Autumn Quail (1962): A novel by Naguib Mahfouz

by Andrea Boggs | February 27th, 2016

Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11th, 1911 in Cairo. He was the youngest of 7 children and his father was a civil servant. The writer married in 1943 and lived in the Agouza suburb of Cairo with his wife and 2 daughters. He worked in various government ministries and was a contributing editor for the newspaper Al Ahram. Mahfouz wrote over 40 novels and in 1988 he was the first Arab man to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.Naguib Mahfouz was critical of radical Islam. In his later years, an Islamic extremist failed to kill him in a knife attack. Mahfouz had been supportive of the author Salman Rushdie around the time the Satanic Verses came out, but he also criticized Rushdie’s book as insulting to Islam. Autumn Quail (1962) is a historical novel based on real life events surrounding a fictional politician named Isa Ibrahim Ad-Dabbagh, who is a senior official in the Egyptian government accused of corruption after the revolution in 1952. According to a biography of Mahfouz in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: "In that year, an officer's coup headed by Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the monarchy and instituted a republic that promised democratic reforms... Although the author was at first optimistic about the new order, he soon realized that not much had changed for the general populace. When he started publishing again in 1959, his works included much criticism of the Nasser regime."

Umdas' gifts & party bias
As a senior government official, Isa had been responsible for the nomination of umdas, or community leaders and after the revolution he is called to appear before the Purge Committee. “All the accusations applied to the appointment of umdas on the basis of party bias and gifts.” Mahfouz uses imagery that shows the revolutionary movement that deposed the King was more religious than the previous government. “On the wall behind them, he noticed that God’s name in a frame had taken the place of the King’s picture."

There is no doubt that Isa accepted "gifts" in exchange for appointing certain community leaders over others. He is comforted by the thought of the umdas’ gifts in his bank account. “Two years’ salary, even added to what was left in the bank from the umdas’ gifts, wouldn’t last longer than 2 years. All these objects decorating the entrance, the reception room, and the library were “gifts” too. Even his 3 sisters benefited from his position in the government. Mahfouz writes they didn’t just love their brother Isa because he was brilliant but because “he was kind enough to arrange for promotions and raises for their husbands during his period of influence.”

Engagement to Salwa
Before his troubles began, the 30-year old Isa had just gotten engaged to Salwa, the daughter of a wealthy judge, Ali Bey Sulaiman. There is a party at the judge’s home to celebrate the couple's engagement and the guests in attendance include Isa's mother, his friends and politicians. Isa's future marriage to Salwa is the most important thing to him. When he learns that the Purge Committee has decided to “pension him off," he informs Ali Bey Sulaiman who immediately cancels the wedding plans. “As he climbed the broad marble steps, he thought to himself that if it were not for judicial immunity, Ali Bey Sulaiman would have been thrown into the street along with him.”Hasan
Isa is determined to remain unemployed for at least 2 years while he collects his salary on paid leave despite job offers. His cousin Hasan offers him a job as an accountant for a film company, however Isa declines the offer. Isa is reminded that he does not want to marry his cousin’s sister every time he sees Hasan even though the topic is never discussed. Isa tries to conceal his dislike for Hasan although Hasan is always trying to help him. In contrast to Isa’s demise, Hasan’s good fortune is growing each time he comes to visit Isa. Later, Isa learns that his cousin Hasan is engaged to the girl that he wanted to marry.

Black winged stilt
A black winged stilt, from The Birds of Egypt on wikipedia

Isa rents a flat owned by a Greek woman on the 8th floor of a seaside apartment complex in the Al-Ibrahimiyya district of Alexandria. In the autumn, flocks of quails migrate to the beaches of Alexandria. “You could see the bevies of quails as well, swooping in to land exhausted at the end of their long, predestined, illusorily heroic flight.” Quails are also significant in ancient Egypt, having their own hieroglyph in the ancient Egyptian language.

He meets Riri in Alexandria at night, the young homeless girl on the Corniche ("What scavengers these whores are-") and allows her to stay in his flat. He enjoys her company until one day suddenly he kicks her out in a rage when he discovers she is pregnant with his child. Later, while sitting at a table in a cafe, Isa sees Riri sitting nearby. She comes up to him in a happy mood, but he replies that he doesn't know her and has no idea what she is talking about and leaves without looking back. After Isa is relieved that he has avoided any public scandal, he arrives back at his apartment to learn the bad news. “He found a telegram waiting for him from his family to say that his mother had died.”

Ni'mat & Riri
After his termination, Isa is depressed and his life is occupied with drinking cognac and playing poker with his friends until dawn. He marries a rich woman named Quadriyya for money rather than for love.

Towards the end of the story, Isa goes back to Alexandria and sees Riri who has grown into a respectable woman and is married to a cafe owner. She manages the café while her husband is in jail on drug charges. Isa sees a child sitting on Riri’s lap playing with her jewelry and realizes this must be their daughter. He notices traces of his mother and his sisters faces mixed in with her features. Isa is overjoyed to see that he has a daughter, however when he confronts Riri, she rejects him the same way he did to her.

By Andrea Boggs

Naguib Mahfouz (1962) Autumn Quail, Doubleday.
1st published in Arabic in 1962 as Al-Summan wal Kharif. English translation from The American University in Cairo Press (1985) translated by Roger Allen.