This excerpt is from Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, a parable-like short novel published in Arabic in 1983; the English translation is forthcoming this year from Doubleday. It is the journal of a traveler, desolate over the thwarting of his marriage to Halima, the daughter of a Sheikh. He sets out with a caravan to explore the non-Islamic world, the final goal a mysterious and distant country named Gebel, from which no one has ever returned to tell the tale. The following episode describes his arrival at the first stop on the journey—the Land of Mashriq.
The column of camels began to move off to the rhythm of the singing of the cameleer and my heart became immersed in the tender pain of saying farewell. Deep within me there stirred memories of my mother and of Halima, wrapped around in a grief that encompassed my whole motherland. In the heart of the darkness I mumbled, “O God, bless the steps I take.”
The darkness began to clear and streaks of light loomed on the horizon until it became tinged with a smiling redness, and the eyebrow of the sun emerged, unrolling light over a limitless desert. The caravan showed itself like a dancing line on a cosmic surface challenging sublimity. My body plunged into a successively monotonous movement under waves of gushing light, a gliding breeze, a heat that rose upwards giving warning of its ferocity, and a constant landscape of yellow sands and a clear blue sky. I took refuge within myself from the single panorama and sank into insistent memories, bitter emotions, and rosy dreams. At every spring of water we would make a stop for food, ablutions, prayers, and conversation. I got to know a few of the merchants accompanying me, who cast strange glances upon the sole traveler.
“I shall go right to the land of Gebel,” I explained boastfully.
“And what is Gebel?” one of them inquired scornfully.
A second man said proudly.“We’re in the lands of Islam.”
A third said, “Trading is part of being civilized and God has ordered that we should be civilized.”
A fourth said, “The Prophet, may the blessings and peace of God be upon him, was a merchant.”
“And he was also a traveler and a man who emigrated from his place of birth,” I said, as though making excuses for myself.
“You’ll fritter away your fortune in traveling and will return home poor.”
“He who believes in work will not know poverty,” I said, suppressing my anger.
I had a respect for trading, but I believed that life was as much a journey as it was commerce. The days followed one another, long and heavy, hot during the day, cold at night. I saw the stars as I had never seen them before, sublime, enchanting, infinite, and I knew that my sadness for my mother was greater than I had imagined and that my love for Halima was too strong to be influenced by the night and the day and the stars and looking towards the unknown. We had been going for nearly a month when from afar the walls of Mashriq came into view, at which al-Qani ibn Hamdis said, “We shall camp at the Blue Well and shall enter the land at midnight.”
We prepared ourselves, and when we had prayed the evening prayer, I heard someone whisper, “The last prayer until we return from the lands of idolatry.”
I was extremely disturbed, but I was preparing myself for a new and long life, so I said to myself, “God is forgiving and merciful.”
Just before midnight the caravan approached the new land. We were met at the entrance by a man naked but for a loincloth. In the light of the torch flares he appeared tall and thin; my companions said he was the director of customs. The man spoke in a stentorian voice.
“Welcome to Mashriq, capital of the land of Mashriq. It greets traders and travelers, and he who keeps himself to himself will meet only with what is good and beautiful.”
The caravan entered between two ranks of guards. The traders continued on to the market, while a guide took me to the inn of the foreigners. The guide made the camel kneel down in front of a large pavilion like a barracks. When he carried my traveling bags inside, I realized that it was the inn. It was divided into two wings separated by an extended reception hall; each wing contained adjoining rooms whose sides were constructed of hair cloth. The room chosen for me was simple, even primitive; its floor was sandy, and it possessed a bed (which consisted of a wooden board laid on the ground), a chest for clothes, and cushions in the middle. No sooner had I finished checking through my bags than I hurried to bed with the eagerness of someone deprived of normal sleep for a full month. I slept deeply until woken by the day’s heat. As though unwell, I rose from my bed and passed through into the reception hall, which was crammed with guests, all of whom were seated in front of their rooms having breakfast. A short man, slightly stout, wearing only a loincloth, came up to me.
“I am Fam, the owner of the inn,” he said, smiling. “Did you have a good night?”
“Fine, thank you,” I said, with the sweat pouring down my forehead.
“Shall I bring you breakfast?”
“I’d really like to have a wash,” I said with longing.
He led me to the end of the reception hall, and drew back a curtain, where I found what I needed for washing and for combing my hair and small beard. Returning to my room, I found that Fam had brought a small round table and was laying out breakfast for me.
“Can I make my prayers in my room?” I asked.
“Someone might see you,” he warned, “and you would run the risk of trouble.”
He brought me a dish with some dried dates, milk, and barley bread. I ate with pleasure till I had satisfied my hunger.
“I used to love traveling,” he told me.
“Are you from Mashriq?” I asked.
“I’m originally from the desert. Then I took up residence in Mashriq.”
I was delighted to find he was a former traveler.
“The land of Gebel is the ultimate goal of my journey,” I said.
“It is the goal of many. But material considerations prevented me from reaching it.”
“What do you know about it, Mr. Fam?” I inquired eagerly. “Nothing,” he said, smiling, “except that it is sometimes described as the miracle of the age. And yet I have never met a single man who has visited it.”
An inner voice told me that I would be the first human being to be given the chance of touring the land of Gebel and of making known its secret to the world.
“Are you staying long in Mashriq?” he asked.
“Ten days. After that I shall proceed with the caravan of al-Qani ibn Hamdis.”
“Excellent. Go, look, and enjoy your time. It’ s enough for you to wear a loincloth and nothing more.”
“I can’ t go out without a cloak,” I said disapprovingly.
“You’ll see for yourself,” he said, laughing. “I forgot to ask you your name.”
“Qindil Muhammad al-Innabi.”
He raised his hand to his head in salutation and went off. At noon I left the inn wrapped round in a light, loosely woven cloak and wearing my turban to protect myself from the sun. I was astonished at the heat of spring and wondered what the heat of summer would be like. On leaving the inn I was appalled by two things: the nakedness and the empty space.
The people, women and men alike, were as naked as the day they were born. Nakedness there is a common place; it attracts no attention and arouses no interest. Everyone goes his own way, finding nothing strange about it, apart from foreigners like myself who are wearing clothes. Their bodies are bronze-colored and thin, not gracefully so but apparently from undernourishment, though they mostly looked contented, even cheerful. I found it difficult to avoid a sense of abnormality in the clothes I was strutting around in; I found even greater difficulty in turning away my gaze from exciting spectacles of nudity which fired my blood. “What land is this that hurls a young man like me into the flames of temptation!”
The other strange thing was this vast, empty space; it was as though I had moved from one desert to another. Was this in truth the capital city of Mashriq? Where were the palaces? The houses? The streets? The alleyways? Nothing but open ground, with grass growing along the edges, on which cattle grazed. Here and there were groupings of tents set up haphazardly; in front were gathered women and young girls, spinning or milking cows and goats. They too were naked; and though possessed of a certain beauty this was hidden by filth, neglect, and poverty. In fact I criticize too harshly the outward signs of misery in this pagan country, which, being pagan, did perhaps have some excuse. But what excuse could I make for similar signs in my own Islamic country? “Look, record, and admit the bitter truth.”
While my eyes were roving round in surprise and perplexity, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sensation of being passionately in love, a feeling drawn out of the depths by the lover hidden within me. The memory of Halima overpowered me and her image enveloped the vastness with the warmth of sunrays. For a time I was at a loss; but then I became aware of a young girl running from the direction of the inn, and moving like an arrow towards a dense crowd, where she sank into the torrential mass and disappeared from sight. Perhaps I had spotted her previously; perhaps I had spotted her while I was occupied with the sights and she had made her impression when I was half asleep or in a daze. It was she who was behind the deep emotional agitation that swept over me. She was in truth Mashriqi, bronze and naked, but in her face she very closely resembled Halima, my lost love. I decided to be content with the thought that she was the Halima of Mashriq, and that I would see her again. I roamed about from place to place, seeing nothing new, enduring a lassitude that became more and more intense, with my heart crushed by grief and distress and my imagination searching for the Halima of Mashriq.
Away from home, I am remolded in a new form; in the depths of me there come into existence bold, impetuous longings to satisfy desires, to pursue adventures. I relinquish one civilization and give myself over to a new one. I yearn for life far away from observers: observers who, while manifesting themselves outwardly, also throb within oneself …
—translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies