What is it that makes dreams such an intriguing subject to artists, novelists and psychologists? Perhaps it’s the impossible nature of the events, the helplessness of man to control his fate or the anxiety that reflects the taxing nature of modern life. More so than anything else, it s the confessional emotions and images that have moved some of the 20th century s greatest figures from Salvador Dali and Sigmund Freud to Akira Kurosawa. No wonder, then, that the subject of dreams would occupy the very last work of Nobel Prize winner and Egypt s foremost novelist Naguib Mahfouz.
A precursor to Mahfouz’s later dream volumes came in 1982 as the title work of a small collection of short fictions entitled Ra aytu fima yara al-na im (I Saw as the Sleeper Sees). A series of 17 short, clearly fictional dreams, “Sleeper was chiefly influenced by medieval Arabic adventures tales and modern ghost stories inspired by them.
In 2000, Mahfouz pushed the first installment of what he called Ahlam fatrat al-naqaha (Dreams of the Period of Recovery), a series of brief, numbered narratives. “Dreams of the Period of Recovery was Mahfouz’s second published work since he was stabbed by an Islamist militant in 1994, an act that left him unable to write for more than four years.
In 2004, The American University in Cairo Press published the first 104 of these miniature works as The Dreams, translated by Raymond Stock, Mahfouz’s biographer, who traces the history of Mahfouz’s use of dreams as a vehicle in his introduction.
The works in Dreams of Departure, drawn from the last collection of dreams Mahfouz wrote and dictated, were mainly published by Nisf Al-Dunya between January 2004 and September 2006. Also translated by Raymond Stock, the collection was published by The American University in Cairo Press a few months ago. (Some three hundred of Mahfouz’s dreams have yet to be published in Arabic, Stock adds in an endnote.)
The 107 dreams in Departure include six that appeared not in Nisf Al-Dunya, but in the daily Al-Ahram in December 2005. Those six are given roman numerals to distinguish them from the rest of the dreams, which follow the magazine’s numbering sequence.
The collection represents the memories, regrets, persistent fears and sum of all experiences lived by one of the towering figures in world literature.
Some of these dreams resemble allegories; many appear as bittersweet, tenderly painful ruminations on the dead and the lost. Several others act as indirect, unobtrusive reflections on key events in the author s life.
Two of the chief subjects of his last published dreams are women and his famous unrequited love for his neighbor.
In the first dream of the collection, a woman is depicted as a source of false temptation when a beautiful girl he traces turns into a thick block of wood. In another, she acts as a reminder of his faltering memories and health.
A woman is primarily portrayed as the lost love; the mirage of unquestionable bliss that Mahfouz, aptly, chases desperately in his dreams. In no. 132, Mahfouz – accompanied by his lover – stops to buy cigarettes and returns to find her gone. I m still looking for her, he writes at the end.
A desire for the one true love he was never able to forget, pulses strongly in those dreams. The saddest, most revealing, dream regarding the identity of his lover is no. III, where Mahfouz learns that his next-door neighbor died during labor. Stock reveals in his Translator’s Afterword that this woman, in reality, was Atiya Shadid, Mahfouz s neighbor who died while giving birth in 1940. Shadid was forever immortalized as Aida Shaddad, the object of Mahfouz s autobiographical Kamal Abdel Jawad’s unrequited love in The Trilogy.
Several dreams are built around encounters with ministers and other government officials. These particular dreams are invested with a palpable air of hypocrisy, vice and occasional bemusement, exhibiting the late writer s disdain of Egyptian dignitaries.
Dream 151 recounts one awfully painful episode Mahfouz experienced a few years before his passing. In it, one of his friends excuses himself from an intimate gathering to fetch his pills. When another friend goes to check on him, he find his apartment locked from the outside. They all search fruitlessly for him before acknowledging the possibility that he might have died.
The friend, as Stock deciphers him, is Reda Helal, the former deputy editor of Al-Ahram and of one America s few defenders in the Arab press, who vanished mysteriously in 2003. Rumors spread that the Egyptian government was involved in his disappearance.
Dream no. 146 is one of the most symbolic narratives in the book. A nameless enemy invades Egypt and demands a group of people bring them a golden statue stored in a warehouse, whose key is kept in a strongbox. The group faces off with a fierce serpent threatening anyone drawing near.
The statue has been interpreted as Egypt’s cultural identity, which is being effaced by a number of different enemies. Since Stock reports that Mahfouz rejected the idea of cultural invasion brought by globalization, the enemies could be time, poverty or even apathy.
Several important figures in Mahfouz s life pop up in his dreams, including his mentor Sheikh Mustafa Abdel Raziq along with Sheikh Zakariya Ahmed, Umm Kulthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Sayed Darwish.
Mahfouz s longing for his deceased friends, mentors and past permeates through the book. Images of his Gamaleya neighborhood, old friends joyfully playing football in the alleyways, and crowded downtown coffee shops continue to populate his dreams as they always did in his real life and novels.
The solid sense of time and place along with his memorable characters prevail in nearly every dream. Whether those short narratives were actual dreams or figments of the author s imagination is unknown.
What s peculiar about those dreams is the story-like structure they take with a beginning, middle and end. Few contain the unexplained enigmatic surrealism that characterizes most dreams. Some of those reveries come out as parables with distinctive wisdom.
Dreams of Departure is essentially an intimate portal into Mahfouz s psyche. Some of the dreams are unmemorable while others follow redundant themes. Mostly, they are poignant, opulent and revelatory.
Along with the prophetic, warm and heartbreaking last dream (no. 206), Dream no. 153 is arguably the most haunting of this compilation.
Mahfouz, aboard a ship with the country s elite, begins to drown as the sailboat gradually sinks.
Watching them, I grew more and more alarmed as I remembered the huge amount of time lost in amusements, he writes.
Mahfouz downplayed his achievement and deemed the Nobel Prize to be a heavy burden. The only things he might have been mistaken about are himself, his role in Egyptian society and the gift he brought to millions of people. These dreams are the final testament to an incredibly rich life.
Dreams of DepartureBy Naguib MahfouzTranslated by Raymond StockThe American University in Cairo Press, 2007
Originally posted Sept. 24, 2007, corrected and reposted October 9, 2007.