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Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

“On the shelves the files enjoy an easeful death. How diverting they must find the civil servant at work, carrying out with utterly serious mien, utterly trivial tasks.”
- from Adrift on the Nile (1972)

by Andrea Boggs | March 15th, 2016

About the Author

Naguib Mahfouz is no ordinary writer. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature (1988), he is one of Egypt's most well known writers and his novels are the most widely read in English translation. His first book was a non fiction translation of ancient Egypt from english to Arabic. Many of his early novels, 1939-1944 were historical, occuring in Ancient Egypt during hte time of pharaohs and pyramid building. Adrift on the Nile is a novel that takes place in present day Egypt, or in the decade which it was written the 1960s, with modern Egyptian characters.

Naguib Mahfouz book
Book cover for Adrift on the Nile

The Adventure
Adrift on the Nile follows Anis Zaki, a 40 something year old widower who smokes hashish and lives on a houseboat on the Nile which he only leaves to go to work at a government office in the Department of Archives. His friends join him at the beginning of every evening for their nightly ritual of smoking hashish and sometimes… drinking whiskey. They are writers, philosophers, actors, and artists, intellectual types and a few others. The time is the early 1960’s in Egypt which is only indicated when someone mentions in the news a report that Americans dropped bombs over North Vietnam.

The 1960s Cairo. Women had to be accompanied by male escorts to walk to the city square but men and women freely associate in the secret forbidden world of the houseboat. The friends stay up until midnight. Most of them are male but there are a few loyal female members of the group.When the party ends, couples disappear into bedrooms and Anis Zaki sends the giant, muscular old man, Amm Abduh, out into the street to get him a street girl “to go with this dark night.”

In the 1st chapter, Anis gets scolded by the Director General for being drugged at work: “Your eyes look inward not outward like the rest of God’s creatures,” says the Director General and he withholds 2 days of Anis pay for the incident. The Director General warns him: “There are limits to my patience. But there is no end to a slippery slope.”

Ragab the cinema star and “sex god”
Among the most infamous of Anis artist friends on the houseboat is Ragab al-Qadi, the movie star, “sex god," and bringer of women to the houseboat. Most of the women who are already members of the houseboat crew are Ragab’s ex-lovers.

In the 3rd chapter, Ragab brings an underage girl named Sana who is an arts student to the houseboat, kisses her in front of everyone in a dramatic display in which he is pretending to teach her acting, then he becomes her lover the same night in a bedroom on the houseboat. About a week later, in the company of the houseboat friends, Ragab speaks about another girl right in front of Sana with “callous indifference.” That evening he then leaves her on the houseboat with his friends without saying where he is going or who he is going to go meet. One of the woman tries to comfort her when everyone notices she looks like she is going to cry "Don't. the romantic era is long gone. It is the age of realism now." (p.72) Layla's statement to Sana also has a parallel meaning in regards to Naguib Mahfouz's literary style: he was not a romantic but a realist.

Samara, a serious writer, and newest member to the houseboat
A 25-year old journalist who is a colleague of Ali, one of the regulars, wants to visit the houseboat. They are curious as to why she wants to meet them, because she is a woman and as Ragab says “Judging from the strength of her writing she is a very serious person.” After Samara arrives she quickly becomes a member of the bunch, though a non-smoking one.

Mamluke sultans of Egypt
The Mamluke sultans, violent kings of Anis' fantasies.

Samara is the personification of the serious while Anis is the personification of the absurd. Samara is never described as sexually attractive by either the narrator or in Anis’ private thoughts however it is assumed that she is attractive, (but not too Anis since she is too "serious") since she turned down a marriage offer from a wealthy man. Anis is not deliberately sexist against Anis for being "serious" (her blouse does not show her cleavage), it is simply a fact that his sexual needs are satisfied by street girls procured by the old man who changes the water in the pipe, Amm Abduh, once the party ends. He has grown comfortable with the world of river water, midges, rats, geckos and whores and hashish, and all of this in contrast to his job as a minor government official. His addiction to drugs and his lifestyle preference for sex with street girls (I am not a whore!) is foreshadowing, like the Director General's statement about the slippery slope with no end, that something bad is on the way for the hedonistic protagonist Anis Zaki.

One evening when Anis is high, Samara’s purse taunts him, and he looks inside it. Anis takes her journal from her purse, and he also considers taking $50 from her wallet to pay for the street girl that Amm Abduh would bring him later that evening. This thought makes him laugh hysterically. When Samara is leading a conversation during their smoking party, Anis thinks to himself: “Curses on you all. There is no greater enemy to a water pipe’s pleasures than thinking. Twenty pipes, and all for nothing, or nearly nothing.” (p.62)

Narration & Anis’s private thoughts
The storytelling voice of “Adrift on the Nile” varies between a 3rd person omniscient narrator and Anis Zaki’s private thoughts. In contrast to the 3rd person omni-presence, Anis is semi-present because he is so high, and his tendency to daydream. Anis' private thoughts are fantasies about historical figures in action scenes, like the Mameluke Sultans. When he is at work, after he has been humiliated by the Director General, Anis has this vision about Mameluke Sultans on horeseback coming into a town and hunting down a mother in the road for sport:

"Not a man was left on the road. The doors and windows were closed. And the dust flew up under the horses hooves, and the Mameluke soldiery let loose yells of joy on the road to the hunt; any man abroad in the quarters of Margush or Gamaliya was made a target for their skill, and the victims' cries were drowned by the yells of mad joy, and the bereaved mother screamed: "Mercy, O kings!"and the hunter bore down on her that day of sport; and the coffee grew cold and the taste of it changed, and the Mameluke still roared, grinning from ear to ear, and a headache came and the vision fled, and still the Mameluke laughed. And they hurled down curses and made the dust fly, reveling in splendor, reveling in torture. A cheerful animation spread throughout the gloomy room. It was time to go home."

His fantasy state of mind is enhanced when he is high. At one point he imagines he is participaing in the Japanese Olympics while outwardly packing the water pipe for more rounds of kif smoking. Or he recalls his last meeting with Nero the Roman emperor, who Anis privately state is not the monster people said he was.

When the party ends in tragedy and crime
After endless nights of smoking kif from a water pipe gathered on a sofa in a houseboat, someone proposes they should go for a drive to the country. Anis who does not like to leave the houseboat hesitates, but after much coercing he finally gives in. Everyone piles into a car and they begin driving to the road to Saqarra, an ancient Egyptian holy site.

“We are on the way to the site of an ancient Pharonic tomb. A good moment to recite the opening verse of the Qur'an.”Anis thinks privately to himself, as fantasy driven as usual.

On their way home from the night trip to the road to Saqarra, Ragab gets behind the wheel and drives so fast everyone is terrified until finally they hit a pedestrian in the darkness and hear a scream. They keep driving and do not turn around to see if he is dead because the figure for certain he is dead and there is no use checking.

In the days following the killing, Anis loses his temper with the Director General, and throws a jar of ink at the man, splattering his shirt with ink: an incident which is surely to get him fired. When Anis returns to his desk a colleague comes over and sympathetically informs him that he can leave and he will need to appear at a tribunal…

In their subsequent attempt to hang out on the houseboat after slaughtering the innocent man, the gathering turns into violent and emotional and Anis and Ragab break out into a fight. Their quarrel begins because Samara says she is going to tell the police what they did. Unexpectedly, Anis, the absurd one, takes sides with Samara and claims that he too will go to the police. This leads to the fight, and then Ragab leaves the houseboat claiming that he is going to turn himself in, followed by the other friends. Anis and Samara stay behind, wondering if Ragab will really do it. Presumably he will not, however the slippery slope that the Director General warned Anis about has undoubtedly begun.

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Naguib Mahfouz Adrift on the Nile (1972) Anchor Books DOUBLEDAY: New York. Translated by Frances Liardet