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By Naguib Mahfouz
New York: Doubleday, 1995
ISBN: 0-385-26478-X 181 pages

Bob Corbett
Julyu 2016

Bob Corbett
July 2016

I have read and enjoyed several of Naguib Mahfouz’s works, and this is no exception. However, while a good read, this novel didn’t seem to me quite up to the level of a few of the others I have read. I would have wished for a bit more clarity about exactly when this took place in the 60s, as well as having more details of the backgrounds of the two older men at the Miramar. Nonetheless, I did find it worth the read and it has motivated me to see what other Mahfouz novels are out there that I haven’t yet read.

Mahfouz brings these people to life and makes them quite believable despite how strange some of them are. I did very much enjoy the variety and differences in these characters and the way in which each plays his or her part in the tale. It is quite well written.

The novel is set in the Pension Miramar in Alexandria. It is the late 1960s and Egypt has had a revolution and new ideas and people are in power. Amer Bay, the oldest of the guests is in his 80s and once again has returned to the Pension to live out his days. He had known the owner Mariana in the past and been close to her. She is about 65. Amer is a supporter of the new government and happy and hopeful concerning the attempts to build a new society. He had once been a well-known journalist and knows a great deal of recent political history.

Soon however Tolba Bey Marzug comes to live there too. He and Amer know each other but have been on opposites sides of the political positions for year, yet both of them are old, (though Tolba is more Mariana’s age than Amer’s) retired and living mainly with just memories. He is no longer really active in politics.

The woman who runs the Pension Miramar is well known to both old men. She is Mariana, about 65. She very much likes Amer and, while not agreeing with his politics, she can get along with Tolba, who is a defender of the previous regime.

Tolba Bey Marzug had been undersecretary of the Mortmain Endowments in the former regime of President Morsi and Tolba holds views that both Amer and Mariana dislike, but they believe that since he is old and retired he can do no harm.

While no exact time is given most of the action seems to take place after President Muhammad Naquib was deposed and Gamel Abdel Nasser has come to power.

Soon a young country girl, Zohra, comes to the pension to work as a maid. She is a quite beautiful and a hard-working young woman who has ambitions to become educated and to live her own life; she is, in this sense, part of the revolution going on in Egypt. In almost all ways she is the most progressive of all 7 major characters in the novel.

Three much younger men take residence in the remaining rooms of the pension. Sarhan al-Beheiry is a pro-government account of a textile mill. Mansour Bahy is a radio announcer and knows the journalistic work Amar Bay, and has great respect for Bay’s previous work. The third young man is Hosny Allam who is planning to start a new business and is a supporter of the recent revolution.

It isn’t long until Sarhan is flirting with Zohra, the maid, and the older folks at the pension are very worried for her, seeing her, rightfully, as quite vunerable and also very likeable. However, Sarhan really presses his case and the young country girl is falling for him. One day, however, Sarhan’s fiancé shows up and there is a great row and eventually not only does he go off with his fiancé, but Zohra is left fairly broken hearted. Along the way a local news dealer has also been flirting with Zohra, however, when she overheard his old-fashioned views of women and marriage she was horrified. She’s trying so hard to be a “new” woman in Egypt, even seeking, at her own expense, education.

Alas her naïve dreams of “landing” Sarhan fail, but the episode strongly emphasizes the new ways sweeping Egypt at the time.

The novel takes a major turn when Sarhan is murdered! The people at the Pension Miramar are all looking at one another wondering if any of them could possibly have been the murderer!

Hosney Allam, one of the three young men who recently came to the Pension Miramar was simply described as a young man with plans to start a business. However, the reader learns that this “business” is actually going to be some illegal affair and quite dangerous for him. He is a rich uneducated jerk who sees woman as nothing more than an amusement which he’s entitled to. He is very mean, selfish, spoiled and rich kid who may or may not have killed Sarhan, but he would hardly care!

Mansour Bahy is a fairly well known radio announcer and comes from a wealthy family and even has a better room than the others having a sea view. He often visits Doreya who had been his brother’s lover but he’s now dead. She’s a good deal lost and broken and she believes Bahy is deeply in love with her but neither of them are sure of the other.

The death of Sarhan becomes a major mystery. And no one seems to really know how he died, of who killed it. It remains a strange puzzle.

The novel is sort of a mix of a murder mystery and commentary on the politics in Egypt in the 1960s.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett