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.
Factory that makes useful men out of boys” (pg. 5). 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 never win.
This description of being forced into a life of competition and chaos by those ruling Egyptian society at the time would have most likely brought immediate censorship on Mahfouz’s story and possibly punishment from the “teacher” upon him. That is why Mahfouz hides his message in the description of a child’s first day at school. This is brilliant as it is a topic so easily accessible. Almost all the people who would be able to read Mahfouz’s story would have had to gone to school to learn to read in the first place so it is fairly universal in its ability to relate to people.
Once more many people can easily remember the dread of first going to school and meeting people who would soon become your friends. The excitement of learning new things and playing with new friends is something we’ve all experienced. However what appears to be a simple story of a first day at school takes on a new meaning when one focuses on Mahfouz’s subtle hints. Describing school as a factory that produces men also few people would describe school, especially elementary, as “exertion, struggle, and perseverance” (pg. 57) against ones classmates.
The main warning comes at the end, after realizing that time has seemingly passed by him the boy, now man, looks upon a scene of chaos in his old neighborhood. He observes a fight between a taxi driver and his occupant, an immovable traffic jam, a fire truck seemingly unable to reach its fire, and many other frantic people coming and going. This provides a stark contradiction to the description of a picturesque neighborhood at the beginning of the story. Mahfouz, speaking out against the chaos and competition of modern society allows the man to state while watching the fire truck, “Let the fire take its pleasure in what it consumes.
As if remarking, let this modern society burn what good is it if we cannot even appreciate and enjoy the time we have? The first story, “Half a Day”, dealt with the problems many Egyptians faced as a result of living in a society that stressed personal gain and competition. Though the ruling party of society might be part of the problem, enforcing and encouraging this system, they were not the whole of it. This next story, “The Norwegian Rat”, is a critique of the ruling party and warning against allowing the government to control you through fear.
The story is set as Cairo is being infested by Norwegian rats which are bigger, meaner, and more dangerous than normal rats. The setting is an apartment building whose tenants are trying to keep the building free of rats. As time goes by the residents find they have to give up more and more, whether it be money, time, or liberties, in order to keep the building free of a pest that none of them has actually seen. The story ends with a government inspector coming to assess the apartment’s defenses. However upon offering the bureaucrat a meal some of the tenants notice he takes on the appearance of a Norwegian rat.
Here Mahfouz is warning against allowing the government to control its population by promoting the fear of an invented or unrealistic enemy. In the story Mr. A. M. , a government minister living in the building, convinces the tenants that the only way to combat these rats is to follow the instructions of the government, “…Carry out instructions meticulously, both those that come directly through me and those that come by way of authorities” (pg. 127). Later when the tenants complain of the strain on their nerves it causes Mr. A. M. angrily asserts that they are in war and a tate of emergency, forcibly implying there is no room for argument or discussion.
Another mechanism the government uses is to promote fear by propagandizing the rats, not only their size and abilities but allowing rumors to abound that they can destroy entire villages and convincing the tenants of an eminent attack. They then contrast this by assuring the tenants that the government is with them and also taking extra burdens to keep the people safe. The narrator, a tenant, describes the feelings of the tenants after the second meeting, “…We told ourselves that we were truly not alone in battle.
Gratitude welled up in us for… and our revered Governor” (pg. 129). This keeps the blame and anger off the government which is implementing and enforcing these policies, and places it on the rats. Propagating the belief among the tenants that the government is doing what it has to do for their own safety, initially at least. Mahfouz also gives a hint at what likely things people will have to give up and lose in order to feel protected by their government. After every meeting the tenants are asked to sacrifice more and more. In the story it’s the direct cost of defenses, paying for and feeding cats.
The indirect costs the time spent defending and losing chickens, cats, possibly even human lives by leaving poison out. The last cost is comfort, having to seal all windows and doors and leaving them constantly shut. In the real world these can translate to extra taxes or war bonds to fund the defenses. The indirect consequences both economically and non-economically in having to take time from your life in order to combat the threat. And lastly the sacrifice of personal civil liberties in the name of defense and safety. Here Mahfouz is able to escape censorship by making his story so ridiculous.
A city ever taking these kinds of measures to defend against rats in unbelievable, as is a rat that can destroy cities. Buying rat traps or keeping your apartment sealed off hardly seems like major sacrifices. However these things are metaphors of actual possibilities and real sacrifices. By keeping it silly Mahfouz is able to present the tale as a humorous story, requiring you to read deeper in order to understand the real message. In the very end this message comes out when the bureaucrat takes on the form of a Norwegian rat.
Allowing the tenants to realize the enemy is ot some foreign invader but actually the very people who are propagating the fear of attack. Mahfouz is well known for his sympathetic portrayals of the common man and women and the struggles they often go through in society. These stories came in to form of a critique against society in general, as in “Half a Day,” or as a warning against an oppressive government, “The Norwegian Rat. ” What is truly amazing is that he would often be able to address these critiques and warnings to the Egyptian people, by using a style reliant on metaphors and allegory, without censorship from the powers above.
Truly Mahfouz’s insights were helpful and needed for a society that was going through the great upheaval of modernization. However even today they carry relevance, as Egypt is going through a similar upheaval and realignment of society it would be wise for Egyptians to take another look Mahfouz. It would be wise to use his stories, and their critiques and messages, as a guide to evaluate current decisions and to keep from repeating the same mistakes.