By Naguib Mahfouz
New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1993, from 1966 original. 167 pages. ISBN: 0-385-42333-0

Comments of Bob Corbett, August 2000.

In 1983 I was a guest of my Arabian Gulf Arab students for a visit to several countries of the Arabian Gulf. While in Kuwait one evening the brother of my host took me to large outdoor space enclosed by huge walls. It was just like a large lot; dirt floor, little grass and a number of very long picnic tables, spread apart from one another. There were no women there, but quite a few young men, perhaps a hundred. The primary activity seemed to be smoking from a water pipe which was set up on each table.

I have no idea what was in the water pipe. My host assumed I wouldn't want any, and he picked up some pepsis for me on the way there since nothing like beer or wine was sold in the country. Everyone seemed to get quite high and giggly, and I always wondered what was in the pipe.

The water pipe is in many ways the central character of Mahfouz's novel of meaninglessness and absurdity. A half dozen or so people gather nearly every night on the houseboat of Anis Zaki. He boat is on the Nile in Cairo in the early 1960s. Each evening his servant lights the water pipe and people drift in and out (in more ways that one!), and the water pipe is constantly passed around. Almost all of them work in the day at what they called "serious" jobs, meaning rather typical jobs in the culture. However, philosophically all are commited to meanlessness and absurdity, very much in the sense of the French Existentialists who have influced them, especially Albert Camus' THE STRANGER means anything and nothing is worth any effort, thus the escape of getting high with the water pipe and being in community with others is simply what they do. Their "serious" life is forced upon them by the necessity of earning enough money to pay for the daily needs of living.

They are joined in this rather dull life by Samara Bahgat, a journalist and self-declared "serious" person who is convinced that the life of meaninglessness and absurdity is itself the most absurd thing of all.

The bulk of the novel deals with her assault on their world of absurdity and their resistance to her world of seriousness.

Mahfouz presents us with a fascinating account of a communal life of the absurd and meaninglessness, and of all the lines of attack on that world that the character of Samara Bahgat can muster. It is a fascinating philosophical journey in which an intellectually appealing but emotionally vacuous version of the absurd is presented, investigated and lived. The book reads much more like a philosophical treatment of the topic than it reads like a typical ("serious"?) novel.

However Mahfouz feels compelled to bring the action, if one may call it that, to a conclusion and the last 40 pages of the book takes us away from Anis' houseboat and into the world for a confrontation and ending of sorts. I wasn't really too sure how it all came out from a philosophical perspective!

The book, originally published in 1966 when a revival of Existentialist thought was popular, is a fascinating read and like Jean-Paul Sartre's novel NAUSEA, deals much more with the psychological sense of coming to FEEL and LIVE meaninglessness and the absurd than with the intellectual of philosophical sense of understanding it. Actually I think it turns out to be a much more useful presentation of the Existentialist sense of absurdity than Sartre's treatment in his novel, which I had always thought was the best treatment of the topic in Existentialist literature.

This is my second Mahfouz novel, the first being MIDAQ ALLEY. He is a wonderful writer and I plan to soon read more of his novels. I was delighted to discover than I have two more of his books on my shelves awaiting my attention.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett