Naguib Mahfouz's recently published Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha, or Dreams of Recuperation, belongs, if only by virtue of age, to the writer's late works. It reflects a fresh voice in Arabic literature, almost a century after the introduction of the Arabic novel, of which Mahfouz is the quintessential figure.
These concise and concentrated texts, many of which are only one paragraph in length, have been appearing in the weekly Cairo women's magazine Nisf al-Dunya since 1999. They are the author's most recent works after a 1994 assassination attempt on his life left him exhausted and heavily impaired. Since then they have been appearing: short, barely legible lines, based ostensibly on his dreams. The volume reviewed here comprises 146 of these dreams, while another volume has been announced for publication. Earlier this year the AUC Press also published the first 104 dreams in an edition translated by Raymond Stock. Despite the elegance of this volume, it brings to light the perennial challenge of translating Mahfouz into English: such translations often fail to carry the modernity, accessibility and simplicity of the Arabic Mahfouz employs, making his texts sound dated and distant and unlike the Arabic originals.
Having established and shaped the novel as a literary form in the Arab world, Mahfouz, now aged 94 and having stepped into a new century, offers something raw and new in this book. From his unique vantage point he looks back on a century of cultural and political ambitions, projects and failures. The dreams resemble his Asdaa al-sira al-dhatiyya (Echoes of an Autobiography), »Ra'aytu fima yara al-na'im« (»I Saw as the Sleeper Sees«) and even »Layali alf layla wa layla« (»The Thousand and One Nights«) in structure, but they are based on »actual« dreams rather than on imagination. It is difficult to place these texts within a particular genre; most critics simply refer to them as »the dreams. They are like the raw materials of narratives, or snapshots of a certain kind of consciousness.
The book also departs from Mahfouz's regular procedures in other ways. For the first time he has published the book not with his usual publisher Maktabat Misr but with Dar el-Shorouk, crowning the increased interest in literature on the part of the latter publishers over the past few years. The book, which bears an elegant, even slick, cover, does not carry the illustrations of Gamal Qutb that traditionally donned Mahfouz's novels either. Time will tell whether Ahlam Fatrat Al-Naqaha is at the vanguard of a new era in Arab literary history, and whether Mahfouz, having defined modern Arabic literature, will also have a place in the postmodern.
In an interview with the Cairo literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab, Mahfouz explained that the texts were based on his actual dreams, which he then »works on«, producing a single concise text that he then writes down or, as of late, dictates to Hagg Sabri his secretary.
The process Mahfouz uses to produce these concise texts reflects the semi-isolation in which he now lives, but in which a still vibrant mental life ensure that memory and imagination reign supreme. His sight dimmed, his hearing impaired, his limbs not readily responding to the orders of his brain, most of his friends long gone, Mahfouz no doubt now lives largely in a world of his own, perhaps in a state of semi-exile, a world in which dreams could be a form of diversion and also a state of mind.
Contrary to some readers' possible expectations, Mahfouz's dreams do not evoke serenity or reconciliation, nor do they give the impression that the author has finally figured everything out with age. Reading some of these texts could leave one anxious, not unlike waking from a dream, when the space between here and there, between sleep and wakefulness, is still cloudy and consciousness seems to float as if on gentle waters. Several of the texts depict the narrator being pursued by unclear enemies, or struggling to catch up, or traveling to reach a destination and failing, evoking the familiar anxiety of not having arrived on time. In all of them there is a profound sense of alienation and abandonment, as if standing alone, suspended on a broken flight of steps.
In »Dream 70«, for example, longing to see his loved ones the author heads towards his old neighbourhood and goes up the stairs of his old house. Half-way through the climb, however, he feels exhausted but perseveres: he can see the door of his destination and has only ten more stairs to go. Suddenly, he sees a deep pit instead of one of the steps, but even though he can no longer continue he does not turn back. Instead, he stands calling out to his loved ones. No one seems to hear him.
The texts are also full of people Mahfouz would have known in his younger days, dead people who come to visit him and, sometimes, haunt him.
Several dreams depict figures of authority, such as employers and government ministers. In fact, facing authority is a theme running through the dreams, even if at times this is a belated confrontation. Since Mahfouz spent some 37 years of his life as a civil servant, offices and government employees unsurprisingly also figure prominently in the dreams. Mahfouz's mother and sister make repeated appearances, as does his home and the old Cairo neighbourhoods of Abbasiyya and Gamaliyya where he grew up. Interestingly, his father and his own progeny do not figure in them.
The setting of the dreams is similar to the world of Mahfouz's novels, depicting scenes from middle-class Cairene life. Yet, unlike his novels, which are renowned for their realism, the dreams offer a surreal view of this same world.
Among the dead people who visit the author in his dreams are national figures he knew in his youth, such as Saad Zaghlul and Mustafa Abdel-Razeq. Mahfouz has declared in interviews that the people he most frequently dreams of are the late composer Zakariyya Ahmad and Saad Zaghlul. Earlier, in recollections shared with critic Ragaa El-Naqqash and collected in Naguib Mahfouz: Safahat min Mudhakiratuh wa Adwaa Gadida ala Adabuh wa Hayatuh [Naguib Mahfouz: Pages from his Memoirs and New Light Shed on his Life and Work, 1998], Mahfouz explained how he grew up during the struggle for independence led by Zaghlul and the Wafdists. The 1919 revolution and the national liberation struggle were among his formative influences, and he always had Wafdist inclinations. The moral ideals of the 1919 generation, the pursuit of freedom and justice, have long inspired and informed Mahfouz's works, and the undermining of such ideas of justice is a source of anxiety in the dreams.
In »Dream 53«, for example, the narrator attends a party at a friend's house where the late composer Zakariyya Ahmad plays the lute and sings a song with the refrain »Would that please God?« He is surrounded by the family, including women and children, who sit enjoying the music while, literally above their heads, a man hangs by his feet with a bowl full of acid beneath his head.
The fact that the assembled family is oblivious to the plight of the tortured man and is unaware of the connotations of Ahmad's singing is an indictment of modern Egyptian society , part of which lives ignorant of what goes on in the other, apparently unaware of torture and corruption and perhaps not caring about the pleas of intellectuals. Some readers have seen in the image of the hanging man in this dream a reference to the Islamist thinker Sayed Qutb, executed by the Nasser regime in 1966. Qutb was the first critic to review Mahfouz's writing, and the two men established a literary relationship despite their differing political views. Even though his last meeting with Qutb revealed to Mahfouz how changed and extreme the former had become, the novelist recalls in Safahat min Mudhakiratuh the deep shock he felt when the regime executed him, a shock that might explain the sense of injustice this dream conveys.
While many of the texts involve dreaming of home, or attempting to return to it, quite a number are set in idyllic fields and around water. These dreams are permeated by a hallucinatory reality where things constantly change and everything is fluid. This blurring of boundaries is an underlying thought expressed in the title Mahfouz has chosen for the project, "recuperation" suggesting a suspended state of existence between health and illness, sanity and insanity, reality and hallucination, life and afterlife. Several of the dreams depict the narrator walking on the margins or edges of space, in the desert neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Cairo or around the cemeteries, for example.
Sometimes the author's past experiences and memories offer respite and a degree of reassurance. In »Dream 32«, for example, the narrator leaves Egypt to work in Yemen (a reference to Eden?), where it is very hot. He is informed that offices on higher floors enjoy a better climate, and so he repeatedly requests to be moved to a higher floor. One day he looks up and finds the faces of loved ones from old times looking out of the windows. Perhaps they are expecting him. In popular Egyptian belief, the souls of loved ones come back to escort the dying soul into the afterlife, to take one by the hand, as it were. Mahfouz might be contemplating such reunions in his sleep, with longing but not without anxiety.
In »Dream 57« the narrator comes across a fortress with tiny windows, out of which he sees the faces of long lost friends and loved ones. He seeks help from the authorities and returns with a steel rod, which he uses to knock down the fortress and liberate his friends. In many of the dreams the figure of a lone, unnamed woman also appears. Critics have surmised that these dreams refer to past relationships and the loves of Mahfouz's life, or that they are references to suppressed desires. Many of these women appear to be elusive and unattainable, sometimes leaving the dreamer alone, or suddenly vanishing from him.
The dreams also feature figures from Mahfouz's school days, teachers and playmates alike, suggesting that in his old age he is repeatedly reviewing his life. With this revision, however, comes a form of self- judgment, echoes of which can be heard in »Dream100«.
Here, the narrator is attending the trial of some of the leaders of the nation, with only one judge presiding (Egyptian courts are normally presided over by three judges). He is disappointed to find the judge and the leaders conversing in a language he does not understand. The judge then reads out the sentence in Arabic and points to the narrator, declaring the death sentence against him. The narrator cries out, arguing that he came of his own accord to the court simply to witness the proceedings, but no one pays him any attention. The fact that national leaders are presented here as being on trial is as apocalyptic as the idea that authority, here incarnated in both judge and leaders, has its own discourse divorced from that of the people. For Mahfouz, the narrator's stance as a spectator does not grant him immunity, and in fact might be a form of guilt.
A similar idea emerges in »Dream 113«. Here, a new minister has been appointed, and the narrator tries to explain to him that he is his »parliamentary secretary«. However, the minister apparently does not understand what is being said to him, presenting the possibility that this is a political discourse hailing from a different era. Fate then brings the two men together once again in prison, and the narrator is given another opportunity to explain his job to the minister. Here too the narrator, Mahfouz himself, is not spared, being imprisoned along with symbols of the regime, like the minister.
Readers might recall that Mahfouz served as parliamentary secretary to his mentor Shaykh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, the minister of awqaf (pious endowments) before the 1952 revolution. The title of »parliamentary secretary« harkens back to Egypt's liberal period, and to Mahfouz's experience during that time.
Shaykh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq himself makes an appearance in »Dream 123«. In this text, the narrator walks through an empty Opera Square in Cairo towards the Horeyya café, which he finds deserted except for a lone figure poring over papers. This turns out to be Shaykh Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, who frowns at him, pointing at the documents in his hands and saying he is sorry to read the narrator's name among those testifying against him. The narrator is left speechless: apparently he has betrayed his mentor.
The idea that Mahfouz's early mentors, leading figures of Egypt's liberal period and its national liberation and independence movements, would return to judge him and his generation is a cause of severe anxiety in the Dreams. In these texts, in an act of daring self-criticism, Mahfouz does not absolve himself, or by extension his generation, of blame for what has been construed as the failure of the independence and liberal project almost a century later. Neither the author, nor the Egyptian nation, these texts seem to be saying, can escape responsibility for this, if only because they contented themselves with playing the role of apathetic spectators, even if they were not guilty of outright betrayal of the ideals of independence and liberation.
Several dreams, 106, 116 and 126, for example, suggest that Mahfouz's initial welcome for the 1952 revolution was followed by disillusionment, especially following the June 1967 defeat. Though the dreamer here kind-heartedly welcomes the appointment of former colleagues and friends to ministerial positions, he is soon cruelly reminded that power corrupts. In »Dream 116« for example, the narrator goes to congratulate an old friend on his new ministerial position only to be greeted lukewarmly by his secretaries and left waiting indefinitely in the antechamber. He learns that others have poisoned the minister against him, but asks another mutual friend why the minister will not confront him with such gossip. The friend responds that the laws have been suspended, and the testimony of witnesses is now considered sufficient evidence.
Similarly, in »Dream 106« an old civil servant remarks that he heard a similar bulletin in his younger days following the announcement of a coup on television. For his part, the narrator is happy to learn that the leader of the coup is an old friend, and he expects good things to come his way. However, the old employee quips that life indeed might now brighten up for him: he could now be summarily executed without trial.
The Egypt revealed in the dreams is a disconcerting one. Thus, in »Dream 63« the narrator comes upon a garden surrounded by a high wall, in its middle an obelisk on top of which is a flag. At first he thinks the garden is a sporting club, but then he guesses it might be a circus because different groups of people are doing strange things in it. Outside the garden he finds a wide road, with huge crowds standing on either side of it. A parade then emerges from behind the garden's walls, each car carrying a young man sitting majestically within, who looks down on the people lining the road and returns their cheers with pompous arrogance. Is the garden the nation, and does this dream recall an age of military parades by young, arrogant army officers?
The final dream in the collection offers the thought that some supernatural force will somehow safeguard the nation, yet it also epitomises Mahfouz's disillusion and exhaustion, which permeate the book. One wonders if it was his decision to place it at the end, whether it was the editor Sanaa El-Beisi's, or whether it was some kind of coincidence.
Whatever the case may be, »Dream 146« depicts the victory of an unnamed enemy, who agrees to a cease-fire on condition that he receive a golden »Statue of Awakening« housed in the safe of history. The narrator goes with a group of people to find the keys to the safe, but, as they take off the lid of a box where the keys are kept they discover a snake guarding them. The narrator then hides his relief and prays for the snake's success in guarding the keys. Laden with symbolism, this dream invokes both Egyptian sculptor Mahmud Mukhtar's famous statue Egypt Awakening, a symbol of the modernising nation- state, as well as the ancient Egyptian motif of a snake guarding the tombs of the Pharaohs.
It suggests that despite defeat at the hands of the enemy, and the acquiescence of the narrator and his companions to that enemy's demands, which are nothing short of appropriating the nation's heritage, some supernatural force will intervene and save the day. Despite his disillusionment and anxiety, even his sense of betrayal, the older Mahfouz thus opens up a window on faith, which is perhaps what now remains.
To see as one asleep
The building of the house was finished an architectural marvel, people from all over gathered around it, each hoping to possess it. The haggling increased and the arguments intensified until a giant cut through the crowd, roaring in a ringing voice, »Force is the answer«.
The people fell silent – except for one-man, who answered the challenge. A feverish battle raged between them until the giant was able to deal a blow to his opponent's head, knocking him unconscious. Then the giant broke into the house and locked it up completely after him.
The hours passed without the door opening to provide a chance for vengeance. Those standing outside took no useful action, while seeming as though they would not disperse.
Here was the office of the Secretariat, where I spent a lifetime before going on pension. Here, too, I had been companion to the cream of employees, in all of whose funerals Fate decreed that I take part.
I stared inside the room to see the youths who had succeeded us, and was nearly felled by the shock - for I found no one there but my old colleagues. I rushed inside, shouting, »God's peace upon my dear ones!« with anticipation, confusion, and unease. Yet not one of them raised his head from his papers, and I withdrew back unto myself in frustration and despair.
When the time came to go, they left their place without any of them turning to look at me – not even the lovely lady translator. And so I found myself alone in the empty chamber.
Reviewed by Amina Elbendary. © Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved. Al-Ahram Weekly Online: Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/747/bo8.htm