Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Original language: Arabic
The novelist’s camera pans from the dome of King Fuad University (now Cairo University) to students streaming out of the campus, focusing on four students in their twenties, each representing a different trend in Egypt in the 1930s. Finally the camera comes to rest on Mahgub Abd al-Da’im. A scamp, he fancies himself a nihilist, a hedonist, an egotist, but his personal vulnerability is soon revealed by a family crisis back home in al-Qanatir, a dusty, provincial town on the Nile that is also a popular destination for Cairene day-trippers. Mahgub, like many characters in works by Naguib Mahfouz, has a hard time finding the correct setting on his ambition gauge. His emotional life also fluctuates between the extremes of a street girl, who makes her living gathering cigarette butts, and his wealthy cousin Tahiya. Since he thinks that virtue is merely a social construct, how far will our would-be nihilist go in trying to fulfill his unbridled ambitions? What if he discovers that high society is more corrupt and cynical than he is? With a wink back at Goethe’s Faust and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Mahgub becomes a willing collaborator in his own corruption. Published in Arabic in the 1940s, this cautionary morality tale about self-defeating egoism and ill-digested foreign philosophies comes from the same period as one of the writer’s best-known works, Midaq Alley. Both novels are comic and heart-felt indictments not so much of Egyptian society between the world wars as of human nature and our paltry attempts to establish just societies.