The Beggar is about a man who sees his passions and ideas dragged through the streets and spit upon to end up, once institutionalized in the full regalia of a new government, a dastardly version of what they should have been.
It is a novel, therefore, of the disappointment implicit in Egyptian politics.
Naguib Mahfouz was an oft critic of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He wrote The Beggar in 1965 when Egypt was well on its way to nationalization of most industrial sectors. Thirteen years into the new regime and it was clear that the first promises of the republic would fall short and, when delivered, come at great cost.
The Beggar‘s Omar is Mahfouz’s banner man for the disillusioned intellectuals of post-revolution Egypt.
Mustapha, a close friend of Omar’s, assimilated himself to the new order but Omar, though successful in work and family, never could. The two friends’ old comrade, Othman Khalil, spent 20 years in prison for his subversive politics. Othman never yielded to interrogation and safeguarded both Mustapha and Omar from state retribution when all three had pronounced socialism as the new way. Their crime, of course, was that of being too many years premature for the whims of Egyptian governance.
Each of Omar’s two friends is a piece of Omar’s own character. The Beggar is an attempt to show the disconnect between the yearnings of old Egypt and the new Egypt of Nasser’s republic. Reality rebuffed the luster of old ideals.
Omar’s politics are obsolete following the revolution, and his poetry is flimsy with the developments of science. Art has little importance anymore, ditto political theorizing.
He feels the futility of the law as an avenue for justice. Though he is a successful lawyer, Omar finds through his work that the realization of his former lust for socialism is contributory.
“Suppose you win the property settlement today and tomorrow the government confiscates the land?”
His client can only respond, “Don’t we live our lives knowing that our fate rests with God?”
This answer haunts Omar through much of the novel. Disillusionment on all sides.
He doesn’t understand where his passion has gone. He finds no fulfillment in his work. His daughters have disappointed him in their pursuits of things not in their natures. He no longer desires his wife.
Unable to take hold of anything, Omar breaks from his moorings and turns to debauchery.
Each of Omar’s affairs is as immediately gratifying and pathetically transient as his country’s politics have been. Each affair abases him further and further until Omar forsakes everything for drink and sex, running to the pyramids at the outskirts of Cairo, begging the dawn for some purpose with which to imbue his life.
His disease (as he and Mustapha call his disillusionment) and its resultant madness are extreme renditions of the intellectual class in the Egypt of the mid-1950s and ‘60s.
Truth is constantly changing as politics, constitutions and laws are picked up and discarded with abandon. Nasser’s Free Officers movement, which forced the resignation of King Farouk in 1952, ushered in a socialist republic that had little resemblance to the socialist politics of its first proponents.
Omar’s increasing madness and eventual dream state make us question his reliability. The ecstasy he finds while waking on the soft lawns of his new paradisiac home….the policemen running after Othman, disregarding Omar’s supine body as if he were not there…are we reliving 1935? If we are, is it an honest memory or is it formed from Omar’s regrets and new feeling of futility? If it isn’t, how has Omar found his ecstasy and how will he begin to live again?
— This review is the first in a three-part series on The Masthead that looks at Mahfouz’s critical novellas of the 1952 revolution and Nasser’s regime:
The Beggar · Naguib Mahfouz · 1965
Henry and al-Warraki translation · Anchor Books, 1986 · 143 pages, paperback