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.