THE BLOG
07/16/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

How Naguib Mahfouz's Fiction Illuminates the Egyptian Revolution

The coup that toppled Egyptian President Morsi has inspired a slew of op-ed columns around the world attempting to make sense of the latest from Tahrir Square. Instant analysis, however, is an oxymoron. If only David Brooks, who lamented that Egyptians "lack even the basic mental ingredients" for democracy, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which hopes that the new government takes after Pinochet, knew that. Perhaps it would behoove these pundits to look beyond the literal truths of the situation, which can yield only so much insight (or stupidity). Experiential truth -- that is, fiction -- can remind us of the ambiguity of a situation and the subtlety that any critical take demands. In uncertain times, we ought to remember our novelists, and luckily for Egypt, the oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz can help illuminate the unrest in Cairo.

For Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, life after a revolution is necessarily cantankerous; while a polyphony of voices shouts for attention, none are heard to the extent they desire. That's at least the case in Miramar. In this 1967 novel, Mahfouz's characters grapple with the aftermath of a different revolution: the political and economic idealism of Gamal Abdel Nasser's policy of "Arab Socialism." Four of these characters, each representing a different ideology, come to stay at the eponymous Pension Miramar and narrate the same series of events from their respective points of view, Rashomon-style. They are Amer Wagdi, an octogenarian ex-journalist with sympathies for the Wafd Party; Hosny Allam, a young, wealthy nihilist cut off from his educated family; Mansour Bahy, a Marxist radio announcer prone to bouts of melancholy; and Sarhan al-Beheiry, a socialist, cynic, opportunist, and lothario.

Mahfouz characterizes this diverse political lot with texture absent from most contemporary news analyses: Following last week's coup, some networks have reduced the Egyptian political landscape to a clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and everyone else. But in the next presidential election (that is, should there be one), expect a Miramar-esque struggle among a number of fissiparous political parties. "Where once they were barely heard," the BBC wrote last year, "now some Egyptians are starting to complain of the cacophony of competing voices." The four narrators of Miramar predict a post-revolutionary descent into political dissensus, as they contradict, complicate, and interfere with each other's stories. But unlike some modern takes on the matter, their interactions reflect the Egyptian political sphere for its nuanced, imperfect self.

Back at the pension, the arrival of Zohra -- the attractive, nubile chambermaid who symbolizes an Egypt in flux and in search of direction -- creates rivalries between these four narrators and sets the plot into motion. It also signals Mahfouz's (ever-important) commentary on the status of women in the Egypt: Zohra is the novel's protagonist, and yet she is denied the opportunity to tell her own story. While Zohra receives both advice and abuse from these male narrators, we can only speculate about her thoughts and feelings, for her psyche is totally inaccessible. That Mahfouz instead provides the perspectives of four men to narrate the novel is a damning assessment of gender equality in Egypt in the '60s. Since then, Egyptian women have made strides, especially with regard to education, but the hundreds of sexual assaults reported in Tahrir Square in the past two weeks suggest that a much larger change in attitudes towards women is necessary for progress to continue. If Mahfouz wrote Miramar today, it's unclear whether Zohra would get a chance to tell her story even now.

The ouster of Morsi has by turns enthralled and infuriated many Egyptians, but ultimately promises nothing. If Egyptians are feeling exasperated by this latest political upheaval, they would do well to heed one of Miramar's last lines. Zohra, a stand-in for Egypt, has endured a torrid time at the pension, but Amer Wagdi tells her,

Remember that you haven't wasted your time here. If you've come to know what is not good for you, you may also think of it all as having been a sort of magical way of finding out what is truly good for you.