Naguib Mahfouz; the Common Man's Hero

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Cody Kenyon
Naguib Mahfouz the Common Man’s Hero
Naguib Mahfouz born 1911 has become one of the Arab world’s most famous and revered authors. Born in Egypt, his country would become the setting of nearly all his works, however his intricate descriptions of the common man and women would give them a universal appeal. Living through periods of great political and economic upheaval in modern Egyptian history, his stories would often address the strife and turmoil that resulted from these periods. In order to avoid the censorship of the powers that he was often critiquing he would hide his messages in metaphors and allegories. Often spinning an intricate story of an average person any reader could relate to and giving them a challenge to overcome, though not always allowing them to succeed. However the protagonist is really Egyptian society as a whole trying to overcome the social and political challenges facing it, and similarly not always succeeding. In order to further discuss this I will draw from two of Mahfouz’s short stories; Half a Day and The Norwegian Rat. I choose these stories specifically as they are the most assessable in trying to understand Mahfouz’s style of using metaphor and allegory to discuss the social and political problems facing Egyptian society during his time.

In Mahfouz’s “Half a Day” the author describes a child’s first day of school. The story begins with the boy’s father walking him to class. The father having to comfort the sacred and nervous child, but once in school the boy discovers new friends and enjoyment in playing and learning. It is not all enjoyable though, the strictness of those in charge and their unbending attitudes cause pain if you cross them. The story finally comes to an end with the boy leaving at the end of the day. On his walk home he notices first differences in his neighborhood and then how he himself has aged, and slowly the realization that time has completely passed him by. However the episode described is an allegory for how the masses are shaped and controlled by society and those ruling in particular. Once we turn of age we are taken and told by those in power what to do, who to marry, and what to believe leaving no chance for free will. The father even describes school to the boy as, “(A) Factory that makes useful men out of boys” (pg. 55). Describing the school as a factory implies that the boy will become the man the teachers, or the ruling powers, want him to be not the one he wishes to become. At the beginning of the day the teachers, those leading and ruling society, explain, “Here too there are mothers and fathers. Here there is everything that is enjoyable and beneficial to knowledge and religion” (pg. 56). Telling the students that all they need to know is found within this school. The child finds latter that those who speak up or change their minds will be met with physical punishment from the teacher. The clearest example of the allegory comes in the last two sentences describing the school day, “Nothing lay ahead of us but exertion, struggle, and perseverance. Those who were able took advantage of the opportunities for success and happiness that presented themselves amid the worries” (pg.57). This could just as easily be used to describe Egyptian life during Mahfouz’s time, living under an oppressive government. Life being a constant rat race to provide for yourself and your family, constantly afraid of being swept aside. Though there is only a tiny chance of reaching the top you still take opportunities and advantages where you can. This often brings you into conflict with others like you, leading to rivalries and fighting. This constant chaos of trying to persevere and make ends meet, gain advantage over rivals and competitors, and avoid the punishment of the “teacher” takes up all of one’s thoughts and abilities. Until finally realization comes that time has passed you by and you haven’t really lived life but spent it competing in a game you could...
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