Before the first king ruled on the throne of Egypt, the great valley of the Nile was divided into independent districts, each with its own god, religion, and sovereign. One of these nomes, called Khnum, was famed for its fertile soil, favorable climate, and plentiful population. Yet its fate was cruelly wrought by hardships and woes, for while the opulent lived in sin, the peasants went without food. As the wicked dwelt on the land in wanton corruption, disease and pestilence claimed the wretched and the weak. The men in charge of the district—chief among them the magistrate Sumer, the constable Ram, and the physician Toheb—set to work on reform. Their fierce campaign to suppress crime and depravity became the model far and wide for righteousness, integrity, and moral resolve.
During one of the generations that passed in this district, there came a stranger—an elderly gentleman, clean-shaven on both his head and his face (as was the custom for Egyptian priests), tall and gauntly built. His gaze bore a sharp expression, mocking his advanced age, radiating the light of intelligence and wisdom. He truly was peculiar, for no sooner would he set foot in a land than its people would begin to ask in amazement, "Who is this man? . . . What country drove him out? . . . What does he want? . . . And how does he roam the earth at a time when he really should rest in pious peace of mind while awaiting his crossing to the world of Osiris?"
His eccentric character knew no bounds. He left behind him a vortex of disorder and a whorl of uproar wherever he settled down—and wherever he headed. He prowled the markets and the temples, inviting himself to parties without knowing their hosts, injecting himself into what did not concern him. He would talk to husbands about their wives and to wives about their husbands, to fathers about their sons and to sons about their fathers, engaging in argument with the lords and the nobles. He also spoke with the servants and the slaves, leaving in his wake a deep and powerful influence that stirred defiant revolt in their souls, around which disputation and mutual hostility grew ever stronger.
The stranger's way of life aroused the fears of Ram, the protector of order. He followed him around like his shadow, observing him closely, filled with suspicion about his intentions. At length he seized him and led him to the magistrate, so that he could examine his astounding case. Sumer the magistrate was a man of advanced years and vast experience: he had spent four decades of his magnificent life in heroic struggle under the banners of Truth and Justice. He had personally dispatched hundreds of rebels to their proper fate, and filled the prisons with thousands of evildoers and criminals, as he labored faithfully and sincerely to cleanse the district of the enemies of peace and tranquility.
But when this odd man came before him, Sumer felt astonished and confused. He wondered to himself what this used-up old coot could have done—then, casting an appraising glance upon him, he asked in his weighty voice, "What, venerable sir, is your name?"
The man did not answer. Instead, he remained silent, shaking his head as though he did not wish to speak—or did not know what to say.
The judge, annoyed by his unreasonable silence, demanded harshly, "Why don't you answer? State your name!"
The man replied in a murmur, a faint, ambiguous smile upon his lips, "I do not know it, sire."
The magistrate's anger redoubled, and he demanded scoldingly, "Do you really not know your name?"
"Yes, sire—I have forgotten it."
"Do you really claim that you have forgotten your own name—the name that people call you?"
"No one uses any name for me: my family and close friends have all passed away. I have wandered in this world for a very long time, but no one addresses me by name. No human being calls out to me, and—with my head overflowing with ideas and dreams—I have forgotten it."
Sumer berated the old man for his feebleminded senility—then turned away from him in despair to the protector of order. "What drove you to bring this man to my courtroom?" he asked.
"He is, sire," said Ram, "a man who neither rests nor permits others to rest. He imposes himself upon people and makes them debate both good and evil—and does not bid them farewell until dissension and division have rent them apart."
The magistrate tilted toward Ram and inquired, "What does he want, behind all that?"
The old man fixed a sharp look upon him. In a voice strong in tone but quavering from the many years that he had dwelt in this life, he replied, "I want to reform this beastly world, my lord."
The judge smiled and asked him, "Do we not find those who give their lives unstintingly to this noble work when they can? What does the judge, the police chief, or the doctor do? Be reassured, old man, and put yourself at ease, for your great age cannot shoulder this grueling task—there are others more capable than yourself."
The man shook his head stubbornly and said, "All those that you have cited have been around since the beginning of creation. Yet they have not yet been able to alter this brutality that so disfigures the world. We still see, in every corner of the earth, the harbingers of evil and the plain signs of crime."
"And are you succeeding, then, even as all these amassed forces have failed?"
"Indeed, sire . . . bear with me, and I will show you."
Amused, the magistrate smiled again, then asked, "And what means do you possess that they do not?"
"My lord, they drive out wrongdoers, treat the sick, and bind up the wounded. But as for me, my method is to eliminate the malady entirely. Disease is a sneak attack on the refuge of our well-being. Those others care only about its symptoms. I have examined this very carefully, and discovered that the stomach is the basis of the malaise in this region. I found many that could not fill its gaping emptiness, so that they howl from hunger. At the same time, others are not only not empty, but consume greedily all that they wish. And from the mutual attraction and revulsion of these two stomachs comes looting, pillage, and murder. So the disease is clear—and the treatment is clear, as well."
The judge rejoined, "To the contrary: the disease that you have diagnosed has no cure!"
"That is what they say, sire. And they say this only because they lack something crucial to Our Lord: that is, faith in Him, the belief in Virtue. They do not have the proper faith in goodness. They struggle for its sake using passive tools that have no feeling, and labor for wages, status, and glory. And if they retreat unto themselves, worn out by what they declare to be their disgust with sinfulness, then that is their business, sire. As for myself, I believe properly in Virtue-which bids me to proceed down my path, and to do so slowly and gently."
The man's speech stirred anger in the constable's soul, the more so as he seemed to be slandering him right in his presence. But the magistrate, being more broadminded and softhearted, showed forebearance to what the man said. Finding nothing in his actions to warrant punishment, Sumer released him with a word of caution.
The man left the courtroom, charged with the elation of youth. The approval on high for his mission seemed even more certain, as he stalked the earth with the strength of a giant, gushing forth in speech with the zeal of a youngster, his heart bursting with the optimism of a prophet. His tongue spat out a kind of white magic—a way of reasoning that even the haughty could not resist. In a brief time he was able to monopolize the ears of the tribe, to enchant their hearts, arouse their charitable feelings, and to point them in whatever direction he wished. The poor flocked to him, the rich deferred to him; the rebel and the subversive submitted to him. The basis of his appeal was Beauty and Moderation, in whose shade the poor could live in contentment, and the rich would feel that they have enough to be satisfied. In him, this sick society found a sound and skillful physician—and so they clung to his example, embracing his ideals.
The results were breathtaking, dazzling the seers and the wise men alike. They wiped out crime, put evil to flight, and remedied all ills. The spreading wings of happiness sheltered the district. The civic leaders rejoiced, praising and putting their faith in the man whom they had previously disbelieved. They reveled at finally reaching the noble end that they had spent their whole lives trying vainly to achieve.
Time marched on, smoothly and quietly, in an atmosphere of calm—as things changed into a state that people had never before seen.
The authorities were the first to feel the coming of the new age. In truth, they found themselves with nothing to do—and leisure delights only those who work for a living. The empty hours grew heavier and heavier upon them-as, with mournful eyes, they watched their majesty fade, their wind blow away, and their radiance dim into gloom.
In the past, the constable had the power to spread panic wherever he paused for an instant. But now he had become a thing that people looked back at dfi?antly, with blatant contempt—to the point where they trod blithely past him as they would a broken idol.
And the magistrate, who had wielded his sacred power with a divine dignity, was now sheepish with anguish and sorrow. He heard not a greeting nor an urgent request, nor did he return the welcome of those who called out to him. He felt only loneliness and isolation, until he became like an abandoned temple in the desert.
As for the doctor, groaning from hidden complaints, he locked himself in his house—neither receiving guests, nor visiting anyone else. Before this, he had hoarded money in a cooking pot, but now he had started to use up what he had saved, while his heart pounded with worry.
Meanwhile, the province rested secure in its state of grace-except for those who had deluded themselves into believing that they were the "Manufacturers of Virtue." They were now desperate and perplexed, turning left and right for a way out of this distressing situation. Yet they could find none. The constable suffered most of all, because—though the boldest among them—he nonetheless dreaded declaring his anxieties, only to encounter deaf ears and confident, contented hearts.
Finally, his patience exhausted, he seized the opportunity offered by a meeting with his peers to wonder aloud, in a voice filled with fear, "What would we do if the Sovereign—as of tomorrow—should have no more need of our services?"
Their faces went blank. Stammering, one of them asked, "Is it likely that he could really do without us?"
Ram said, shrugging his shoulders in disdain, "What can we do to merit being kept on?"
With these words, it was as if he had lifted the lid from an overfilled kettle, and all inside it came spilling out. One of them said, "You cannot keep quiet in a fix like this."
Shaking his fist, another shouted, "That doting old man has ruined the district!"
A third complained, "He is wrecking the human capacity for loftiness with this corrupting appeal, that hinders all progress and slaughters all fears."
The secret talk stirred among them, as each revealed what was inside him—except for the magistrate. He stuck to his silence, gazing off into the distant horizons as though he heard nothing of what was being said around him. His apparition nearly caused many of them to give up hoping for his aid, until Ram whispered to them in embarrassment, "Don't worry about Sumer—his heart is with us. It's just that his tongue, which is used to speaking about Justice, will not obey him in pursuing our purpose here."
And so they all agreed about what to do. . . .
One morning, the sun rose to reveal that the alien man had vanished. His disciples searched for him everywhere, ransacking every corner of the nome—without finding a single trace.
His disappearance came as a confounding surprise—and it provoked differing remarks. Some said that he had moved out of the district after making sure that his creed had been firmly rooted there. Others claimed that he had ascended into heaven after carrying out his mission. Regardless, sadness enfolded the entire province, and all those within it.
Except for those in powerful positions. They let out their breath, and—with hopes high—they each dreamed of their glory that had fled, their comfort that had disappeared. Filled with anticipation, they waited expectantly for these things to return.
But disappointment awaits whoever puts his faith in such expectant hope. When the big shots saw that the ordinary people still clung to their belief—true in their remembrance of the aged outsider—they were struck with disquiet. Their hearts were vexed, and they could not sleep.
Fuming with rage, the protector of order cried, "This situation cannot stand!"
Eyes filled with longing looked toward him. The hard work of hoping had drained them. Perceiving this, Ram said in a conspiratorial tone, "In the province of Ptah, I know of an enticing dancer, to whom the gods have given irresistible beauty. Why don't we borrow her for a few months? I'm aware that the ruler of that district is anxious to get rid of her, for her looks are inciting strife and turmoil there. Let the nome of Khnum be her place of exile for a while, and she will no doubt sow divisions between brother and brother, and between husband and wife. The affluent will be agitated to burst the chains that they have put obediently around their own necks. Keep a lookout for a good result soon."
And so this inspired man put into action his dangerous plan.
With joyous, gleaming eyes, they all witnessed the edifice of the old stranger's regime break down and fall apart, stone by stone. The stomach returned to its throne, commanding necks and minds alike to bend to its rule. The devilish life came back to quiet Khnum, blowing away the serenity that had prevailed in its parts. The gang of leading citizens resumed their campaign, finding themselves once again fighting the good fight—for Virtue, Justice, and Peace.
Copyright © Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Arabic by Raymond Stock. Copyright © 1936, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1945 by Naguib Mahfouz; translation copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 by Raymond Stock. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.