Mahfouz's plays: Hidden gems in the Nobel-laureate's oeuvre

Ahmed Maged
6 Min Read

It might be unknown to many that legendary Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize recipient Naguib Mahfouz authored a number of plays. The main reason for the plays’ anonymity is simply that they haven’t been available for decades.

However, those plays have finally been tucked into two volumes that were released for the first time last year via Dar El-Shorouk publishing house, which acquired the copyrights to reprint all of Mahfouz’s works.

Written in 1969, five of those plays were released as a group sequel to “Taht El Mazala, (Under the Shade), a collection of Mahfouz’s short stories. The sixth play, entitled “Al Mutarada (The Chase) was published as a part of another short story collection called “Al Garima (The Crime) in 1973.

Like “Awlad Haretna (Children of the Alley) and several other works of Mahfouz written in the 60s, his plays are a turning point in his literary career.

The one-act plays act as different creative channels in the author’s life, which broke from the sheer realism that characterized his initial famous works like the Cairo Trilogy.

But after 1967, and like his contemporaries, the shock of the defeat against Israel and the ambiguity of the social and political climate pushed Mahfouz into the realms of allegory that helped him explore the tradition of the absurd.

The short story “Taht El Mazala centers on a group of Cairenes waiting under the shade of a bus-stop for the public bus to arrive. Before their eyes, a number of tragic events take place including the brutal beating of a thief and a fatal car accident. All these events take place while a cop stands nearby, observing closely but reluctant to step in.

When the bystanders plead with him to start investigating these incidents, he succumbs, but finally holds them responsible for these crimes and ends up shooting them all down.

It is the sheer loss that leads Mahfouz to delve deep with “Shade and his subsequent plays into the philosophical connotations of the meaning of existence, authority, regime, religion and all the institutions considered part and parcel of the modern state.

According to critics, any understanding of these plays would be incomplete without the careful study of “Taht El Mazala.

Plays like “Shade, also follow the tradition of the absurd.

Although they offer an easy read for those who opt to read them as simple allegorical fables, any theatrical adaptation of the text could prove a real challenge for a number of reasons.

First, they are written in classical Arabic, a technique that doesn’t necessarily match the humble nature of their simple setting and characters.

Second, the allegorical element doesn’t leave any room for realism, which is considered one of Mahfouz’s hallmarks.

Third, the plays were written at a time when Mahfouz s works were heavily attacked by Islamists and other radical groups.

Of the six plays in the volume, the most significant are “Yumeet Wa Yuhee (Revered is he Who Gives Life and Death) and “El Tarika (The Inheritance).

The first sees a man and a woman in the backdrop of a cemetery that apparently shelters the bodies of martyrs. Armed with the spirit of heroism, the man refuses to associate death with anything other than martyrdom, dignity and pride.

As the woman keeps stressing that only love can make life worthwhile, the man encounters a giant, a physician and a beggar, all of whom try to influence his attitude towards life and death. Although they fail and the man continues to be driven by his heroic zeal, his behavior is eventually derided with a certain undertone, which shouldn’t be revealed, that wasn’t grasped by Mahfouz’s critics at the time.

“Al Tarika is about a pious wali (ruler) whose faith elevates him to the highest ranks of Sufism. The ruler invites his libertine son to receive an amount of money he had bequeathed to him on condition the latter read all his stacks of books.

The son, who happens to be a pub owner, refuses, and the play ends with a revelation that the pub owner has actually managed to comfort to his clients in the same way the ruler has provided the same consoling sentiments to his followers through his sacred books and words.

The rest of the plays question the nature and workings of Egyptian authority, but one cannot overlook the different connotations of the allegorical symbols related to the exploration of the meaning of authority and power on all levels.

The exploration of existential philosophy and theater of the absurd was only a fleeting phase in Mahfouz s career. According to him, he had never tried his hand at the absurd technique of writing for the sake of experimentation, but it was the most appropriate tool after the catastrophic defeat of 1967.

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