“The Day the Leader was Killed” by Naguib Mahfouz

“The Day the Leader was Killed” by Naguib Mahfouz  (1985)  103 pages Translated by Malak Mashem

It’s a most distressing affliction to have a sentimental heart and a skeptical mind.” – Naguib Mahfouz

 ImageI want to take the occasion of this review to honor a great man.  In this age of unreason, Naguib Mahfouz was the last reasonable man. 

 Let me first give a short summary of his life.  Mahfouz was born in 1911 in Cairo, Egypt, a city he rarely left during his long life.  His parents were devout Muslims, and he had a strict Muslim upbringing.  He witnessed the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 as a child and watched British soldiers firing at unarmed Egyptian civilians protesting British rule. 

 From an early age he knew he was going to be a writer, and he read widely at a young age.  His mother would take him to museums, and he became well grounded in Egyptian history.  He wrote his first stories at 17 and published his first novel at age 21.   During his long career, he wrote many novels and short stories which take place either in historical or present-day Egypt. In the 1950s, he produced the Cairo Trilogy (‘Palace Walk’, ‘Palace of Dreams’, and ‘Sugar Street’) which is considered a landmark of his career and which I have read and much appreciated in its entirety.  He also wrote famous single novels such as Midaq Alley and many novellas of which “The Day the Leader was Killed” is one of the better ones.  In 1988 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Arab author to be honored.  Throughout his career Mahfouz supported the two ideals of socialism and democracy.

 When the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran condemned Salman Rushdie to death in 1989 for writing “Satanic Verses”, Mahfouz defended Rushdie.  For this, Mahfouz was put on an Islamic fundamentalist “death list”.  In 1994 Islamic extremists attempted to assassinate him by stabbing him in the neck.  Mahfouz suffered permanent nerve damage as a result, and this highly prolific writer was unable to write for more than a few minutes a day.  He died in 2006 at the age of 95.

 “The Day the Leader was Killed” is narrated in revolving chapters by each of the three main characters.  Elwan is a young man from Cairo who has been going with his girlfriend Randa for many years, but still can’t afford to marry her. He sets Randa free so she can find someone else to marry, even though he still loves her.  They both develop other relationships which turn out to have disastrous consequences.  Both Elwan and Randa narrate chapters of the novel as well as Elwan’s doting grandfather who provides some perspective and distance on the plight of the two young people. 

 The drama advances until the day that the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat is murdered, October 6, 1981. 

220px-Necip_Mahfuz “The Day the Leader was Killed” is not only the dramatic story of this young couple; it is also a commentary on the unrest and corruption of the Sadat years in Egypt.  Naguib Mahfouz is a capable enough writer to blend the personal drama and the complex political story into a short novella.  “The Day the Leader was Killed” would serve as a good introduction to the work of one of the giants in modern literature.

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