Adrift on the Nile

Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Frances Liardet. Anchor Books, 1994. 167 pages.

In much of his work, Egypt's leading novelist Naguib Mahfouz is preoccupied with the social decay and spiritual emptiness of modern Egypt that followed the revolution of 1952, when Nasser's Arab nationalists overthrew a corrupt royalist regime. (Mahfouz has been critical of that regime too, and of the British colonialism in Egypt.) Mahfouz is generally more interested in character than in local color, and his characters are frequently unsympathetic. Though we may admire his clear, harsh view of modern Egyptian life, his work can be hard to warm up to.

Adrift on the Nile, one of the brief novels Mahfouz wrote in the '60s after completing his massive Cairo Trilogy, is an exception to the rule and a good introduction to this author. Though its theme is familiar -- the absurdity and emptiness of life in Cairo, and the yearning for a serious existence -- it is marked by an unaccustomed sympathy, even tenderness for the characters.

The setting for much of the novel is a houseboat on the Nile where Anis Zaki, a bored and aimless civil servant, spends his leisure time in a narcotic daze induced by smoking kif (a mixture of tobacco and marijuana) in his water pipe, or using it to brew "magic coffee." An educated man with an extensive library on the boat, Anis dreams of ancient times and imagines a whale that lives in the Nile and swims to his boat to visit him.

In the evenings Anis serves as master of ceremonies, tending the water pipe for a group of male and female friends who gather to smoke, banter, and flirt with one another. They have families and jobs -- the group includes an actor, a lawyer, a translator, an art critic, and a writer of short stories -- but their approach to life is essentially cynical and unserious. Though their gatherings are sometimes roiled by political disputes or romantic misunderstandings, the friends are not really challenged to examine their lives until a new character arrives: Samara Bahgat, an elegant woman journalist whom Ragab the actor sees as "an alarmingly serious person."

Despite its brief length, Adrift on the Nile is unhurried and atmospheric. Little happens for most of the book, and the relationships among the characters are allowed to unfold gradually. Much of the story moves in and out of the dreamy, drug-blurred mind of Anis, slipping sometimes into a stream of consciousness, and the narrative shifts fluidly from the first to second to third persons. Mahfouz's novels sometimes read like indictments of Egyptian society, but this one conveys the sense of what it is like for a essentially decent but troubled and drifting man to live in that society.

From Adrift on the Nile:

Ragab poured Samara a whiskey. Anis saw Sana snatching a furtive look at Samara from beneath her curls, and he smiled. As the coals glowed, he became merry. He offered the water pipe to Samara, but she declined, and all his encouragement was in vain. Everything was silent, save for the bubbling of the pipe. Then they were swept away on a stream of diverse remarks. American planes had made strikes on North Vietnam. Like the Cuban crisis, remember? And as for the rumors, there was no end to them. The world was teetering on the brink of an abyss. The price of meat, the problems of the government food cooperatives -- and what about the workers and the peasants? And corruption, and hard currency, and socialism, and the way the streets were jammed with private cars? And Anis said to himself: All these things lie in the bowl of the pipe, to go up in smoke, like the vegetable dish, mulukhiya, which Amm Abduh cooked for lunch that day. Like our old motto, "If I were not, I would wish to be." And when a light like the light of these embers blazes in the heavens, the astronomer says that a star has exploded, and in turn the planets around it, and everything has been blown to dust. And one day the dust fell onto the surface of the earth and life sprang from it...