Having started learning Arabic this year, I was curious about reading some Arabic literature to open a new doorway to the beauty of the Arab world. And what better way of getting to know the cultural aspect than delving into a book written by one of the most acclaimed Egyptian writers of all times and Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz?
‘Miramar’ captures a period of change in Egypt, depicting the late 50’s Nasserite revolution through the eyes of four characters, each narrating the same story from their own perspective. The book presents the conflicting views on Egypt’s political and cultural landscapes during the unsettling post-revolutionary times. Miramar is an Alexandria-based pension, whose owner, Mariana, lodges five guests, and hires young and beautiful Zohra as a maid. Each of the four story-tellers are representative of one political ideology or social group, which provides the novel with a timeless stamp, as the social realities of any given period of time portray a similar amalgam of voices, drives, struggles, conflicts, and inequalities.
Amer Wagdi is the nostalgic, kind grandfather-figure, who lives out of his memories as a journalist and advocate of the old nationalist liberalist party. Sarhan al-Beheiry is the middle-class socialist, educated opportunist, current government employee, who seeks wealth at any cost. Hosny Allam is the uneducated rich land-owner, womanizer, who despises the new regime. Mansour Bahy is the young communist supporter, who fails his fellow Marxist advocates, as his beliefs and statements are stronger than his actions. Thus, Naguib Mahfouz offers a mixture of ideals, a diverse political stance, which can symbolise a dual interpretation of a revolution: an assumed liberty of speech and thought, as well as instability and vulnerability in the face of the unknown.
Zohra is emblematic of the then female destiny; although she is central to the plot, being fought over by the young men living at the pension, she has no voice in the novel’s structure. She might be seen, though, as a brave woman, who stands up to her family – when forced to get married without her consent, to the men at the pension – who desire her, and to the societal mentality as a whole – which is immune to women’s independence and intellectual development.
I have particularly enjoyed the pinch of rebellion that Naguib Mahfouz has given Zohra during such a time when storm clouds were boiling above Egypt’s cultural and political settings. She embodies a woman who is not only trying to surpass her social status, but also to hold the reins of her body and mind in a male-dominated society that conceptualises her as meat, and as a defenceless and dependent person aimed purely at family nurturing. Thus, Zohra fights the traditional waves by becoming financially independent, deciding to become literate, and allowing herself to be the only decision taker of her own destiny.
Remember that you haven’t wasted your time here. If you’ve come to know what is not good for you, you may also think of it all as having been a sort of magical way of finding out what is truly good for you.
Alexandria. At last Alexandria, Lady of the Dew. Bloom of white nimbus. Bosom of radiance, wet with sky water. Core of nostalgia steeped in honey and tears”