When Naguib Mahfouz wrote this, he had not been awarded the Nobel yet, but his Adrift on the Nile had already been banned during the term of Anwar Sadat — the leader to whom the title refers. The story is set during Sadat’s Infitah, the policy that would incense Arabs to oppose him and one that would lead to his assassination.
Mahfouz had not known then that after Sadat there would be worse intellectual persecutors, and the future would find him stabbed in the neck in an attack that would tragically impair his writing hand.
Eleven years before the incident, this was published. One should not expect grandeur from this, or a sweeping account of Egypt’s history and politics. Here, Mahfouz intimates to us the lives of three common people, “redundant people,” as one narrator would describe.
The three narrators are Muhtashimi Zayed, the grandfather; Elwan, the grandson; and Randa, Elwan’s fiancée: Characters whose daily lives are affected by the Infitah.
The juxtaposition of their lives and the trajectory of their sentiments with the day the leader is killed is an intelligent tool. Because with momentous events such as the assassination, we think little of these lives, their loves, their troubles. The strength of this book is in the intimacy that Mahfouz beckons us to experience. I like how the title cleverly deceives us like a headline by a Western news network of news in the Middle East: We are tricked into thinking that we already know what the story is about, when in fact, we don’t.