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Mahfouz's succinct prose manages to entwine the great themes of love, death and the human condition with the tense atmosphere of Egypt in 1981. Anwar al-Sadat's open-door economic policy, Infitah, is draining the wealth of the majority and removing hope from the dreams of the young. It is also setting the stage for his assassination. Against this backdrop, the three narrators relate their tangled stories and, through the apposition of their voices, reveal the ultimate importance of inviolate personal dignity.
Muhtashimi Zayed is the wry, octogenarian patriarch preparing himself for encroaching death, by ruminating on his life and faith even as he helplessly observes the trials and tribulations of his grandson. Elwan, Zayed's grandson, is articulate, honest, and, materially, a failure. His fate and actions mirror that of an Egypt trapped by frustrated ambitions and desires. Randa is the beauty of self-possessed strength personified. She is also Elwan's fiancée. Through the vicissitudes of their times and the demands of her family, their engagement falters and each must find a path to dignity in a corrupt world where all is for sale.
THE DAY THE LEADER WAS KILLED is rich in irony and infused with political undertones, but, as with all of Mahfouz's work, it is in no way dependent on its setting. As was stated in his Nobel citation, Mahfouz has "formed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind."