In his final years, Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz distilled his storyteller's art to its most essential level. Written with the compression and power of dreams, these poetic vignettes, originally collected in two books, The Dreams and Dreams of Departure, here combined in one volume for the first time.
These stories telescope epic tales into tersely haunting miniatures. A man finds his neighborhood has turned into a circus, but his joy turns to anger when he cannot escape it. An obscure writer finally achieves fame-through the epitaph on his grave. A group of friends telling jokes in an alley face the murderous revenge of an ancient Egyptian queen. Figures from Mahfouz's past-women he loved, men who inspired him, even fictional characters from his own novels-float through tales dreamed by a mind too fertile ever to rest, even in sleep.
Translated by Raymond Stock
I was riding my bicycle from one place to another, driven by hunger, in search of a restaurant fit for my limited means. At each one I found its doors locked, and when my eyes fell on the clock in the square I saw my friend at its foot.
He called me over with a wave of his hand, so I headed my bike in his direction. In view of my condition, he suggested that, in order to make my quest easier, I leave my bicycle with him. I followed his suggestion--and my hunger and my search grew even more intense, until I happened upon a family eatery.
Propelled by the need for food and by despair, I approached it, though I knew how expensive it was. I saw the owner standing at the entrance before a hanging curtain. What could I do but to throw it open--only to find the place changed into a ruin filled with refuse in place of its grand hall readied with culinary delights. Dismayed, I asked the man, "What's going on?"
"Hurry over to the kabab-seller of youth," he answered. "Maybe you can catch him before he shuts down."
Not wasting any time, I ran back to the clock in the square--but found neither the bicycle there, nor my friend.
We entered the apartment, the girl in the lead and I right behind her, while the doorman carried our bags. The girl and I had a firm relationship--though it was somehow undefined. We had begun to arrange our things when I sauntered onto the balcony overlooking the sea, and became lost in its vague horizons, intoxicated by its broken roar and its humid breeze.
Suddenly a scream issued from inside the flat. I scurried toward it to find the girl convulsed in terror as flames licked through the top of the doorway. Before I could recover from the shock, a man with features so hard they seemed cut from stone came in and--with a wave of his hand--put out the fire.
"Maybe the water service here will be cut off for a while," he said, turning toward us--then went away.
My mind now at rest, I left my room for the supermarket to buy some needed things. Coming back, I discovered the apartment door open with the doorman standing around. I went into the flat, feeling anxious, and found it was bare but for a fat package of clothes tossed onto the floor. An arm from a pair of pyjamas stuck out through a hole in its wrapping. There was no trace of the girl.
"What's happened?" I wondered.
"You must have gotten mixed up, sir, on your way here--this is not your apartment," the doorman replied.
Staring at the protruding arm, I said, "Those pyjamas are mine!"
He replied calmly, "You'll find thousands like them in the shops."
I began to accept that I'd erred, especially in recalling that there were three buildings in a row that resembled each other here. Quickly I raced down the stairway to the street--and saw the girl walking through its emptiness toward the square jammed with people and with cars. I ran to catch up with her before she melted into the crowd.
At the center of the boat's deck was a mast. A man was bound to it by a rope that wrapped around him from his upper torso to his lower legs. He twisted his head violently both right and left, crying out from his wounded depths, "When will this torture end?"
Three of us looked toward him with sympathy, exchanging confused glances with each other. A voice asked him, "Who's doing this to you?"
The tormented man replied, as his head continued to thrash from side to side, "I'm the one doing it."
"This is the punishment I deserve."
"For what offence?"
"Ignorance," he said, sighing with anger.
"We knew you as one who had a dream, as well as experience," I answered him. "We did not know that rage lies latent in every person."
"You were also ignorant of the fact," he batted back, his voice rising, "that no human being can be stripped of all nobility, no matter how wretched their condition!"
At this, we were conquered by sadness and silence.
A huge, spacious hall, completely empty but with many doors. The three of us were standing in a hidden corner. My two friends strutted about like dandies, even wearing neckties, while I made do with a Moroccan jellaba--yet, thanks to our closeness as friends, I felt no embarrassment.
I heard a movement, and looked to see a man who came from I don't know where dressed in formal attire, suggesting that he was some sort of master of ceremonies. I wrapped my jellaba around myself and said to my two friends, "I'm afraid there's a party going on here!"
They replied, one after the other: "I don't think so."
"That's not important."
I became aware of another movement and when I looked I saw two men similar to the first joining him. At this point, all doubt vanished and I bolted to the nearest door. When I opened it, it was as if I found myself facing a barrier formed by the wall of the reception hall. I repeated this with every door, but all my attempts were frustrated like the first. So I went back to my two friends, insinuated myself between them, and hid myself there.
I was somewhat reassured, however, that the three men took no notice of us at all.
I watched the movements around us as the invitees poured in from every direction.
The place kept filling up without any of them even looking at us, for all had their eyes focused on one place. I felt compelled to do as they were doing, when suddenly a magnificent person with the look of a leader appeared, as the din of applause grew louder. Each time the man advanced a step, the clapping grew stronger. Yet, at the same time, they warned him against going toward the door that it appeared he was heading for. So I said to my two companions, "He'll open it to find the doorway blocked, with no escape."
Amid the growing cheers and the continued warnings, the man opened the door, then disappeared from view as he ducked inside.
I am walking aimlessly without anywhere in particular to go when suddenly I encounter a surprising event that had never before entered my mind--every step I take turns the street upside-down into a circus. The walls and buildings and cars and passersby all disappear, and in their place a big top arises with its tiered seats and long, hanging ropes, filled with trapezes and animal cages, with actors and acrobats and musclemen and even a clown. At first I am so happy that I could soar with joy. But as I move from street to street where the miracle is repeated over and over, my pleasure subsides and my irritation grows until I tire from the walking and the looking around, and I long in my soul to go back to my home. But just as I delight once again to see the familiar face of the world, and trust that soon my relief will arrive, I open the door--and find the clown there to greet me, giggling.
The telephone rang and the voice at the other end said, "Shaykh Muharram, your teacher, speaking."
I answered politely with a reverent air, "My mentor is most welcome."
"I'm coming to visit you," he said.
"Looking forward to receiving you," I replied.
I felt not the slightest astonishment--though I had walked in his funeral procession some sixty years before. A host of indelible memories came back to me about my old instructor. I remembered his handsome face and his elegant clothes--and the extremely harsh way he treated his pupils. The shaykh showed up with his lustrous jubba and caftan, and his spiraling turban, saying without prologue, "Over there, I have dwelt with many reciters of ancient verse, as well as experts on religion. After talking with them, I realized that some of the lessons I used to give you were in need of correction. I have written the corrections on this paper I have brought you."
Having said this, he laid a folder on the table, and left.
What a stupendous square, crammed with people and cars! I stood on the station's sidewalk, waiting for the arrival of Tram Number 3. It was nearly sunset. I wanted to go home, even though no one waited for me there.
Evening fell, the darkness blotting the lights of the widely spaced lamps, and loneliness seized me. I wondered what was holding up Tram Number 3? All the other trams came in, each carrying away those who had been waiting for it--yet I had no idea what had happened to Tram Number 3. Movement in the square diminished as traffic slowly ground to a halt, until I was left nearly alone in the station. I glanced around and noticed to my left a girl who looked like a daughter of the night. My sense of isolation and despair only increased when she asked me, "Isn't this the stop for Tram Number 3?"
I answered that it was, and thought of leaving the place--when Tram Number 3 quietly pulled into the station. The only people aboard were the driver and the ticket conductor. Something inside me told me not to get on--so I turned my back to it, staying that way until the tram had gone.
Looking about afterward, I saw the girl standing there. When she felt my eye upon her, she smiled and walked toward the nearest alley--and I followed her in train.
Approaching my flat, I found that both panels of the front door were open. This was most unusual. From inside came loud noises and echoes of people talking.
My heart pounded in expectation of some evil, when I saw my dear ones smiling sympathetically. Yet just as I became fully aware of everything, the apartment was cleared of its contents, the furniture heaped at one end inside. At the same time, workmen of all different ages--wall painters, mortar mixers, and water carriers--bustled about. And so the plot had been carried out during my absence, while my question was lost in the air. . . . Was this coup deliberately executed when I was in such a state of complete exhaustion?
"Who told you to do this?" I shouted at the workmen. But they kept on doing their jobs without paying me any mind. Overwhelmed by anger, I stepped out of the flat--feeling that I would never go back into it as long as I lived. At the building's entrance I saw my mother coming, long after she had left this world. She seemed furious and indignant. "You're the cause of all this!" she said to me.
"No--you're the cause of what's happened here, and of the things to come!" I shot back.
Then quickly she vanished, and I continued my flight.
On the couch in the little garden attached to the house my sister sat staring contemplatively at a frog swimming in the canal that flowed through the greenery. As she did so, she grew intoxicated on the tender breeze and the clusters of grapes dangling from the trellis.
"What are you waiting for?" I asked my sister.
Before she could answer, I said, "It's better to sit inside where we can listen to the phonograph." We exchanged consulting looks, then went into the room. There the silence became more intense until even the breeze abandoned us.
I looked at my sister--and she had turned into the screen star Greta Garbo. She was my favorite actress, so I soared with happiness, though without any wings.
I trembled with pleasure, yet the enchantment was brief. I wanted to bring the miraculous magic back once again--but my sister refused to help. I asked her why she had said no.
"My mother . . ." she replied.
I cut her off before she could finish.
"She doesn't know," I told her.
"She knows everything," she declared confidently.
I felt that sadness had blanketed everything, like a sudden fog.
Our friendship and our growing up together have brought us all here. We have grown used to this alley, and, as the coattails of night come down upon us, we have no goal but to delight in our gathering and surrender to jesting and laughter, and to compete in the art of telling rhyming jokes to each other.
We trade our witty wisecracks as we turn little by little into ghosts in the gloom. We know each other by our voices, and do not pause in savoring our amusing competition. Our guffawing goes up against the four walls around us, waking those who are sleeping. The alley recedes as we draw closer to one another, while the darkness engulfing us fails to dissolve. As all of this happens, we continue as we were until confusion cramps our gaiety, and we begin to wonder if we might best finish our evening elsewhere--perhaps on a square, or on a main road.
One of us tells the story of the pharaonic queen who wanted to take revenge on the priests who had killed her husband. She invited them to a place very much like the one in which we are now rejoicing--then the waters overcame them. He has not quite finished his tale when the heavens open upon us with unprecedented force. The thunder stills us as the water pours down, rising until it covers our feet and creeps up our calves, and we feel that we are drowning in the rain in the shadow of night. We forget all of our jokes and all of our laughter.
In the end, there is no hope left for us--unless we fly into space.
Excerpted from The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz. Copyright © 2009 by Naguib Mahfouz. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy and an avid reader, his works range from reimaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Over a career that lasted more than five decades, he wrote 33 novels, 13 short story anthologies, numerous plays, and 30 screenplays. Of his many works, most famous is The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1952. In 1988, he became the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in August 2006.