Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Response - to Mafous' The Day the Leader was Killed

Non-Western Lit
Dr. M. Allison
A Reading Journal
April 6 2006

As humans, we are constantly bombarded with messages, messages that may be as simple and direct as a conversation with an acquaintance or as complex and indirect as an unspoken social norm. Most often, humans communicate messages through social interactions, but as we evolve, barriers arise that dismantle certain simple interactions and new structures are formed that change social interactions themselves and create new modes through which messages are exchanged. As the exchange of messages evolves and takes on new forms, we create new categories to labels those messages. Certain social institutions are powerhouses for the production and distribution of messages that serve to influence our behavior.

Religious and political institutions, for instance, are particularly powerful in societies throughout the world and are often overlapping in their influence and powers. Because they are powerful and overlapping, these institutions may (and frequently do) become oppressive. In The Day the Leader was Killed, Naguib Mafous provides readers with three accounts of the struggle that is created and maintained by each of the institutions individually, as well as both collectively/interactively. Just as we encounter messages that reinforce our personal beliefs, we often receive messages that contradict them. Mafous’ depiction of the influence of religion and politics on the lives of the common people of Egypt is also an exploration of the contradictory messages that are fostered by the corrupt forces that underlie powerful social institutions.

Each of the three narrators struggles to make sense of the religious and political messages that influence their socioeconomic positions. They struggle to achieve a sense of stability in their personal lives, searching for a peaceful balance between the religious and political messages that are dominant in society and their own personal experiences. They are aware, to varying degrees, of the burdens that they carry. Muhtashimi Zayed carries burdens that are specific to his social location: he is a elderly man faced with the prospect of death. He is strongly influenced by the religious teachings of the Quran, and its influence is omnipresent in his thoughts and words. It is significant that Mafous begins and ends the novel with Muhtashimi—it implies that he is the heart of the novel and the heart of the people.

Mafous uses Muhtashimi as a literary device to represent the people of Egypt and Egyptian culture. Religion is extremely important to Muhtashimi Zayed, and this is manifest in his praying rituals. When Muhtashimi is narrating, prayers are woven into all of his thoughts and when he is engaging in dialogue with other characters, faith and God are not only the dominating subjects themselves, but are also subjects that deliberately and inadvertently influence all other matters of discussion. Religion overshadows all other dimensions of Egyptian society, and Mafous conveys this through Muhtashimi’s prayerful contemplations, as well as through the struggle that Elwan and Randa face in regards to making decisions about marriage. Mafous captures not only the essence of an individual character through his construction of Muhtashimi Zayed, but also the essence of a society and culture. The religious influence conveys that a formality (a lack of free expression), as well as a lack of balance exist in both families as well as the larger social sphere. The first paragraph in the novel is evidence of this imbalance because the majority of the paragraph is occupied with prayerful thoughts and references to the “Lord.” There is, however, distress in the prayerful thoughts (“O Lord, help me tear myself away from my warm bed and face the bitter cold of this long winter”), which implies that some of the religious messages contradict Muhtashimi’s personal beliefs about the economic suffering that the governmental powers have imposed on the people (Mafouz 3). The distress that Muhtashimi faces with simple issues of getting up in the morning, emphasizes the high degree of stress that he and other members of his culture face in dealing with more complex issues.

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