Early Pharaonic Tales of Naguib Mahfouz - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Early Pharaonic Tales of Naguib Mahfouz January 28, 2003
by Mark Rose

Egypt's foremost author explores human nature in ancient settings on the Nile.

Reading this collection of five short works was my introduction to the writings of Naguib Mahfouz. Born in the old Islamic quarter of Cairo on December 10, 1911, Mahfouz is best known for "The Cairo Trilogy." Its three volumes--Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street--appeared in 1956-1957 and follow a Cairo family over three generations. He has published nearly 40 novels and hundreds of short works; his writings have been translated into 28 languages. In 1988, Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The stories in Voices from the Other World are newly translated by Raymond Stock, a friend of Mahfouz, the author's biographer, and a doctoral student in Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania. (Click here for our interview with Stock.) Originally published in journals from 1936 to 1945, the stories belong to Mahfouz's early works. His first novel appeared in 1939, and after 1945 he turned away from pharaonic themes for some four decades.

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Voices from the Other World: Ancient Egyptian Tales
by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Raymond Stock
American University in Cairo Press, 2002
96 pp., $16.95

"Evil Adored" (1936) recalls other stories based on the premise of an outsider standing an established society on its head or undermining conventional beliefs, like Mark Twain's The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. Here, a Predynastic Mahatma Gandhi successfully establishes an ideal society, putting the reigning hierarchy out of work.

"King Userkaf's Forgiveness" (1938) is a brilliant examination of loyalty and the value of forgiveness as opposed to retribution. The main character is Userkaf, a great-grandson of the pharaoh Khufu. The first 5th Dynasty pharaoh, Userkaf ruled from 2471 to 2464 B.C., but we know little of him and the story is not in that sense an historical work. It does have striking parallels with The Odyssey. Userkaf leaves his kingdom for an extended period to test the loyalty of his courtiers, son, and queen; Odysseus is taken away by war, testing the loyalty of the young noblemen (who become suitors), son, and wife. On his return, Userkaf is greeted without reservation only by his dog, Zay; the faithful dog Argos likewise recognizes Odysseus. In the story's resolution, the similarity ends: rather than slaughter his disloyal courtiers as Odysseus does the suitors, Userkaf forgives them, his son, and his wife (though she, expecting retribution, takes her own life). In his introduction, Stock suggests a Middle Kingdom poem in which an assassinated pharaoh appears to his son in a dream, warning him to trust no one, may underlie Mahfouz's characterization of Userkaf.

"The Mummy Awakens" (1939) has all the trappings of a mummy story, complete with the obligatory disclaimer that prefaces many tales of the supernatural: "I am deeply embarrassed to tell this tale--for some of its events violate the laws of reason and of nature altogether. If this were merely fiction, then it would not cause me to feel such embarrassment. Yet it happened in the realm of reality...." It isn't just any mummy who wakes, it is General Hor, likely based on the last 18th Dynasty ruler Horemheb (1328-1298 B.C.), as Stock notes. Other pharaohs have been brought to life in fiction, but Hor isn't like the lumbering, enigmatic but ultimately benevolent Khufu in Jane Loudon's The Mummy (1827), or the urbane revivified royalty hobnobbing late one night in the Cairo Museum in H. Rider Haggard's "Smith and the Pharaohs" (1921). General Hor is not a happy camper.

"The Return of Sinuhe" (1941) is Mahfouz's retelling of a 12th Dynasty (1994-1781 B.C.) story in which Sinuhe, campaigning with the army west of the Delta hears of the pharaoh's death and flees to Syria. He prospers there, raising a family, but ultimately wishes to return to Egypt. This story has been translated several times, by the great turn-of-the-century Egyptologist W.M. Flinders Petrie among others (Egyptian Tales, first series, 1895). We do not have the complete ancient text, and there are important gaps in the story, as Petrie says: "But the great difficulty in the account has been the sudden panic of Sanehat [Sinuhe] on hearing of the death of Amenemhat, and no explanation of this has yet been brought forward. It seems not unlikely that he was a son of Amenemhat by some concubine. This would at once account for his high titles--for his belonging to the royal household--for his fear of his elder brother Usertesen, who might see in him a rival, and try to slay him after his father's death...." Mahfouz suggests another reason--love.

"A Voice from the Other World" (1945) flips the usual story of a mummy coming to life--like Count Allamistakeo in Edgar Allan Poe's burlesque "Some Words with a Mummy"--and gives a first-person account of becoming a mummy and transitioning from this world to the next. As noted by Stock, Mahfouz bases his character, Taw-ty, on Pentaweret, who was once thought to have composed the account of Ramesses II's victory over the Hittites at Kadesh at the temple of Luxor. The mummification process is described in detail by Taw-ty as he looks on. Stock points out in his introduction that Mahfouz's employment of this "out-of-body" perspective is decades earlier than its common use in the 1970s and 1980s. A few aspects of the mummification process are better understood today than when Mahfouz wrote this piece, so Taw-ty's body is pickled in a solution rather than being stuffed with natron to dry it out, but this in no way effects the story.

The pharaonic setting of these tales is enhanced by Mahfouz's straightforward writing and the viewpoint of his protagonists, which sometimes borders on naive or wondering. "Pharaoh Userkaf was among the most magnificent monarchs of the Fifth Dynasty, who ruled Egypt by blending justice with mercy, firmness with sagacity, and force with affection." "My soul was eager to go out into the world, and so I did," recalls the deceased Taw-ty. Most of these enjoyable tales are both stories and explorations of human nature. The one exception is "The Mummy Awakens" with an overt political message set in a satire on the mummy genre.

* See also "Naguib Mahfouz and Pharaonic Fiction," our interview with Raymond Stock.

Stock deserves real praise for translating these stories and bringing them to a wide audience. His concise introduction and glossary are helpful, and, if anything, could have been expanded. Those who are hooked by these five tales can take hope in the fact that Mahfouz has also written four pharaonic novels. Currently only Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth (1985, published in translation in 1998) is available in English. Dominic Montserrat of the University of Warwick wrote of it, "Mahfouz makes it clear that Akhenaten's way is not the way ahead, however, and Horemheb is the real hero of the novel, the restorer of order from chaos. Mahfouz certainly seems to be drawing political parallels, with Akhenaten as Sadat and Horemheb as President Hosni Mubarak.... But Mahfouz also comments on the larger question of which parts of Egypt's pharaonic heritage are worth retaining in a society which increasingly defines itself in terms of Islamic values" (Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt, 2000). Published in Arabic between 1939 and 1944, Mahfouz's three earlier pharaonic novels--Khufu's Wisdom (The Mockery of the Fates), Rhadopis, and Thebes at War--are now being translated and will be brought out by AUC Press this fall.

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Illustrations from W. M. Flinders Petrie's Egyptian Tales (1895) show Sinuhe fleeing on hearing of the pharaoh's death, meeting the herding people with whom he would live, and finally being welcomed back in Egypt. When Flinders Petrie published these, he was going out on a limb and tried to head off criticism with the following explanation: "To some purely scholastic minds it may seem presumptuous to intermingle translations of notable documents with fanciful illustrations. But, considering the greater precision with which in recent years we have been able to learn the changes and the fashions in ancient life in Egypt, and the essentially unhistorical nature of most of these tales, there seems ample reason to provide such material for the reader's imagination in following such stories; it may give them more life and reality, and may emphasise the differences which existed between the different periods to which these tales refer." Having defended the idea of using illustrations at all, Flinders Petrie then stood behind these in particular: "For the illustrations Mr. Tristram Ellis's familiarity with Egypt has been of good account in his life-like scenes here used. For each drawing I have searched for the material among the monuments and remains of the age in question. The details of the dresses, the architecture, and the utensils, are all in accord with the period of each tale."

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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