“We are a people more given to defeat than to victory. The strain that spells out despair has become deeply ingrained in us because of the countless defeats we have had to endure. We have thus learned to love sad songs, tragedies, and heroes who are martyrs. All our leaders have been martyrs… As for this victorious, smug one, he has broken the rule; his victory constituted a challenge which gave rise to new feelings, emotions for which we were quite unprepared. He exacted a change of tune, one which had long been familiar to us. For this, we cursed him, our hearts full of rancor. And, ultimately, he was to keep for himself the fruits of victory, leaving us his Intifah, which only spelled out poverty and corruption. This is the crux of the matter.”
Anwar al-Sadat ruled Egypt from 1971 to 1981. During his term as president, he purged supporters of his predecessor (Gamel Abdul Nasser) from the government, broke Egypt’s close ties with the Soviet Union and launched the 6th October 1973 war against Israel, then guided his country into a peaceful co-existence with Israel. He also introduced Intifah, an open-door economic policy that sought to do away with Nasser’s socialist programs. While Intifah fueled the rise of wealthy citizens, it proved detrimental to the middle class and working poor. Naguib Mahfouz examines its impact on an ordinary family in The Day the Leader was Killed (1997).
Three people take turns narrating this novella – Muhtshimi Zayed, a pious and retired old man, his grandson Elwan Fawwaz Muhtashimi, and Elwan’s childhood friend and fiancée, Randa Sulayman Mubarak. Elwan lives with his parents; he shares a room with his grandfather. He cannot afford to rent his own place, although he is employed. The combined household income (Elwan’s and both his parents) is barely enough to cover their expenses. Randa also lives with her parents, in the same apartment building. Elwan and Randa are desperate to marry, move out of their parents’ homes and start their married life together. They are, afterall, in love. But the dream of a future together remains out of their reach.
“Neither she nor I have a solution. We have only love and determination. Our engagement was announced in the Nasser era and we were made to face reality in the days of the Infitah. We are sank in the whirlpool of a mad world.”
Randa is beautiful, well-educated and employed, and the pressure on Elwan to do right by her is tremendous. The couple works in the same office and even the interaction with their boss reflects the strain of their long engagement. In the end, Elwan breaks the engagement. This sets of a series of unfortunate compromises and events that culminate in a desperate act on October 6th, 1981, the day that Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated.
Ordinary, simple, pure and true; a combination of these is what makes this story so strong. Elwan’s family is ordinary middle class. His grandfather Muhtashimi, though pious, is certainly not a fanatic. He has friends, including Randa’s grandfather, who are not religious. Muhtashimi dotes on his grandson and muses often about death. Elwan’s parents are too busy working and don’t make much of an immediate impact on the story. They are supportive of, and worried for, their son; as parents often are. Randa is sweet, pragmatic and practical. What she wants most, at this stage in her life, is to settle down with Elwan. (Here, I commend Mahfouz for an even-handed depiction of a modern Egyptian woman). Elwan is the classic idealistic young man. He abhors the Sadat era and yearns for the heroes of his youth. He is not the type to lead a revolution but like hordes of young people, would readily play his part. And what is more ordinary, simple and pure but a childhood friendship that has blossomed into love? A couple that wants to spend the rest of their lives together – quite an ordinary desire. What is extraordinary is how socioeconomic conditions shatter all that in Mahfouz’s stunning portrayal of urban Cairo in the 1980s. A portrayal framed by the impending death of a pious old man and the assassination of unpopular leader.
What can I say about Naguib Mahfouz’s immense talent and works that have not been said already? He remains one of my favorite authors. The Day the Leader was Killed is quintessentially Mahfouz. It is a deeply insightful, skillful and kind exploration of Egyptian life. And it ultimately damns the political establishment. All of which translates into a most enjoyable book.
On the translation: The novella is translated from the original Arabic by Malak Mashem. The translation is good – judging by the three distinct voices of the narrators.