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Critical Analysis of Nagiub Mahfouz’s story “The Mummy Awaken”

Critical Analysis

"The Mummy Awakens” has all the trappings of a mummy story, complete with the obligatory disclaimer that prefaces many tales of the supernatural. It isn’t just any mummy who wakes, it is General Hor, likely based on the last 18th Dynasty ruler, as Stock notes. Other pharaohs have been brought to life in fiction, but Hur isn’t like the lumbering, enigmatic but ultimately becomes like a real, speaking, moving, and living character.

Like most of Pharaoh Tales “The mummy Awakens” is also very much enjoyable. This is a story of an exploration of human nature. This is a tale with an overt political message set in a satire on the mummy genre. It is a satire on modern Egypt’s relationship with the old; the story, written in a clear, easy-flowing style, paints a vivid picture of social injustice. Mahfouz’s works range from the reimagining of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. As the author has himself said, "I am the son of two civilizations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these, seven thousand years old, is the Pharaonic civilization; the second, one thousand four hundred years old, is the Islamic civilization.”

To see his works as mainly political fables or allegories is fallacious. It is a most misleading simplification, with an exception of “The Mummy Awakens”, since there are many levels of interpretation and reception. His short stories are works of art. They picture Egyptian milieus from the most ancient of times to contemporary everyday life, deal with questions of broad human concern, raise philosophical and existential questions. The author is always guided by a belief in Egyptian continuity and greatness, from time to time shaken to its foundations by tumultuous history, the corruption of thought, and disaster. In his stories, there is a staunch belief in moral rights and a constant seeking for Egyptian identity behind the weft of illusion and reality. A dweller in truth, unable to define it, Mahfouz is – as the investigator perpetually pursuing his own self.

In most of the literary works written after WWI, there is a close reference to imperialism. No matter how deep goes the setting of any literary piece into the annals of history, it is, in fact, written for the present. The story “The Mummy Awakens” also deals with the theme of imperialism. This theme is stressed upon through the character of Pasha Mehmud al-Arn’uti who is stocking every valuable relic of Egypt in his mansion. He is not only occupying these relics but also intended to transport them to France if needed. As he says to his friends, “As long as my own artistic conscience feels unhappy about the possibility of these wonders of art remaining here among this animal populace, you can rest assured that they will never stay buried here.”

Pasha hates and despises the Egyptian people like a true imperialist. For him, they cannot be called even human beings. They are crude, beast, and domesticated animals. He terms them as “domesticated animals, docile by nature and submissive by temperament.”

The frightening economic disparity among the masses is always a direct result of ineffective political policies. This economic gulf is also present in the story. The peasant who steals meat baked for Pasha’s dog represents the exploited community whose life is worse than the life of dogs belonging to the privileged class. After ordering his servants to take the peasant down to the police station Pasha looks at professor Daryen and remarks: “Now you can get some idea of the difference between down-and-outs in our country and yours, can’t you? In your case, they will steal a loaf of bread if they are hungry, but here loaves of bread aren’t hard to get and so they are only satisfied with cooked meat if you please!”

Pasha’s statement carries dual satire. First, he considers the “down-and-outs’ of his country inferior to those belonging to France. Here, he forgets that he is prospering on the wealth of these underdogs who die with hunger while his beloved Beamish eats meat, bones, milk, and broth daily. Second, it might be an allusion to the people who are lazy and do nothing to ward off hunger. They do have opportunities to earn their bread and butter but are unwilling to exploit them. A part of Pasha’s statement can be referred to in this connection, “….. but here loaves of bread aren’t hard to get and so they are only satisfied with cooked meat….” The episode of beating the ‘thief’ is a symbol of misery blanketing the life of the peasant community. It presents a sheer contrast between the privileged and the deprived classes.

Mummy of Hur can be taken as the spirit of Egypt that speaks after a silence of 3000 years. The mummy awakes when Pasha’s greed crosses all the limits. The act of excavation can be taken as any possible danger posed to the greatest Egyptian heritage. The injection of this event into the story can also be interpreted as the role of history curing the ills of the present. The way Hur admonishes Pasha and reminds him of his origin shows the social, economic, and political changes that occurred through centuries. He addresses Pasha as “….. Don’t you remember how I brought you here from the North during one of our successful campaigns? Do you pretend not to know me?….. your white skin which is a sure sign of your slave status gives you away.”
Again he says how the slaves of yesterday have become the masters of the present: “What’s happened in the world so that the mighty are brought low and humbles are raised up high? Have slaves become masters and masters slave?”

Hur is well aware of the fact that the peasant community of Egypt is suffering a lot at the hands of men like Pasha who knows nothing but plundering, exploiting, and inflicting pain on others. Their inhuman behavior forces others to starvation. Their dogs prosper on meat and milk while their human fellows suffer unspeakable miseries. In this regard, Hur thunders at the Pasha and says, “You beat him with your cane because he was hungry, and you forced his fellow human beings to the beating for you. Are Egyptians really starving in their own country? A curse upon you, slave!”

To conclude we can say that the writer has very skillfully mixed past with the present, myth with reality, and supernatural with the world of vision and insight. He does so to achieve his purpose of bringing out social, economic, and political disparities existing in society. He makes the reader understand how the disgusting and horrible clutches of imperialism and exploitation render the life of the poor miserable. As it has been commented in Philadelphia Inquirer, “Mahfouz presents us with a different concept of the world and makes it real. His genius is not just that he shows us Egyptian colonial society in all its complexity; it is that he makes us look through the vision of his vivid characters and see people and ideas that no longer seem so alien.”

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