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Mahfouz's Zaabalawi as Parable

Levels of the Parable
  • On one level, the narrator’s pursuit of the Islamic mystic Zaabalawi is the story of a terminally ill man desperately searching for a miracle worker to cure him.
  • On another level, his pursuit surely can be seen as a search for piety, mystical experience, perhaps even God himself.

The story’s events are to be read as a commentary on the search for religious knowledge:

  • Those with wealth, such as the lawyer Qamar, have little knowledge of Zaabalawi or, if you will, God. Zaabalawi, like piety or God, is a distant memory the wealthy have long laid aside.
  • Those with civil authority, like the local district shiekh, relay more on their own ability to rationally plan and control the search. But this does not guarantee them that they can command the divine.  Indeed, for them, God is only a nagging memory.  The shiekh admits, "I myself haven’t seen him for years, having been somewhat preoccupied with the cares of the world" (2533-34).
  • On the other hand, the calligrapher and the musician have a deep sense of indebtedness to the mystic. Gad owes his greatest moments of musical inspiration to the saint.  Easily and happily, he admits that one cannot control the comings and goings of Zaabalawi, for saints (and God) refuse to operate on our timetables: "He might well come right now; on the other hand I mightn’t see him till death" (2535).
  • The purpose of the drunkard is a bit harder to discern, but I would argue that the role of Hagg Wanas represents "spiritual drunkenness":

In Islamic symbolism (particularly that of Sufism) drunkenness is representative of spiritual ecstasy. Wanas’ treatment of the narrator and the narrator’s dream can be understood as the existential state one must have in order to receive a visit from God, including a loss of "willpower," "memory," and "the future" (2537). Each of these then represents something of the conditions for a spiritual quest.   If we are dependent upon our own abilities, our own perceptions, and our own present experience, we are not as likely to be ready to receive the unexpected.

What is the Lesson? (Questions for Consideration)

  1. In the story, can God be found, or is he always just beyond our ability to experience him?
  2. Is the narrator's drunken dream a mystical experience or a distraction that keeps him from meeting Zaabalawi, that is, God?
  3. The narrator concludes, "Yes, I have to find Zaabalawi" (2216), but are we to conclude hopefully that he will or sadly that he (and therefore we) cannot? 
  4. As a Christian I am also haunted (or at least uneasy) about the question of what kind of God Mahfouz’s parable refers to. (For example, there are important differences in the Christian understanding of God as triune from the Jewish and Muslim understanding.) Am I, then, to read this story as a lesson in the struggles we all have in understanding God, or as a lesson in the difficulty for Muslims of understanding Allah, or something else more complicated?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding