- Tulba Marzuq Now elderly, Marzuq once served the king as a retainer; a former enemy of the Wafd and large landowner, he has been stripped of his holdings by Nasser’s agrarian reforms.
- Sarhan el-Behayri About 30, el-Behayri is a member of the Arab Socialist Union and an opportunist who has profited from the Revolution.
- Hosni Allam A young uneducated landowner and playboy, Allam despises the new regime for elevating education above inherited landownership.
- Mansur Bahi This 25-year-old intellectual and communist believes in noble causes but does not back up his beliefs with action; Bahi betrays his fellow communists and fails to honor his promises to the woman he loves.
These five people, although unrelated to one another, connect spatially and emotionally. Aside from sharing the hospitality of Pension Miramar, they are all attracted to its beautiful maid, Zohra (a corruption of the word zahra, “flower”). She has fled her village to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man. The pension’s owner knew Zohra’s late father. The owner, Mariana, is an elderly Greek woman, who has been married twice. Her first husband, an English officer, was killed in the revolt of 1919, and her second, a rich grocer, went bankrupt and committed suicide. Thereafter she became the mistress of a number of wealthy men. Mariana knows the first two guests—Amer Wagdi and Tulba Marzuq—from the distant past (she sometimes refers to Tulba Marzuq as an old flame). A third guest, Mansur Bahi, has a brother she knows (a police detective) as well, but she has had no previous contact with Bahi himself. Nor has she ever met her two other guests—Sarhan el-Behayri and Hosni Allam—before now.
Amer Wagdi arrives at Pension Miramar first, followed by the rest of the lodgers. The story is told from the viewpoints of four of the male guests, beginning with Wagdi and moving on to Allam, Bahi, and finally el-Behayri. The fifth guest, Tulba, is not given a narrative voice. Each of the first four sections tells the same story, but from the perspective of the guest who narrates that section, starting with the guest’s arrival at the pension and ending with the death of Sarhan el-Behayri. The same guest, Amer Wagdi, begins and ends the novel, unifying it. In his final section, the mystery of el-Bahayri’s death is unraveled and the maid Zohra leaves the pension for good.
With the exception of the owner, Mariana, every character in the pension is there to escape personal problems. As a group, they represent different generations, social classes, and levels of education and are all suspicious of one another. El-Behayri’s arrival marks a shift in the pace and rhythm of the narrative, however. Both professionally secure and seemingly successful, he appears to be the model post-revolutionary citizen. This wins him no friends among the guests at the pension. Since almost everyone in the guesthouse has been scorched by the new regime, they all unite in despising him, except for Zohra, who falls in love with him. By this time, she has become the object of desire (or at the very least interest) of all the guests at the pension, and their hatred for el-Bahayri only increases when she prefers him over all of them. According to the ideals of the new socialist society, a match between Zohra and Sarhan el-Behayri would be perfect, given that one of the major principles of the Revolution is to wipe out the old class system. But, idealism aside, el-Behayri hardly thinks an alliance with a maid will improve his social standing. In his stream-of-consciousness narration, he admits that he loves Zohra but cannot bring himself to marry her.
Some inner voice tells me that I have been taking the girl’s feelings too lightly and that God will not look kindly on me. But I can’t come to terms with the idea of marrying her. Love is only an emotion and you can cope with it one way or another, but marriage is an institution, a corporation not unlike the company I work for, with its own accepted laws and regulations. What’s the good of going into it, if it doesn’t give me a push up the social ladder? And if the bride has no career, how can we compete in that rat race, socially or otherwise?
(Mahfuz, Miramar, p. 112)
Realizing what might be going on in his mind, Zohra, who is an illiterate peasant, decides to get an education. She seeks out a schoolteacher and neighbor, Aleya, to educate her.
Aleya, another product of the Revolution, represents the new career-oriented and secular middle-class woman. She impresses el-Bahayri as a woman who can contribute to his upward social mobility, so he proposes to her and hides this fact from Zohra. When she finds out, the jilted maid goes straight to Aleya’s parents and tells them of his romantic advances and promises to her. They immediately break off their daughter’s engagement, and Mariana makes him leave the pension. She also asks Zohra to leave. Meanwhile, el-Bahayri’s own corrupt and shady dealings are revealed; the authorities unearth his plot to embezzle funds and shipments from his company and, desperate and ashamed, he commits suicide. The fact that he dies by his own hand remains unknown until the end of the novel; for a while it seems that any of the other four pension guests may have murdered him, since each has an encounter with him the day he is found dead in a narrow, deserted alleyway. In fact, Mansur Bahi talks himself into believing that he has killed el-Behayri in defense of Zohra’s honor and turns himself in to the police. At the end of his narration (the third account of the events), Mansur Bahi follows el-Behayri into a bar and then into a narrow alleyway with the intention of killing him. There he springs himself on el-Behayri, who we later discover has a razor in his pocket with which to cut his own arteries, which he does. However, before el-Behayri kills himself, Bahi hits him hard. Reeling from the blow, el-Behayri falls down in a near faint so Bahi believes that he has killed the man.
By the time the truth about el-Behayri’s suicide comes out, Hosni Allam has already made up his mind to leave the pension. He purchases a nightclub from a foreigner who is seeking to liquidate his business in Egypt. Bahi is given a short prison sentence, presumably for attempted murder, and Zohra leaves. Although heartbroken over her episode with el-Behayri, she tells Amer Wagdi, who has been a good friend to her, that she will persevere and improve her life. Two guests remain in the pension, Wagdi and Marzuq, along with Mariana. The novel ends with Amer Wagdi reciting a passage from the Quran. He reads an excerpt from the Surah of the Beneficent.
Narrative voice and gender
Every chapter in Miramar is the inner voice of one of four guests at the Pension Miramar. These inner voices complement one another, each one commenting on the other characters and on external events in the novel from a subjective point of view. The buildup of the four personal accounts creates two levels of reality: an outer social reality shared by all characters, and an inner, more personal one related by individual voices. The shift from one narrative voice to another affects the way readers come to view the world of the novel; with every fresh voice, a new layer is added to the outer reality. The narrative technique creates a sense of alienation and detachment, depicting the characters as enclosed within their own private world/voice and, therefore, not totally in touch with their outer surroundings. Their separate narrative voices underscore the fact that humans can live under the same circumstances and share the same public space but experience a common event differently. In fact, the narrative mode undermines the contrived social rapport among the characters who happen to find themselves residing together at the Pension Miramar. If one takes society at the pension as a microcosm of the Egyptian nation in the late 1960s, then the suggestion is that any semblance of cohesion among the factions of society in this era is contrived. Hosni Allam comments on the insincere camaraderie among the lodgers:
The whiskey draws us together in a sort of familiarity, but I know it won’t last, that there will never be any real friendship between me and Sarhan [el-Behayri] and Mansour [Bahi], at most a transitory intimacy that will soon evaporate.
(Miramar, p. 62)
The more their inner monologues reveal the extent of their intolerance for one another, the more affected and tense the external reality seems. Again the suggestion is that Nasser’s Egypt after the mid-1960s was afflicted with the same uneasiness. Miramar brings into focus this uneasiness. The novel depicts society as split between remnants of an old regime (Wagdi, Allam, Marianna, and Marzuq) and builders of a new one (el-Bahayri, Zohra, Bahi, and Aleya). It furthermore exposes divisions among members within the new order, such as the one between the educated (Aleya) and illiterate (Zohra).
If there was divisiveness though, there was also progress in some respects. The novel illustrates this in relation to women. Since the four voices
A DECADE OF CONFUSION
“The sixties was indeed a decade of confusion, a decade of numerous huge projects and the abolition of almost all political activities; massive industrialisation and the absolute absence of freedom; the construction of the High Dam and the destruction of the spirit of opposition; the reclamation of thousands of acres and the catastrophic detachment of the Sinai peninsula from Egyptian territory in the defeat of 1967; severe censorship and the emergence of evasive jargon among the intellectuals; deformation of social values and the students’ and workers’ upheavals; the enlargement of the public sector and the pervasive growth of corruption. During this decade, there was no public activity not subject to official control, everywhere one encountered not living but official beings concealing their individual personalities beneath a carapace of conformity, people who acted out social roles and repeated, automatically, slogans that were often contrary to their real hidden opinions.”
(Hafez in Boullata, p. 171)
that relate the action in the novel are all men, and it is their stream of consciousness that is conveyed to the reader, the novel could be construed as a male narrative. Neither Zohra nor Mariana, both central characters, is given a narrative voice. Their actions and points-of-view are narrated by way of the subjective expression and thoughts of the four males. In spite of this seeming gender imbalance, Zohra and Mariana, as well as the neighbor Aleya, are the only characters who possess real and enduring power. Zohra, who represents the land and peasantry (in many interpretations of the novel, she stands for Egypt herself), endures because of her moral fiber, physical strength, and ability to rise after a fall. The ending of the story is another beginning for Zohra. Mariana, on the other hand, is the only constant in the novel. A shrewd charlatan, she is able to adapt to the new order with seeming ease, although she has had many grievances with the Revolution herself. Her calculated adaptability and entrepreneurial mind have kept her financially independent for years and she wields a measure of power over the guests of her small domain. Aleya represents a positive outcome of the Revolution; her education and career prospects indicate the continuing commitment of the regime to promoting women’s rights at least. Aleya’s professional growth has gained a momentum of its own by the time she meets el-Behayri, so probably she will not be derailed by her episode with him. The circumstances bode well for Zohra’s future too. Meanwhile, Mariana continues to exude stability and command over her small corner of the country. So while the novel confers the narrative voice (nominal power) on the male characters, its gives the women the power to endure (real power). On the symbolic level, Miramar ends by laying the burden on women to continue where men seem to have failed.
Sources and literary context
Miramar is the last of six “novels of psychological development” written by Mahfuz in the 1960s. The first five works—which likewise deal with the inner turmoil of characters and their inability to connect with external reality—are
- al-Liss wa-al-kilab (1961; The Thief and the Dogs, 1984)
- al-Summan wa-al-kharif (1962; Autumn Quail, 1985)
- al-Tariq (1964; The Search, 1987)
- al-Shahhadh (1965; The Beggar, 1986), and
- Thartharah fawq al-Nil (1966; Adrift on the Nile, 1993)
Mahfuz’s writing underwent drastic change in the sextet, compared to what it had been in the fifties. He no longer portrayed realistic characters impassioned with feelings of patriotism, and actively involved in achieving the ideals of independence and sociopolitical change. On the contrary, throughout the 1960s his novels express a general rift between human beings and their immediate surroundings. These novels feature “a new blend of realism, mysticism, and existentialism, mixed with social criticism and contemplative and analytical elements” (Hafez in Boullata, p. 176).
The widespread dissatisfaction and lack of clarity that pervaded the sociopolitical atmosphere of the 1960s is repeatedly commented on by Mahfuz in this set of works. Their characters, living in the confusion of the sixties themselves, are portrayed as trying to find meaning in a world full of deficiencies, where ambiguity is the order of the day. Themes of alienation, disharmony between the individual and society, and withdrawal into the self as an escape from an incomprehensible external reality are a leitmotif. Intersecting those bleak narratives are subtexts and images of hope presented in some of Mahfuz’s portrayals of the female characters, whose fortitude and resilience, in contrast to their male counterparts, enable them to rise above oppressive realities and reinvent themselves alone.
To depict the individual’s isolation, Mahfuz uses inner monologues and stream of consciousness as the major stylistic modes. While in the early novels of the sextet, action is channeled through the consciousness of one central character, by the time of Miramar, it unfolds through four characters.
Mahfuz was not the only author of his day to infuse existential themes and new narrative forms into his fiction. Other contemporary novelists (such as Fathi Ghanim, Yusuf Idris, and Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi) experimented with similar ideas and writing techniques. Their literary output shows variations on the themes of loss, rejection of life, alienation, even nihilism. For instance, Ghanim’s al-Rajul alladhi faqada zillah (1962; The Man who Has Lost His Shadow) features a main character who feels alienated, paranoid, and discontented with his sociopolitical milieu. Successful himself, he wrestles with guilt over sacrificing his morals to his desire to be integrated into society and live harmoniously in the established order. He shares with Mahfuz’s Sarhan el-Behayri in Miramar qualities attributed by implication to those in power under Nasser. Nearly all of the 1960s narratives imply that to align oneself with the predominant ideology is to be self-serving and an enemy of the people.
Publication and reception
The six novels of psychological development that Mahfuz produced in the sixties took critics and readers by surprise. (They needed some time to understand and evaluate the new trend in his writing.) By the publication of the sixth novel, Miramar, it was clear that this stage in Mahfuz’s career was indeed a gloomy one, capturing a mood of impending doom. In this light, his literary production of the sixties in general, and Miramar in particular, appears to be prophetic in predicting the direction Egypt and the Arab world at large would take. Sasson Somekh compares Miramar to Mahfuz’s prior novels:
A MODIRN-DAY ALLEGORY
It is from the perspective of allegory that the novel becomes social commentary, the pension representing Egypt, the guests symbolizing a cross-section of its population. A number of works of criticism on Miramar have expressed the opinion that Zohra may be a symbol of Egypt; her beauty represents the attraction colonial powers had towards Egypt and their desire to possess it. Zohra’s resistance to exploitation, according to this same view, represents the unbreakable spirit of the Egyptian individual.
Another allegorical view holds that, with its faded beauty and dying society, the pension itself stands for pre-revolutionary Egypt Outside is the new republic, full of potential and mystery. Inside, the lodgers of the guesthouse continue to be pigeonholed by their social classes and their backgrounds; it is only when they leave the confines of the pension that they can reinvent themselves for the better or worse.
The presence of the older characters in the pension—Wagdi, Mariana, and Mansur—turns the novel into a spy game of sorts, in which the older generation observes the younger one with wonder, and at times envy. But the older generation cannot understand the ways or morals of the younger one, while the younger generation has no interest in the older one. This makeshift community is, in essence, a failed one, in that it does not include a channel for communication.
This is a depressing book, which surpasses in its gloom any of the novels of the sixties in that its suffocating atmosphere is not mitigated by the intermittent humorous situations which are to be found in Mahfuz’s earlier works. Treachery, malice and avarice have the upper hand, and violence is ever-present. Its verdict on the Egyptian sociopolitical scene of the mid-sixties is unprecedented in its harshness. Many Egyptian and Arabic critics have detected in Miramar… a prophetic voice warning Egypt, on the eve of the Six Day War, of the catastrophe that was in the offing.
(Somekh, p. 191)
Another, Syrian reviewer seems baffled and disappointed by the extent of murkiness in Miramar; Riyad Ismat praises the structure and character portrayal in Miramar, but censures Mahfuz for his excessive negativity. Whereas Mahfuz’s earlier works, this reviewer says, always included characters and situations that represented hope for the future of Egypt, in Miramar, all characters are, “lost or deceptive; nostalgic or impotent…. Where then is the revolutionary Egyptian? Where are the elements that have constituted the new socialist Egypt? Sarhan has double standards; Mansur Bahi is a believer in the system, but is weak and unable to sacrifice anything for his beliefs. As a result of those portrayals we can only see the dark side” (Ismat, p. 60). Mahfuz himself concurs. According to him, Miramar is indeed a severe social and political critique of the sixties in Egypt, and its pessimistic views are intentional. Mahfuz furthermore reveals the difficulty that he and all similarly critical writers experienced with censorship in the sixties:
In Miramar, I blatantly dealt with ills of the Arab Socialist Union as well as the class conflict that existed at the time. I also tackled the subject of dictatorship and criticized it vehemently. In spite of this, some critics at the time… accused me of hypocrisy. Those voices had no idea what I went through; that upon writing a novel in those days, I was in perpetual fear of imprisonment. What more did they expect from me after I had so openly attacked authority, and after I had exposed the grave mistakes of the regime [in this novel]. Would I have written such condemnations if I were indeed a hypocrite.
(Mahfuz in al-Naqqash, p. 249; trans. D. Amin)
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"Miramar." World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historic Events That Influenced Them. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/miramar
"Miramar." World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historic Events That Influenced Them. . Retrieved February 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/miramar
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