Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.
The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.
The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.
The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.
After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.
Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.