Naguib Mahfouz's Classic:
Bedaya Wa Nihaya
(A Beginning and an End)
A Book Review
By Adel Murad
(Dedicated to the great writer who is fighting for his life, at 90, in an Egyptian hospital)
Editors Note: Adel wrote this article some few days ago. Today (August 30th, Naquib Mahfouz, a truly legendary Egyptian who became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Price for Literature, died. We sadly morn his death, knowing at the same time that he lived a full and very inspiring life. Newspaper sources indicate that he was probably 94 year old. Naquib Mahfouz (1911-2006)
Bedaya Wa Nihaya is one of Naguib Mahfouz's finest novels. Written in 1949, it is considered now an example of classical Arabic literature and was in fact produced as an Egyptian movie in the 1960's. It tells the story of a family struggling against poverty, in 1930's Cairo. The ordinary, low-income family was suddenly exposed to harsh living conditions after the sudden death of the father, who was the sole bread-winner. The novel is a complex interaction of many emotions and a struggle for survival. For readers of the translated version, the novel may seem cruel, but for a traditional pre-war Egyptian society, there was no other possible conclusion but tragedy.
The family of Kmel Ali, a lowly government employee, lived a subsistence life in the poor district of Shubra, in northern Cairo, on his limited salary. The three sons and one daughter grew up in relative security and were spoiled by the father, who allowed the eldest son: Hasan, to skip school, and stray away from education. The daughter, Nefissa, also stopped her education at an early age, but that was expected of girls at the time. The mother, a housewife, was very stern and did her best to make ends meet. Peace was shattered when Kamel suddenly died in his late 40's, while his young teenage sons Hussein and Hasanein were sill students in a Shubra school.
That tragic moment changed the family's life forever. The widow started her struggle to keep her family alive, by moving to a cheaper apartment below hers, and encouraging her daughter to work on a suing machine. She also demanded that her eldest son finds himself a job to help the family, but with no skills or education, he had no chance of earning a decent living. The daughter, Nefissa, was not beautiful by any standards, but she kept her sense of humor, always remembering her father's words to her "A sense of humor is more attractive than beauty". When her father died, she was 23 years old, with no prospects of marriage.
Hasan left the family and wandered off, to save them the worry of having to feed him. He ended up as an odd-job man in a failed singing troupe, and practically worked for his food. Over time he turned to other means of earning a living including being a Fetewa (A Thug) in a coffee shop, and a dealer in hashish.
His younger brother, Hussein, was next in line in supporting the family. He took his mission seriously and after passing his high school exams, decided to seek employment. In those days, one had to have a Wasta (A facilitator) in order to get a job. He went with his younger brother to an old friend of his father, the aristocrat Ahmed Bek Yusry, who lived in a palace in Shubra, to ask for his help. The high official managed to get Hussein a job in a school in Tanta, a town in the middle of the delta in northern Egypt. But in order to have enough money to live in Tanta for a month, until his payday, Hussein had to borrow money off his older brother, Hassan, and in the process witnessed first hand his low life, living with a prostitute and dealing in drugs. He accepted his bother's tainted money, justifying the means by the end of working to help his family.
The most complicated character was that of the youngest brother, Hasanein, who fell in love at 17 with the neighbor's daughter, Bahiya, who was pretty but cold. She never admitted to him that she loved him, nor allowed him to touch or kiss her, evern after the two families agreed on an unofficial engagement, until he graduates and finds a job. When the time came and he too passed his high school diploma, he refused to take up a job opting to join the Officers Academy in the Egyptian Army. Once again, he too had to go to the aristocrat Ahmed Bek Yusry and ask for his help to get him into the academy. When in his palace, Hasanein saw the daughter of Ahmed Yusry who represented for him a life he always dreamed of. In order to pay his tuition, he too had to go to Hasan, and accept his tainted money.
On his graduation, Hasanein took his fiance to the cinema. He was hoping that the uniform will change his girl and open the door for kissing her, but she only allowed him to hold her hand. On his return to the barracks he met his fellow officers who saw him with his girl, but their comments changed his feelings towards her. They joked that she looked traditional, fat and unworthy of an officer who deserves an aristocratic lady. From that time onwards, Hasanein's mind was becoming increasingly preoccupied by the daughter of Ahmed Yusry, and he distanced himself gradually from his fiance of three years.
In his ambition to reinvent his life as that of an aristocrat, he went to his old brother Hasan to advise him to lead an 'honest' life. Hasan told him to mind his own business, and that if he practiced what he preached, he should resign and give back his uniform which he obtained by tainted money. A few weeks later, when the police searched the family's apartment in Shubra, looking for the runaway Hasan, it was the last straw for Hasanein, the young officer, who ordered a change of address to Heliopolis to escape the scandal. A visit by his fiance and her mother to Hasanein's new home, ended in disaster when he told his girl that he no longer wanted her. The two families were shocked by his decision, and it was left to his sensible older brother Hussein to apologize to the enraged family of Bahiya. During his visit, Hussein asked for the hand of Bahiya in marriage for himself instead of his brother, and the bride's father agreed.
Meanwhile, officer Hasanen was humiliated once again when he asked for Mr. Yusry's daughter hand in marriage and was turned down on the grounds of his low origin and outlaw brother.
Nefissa noticed the attention the grocer's boy was giving her. He was equally ugly, and somewhat simple, but she did not have any ambitions beyond having a man to call her own. The boy took her out a few times, and then one night asked her back to his house, saying that his parents were out. Hesitantly, she agreed. During that fateful visit, things got out of hand and the boy took advantage of her. She resisted but could not stop the lust of a strong body on top of her. She went home later dazed about what had happened, despite all the warnings she was brought up to heed. She knew that a grocer's boy was beneath her social standard, but she was not fussy. She accepted her modest choice, but even the grocer's boy rejected her. He said his father wanted him married to another girl and therefore it was over between him and Nefissa.
Nafissa lost everything. The next time she accepted a man's invitation to get in his car, she was given a few pennies for her trouble. She had sunk to the ranks of common prostitutes. She kept the faade of a respectable woman, especially when her proud brother, planning for aristocratic future, asked her to give up suing clothes for money and stay at home.
When a policeman visited the family for the second time, he was not looking for Hasan but for officer Hasanein, to ask him to come the Sakakini police station to identify his sister who was arrested selling her body in a whorehouse. Hasanein could not believe his eyes when he saw Nafisa in the cell, who fainted upon seeing him. He took her out of the police station and in a blind fit started hitting her. She asked him not to kill her and waste his own future, as she had already decided to kill herself. They got in a taxi and Hasanein asked the driver to go to the Zamalek Bridge. They got off, and he stood there while she said to him:" Please don't tell anybody", as she walked off to the middle of the bridge. In a few seconds she got to the edge and jumped into the dark muddy waters of the Nile, with a shriek that did not sound human.
In the commotion that followed, a boatman tried to rescue her, but when he got her to the shore she was already dead. Hasanein stood amongst the crowd looking at his dead sister, thinking of what had just happened and how he took her to her death. He denied knowing her when the police was asking questions and just stood there with a disturbed mind holding on to a tree until the crowds left and body of Nefissa was taken away.
How did she feel jumping off to her death? Why did all that happen to her? Why did I let her jump? And where is she now? Many questions remained unanswered. For the first time in his life, he felt he had no choice but to be a man.
They asked the following day why officer Hasanein did not turn up at the barracks. A policeman said he recognized Hasanein's face in the crowd when Nefissa's body was recovered the night before. He saw his sister's lifeless body, walked away to the middle of the bridge and decided to be a man for once in his life.
His last words were: "May God have mercy on us all".