Egyptian novelist and short-story writer Naguib (also written as Najib)
Mahfouz is the Arab world’s first Nobel laureate (1988). Born into a merchant
family in the old Gamaliya quarter of Cairo, he studied philosophy
at Cairo University, where he began writing fiction. Subsequently he embarked
on a long career in government administration and the civil service.
His early works were a series of historical novels, and it was not until 1945
that he published his first novel on contemporary Egyptian life. His work
depicts, in particular, middle-class life in Cairo, with its changing moods
and fortunes. His fictional output has been a landmark in the development
of modern Arabic fiction and has rightly made him the father of the modern
Arabic novel. He has a large number of novels and nine collections of
short stories in print. In 1970 he received the National Prize for Letters,
and in 1972 he was awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Collar of the
Republic. He has received honorary degrees from Denmark, France, and
the Soviet Union, and his work has been translated into many languages.
Several have been translated into English, including his famous Trilogy (vols.
1 and 3 translated by Olive and Lorne Kenny) and Midaqq Alley (translated
by Trevor LeGassick); The Thief and the Dogs (translated by Trevor LeGassick
and M. M. Badawi) and The Quail and the Autumn (translated by Roger
Allen). Roger Allen and ‘Akef Abadir translated a collection of his short
stories, entitled God’s World. After the award of the Nobel Prize, Doubleday
brought out a collection of his translated works in English.
Under a Starlit Sky (via Scribd.com)
On the appointed morning the team gathered in a state of perfect readiness.
Winter was on the retreat, and the weather breathed vitality into the soul. We
all had woolen trousers and gray jumpers on. Our heads were covered with
white cotton caps and our feet with rubber shoes. A medium-sized van arrived
and was loaded with dry food and water bottles. A very tall man with clear-cut
features and an awesome appearance came toward us. He was dressed like us
except for a silver whistle that hung on his broad chest.
“I’m your guide,” he said in a loud voice. “Have you read the rules?” We
answered in the affirmative.
“Follow me!” he said as he gave us the signal to start.
Thus our journey through the desert began, the van following us slowly. It
was an annual event organized by the Sports Club Association. The team would
walk behind the guide, and each one would try to guess the destination oasis
relying on his knowledge of the desert. The coveted prize went to those who
guessed correctly. It could not be shared: all winners got the full prize, no matter
how many they were. We set off at sunrise, keeping quiet and trying to remind
ourselves of the rules for fear of being disqualified from the race on account of
an oversight. We applied our full powers of observation and made use of all our
knowledge, driven by our hope to win. The landscape extended infinitely and
monotonously before us. Our feet plowed endlessly in the sand, and we began
to feel the strain. Time grew heavy, and we wondered was there no place for
rest? We felt the need to talk but that was forbidden. As for addressing our guide,
that was considered a sin. It was an enjoyable and promising journey, but it was
also arduous. More arduous indeed than we had imagined, and only those who
experienced it could tell what it was like. It so chanced that two members of
the group exchanged a couple of words for some reason. The guide halted immediately
and turned on them. It was as if he had seen them with a third eye.
“To the van,” he said firmly.
“I only asked him for a match to light a cigarette,” said one of them.
“Smoking is forbidden too,” he said decisively. “Go!”
You could read an expression of protest in the two men’s eyes, but they had
no choice but to obey. They walked to the van, trailing their disappointment
“My duty,” he said categorically, “allows no leeway to the lax, the lazy, or the
By noon we were overcome with exhaustion. Our alertness waned, and we
came to realize fully what a difficult undertaking that journey was and what a
cruel test for our sense of dignity even though it was regarded as a sports event
and many saw it as nothing more than an entertaining game. We could feel the
weight of the time growing heavier, and our souls yearned for a whiff of repose.
It was then that the guide blew his whistle to draw our attention.
Naguib Mahfouz: Under a Starlit Sky 501
“Copy me!” he shouted at us.
He started to run. We had hoped he would invite us to take a break not to
redouble our effort. We were obliged to imitate him, our hearts resentful and
our faces gloomy. The sun ascended to mid-course above us, making its heat felt
in spite of the fresh breeze. A young man stumbled, emitting a cry of pain, and
stopped unable to continue the run.
“To the van,” screamed the guide.
Thus the unfortunate fellow was out of the race, his expulsion serving to
strengthen our wills. In the distance loomed a mighty rock that resembled the
head of the Sphinx from behind. The guide ran in its direction, and we followed.
When we reached it, he blew the whistle again. We stopped, breathless and near
“We will sit here to rest and have lunch,” he said.
We sat on the sand. His assistants handed each of us a packed lunch and a
small water bottle. Silently we started to unpack our lunch. It consisted of a roll
of bread, some chips, a piece of tomato, a slice of cold meat, and an orange. We
ate with great appetite and quenched our thirst, and then we lay on our backs
to relax or perhaps to doze off.
“May I smoke a cigarette here?” asked one of us innocently.
“Go to the van!” replied the guide calmly.
The youth was struck dumb, but the man sitting next to him let out a sarcastic
“And you too, at once,” the guide continued, addressing the one who
The guide stared at them defiantly until they succumbed to his will. We had
hardly had enough rest, when he got to his feet, blew his whistle, gave the signal
to start, and continued the march. We followed him, disaffected and silent. Was
this man an idealist or a sadist? The truth dawned on me of a saying I once
heard: “Power brings out both the best and the worst in those who have it.” I
remembered friends who advised me against taking part in the race, but I also
was aware that to win was to have something to be proud of for the rest of one’s
life, and I was determined to put all my heart in achieving my objective. And
oh, the demands the race put on participants! Alertness, a will of steel, unfailing
memory, and supreme intelligence, not to mention patience, endurance, courage,
self-discipline, and courtesy toward our tyrannical guide.
Before long we were overwhelmed by exhaustion again, and such were our
misgivings about the guide that we came to expect from him another surprise
even more violent than we had already seen. As the sun began its descent toward
the skyline, the temperature came down and the air carried a tolerable coolness.
Meanwhile, our guide increased his pace and trouble loomed in the air. Two
young men suffered a disintegration of the will and gave up the race of their
own accord. As they made their way to the van in a state of utter dejection, I
asked myself, “Is this man immune to the tiredness we feel? Why does he seem
as if he belongs to a superhuman race?”
502 Naguib Mahfouz: Under a Starlit Sky
Then what we had feared came to pass and the man suddenly accelerated
the rhythm of the march into a rapid run. We started to run as night descended
upon us. We waded through the darkness under the faint glimmer of the stars,
terrified all the time that we might bump into something, step into a pit, or fall
off a precipice. We were no longer able to think clearly or sustain our alertness
to the extent that we came to believe that it was through good fortune alone
that the race was ever won in previous years.
At long last and only after we had verged on despair, the whistle blew and
the guide’s voice was heard giving the order to stop. Our fatigue was such that
we no longer aspired to the prize and only longed for a safe return.
“Dinner and then sleep,” he said. “At midnight we continue the march and
two hours later your cards will be collected with the answers written down. We
reach our destination at sunrise.”
A pole with a lamp hanging from it was stuck in the ground and we saw
that we were not very far from a big hill. Dinner (which was no different from
lunch) was distributed among us, as well as sleeping bags.
The guide approached one of us as we were eating our food.
“You’ve got a hip flask and you’ve had two sips from it,” he said gruffly. “Go
to the van!”
“There’s got to be a despicable spy among us,” the youth yelled angrily.
“Give me the flask and go to the van!” screamed the guide.
“I have no flask,” came the defiant answer.
“I will have you searched.”
“No one can lay a finger on me.”
“No?” said the guide as he put out his arm as if to start searching him. The
young man pushed the arm away in an amazing act of daring, at which point the
guide slapped him so forcefully on the face that he was thrown to the ground.
Suddenly our pent-up fury exploded collectively. We no longer cared for the
race or the rules. The air all round us reverberated with our booming cries.
“This is an insult. We will not be insulted. You’ve got to know your limits.”
The guide scanned our faces with charged calm.
“This is an all-out rebellion,” he said. “I announce the journey canceled, and
I will see to it that you are brought to account before the Association’s Board of
Directors. I’m withdrawing immediately.”
He walked straight to the van followed by his assistants who carried away the
lamp. Within a minute we could hear the engine revving up and saw the van
drive off into the darkness leaving us without a guide. We stood together in a
circle in a state of shock, then there was a flurry of reactions from every direction.
“How dare he leave us in the desert without guidance?”
“We will raise the matter before the Supreme Committee.”
“But we must think about the situation we’re facing now.”
“Perhaps we should stay where we are until the morning.”
“Of course not. We must start moving straightaway. Every minute counts.”
“Which way shall we go?”
Naguib Mahfouz: Under a Starlit Sky 503
“Let’s put forward suggestions and then take a vote.”
The conflict of opinion was so wild that almost no two people agreed on the
same proposition. After a violent debate five schools of thought emerged. As we
prepared to set out we gave in momentarily to our misgivings.
“We might get lost and die of thirst and hunger.”
“Or be attacked by wild beasts or bandits.”
“We must take the risk.”
“Hadn’t we better stay where we are until they find us?”
“Don’t lull yourself with a wish that may or may not come true! There’s
nothing left for us but to depend on ourselves.”
Eventually each group set out in the direction of their choice, firmly believing
in the soundness of their opinion and driven forth by their hope of safe
arrival. Before them stretched a path fraught with all kinds of probabilities in the
dark night. It was as if they had an appointment with the rise of the sun.
—Translated by Rasheed El-Enany