Naguib Mahfouz, Storyteller

What “The Arabian Nights” has to teach us about the compassion — and violence — of stories.

Naguib Mahfouz, Storyteller

FOR SEVEN YEARS, Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate, maintained the same Friday night schedule. One particular Friday — October 14, 1994 — Mafhouz left his Cairo apartment just before 5:00 p.m., the same as always. He stood on the pavement and waited for his friend, Dr. Fathi Hashem, a veterinarian, to drive him to a café by the Nile where he and his friends would gather to talk literature and politics. The ride usually took about 10 minutes.

When Hashem arrived that day, he gave Mahfouz his arm, walked with him, helped him settle into the car. Mahfouz, a slim, frail man of 82, relied on a cane by then, and wore glasses. When a man emerged from a nearby white Mercedes and walked straight to Mahfouz’s side of the vehicle, Hashem assumed it was a fan wanting to shake hands, to ask for an autograph. This sort of thing happened sometimes. The window had been rolled down. Mahfouz extended an arm

Once settled in the driver’s seat, Hashem looked over and realized Mahfouz was convulsing. At first, Hashem assumed the fan was shaking Mahfouz physically. “Are you mad?” he screamed at the man. The man made brief eye contact with Hashem before escaping in the Mercedes. Its license plates were from Suez, a seaport city in northern Egypt. The man had lodged a knife deep into the flesh of Mahfouz’s neck. The brown handle stuck out, resting against the shoulder. The blade had severed the nerve that ran down Mahfouz’s arm, the nerve that powered the hand with which he wrote. The blade had come very close to puncturing Mahfouz’s carotid artery, the causeway supplying blood to his face, his scalp, his brain.

Mahfouz said nothing as Hashem removed the knife. There was a hospital just across the street, which they rushed to. The doctor who admitted Mahfouz that afternoon remembered him as a tiny, diabetic man, hard of hearing and feeble of vision. A man with a weak heart. Mahfouz was operated on for five hours, before being transferred to an intensive care unit.


Naguib Mahfouz, born in 1911, wrote 34 novels, over 350 short stories, five plays, dozens of screenplays. At 28, he published his first novel, Abath al-Aqdar (The Game of Fates), and would write six more books before coming out with the “Cairo Trilogy,” the multi-generational saga of an Egyptian family, often considered his masterwork. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a Doubleday editor at the time of the trilogy’s translation, oversaw its publication in English, penciling suggestions in the margins of Palace of Desire (1957), the second book of the three.

It was the trilogy that cemented Mahfouz’s place in global literature, and on December 10, 1988, a day before Mahfouz’s 77th birthday, he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person from the Arab world to do so. A few days later, Mahfouz received his first death threat. The controversy surrounding a story he had written over three decades previously — first serialized in an Egyptian newspaper, then published in Lebanon as the novel Children of Gebelawi (1959) — had been resurrected. The story, which came after a publishing hiatus following the trilogy’s success, was an allegorized look at the origins of the monotheistic religions, including Islam; ambitious in scope, it took jabs at the state of Egyptian society. One radical cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, suggested that the novel was blasphemous and heretical, and that Mahfouz deserved to be fatwa-ed, as Salman Rushdie had been earlier that same year. The Egyptian government offered Mahfouz protection at the time, which he declined, not wanting to live his life being trailed by guards.


The first book Rushdie published after he had been fatwa-ed was Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a work inspired by The Arabian Nights. The last major novel Mahfouz wrote, Arabian Nights and Days (1982), also pulled from these classic tales, known in Arabic as Alf layla wa-layla. When under fire, both men, it seems, turned to the same source. Both turned to an enchanted past in an attempt to conjure something new.

Rushdie’s novel, intended for young readers, is said to have begun as a bedtime story for his own son. The central character, Haroun, is the child of a professional storyteller. When Haroun’s mother, tired of her husband’s endless tales, runs off with the neighbor, Haroun is crushed. The community swells with gossip, and Haroun falls under its sway. He confronts his father. “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” he asks and, in asking, stunts his father’s imagination. Time freezes, the known world falls away; Haroun enters a magical realm to search for his father’s storytelling power, to have it restored.

What use do stories serve, Haroun asks, and we might wonder the same. Under the threat of death, Rushdie, like Mahfouz, didn’t retreat from fiction but recommitted to it instead. The Arabian Nights itself seems to affirm this choice, its tales often about characters who find themselves in trouble but manage to story-tell their way out. Stories can also serve up the truth, showing us our histories, our patterns of injustice, our anxieties and injuries. They can push against boundaries, opening us up to worlds of imaginative possibility. By the third chapter of his novel, Rushdie allows Haroun a similar realization. “He knew what he knew,” Rushdie writes of the boy. “That the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.”

The magical worlds conjured in the original Arabian Nights are said to date back to India and Persia of the eighth century. No one really knows who wrote the tales, but by the ninth century the stories had migrated to Iraq, with other stories — Arabic stories — added to the compilation. The Nights sprouted and traveled further from there, eventually being translated into English in 1706.

There are many versions of The Arabian Nights, but the initial frame story, the story that binds the others together, is always the same. It begins with Shahryār, a sultan who ruled over a Persian Empire that extended to India and bordered on China. One day, finding his wife locked in an embrace with another man, Sultan Shahryār flies into a jealous rage. He vows to marry a virgin every night, overseeing her execution the following dawn, thereby ensuring he will never again be cheated on. This cycle continues for three years, until Scheherazade, the witty, beautiful, well-read daughter of his vizier, volunteers to marry him. It is her secret intent to stop the carnage.

The night they’re married, Scheherazade begins telling Shahryār a story. She tells it, and tells it, building suspense, but does not finish, pausing strategically at dawn, on a cliffhanger. The sultan, captivated, wanting to know how the story ends, decides to keep Scheherazade alive another day. One day becomes another, becomes a year, becomes more, and all the while Scheherazade weaves her stories: stories of genies and jinn, of magic carpets and hope, turning her Arabian nights into The Arabian Nights. By the time she gets to the end, she has birthed three sons and the sultan is deeply in love with her, no longer tormented by feelings of betrayal and revenge.

Scheherazade demonstrates the potential of good storytelling. From her we learn that stories have the capacity to extinguish anger, that they can lull and tame the murderous man. Stories, she shows, can help us empathize, can set the imagination alight. Yet they can also teach us to hate. A full-throated story broadcast, for example, to a nation can grant a society permission to denounce, to exploit, to brutalize certain groups of people. It can sanction the inexcusable. A compelling story, told forcefully, told well, told often enough, can provide the reason and momentum necessary to make a murderer out of an ordinary man.

An hour after Mahfouz was admitted to the Cairo Police Authority Hospital that October evening, an official statement was released, announcing that an arrest was imminent. The following morning, seven young men were taken into custody. An eighth was killed by police gunfire. Eventually, nine others would be rounded up and charged. All had ties to an Islamist group, the same group whose sheikh had taken issue with Children of Gebelawi. The sheikh himself was on trial in New York, having threatened to bomb various American landmarks.

The 16 men would be tried in military court, where they would deny any wrongdoing, chanting radical slogans during the hearings. Three of the suspects would be found not guilty, while 11 would be given prison sentences of various lengths. Two of the men would be hanged.

Naguib Mahfouz did not attend the trials. He remained in bed, convalescing, trying to regain control of his writing hand. He had lost an enormous amount of blood, requiring several transfusions. Not much could be done. The nerve damage he had suffered was permanent. He would be unable to write for more than a few minutes a day for the rest of his life. After the incident, until he died in 2006, Mahfouz resigned himself to living under the constant watch of a bodyguard.


There are many ways to tell a story. The one who does the telling determines the victim, the survivor; gets to say that someone is not a deviant or a menace but a warrior, fighting for freedom. A story can be told as a tragedy, as an opportunity, as an act of fate. Tone and voice matter, maybe even as much as plot does. Repetition matters too, in that the more a story is reiterated, the more entrenched it becomes, a pathway worn in the brain.

The young men who plotted the attack on Mahfouz followed the teachings of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman — the blind sheikh who would eventually be found guilty of conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center, of planning a widespread “war of urban terrorism” in the United States. Cassettes of the sheikh’s sermons circulated freely through Cairo’s back alleys; they were popular, and the sheikh’s name was well known, even revered in certain circles.

Language is power, and the sheikh understood this. Words, he knew, can push us to hate. Once molded into a weapon, language can instruct a man to kill another, to kill himself. Words voice injustice, and if the injustice can be pinned to a person, to a system, to a way of life, then words allow for lines to be drawn; for the creation of a dehumanized enemy; for the creation of categories, Us versus Them. When language is amplified and megaphoned and disseminated strategically, it can give rise to a movement, can launch a march, can steal an election, can incite violence. It is through words that the powerless finally see what it is to be in control.


Until Scheherazade came along, the story belonged to the sultan; the virgins were caught in the trawl of his narrative: voiceless, nameless young victims. Once Scheherazade began spinning her words, she was able to weave a safety net out of them, taking control of the system, the outcome; saving the women of that kingdom, saving herself.

In his adaptation of The Arabian Nights, Mahfouz picks up where the original tales left off. Scheherezade has finished telling the last story. The sultan is beside her, freed of his blood thirst, the massacre a memory, and yet Scheherezade is miserable. Confined in an unhappy marriage, she feels no love for the sultan. “I smell blood whenever he gets near me,” she explains.

Mahfouz paints the sultan as a sad, bewildered man, no longer a tyrant, but unforgiven by his wife. Mahfouz sends the sultan on a journey: an attempt at peace, perhaps at redemption. The sultan encounters Sinbad, listens as the mariner recounts his own journeys — sailing the seas east of Africa, south of Asia; voyages that introduce him to realms fantastic, mystic, blurring the lines between the real and the imagined. The sultan listens to the tales in growing wonderment, his sense of pride deflating. “By the time Sinbad comes to the end of his story,” explains Mahfouz scholar Rasheed El-Enany, “Shahryār’s vicarious suffering has reached a climax and the barrier between lived experience and conveyed experience is lifted. At this moment the truth is laid bare before his eyes and the full horror of his past life is recognized: the art of storytelling has exercised its cathartic effect.” It is catharsis, and it is also pain, remorse. It is compassion, at last.


Author Rebecca Solnit writes that empathy is foremost “an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.” To put yourself in another’s shoes, to do this in earnest, she says, is first to tell yourself their story. It is to allow for a collapsing of the divisions that separate, a collapsing of the self. This collapse yields to a widening, an understanding of other versions, other truths, other ways. The collapse brings with it revelation: we have been unkind, we have been lost, we have murdered the innocents. It brings knowing: the sultan can finally see.

Mahfouz devotes the last story of his Arabian Nights to Shahryār’s quest for truth. Following Sinbad, he is led to a rock by a river. The rock shifts, revealing a place “bright without a light, cool without a window, and redolent with the scent of roses without a garden.” It is a place unbounded by time, limitless in joy. It is Heaven.

The sultan encounters a golden door, but entrance is forbidden. Curious, tempted, Shahryār disobeys the warning, cracks the door open, and this is enough. He is sent away, back to earth, the price he pays for weakness. The cycle continues. There is no apple, no Eve, nothing of Satan’s lure. There is only Shahryār and his choice. The sultan returns to earth a changed man, a better man. Part of him will remain tethered to that wondrous place, to the idea of a world he now knows is a possibility — to a world where we see things as we were always meant to, a world where we see things as they truly are.


Hilal Isler is a writer whose recent work has appeared in the Paris Review, Literary Hub, Catapult, and The Rumpus. She holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and is a 2019 Roxane Gay Fellow with the Jack Jones Literary Arts Association. 

LARB Contributor

Hilal Isler is a writer whose recent work has appeared in the Paris Review, Literary Hub, Catapult, and The Rumpus. She holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and is a 2019 Roxane Gay Fellow with the Jack Jones Literary Arts Association. 


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