Wednesday, 27 January 2010


My first glimpse of the genius of Naguib Mahfouz's literature was a short story that he wrote as a young man - and I read in my late teens. I have not traced the story since then; I don't know its title.

Two dirt-poor pavement vendors sell their wares at a remote train station out in the Egyptian countryside in the 1940s. They are around 16; a boy and a girl. The boy has the hots for the girl, but she is not responsive. One day, a train full of World War II Italian POWs stops at the station. Both boy and girl are sat on the platform floor, selling. The Italian prisoners extend their arms out of the train windows, gesturing for cigarettes. But the vendors know the POWs have no money so there is no point in selling to them.

Then, a soldier offers his shirt to the boy, for a pack. The boy starts bartering ciggies for parts of uniform. He makes a roaring trade: belt, shoes, beret, etc. As soon as he gets something he puts it on to impress the girl; and she loves it, she laughs at his antics and is very amused. The British train guardsmen notice the commotion. They mistake the boy for an escaping Italian POW. They shout at him to get back on. The boy doesn't get it, he continues doing tricks for his girl, dressed in full Italian uniform. The guardsmen shoot him dead.

I have always taken the story as an excellent example of how to surprise the reader in about two pages. I also took it to indicate Mahfouz's abiding interest in chronicling the lives of the not so important in Egypt.

But it has now struck me that the story works at a more symbolic level. Mahfouz, after all, has a reputation for deft symbolism.

The train station with the dirt-poor vendors represents Egypt. The train that stops at the station for a rest, only to carry on, represents the foreign occupier, using the facility, on his way to other things. The boy's mingling with the Italians represents how dealing with the outsiders is fraught with danger: wearing other people's clothes costs you your life.

Naturally, the story is consistent with the concerns of the 20th-century Egyptian elite; they felt deeply unhappy with the uninvited presence of the British. It also captures how Egypt was, during WWII, a battleground for two foreign armies: the British and the Germans (not Italians).

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Anonymous said...

I am a fan of mahfouz but i do recommend Youssef Idris when it comes to short stories...I am a blogger too btw...feel free to check my blog

keep writing...your train of thought is beautiful

Ahmed said...

I noticed your blog a year or two ago, Strawberry, and I liked it. But you don't write regularly. So, same to you: keep writing. :-)

Youssef Idris is a very interesting writer, I agree.

What do you think of Aswany's short stories collection ("Niraan sadeeqa")?

Anonymous said...

i try....for some reason it has become easier for me to write notes on FaceBook

as for Niran Sadeeqa, it was nice but I have read better, to be honest, I am not a huge fan of him, he does not blow my mind away like people say he does to them.

maybe it is me, maybe it is him.

We will never know.

here is my email address for further talks ;-)