Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

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1963, published in the collection of stories, God's World (Dunya Allah).

Language & Form

Short story; original in Arabic; first person narrator. Recommended translation: Denys Johnson-Davies.


The protagonist is afflicted with a disease which doctors are unable to cure and sets out on a quest for Zaabalawi, a holy man reputed to possess healing powers. While in this search, the protagonist visits a variety of figures including a religious lawyer, a book seller, a government officer, a calligrapher, and a musician. Not able to find any definite answers as to the whereabouts of Zaabalawi, he begins to doubt his existence. Eventually, however, while in a drunken sleep in a tavern, he dreams that he is in a beautiful garden and experiences a state of harmony and contentment. He awakes to find that Zaabalawi was with him but has now disappeared again. Though upset at having missed him, the protagonist is encouraged by his dream and determined to continue his search for Zaabalawi.

Main Issues

  • Search for spiritual fulfillment in a world of failed traditions and a materialistic age ruled by greed; quest for truth in a changing world of faded superstitions and advancing science and technology.

  • Concern with social and cultural changes associated with urbanization (the heavily populated city of Cairo) and modernization (business activity, Western influences).

  • Attack on fossilized religious institutions; only certain figures such as artists (the musician, the calligrapher) and the drunk seem to be in contact with the truth symbolized by Zaabalawi.

  • An allegory hinting at the possible human significance of religion and its supposedly transcendental symbols; an attempt to redefine God in human, social, and earthly terms.

  • In Mahfouz's vision those who only seek personal gain and profit are distanced from the truth and genuine fulfillment; the happiness of the individual can only come through social engagement and contact with others, the merging of the self into a harmonious human collectivity.

  • In awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Mahfouz, the Swedish Academy of Letters noted that "through works rich in nuance -- now clearsightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous -- [Mahfouz] has formed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind."

Study Questions

Who is Zaabalawi? How does a popular song represent Zaabalawi? Why does the narrator need to find Zaabalawi? Is the story dealing with a literal or a metaphorical illness? What does "that illness for which no one possesses a remedy" stand for? What are the causes and the symptoms of this disease? If this story is about a quest, what is the narrator ultimately looking for? Is the figure of Zaabalawi an allegory? If so, what does it represent?

How does this story criticize traditional religion and beliefs? What is the narrator's attitude toward religion? How is it related to Mahfouz's attitude toward religion? Is religion sufficient to heal the narrator's illness or to solve the problems of his society? Why or why not? What is the alternative to religion which Mahfouz suggests in this story? How is this alternative also a form of spirituality? How does Mahfouz define spirituality?

How does this story criticize modern, secular society? What is the meaning of the narrator's visits to the religious lawyer, the bookseller, and the district officer? How do they receive him? What do these figures represent? Are they close to Zaabalawi? Why or why not? Is it significant that the offices of the religious lawyer are located in the Chamber of Commerce Building? What is the main effect of modern life on human society and relationships? How do people see and treat each other in the modern, commercial and business world?

Why is Zaabalawi said to be in hiding from the police? What is he accused of? By whom? Are people like the religious lawyer and the district officer involved in such persecution and driving away of Zaabalawi? How? Why? What relationship does Zaabalawi have to religion, business, or politics?

How do the visits to the musician and the calligrapher compare or contrast with those to others in the story? How are these characters different? How do they receive the narrator? How close are they to Zaabalawi? Why? How about their professions? How is what they do connected to their relationship with Zaabalawi? How is art different from commerce, religion, and politics? Why does the musician tell the narrator that his visit has not been in vain? What comes out of it? Does that bring the narrator closer to Zaabalawi?

What is the significance of the bar scene? Is this the sort of place where one would expect a spiritual revelation? How about the figure of the drunk, Hagg Wanas? How close is he to Zaabalawi? How is this significant? What is the meaning of the place where he sits in "a corner … behind a large pillar with mirrors on all four sides"? Is this an allusion to the "five pillars of Islam"? If so, what sort of a comment does it make? Why does Hagg Wanas insist that the narrator get drunk? Why is the narrator reluctant to drink at first? Does this have anything to do with his religion? What is Muslims' attitude toward drinking? What is the symbolic meaning of alcohol and drinking in this case? The wine has initially a fiery effect; with the second glass he narrator loses "all willpower"; with the third glass, he loses his memory, and with the fourth, "the future vanished." What is suggested by these effects? What does each stage of his drinking mean? Are the four drinks in any way connected to the four mirrors? What does Mahfouz intend with this scene?

What is the significance of the dream vision which the narrator experiences while drunk? What does he see? What sort of a place is it? How does he feel? What makes those experiences possible? How are those experiences connected to the figure of Zaabalawi? How are the narrator's visions and experiences during the dream connected to human social life and its possibilities?

What does Hagg Wanas reveal to the narrator concerning Zaabalawi's visit during his sleep? What does Zaabalawi want? Will he take money? Anything else? How is that connected to the meaning of the story and the possible allegorical significance of Zaabalawi? What is it that the narrator has to understand in order to be healed of his illness?

Why does the narrator liken the regaining of consciousness after his dream to "a policeman's grip"? How does the real world compare to that of his dream visions? How distant is the ideal from the real? Can that distance be bridged? Is the ending of the story optimistic or pessimistic?


to come

Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jung-Joon Ihm in the creation of this page

Last updated: 11/19/2004


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