Significant substantial of existentialism in modern Egypt


In the words of Rasheed El-Enany “ Mahfouz is Arabs' most important novelist, naturalist and modernist”.

If laurels were bequeathed for breakthrough on the Arab cultural scene, Naguib Mahfouz would sweep up a barrelful of Honors. From being a writer known only in the Arab world and to a handful of orientalists, Mahfouz sprang to world attention with the Nobel Prize. He wrote more than 30 novels and in 1988 became the first Nobel laureate and remains the only Arab to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Naguib was undoubtedly the greatest Arab novelist of the 20th century. His gentle and sardonic style of writing influenced the writers across the Arab world. He is well known for his portrayal of his native place Cairo, its space and modern history in the hearts of the readers from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean and familiarized them with its ways and norms. One of his works is “Cairo Trilogy” (Monumental work) that brought his name to forefront of Arabic literature and on which his fame came to rest in the West. His few works are Old Egypt (1932), Whisper of Madness (1938), Mockery of Fates (1939), Rhadopis of Nubia (1943), The Struggle of Tyba (1944), The Modern Cairo (1945), Midaq Alley (1947), The Beginning and the End (1950), The Beggar, God's world, Arabian Nights and Days (1981), The Day the Leader was Killed (1985), The Fountain of the Tomb (1988) etc.

The reason behind the selection of the topic and the writer is to interpret the Existing conditions in Egypt and I believe that only through Mahfouz that we can come to one conclusion about the situations and incidents going on in Egypt even today. He is a modern writer who portrayed various existing situations in Egypt as we can gain up to date information about Egypt through his works. No matter what religion we follow, no matter what civilization we belong to , no matter what language we converse in , no matter what our philosophies be, no matter how different our histories might be, the truth remains that our basic emotions, and how we react to them, is essentially similar. This is what I observed in his thoughts and works.

Egypt is the victimized image of fourth world. A whole range of tribal and peasant societies that share a number of attributes, including a low level of political and economic integration in the state system, an inferior political status, and an under-privileged economic position includes fourth world conflicts of Egyptians in Africa. Egypt is a country which is also not free from the domestic terrorism, Rebel insurgencies, Border and regional issues, Religious and sectarian issues, civil unrest, Human right issues etc. Al-Nalha was cultural renaissance that began in the late 19th century and early 20th century in Egypt. It is often regarded as the Egyptian counterpart of the European enlightenment era, and a period of intellectual modernization and reformation. The culture of fear remained among the ordinary Egyptian people. They want democracy but will not fight for it. National identity of Egypt as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries consists of an overlapping or conflicting ideology, secular Egyptian nationalism.

Very recently in 2004, the Kefaya Movement took place in Egypt. This Movement is a movement for a democracy and civil liberty. But this movement is criticized because of its concentration and lofty discourse on human rights and democracy but no political and practical solutions to the problems Egyptians faces today on the daily basis such as poverty, unemployment, public and educational services etc. Anyway, Egyptian fight for freedom and confrontation is some what triumphant through this Kefaya movement.

Mahfouz is an existential writer. Existentialism is a philosophy which emphasis the uniqueness of isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one acts. Mahfouz presents us the world of reality where most of us live in. The beginning and the end is a work, which focuses the position of middle-class family. Through this work, I would like to come through with the basic concepts like poverty and feminism in Egypt. How will be the condition of a middle-class family without the head (father) is vividly scribbled in this novel. The title reflects the changes that took place in the beginning of their lives' and how their lives had turned like a hell at the end of the novel. The terrible situation of woman and the ultimate poverty of the Egyptians are known through the Muslim character Nefisa, the only daughter who is a dressmaker, seduced by her lover and was deceived by him, contrary to her expectations. Later on, she herself started going to strangers and became a prostitute in order to overcome the poverty in her family. Her self-identity is unknown to the society; I cannot say that Nefisa is a pure woman but I extend my support to her for her innocence in believing a fraud. Is Nefisa innocent or ignorant? May be both. Mahfouz displayed her as a woman who struggles between the ideals and traditionalism, but can we think that only prostitution is the solution for the burden of poverty? No, not yet all. We are living in a real world where we come across the religious traditions of different religions. Woman is respected in this society not for her intelligence but for her beauty. A Muslim girl today muffles her face with a burkah where her face should not be exhibited out. Nevertheless, today poverty makes a person to loose his/her honesty and to forget moral behaviors. The practice of female circumcision that went on in Egypt once upon a time cannot be implemented today as a sort of nemesis for a crime. The educated and developed society condemns this practice later on when Nefisa was arrested by the police in the brothel, it became a big shame to her family and she herself committed suicide thinking that life is more dreadful than death. Poor Nefisa, what courage she had really to meet the death instead of living in this world of troubles. Mahfouz acts as searchlight to the society where he wants to bring even the far-flung hidden and forgotten corners and characters of society into the world of light. The mode of suppression of female sexuality, challenge to the gender hierarchy and the values of male dominated society is critically condemned in the novel. “The ambition of a person blinds them to do anything in this society”.

“Nefisa refused to submit passively to her ill-fortune……”

“Individual characters, one sense, reflect the social and emotional gestures of millions”.

The 'Thief and the Dogs' depicts the casual life of a thief who was released from the jail after the imprisonment of four years. The stir life of the thief is disturbed by the society of which he lives. Now he was in serious quest for his identity. The challenge of identity is questioned in the novel. The thief assimilates his past and lives always in the feeling that this society is responsible for his imprisonment. He approaches his new life after prison with a petrified perception and this intensifies his loneliness. Mahfouz, often relates to animal imagery to implement the feel of essential shame to which the characters' world has collapsed. Said Mahran describes his enemies as dogs before he sets out to abolish them one by one. Said believes that nothing has changed as if he had left it yesterday. The modern society will not allow the thief to lead a moral and honest life. Therefore, he compares his enemies to dogs though dog is a symbol of faith. The undoubtful challenge of identity, degrading of true faith and the lack of spirituality is observed in the light of this novel.

Coming to the novel ‘Whisper of Madness', Mahfouz explores the social realism through his gentle and sardonic style. He is the witness of ancient and modern literature of Egypt. In his whisper of madness, he has enlightened the readers in a different way. The conflict between the upper class and the lower class is observed in the novel. The modern bourgeoisies' mentality is known in this work. The downtrodden quest for identification is common in every society. The title whisper of madness seems to be a violent and Gothic song. Mahfouz has characterized a mad person in the novel that tears his clothes seeing the violent and dreadful events that are existing in the society. No society is free from the bullying of Aristocratic class. The mad man in the novel questions the sophisticated life lead by them.

The mad man robs the chicken form the shop and distributes it to the poor. His urge is to satisfy and assist the poor from the day's drought. Madness is sometimes an excuse in order to escape this world of complexities. It is better to pretend like a mad who knows nothing than to face this turbulent political world. The mad man sank in the whirlpool of madness. Mahfouz critically sketched him in a drastic way as a symbol of terrific milieu. We all are aware of the saying that the rich is becoming richer and the poor is becoming poorer. The poor has to face his life as it he is meeting the dooms day tomorrow. The day when the poor comes out with external revolution against the bourgeosies will become the day of pompous celebrations. The unknown fire that resides in the minds and hearts of the poor will sweep out the dominating and influencing sophistication in this society. The whisper of madness in the lives of the poor is unexpressive. Why, all the time the rats die in the hands of cats, and the cats in the hands of dogs? Life in Egypt seems to be a deadly dull for many poor people. It is a transcendence which all above the human realities. The poor life is a life sentence on the earth. The attitude and the atmosphere of the downtrodden is pessimist in the sense that the poor are described as the mad and as innocent simpletons, isolated and alienated physically and mentally handicapped whose final insight is achieved only through humiliation.

Let us wait for the day where deer fights against the tiger and survives. The realms of uncanny terror, violence, madness, cruelty is whispered through out the novel. Bourgeois nationalism was incapable of attending to the needs of ordinary people for national liberation and social equality. The poor are given a choice between repentance and punishment but not freedom and social equality.

The next novel is 'The day the leader was killed'. Through this novel, we can have a highly personal look into the life of Egypt. Egypt is lurching into the modern world where people began to question every thing. Modern mind has many questions where the answers are unfound. The novel revolves around the characters called Muhtushimi Zayed - a retired family patriarch, his grand son Elwan and his lover Randa. The theme of spirituality is known through the character Zayed who always live in prayers follows loneliness. He is the testimony of many generations in Egypt. The novel depicts the ultimate changes that are taking place in Egypt from Zayed to Elwan. The theme of social justice, alienations and the interplay of past and present is shown to us. mahfouz here describes the real character Anwar Sada (president) who had introduced an open-market economic policies (Infilah) which faced a complete opposition and was killed by Muslim extremists. But the Infilah would expedite the country forward to modernization. Modern mind is full of skepticism as a result the social unrest prevailed all over the country. The people cannot tolerate this la-la-land, because the result Infilah has lead to the internal revolution and the lack of opportunities for the young people. Sadat's policy is draining the wealth of the majority and removing the hope from the dreams of the young. Mahfouz skillfully has woven one of the darkest political backdrops of Egyptian history. The ability of society is to allow the younger generation to start families. The two characters Elwan and Randa who plans to start a new life after their marriage failed to do this because of lack of opportunities. The responsibility of love, the loss of understanding and the loss of grip is observed in the novel. Today the young people face uncertainty regarding their own future. They were in between the flux of suffering an frustration and its nothing but homogeneous continuation of lost opportunities. It seems that modern Egypt has wasted the enough opportunities and that unless some thing is done and done quickly, Egypt may be doomed externally to the fate of poverty, backwardness and dependency. Young people should avoid their fit of rage and despair and try to utilize every opportunity, which allows them to enter the new world of realities. The novel critically wallows around political involvement, social unrest, modern look into the life, the responsibility of love, the utilization of opportunities, and economical outlook through the three main characters. The result of leader's death in the state leads to chaos and ambiguities in the life of Egyptians.

"All of us fall in love, are hurt by our loved ones, betray our partners, mock our neighbours and want to see our children married and happy" - Naguib Mahfouz

In the novella "The day the leader was killed", the character of Sadat says,

"His victory constituted a challenge which gave rise to new feeling, emotions for which we were quite unprepared". It reflects the exhaustion of older generation and the confusions of younger generation.


My paper focused on the life of Egyptians in the troubled 20th century. It is the description of invisible, intangible and immobile societies. The Egyptian fight for freedom and confrontation is known through the work the whisper of madness. The dire situation of women and the debilitation effects of poverty, the blatant oppression of political rights are confirmed to the works called 'The day the leader was killed', ‘the beginning and the end', the degration of true faith and the lack of spirituality are observed in the masterpiece 'The thief and the dogs'. All these themes include the existentialism in modern Europe. He, from his birth (1911) to death (2006) has contributed in the existing political, social and economical conditions in Egypt with its multiculturalism. The revival and rebirth of liberalism is a new out look in the lives of modern Egypt. That is the major reason I call 'Mahfouz a significant substantial of existentialism in modern Egypt'. This is what Egypt quests for fourth world identity.


Literary criticism on Mahfouz by Rasheed El-Enany



Paper presentation To Dr P.RAJASEKHAR,

Professor in English, Acharya Nagarjuna University.


Naguib mahfouz- “A Significant substantiation of existentialism In Modern Egypt''

Presented by, N.Vineela,

Lecturer in English,P.V.P.Siddhartha Institute Of Technology, Vijayawada.

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