A Literary Analysis of "Zaabalawi"

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            Naguib Mahfouz is unarguably the renowned Egyptian writer of his time. While his audience may question the extremism with which he portrays his own society in religion, social classes, and politics, the realism and mysticism in his works spur originality that captivates every reader (Pellegrino 110). One of his greatest works of literature remains “Zaabalawi” in which the writer presents a spiritual dilemma and seeks help from an undoubted healer who is difficult to locate or meet (Tekin 619). Despite the speaker being terminally ill, he finds no solution in the bureaucratic world of science, business-mindedness, and logic; thus, he has to find the cure from the person with inconceivable powers – Zaabalawi. As Suzanne finds, the author manages to match social perspectives of the societies he write about with Sufism in ways that provide deeper understanding of Islam beyond what its conservative teachers would advance to learners of the religion (49). Mahfouz utilizes the traditional writing techniques alongside western modernization. For instance, he follows a chronological plot that incorporates narrator domination with a mystic character becoming an elusive reality. A textual analysis of “Zaabalawi” shows how the author uses various stylistic techniques, character developments, and contextual settings to reveal themes of realism, mysticism, and Sufism.  

            From its setting, Mahfouz produces demonstrates the influence his Egyptian society introduced in the work “Zaabalawi”; thus, readers find that new historicism provides a critical insight into why the writer tells the story of his time through literature. Witnessing post-colonial and modern Egyptian societies equip Mahfouz with the details to include in creating the right setting and context for the piece. He went through government’s education system in Cairo and watched the British rule the country (Beard 164). Mahfouz then observed independence and self-rule from 1923 as a constitutional monarchy (Hassan 1596). The struggle for autonomy as a nation, thus, influenced the views of Mahfouz within political and social contexts. Then, Mahfouz worked as a civil servant must of his time; hence, gains the insight into the manner economic., political, and social aspects of a society influences its population (Hassan 1596). Therefore, his accounts of the lives of Egyptian middle class who live in the urban settings quite fit his intention of retelling their daily routines through literature. In other words, Mahfouz’s Zaabalawi reveals the contextual nature of the writer’s work as a bibliographical text. To emphasize, Biographical analysis of the piece sows how social and political events of Mahfouz’s time become useful in telling his story. Indeed, new historicism provides a means of analyzing “Zaabalawi” as history dominates Mahfouz’s work as his text remains within the context of the 20th century Egypt.

            Apart from the setting, Mahfouz also uses various themes that include realism within the spiritual, social, and economic, contexts to further his personal view of the Egyptian society of his time. Realism emerges in the manner “Baazalawi” provides actual settings and descriptions of the society of urban Egypt of the 20th

century. For instance, the author visits Sheiks in their schools and other informants in the bar. This mix of lifestyles becomes true demonstration of the diversity of the lifestyles among the Cairo residents at the time when Mahfouz wrote the story (Beard 165). Then, the author also provides true accounts of the government dominance over the civilians at that time by showing that Zaabalawi has to hide form the authorities for alleged illegal practices of spirituality. This reality resonates with the oppressiveness of the British rule during the colonial period. Still, the reality of Egyptian society features in the work Zaabalawi; the narrator tells of a society with lots of spiritual deficiencies amid hyped bureaucracy within the spheres of science, business, and logic (Hassan 1597). Without a sense of deep satisfaction in spirituality, Mahfouz describes that a resident of Cairo remains as ill a person suffering from terminal cancer. However, the locals hardly appreciate the need for full spiritual encounter; instead, they rely on the deficiencies of science, business, and logic. As a result, they always live in tribulations as the narrator in the story “Baazalawi.”

            Beside realism, mysticism is another theme that Mahfouz exploits to tell his story about the lifestyles of Cairo residents of his time. Mysticism appears in the narrator having to resort to spiritual healing after exhausting all possibly known cures in science, reason, and other normal attributes of human knowledge; hence, the speaker has to turn to deep understating of spirituality to heal (Tekin 620). In other words, the deep search for true knowledge and help takes the speaker out of the ordinary realities of life to the depth of spiritual fulfillments as the only way to find salvation (Pellegrino 112). For this reason, the voice in the story tells that not even those who came into close association with Zaabalawi could understand him – he had a deeper conviction that no normal humankind would comprehend (Beard 164). Instead, artists - those who view life and the world differently from the rest of the society - had a clear vision of the type and kind of person Zaabalawi was (1597). The text assets that “From this point on, Mahfouz tended to add an element of political or social allegory and subjective mysticism to his literary realism” (Hassan 1596). Mahfouz tries to retell the nature of the Egyptian society then as a composite of unrealistic human beings - those who view life in its face value of science, business, and logic – as well as others who find solutions in deeper convictions of wisdom and redemption found only through spirituality.

However, the satisfaction of the spiritual thirst remains elusive to the end of the story “Baazalawi” as it occurs among the faithful Muslims of his time; thus, Mahfouz explores the theme of Sufism to reinforce mysticism in the story. The depiction of Islam as highly accommodative always put the author at crossroads with mainstream and conservative Muslims (Hassan 1597). In fact, he is believed to have survived a major dagger attack in Cairo due to his depiction of the religion as a moderate faithfuls rather than as staunch believers in Allah. Indeed, it occurs that Mahfouz’s work named God’s World of the year 1963 is included in “Zaabalawi” that carries themes of religious mysticism, such as holistic tolerance of Muslims that received hostile criticism from conservative members of Islam (Hassan 1596). Then, Mahfouz also describe the non-believers of the city as missing the true spiritual healing required to achieve complete self-redemption. Therefore, the element of mysticism even appears stronger than if the narrator could meet the healer and the latter would cure him of his terminal illness (Tekin 621). In other words, Sufism appear to blend adequately with the social and political spheres of every citizen’s life thereby lead the writer to demonstrate the mysteries in the religion and paganism alike (Suzanne 49). Indeed, even the politics and social activities of every person who lived at Mahfouz’s time in Cairo appear to lack the ability to achieve full salvation through God’s assistance. Rather, they dwell on the aspects of life that never matter in enriching spiritually, such as modern scientific technologies, business skills, and the reasons in the modern knowledge.

            Mahfouz also employs critical stylistic approaches that match with the themes in “Baazalawi” of realism, mysticism, idioms, religious symbolism and paradox. While realism features as a major source of conflict in the story, it also amounts to a style that leads to viewing of the writer’s intention from a factual point of view. For instance, all the depictions in “Baazalawi” describe actual occurrences in the society at the time of the author’s life. The text provides that “In 1945, Mahfouz shifted decisively to realistic novel and a portrayal of modern society” (Hassan 1596). Hence, realistic accounts of evenest and context provides a means of strengthening beliefs among readers that the story aligns with a specific locality, history, and people who once lived in the modern day Cairo. Similarly, beliefs in the views of the writer become easily acceptable by the audience as true accounts of the time.

            Through the style of mysticism, Mahfouz demonstrates unquenched religious, social, and political redemptions. The writer uses mysticism to present his ideas about life at his time. “He focused on the social and spiritual dilemmas of the middle class in Cairo, documenting in vivid detail the life of the urban society that represented Egypt” (Pellegrino 111). He uses literary devices of ancient Africa and the modern strategies of western nations at his time. For instance, mysticism helps him provide a problem in the form of terminal illness in the narrator and search for its cure from the unlikely place – a spiritual healer – rather than go to the hospital for treatment. In other words, Mahfouz uses the style to tell his audience that “magic is still possible, even in twentieth-century industrial Cairo” (Hassan 1597). Therefore, mysticism becomes a critical aspect that proves the values and morals in the society Mahfouz lived in at the time of his authorship, and may remain so even today.

Besides the styles in expression of inner thoughts, the text shows that he followed the formats of the contemporary writer of his time with the style differing only in the inclusion of mysteries (Hassan 1596). For instance, he includes a documentary in the form of interviews with several people who had close association with the religious character - Zaabalawi. Furthermore, idioms remain dominant in the work “Baazalawi” as were in the traditional Arabic oral literature. For instance, the first contact the narrator reaches and asks about the Zaabalawi says “…and, I would be blessed by his holly presence” (Hassan 1600). Hence, Mahfouz provides a realistic view of the society as its members remain in a spiritual dilemma that leads to questioning of their morals, spirituality, and general approaches to life. Still, Mahfouz unfolds the plot systematically from a realization of a problem of terminal illness in the narrator to the beginning of searching for the possible healer in the name of Zaabalawi. The stylistic attributes combine to form a major mystic piece for Mahfouz in “Zaabalawi.”  

            Still, religious symbolism and paradox also reinforce the effects of traditional literature in a mix with idioms and plot development to produce Sufism and the other themes in Mahfouz’s “Baazalawi.” Religious symbolism depicted in the life of the main character in the name of Zaabalawi (Hassan 1597). Zaabalawi is metaphorical in nature. The speaker has to die since his sickness is terminal, but he has tried all the scientific solutions in the name of medicines; thus, his quest involves spiritual healing as well rather than only a physical one (Tekin 621). He also changed style from the objectivity of realism to the subjectivity of mysticism (Pellegrino 112). This move proves essential in helping Mahfouz view life of religious people form a different perspective – an approach that helped him explore religion and the spiritual through interpretative eyes and constructive criticism. Paradox also appears in the text to reinforce the other stylistic approaches. Sheik Gad tells the narrator that “Such suffering is part of cure” (Hassan 1602). This signals that human nature requires to endure tribulations as part of the means to live a truthfully. He also tells the narrator that Zaabalawi is a fugitive avoiding the police who accuse him of false presence; therefore, it becomes ironical that the speaker is looking for help from a person who cannot even face realities in his life and remain truthful to the laws, peace, and order.

            In conclusion, Mahfouz exploits the themes of Sufism, mysticism, and realism that double as style alongside religious symbolism, paradox, idioms, and plot development to scope the story “Baazalawi’ within its bibliographic context of urban Cairo of the 20th

century. Zaabalawi is a mystical character that sustains the plot and the theme through the elusive nature and deep spiritual powers above any other wisdom or knowledge the world can possibly know in its normal bureaucracies of science, business skills, and logics. In the context of Islam, this aspect amounts to Sufism. Realism also emerges from the fitting of context of society into the story. Through new historicism, Mahfouz’s “Zaabalawi” is a rich text on Egyptian society.  

Works Cited

Beard, Michael. "Homage to Ibn al-Farid: Nostalgia in ‘Zaabalawi’."in Approaches to Teaching the Works of Naguib Mahfouz Ed. Wail S. Hassan and Susan Muaddi Darraj. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2012. pp. 164-170.

Black, Suzanne. "The Saint and the Snake: Sufism and Social Critique in Naguib Mahfouz and Alifa Rifaat."Short Story, vol. 19, iss. 2, Fall 2011, pp. 49-59.

Hassan, Wail S. and Susan Muaddi Darraj, eds. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Naguib Mahfouz. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2012.

Pellegrino, Joe. “Using Mysticism to Teach “Zaabalawi”.” Eureka Studies in teaching short Fiction, vol. 8, no. 2, Spring 2008, pp. 106-114.

Tekin, Kuğu.  “Patients and Healers in “Zaabalawi” by Naguib Mahfouz and a Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk”. Uludağ University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 18, iss. 33, 2017, pp. 619-630.

November 24, 2023



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