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Book Review: Naguib Mahfouz’s Dreams

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Old or young, aristocrat or peasant, bureaucrat or artist — everyone dreams.

For Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, dreams are more than mere psychological phenomena: They are a fertile ground for literature and literary reflection. Hence, The Dreams, his last work, now available to English-reading audiences in a reverent translation by Raymond Stock.

What does an Arabic man, a man of worldwide literary renown, a man nearly blinded by diabetes and crippled by a fanatic Islamist assassination attempt, a man who knows he’s near the end of his life, dream about?

You may be surprised. Mahfouz’s dreams are undoubtedly his own — they’re mostly set in Cairo, they refer to Islamic stories and rituals, and they feature people from his life and characters from his fiction — and yet at their core they’re not that different from what any other person, in any other country, may dream. Love, lust, fear, betrayal and death: Mahfouz dreamt them, too.

Consider, for example, Dream 29. In a conversation with his literary cohorts, Mahfouz names a female writer he esteems. Friendship becomes wrath as his companions criticize the woman’s depravity and social pretensions, and the author quickly makes his exit. In the elevator, he is distracted by another woman, this one in men’s clothes, who harangues Mahfouz about false friendship then robs him at gunpoint. All this transpires in four uncomplicated paragraphs. The shifts in emotion, in this case from camaraderie to dejection to intrigue to shock to acquiescence, are instantaneous and surrealistic — faithful to the unbounded nature of human dreams.

Stock writes in his afterward that the book is a modern spin on the ancient Arabic tradition of dream interpretation. He cites the dreams with clear political implications or that unfortunately proved portentous, as is the case with the collection’s final dream, written just before the author’s death, in which he feels summoned by the voices of his already-dead mother, brothers and sisters.

What I admire most about these dreams, however, is that Mahfouz doesn’t impose too much interpretation upon them. Sure, he tweaks them — as we all do when we put our dreams in words — but the work of deciphering he leaves to us.

Number 29 is unique in that it concludes with the author’s reflection upon his situation at the end of the dream: “Overwhelmed with the feeling that I had lost my friends, I feared that instances like this robbery were waiting out there to ambush me, wherever I go.”

More than perhaps any other themes, robbery and ambush reappear in the book repeatedly. In Dream 44, for example, Mahfouz is robbed then interviewed for a job by the same man. In Dream 167, he is robbed of credit for a screenplay he has written by the managing director “for the sake of the film’s box office success.” In the sarcastic Dream 87, the perpetrator of a beastly murder is recommended entrance in the “Institute for Contemporary Criminality — and may God grant him success!”

Sometimes, Mahfouz is himself the criminal. In Dream 89, he is confronted at a garden party by a vexed former lover whose entry in a fiction competition had been disqualified because its plot too closely resembled a story that Mahfouz — his nation’s eminent writer — had published several decades before. In truth, the story belongs to them both, as it deals with his shabby behavior during their relationship. “Here’s a chance for me to be your victim in real life — and not just in fiction,” the woman spits. Perhaps at the end of his career, a writer repents for the stories he has prevented other people from telling.

How you choose to approach The Dreams — as poetry? as political allegory? as autobiography? — will certainly alter your interpretation of it. Nevertheless, the book is a complex and transcendent piece of art, and a recommended read. The Nobel website defends its 1988 prize to Naguib Mahfouz for his invention of an “Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.” That compliment may never be so true as in his simple telling of his dreams.

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