Language, Setting, and Narrative Technique
The pharaonic setting of Naguib Mahfouz’s tales is enhanced by his straightforward writing and the viewpoint of his protagonists, which sometimes borders on naivety or wondering. ‘The Mummy Awakens’ is set in modern Egypt as we are told by the narrator at the very outset of the story,” I paid a visit to the late lamented Mahmud Pasha al-Arna’uti in his huge country mansion in Upper Egypt” but is influenced, as ever, by the ancients. For Mahfouz, Egypt was not just a place, but an idea—even a racial myth, drawn from historical sources through the filter of personal experience but this didactic vision of Egypt—which he viewed as the cradle of civilization and wisdom, and a potential model for modern enlightenment—resulted in a number of highly effective stories and “The Mummy Awakens” is one of them.
This tale finds a Francophile Turkish/Albanian pasha discussing art and his contempt for the native Egyptians, descendant from the ancients, with urbane Westerners in his palace. Enticed by the prospect of finding ancient relics on the palace grounds, and despite his contempt for the locals, he allows a native Shaykh to dig. The results are, to say the least, as surprising to the Pasha as they are to the reader. A mummy from the Eighteenth Dynasty awakens in fury to reproach Pasha for his arrogance. The story conducts timeless truths over the course of thousands of years. Summoning the power and mystery of a legendary civilization, it exemplifies the artistry that has made Mahfouz among the most revered writers in world literature.
Along with the setting, Mahfouz has used language and different other literary devices to exploit his thematic concerns. He uses literary devices such as allegory, symbolism, and experimental narrative techniques. About his use of language, Denys Johnson has aptly stated: “Mahfouz also rendered Arabic literature a great service by developing, over the years, a form of language in which many of the archaisms and clichés that had become fashionable were discarded, a language that could serve as an adequate instrument for the writing of fiction in these times.”
The Mummy Awakens is told through a first-person narrative point of view. It involves a myth from ancient Egypt that is why the writer tells us about it. He wants to make us ready to take seriously whatever he is going to say during the course of narration. The writer hands the narrative over to another person, but before doing so he introduces the narrator to us as a learned intellectual. He is ‘honest’ and ‘unimaginative’ Professor Dryen. Daryen is a professor of Egyptology at Fu’ad the First University in Cairo. He tries to convince the readers to believe him in quite a suggestive manner. He says, "I am deeply embarrassed to tell this tale–for some of its events violate the laws of reason and by nature altogether. If this were merely fiction, then it would not cause me to feel such embarrassment. Yet it happened in the realm of reality….”
The writer wants to establish a ‘willing suspension of disbelief that is quite a poetic device. Slowly with a careful argumentative style and selection of words, he succeeds in doing so. The result of this effort is that when we confront with an awakening, walking and talking mummy, we believe every word spoken by it. The use of words like ‘slave’, ‘speak’, ‘plunder’ and ‘my descendant’ in Hur’s statements seem to be used for creating a sort of poet justice. Hur admonishes the Pasha by using harsh words like, “why aren’t you groveling at my feet?” These words spoken by mummy create a balance between Hur’s treatment with Pasha and Pasha’s treatment with the poor peasant.
In the narrative stream of his short stories, the reader encounters a great variety of characters, people described as soon as they appear before us. They leave lasting impressions but also hold back something essential that does not come within our grasp. They turn up and disappear; leaving traces and clues but remain enigmatic, ambiguous. They are figures in a greater story or pieces in a puzzle. Their lives are texts, continually being written and rewritten, as is Egyptian history. Their appearance changes as the context alters with time and setting. Likewise, their meaning and purport depend upon viewpoint and perspective, and there are many layers of interpretation, from the gross to the subtle and inexpressible.
To sum up keeping in view the setting and the language it can be said that Mahfouz, like a number of Egyptian writers, is a leader of the movement that has claimed that by history and culture Egypt is more pharaonic than Arab. This movement was very lively and strong until the rise to power in 1954 of President Jamal Abd al-Nasir, who propagated Arab nationalism in Egypt and gave it a great impetus in the Arab countries. It is in this pharaonic context that Mahfouz’s stories should be read and appreciated.