Reviewed by Nadia Benjelloun
Bombs, beards, and belly-dancing. Rather than just a fun alliteration to say, this phrase would summarize what would come to mind upon hearing the word Arab. This is the epitome of orientalism. It’s all due to narrative, but just as there are misconstrued Arab and Muslim representations from sources that range from the social sciences to the creative arts, the undoing of such images can also be provided for by the same means. An exemplary scholar who does well with enacting such scrutiny is Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who uses storytelling as a method of critique.
Mahfouz was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1911. He wrote 34 novels and over 300 short stories. He studied philosophy at Cairo University and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. While he is notably known for The Cairo Trilogy, another book he wrote that is no less a work of art, is Adrift on the Nile. The title alone holds huge significance. First to summarize the plot, the short story is about Anis Zaki and his group of friends who meet every or most nights on a boathouse and have philosophical discussions that range from love to politics. Other than that, they take pleasure in each other’s company by getting high, drinking, and having sex. Since the setting takes place on a boathouse on the Nile throughout most of the story, they are literally adrift on the Nile. But because the point of view from which the story is being told shifts constantly, and the protagonist is high through it all, his consciousness periodically drifts away and comes back, giving readers a less than tangible grasp of the characters’ realities and surroundings. In this sense, both readers and characters are adrift on the Nile. Another aspect to it is that all the characters presented engage in escapism through some way, shape or form. As their lives feel so unstable and adrift, they are once again, adrift on the Nile.
The characters are many and diverse. Primarily, Anis Zaki is a civil servant that spends a good deal of time using drugs and smoking. His friends include Ragab an actor and womanizer, Saniya a university student, Layla a translator at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed a director of accounts at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Mustafa a lawyer, Ali an art critic, and Khalid a writer and playboy. Later they are joined by Samara, a journalist, who is supposedly the serious one of the group. The friends mildly debate differing philosophies and exchange a few romantic misunderstandings, though their cynicism is shared. Samara spices things up when she refuses to smoke the pipe at first and succumb to their merrymaking. This poses a challenge to the group, as they see it as reluctance to let go of the burdens of life.
At one point during the novel, Anis finds her notebook which she accidently left behind at the houseboat. In it, were her notes for a play, the characters of whom were all based on the friends from the houseboat. She detailed the traits and flaws of each one, outlining the notes as under the theme of “the Serious versus the Absurd”, and describing the friends’ predicament as “the collapse of belief—belief in anything.” (Mahfouz, 1996). This chapter of the book was a critical moment because it sums up the overarching theme of the novel itself. (The use of Samara and the scenario of her notebook was like reaching out to fill the shoes of the reader and breaking the fourth dimension.) To reinforce this idea, one has to consider the state of affairs of Egypt at the time, a background for the novel.
After the 1952 revolution, there was a massive drive for nationalism. Inequalities in socioeconomic classes had become more apparent and left a lot of Egyptians confused and frustrated. The search for meaning and purpose became lost on them. As a result, many were driven to feel socially alienated. For the characters of the novel then, it wasn’t that they were searching for meaning, but felt that the search itself was pointless. Civically speaking, there was turmoil and unrest, which to the characters translated to turmoil and unrest of the soul, mind, and body. Thus, the “collapse of belief—belief in anything.”
The novel ends when the group decides to take the car for a drive late at night. Drunk and high, they end up running over someone, and they make a run for it. The following morning it was announced in the papers that a dead person was found by the side of the road, and it belonged to and old peasant man. The friends argue over whether or not to take responsibility, eventually coming to a consensus that they should dismiss the whole crisis because it was “just a peasant” and their reputations and jobs would be at stake. The novel comes to close with them continuing their lifestyles, keeping the accident a secret amongst themselves, and Anis having a troubled monologue contemplating it all. This is Mahfouz’s way of exhibiting the agitations of their society while remaining unpreaching.
This outstanding novel was also adapted into a movie. The movie, however, did not do the book justice. It portrayed the characters as more materialistic and lunacy-driven. They were exaggerated for comedic effect, though they were more profound in the novel because of their deep conversations. The accident also took place during the daytime in an open space and made the victim a young, pregnant, peasant girl. The aftermath of the accident did not sink in with the movie characters as much as it did for the characters in the novel, which was a basis for an intense fight and them almost breaking-up. In the movie, they almost immediately went back to partying, and the watchman released the ropes of the houseboat, abandoning them, which did not happen in the book. It seems the aim of the movie was to be more dramatic and lofty, whereas the book was meant to be analytical. The release of the houseboat at the end of the movie, however, was quite symbolic, as it relates more to the English title, Adrift on the Nile. The movie seemed to suggest that the characters’ lives will forever, both figuratively and literally, be adrift on the Nile.
The novel and Mahfouz’s work is relevant to today because he gives credibility to Arab literature. The societal structures and the alienation of his characters represented in his works are not exclusive to Egypt. His fiction reflects real issues, and real perspectives. Moreover, the diversity by which the issues unfold, and varying characters that can be picked up on throughout his novels, humanize both unique and universal values and struggles. This helps break the barrier between the traditional view of the West versus the East. No more just bombs, beards, and belly-dancing!
About Nadia Benjelloun
Nadia Benjelloun is a poet, novelist, and freelance writer from Tangier, Morocco. She is also an associate editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine. Her works have appeared in Eskimo Pie, The Literary Yard, In Parenthesis Journal, The Scarlet Leaf Review, and forthcoming in DM du Jour. She’s also been a feature in Publisher’s Weekly Magazine. You can find her previously published titles here.