Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Anchor Books, 1994, 172 p. Translated from the Arabic, Thartharah Fawq al Nīl, by Frances Liardet.

 Adrift on the Nile cover

This novel features a group of friends who regularly meet in the evening on a houseboat on the River Nile to talk about the issues of the day but mainly to smoke kif through a water-pipe.

The viewpoint starts off as that of Anis Zaki, a civil servant with troubles at work and whose wife and daughter died many years previously. Anis’s mind can wander and he has occasional illusions – of the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, of a whale in the Nile, of conversing with the pharaoh Thutmose III. Sometimes, however, the narrative focus shifts to something more objective.

Others of the company are Ahmad Nasr, notoriously faithful to his wife; Mustafa Rashid, a well-known lawyer; Ali al-Sayid, a famous art critic; Khalid Azzuz, a writer; Ragab al-Qadi, the group’s womaniser in chief. Women are not excluded; Layla Zaydan, a translator, is introduced to new members as “beautiful and cultured” not least in that her golden hair is real, not a wig, while Saniya Kamil turns up whenever her husband has committed an indiscretion. The houseboat is looked after by general factotum Amm Abduh, huge in stature, who mostly keeps himself to himself but when summoned will refresh the water-pipe. As well as making the call-to-prayer at the local mosque he will procure street girls for the members. The group’s female members, despite occasionally spending the night in rooms on the boat, are contrasted to the street girls in that, “‘they are respectable ladies,’” the rationale being, “‘They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.’”

The text is mostly dialogue, there is not much of a plot here. There is some disquiet one evening when Ragab appears with the teenage Sana al-Rashidi, a student; even more when journalist Samara Barghat arrives, the object of suspicion due to her calling (possibly not unjustified suspicion, revealed when Anis takes the opportunity to rummage in her handbag one evening and filches a notebook which contains a scenario and characters for a play – all based on the houseboat’s habituees.) The only incident occurs on a car journey out of the city, to which Anis had only reluctantly acceded, when, travelling too fast on their return, they hit a pedestrian. But all agree to keep quiet about it.

By showing us a slice of middle-class Egyptian life in the 1960s (when the book was first published in Arabic,) Adrift on the Nile reveals the uneasy connection between Egypt’s past and its then present by subtle indirection.

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian (except handbag and purse are used in the British sense.) Anis’ (Anis’s, many instances,) “is a that any description” (no ‘a’,) protozoan (protozoon,) “‘people who will praise you work’” (your work.)

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