Friday, March 5, 2010

47. "Miramar" by Nagib Mahfuz [English version]

Year of first publication: 1967
Genre: novel
Country: Egypt

Naguib Mahfouz (or Nagib Mahfuz, according to the transliteration), Nobel Prize for Literature 1988, is not only one of the greatest Arabic-language writers, but also one of the greatest African writers. In spite of this, at least in Italy he is little known and few people – better to say very few people - read him.
Miramar is set in the 1960s in Alexandria, Egypt: the novel starts from the point of view of ‘Amer Wagdi, a retired journalist, who arrives at a boarding house called Miramar, managed by one of his old acquaintances, Mariana. The boarding house was once a fashionable place where classy people used to meet. Mariana was beautiful and haughty too. The situation of the guesthouse and its owner reflects that of the ancient and once marvellous city of Alexandria, that has always been an inspiration for poets.
One day a girl called Zahra comes to the guesthouse in order to ask for shelter and work. She is the daughter of an old client and she’s very beautiful, despite the fact that she is a peasant without an education. What soon follows is an affectionate friendship between ‘Amer Wagdi and Zahra, who escaped from her village after her grandfather tried to marry her off to a much older man. In town Zahra receives several marriage proposals, from young men staying at the guesthouse and even from the newsagent. The rest of the novel is told by Zahra’s three “suitors”: Hosni ‘Allam, Mansur Bahi and Sarhan al-Buheiri. The three of them fall in love with the girl, with different nuances. The chauvinism of Egyptian society is perceived, but also the independence and the obstinacy of its women is evident.
The story that struck me as the most interesting is that of Sarhan al-Buheiri, who has a relationship with a girl named Safiyya, a “good for nothing”, but doesn’t want to marry her or anyone else. He falls in love with Zahra instantly and says that he really loves her, but he doesn’t consider her suitable for marriage, because she doesn’t have an education or a job that can prospect a rise in society. He thinks a lot about that and ends up offering her a traditional Islamic marriage, without witnesses. Sarhan claims that love and marriage are two separate things and as a matter of fact ends up marrying ‘Aliyya, the teacher Zahra had hired to have some education, in the hope of being accepted by Sarhan.
Miramar tells the same story four times, from four different points of view. But the most fascinating thing is that the whole story is a metaphor: Zahra represents modern Egypt, honest and hard-working but without an education. Zahra – and Egypt – are influenced by several forces: Europeans, nationalists, the rich upper-class and the Muslim Brotherhood, but in the end she demonstrates her independence and obstinacy. Miramar is also a detective novel, albeit rather unusual, because there is a mystery which is not solved until the end of the book.

About the author:
Nagib Mahfuz (1911-2006) was born in Cairo into a middle class family. He graduated in philosophy from Cairo university and wrote more than 50 novels, many of which has been adapted for the silver screen. His first novels can de described as historical, but his interests became more sociologic, with a series of novels entitled like streets and buildings of Cairo and therefore called “Cairo trilogy”: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. Disillusioned by Nasser regime, he stopped writing for a few years and then came back with Chichat on the Nile (1966), which criticized the decadence of Egyptian society and was banned by Sadat. Children of Gebelawi (1959), one of his most famous books, was banned for alleged blasphemy for the allegorical portrayal of God and the monotheistic religions. Like many other Arab intellectuals, he has been on the death list of fundamentalists (he was also suspected of atheism, reason for which he was transferred from the Minister of Religion to that of Culture). Mahfouz, who firmly believed in freedom of opinion, defended Salman Rushdie, against whom ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, even though he didn’t agree with Rushdie on his view of Islam. Some of the old polemics against his book Children of Gibelawi resurfaced and he was put under protection, like Rushdie. This was not enough and he was stubbed, leaving him with a permanent lesion on his right hand. Unable to write for more than a few minutes per day, Mahfouz wrote less and less, until his death in 2006. He is one the greatest Arabic-language writers and the first among them to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


  1. Thanks a lot for that! I'm studying Comparative Literature, and my courses are on Arabic Lit, and South Asian Lit, so the more information I get on either the better!
    By the way, just to clarify, a traditional Islamic marriage must include witnesses.

    Again, thank you for the translation :)

  2. That's exactly what Sarhan says, that he's going to marry her with a traditional Islamic marriage right on the spot. When Zahra asks "without witnesses" he answers "yes, God is our witness". So I guess that he was trying to trick her!

    PS: Tell me more about your courses. What books are yo going to read?

  3. thanks for the translation. I love your take on this. I haven't read this book before but I have one of two of his books on my top 100 books to be read. Writers are supposed to be the linguists and the voice of society. i just don't understand why people should hate them. then it would be better if they hate society itself because they only portray society. Besides, aren't we entitled to our views? If i write a book against you, you have the right to write one against me, don't you?

  4. @Nana: I agree with you, writers should be able to write what they think no matter what. Unfortunately, in many societies this is not possible.

    By the way, I've heard that there is a movie about this book and many other works by Mahfuz. I'm going to try and find out some of them on the web, so I'll get a better idea of Mahfuz!

  5. I'm reading Shame by Salman Rushdie at the moment, going to do a presentation on that tomorrow!
    For Arabic there's Season of Migration to the North by Tayyib Saleh, which I was supposed to read this week but didn't get the time to, but after the discussion we had about it in class I'm definitely going to check it out. It's compared with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

  6. @Abs: I haven't read that particular book by Rushdie but people are telling me that it is quite good (albeit it could never compete with his masterpiece, "Midnight's Children"). "Season of Migration to the North" has been on my reading list for a while now, but I haven't found it in bookstores and every time I shop on the web I end up buying a different book! :-D
    Let me know what you think on both books, I'm curious!

  7. Hey beautiful people .. anyone knows where I can get a PDF version of this book with a good price or free ?