Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Arabian Nights and Days powerfully depicts a variety of characters, drawn from the classic tales of the Arabian Nights, whose relationships with one another are entangled in a web which they are unable to escape. This web is designed with a purpose, but men must be able to work their way through the web and struggle for their existence. Existentialism, as defined by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, flourished two decades after World War II and found its way into the Arab world during the 1960’s (Bramann). Influenced by Postcolonialism, the Arab world encountered many of the same problems defining man and existence as the West (Di-Capua). It is therefore not surprising that Mahfouz’s novel is embedded with existentialist themes and can be viewed as a written response to those seeking to define not only what it means to be Arab, but what it means to exist.
Image Source: Desert Treks of Mohammad Nowfal (Wikimedia Commons)
The idea that man is responsible for his or her action is not alien to the Arab intellectual tradition. According to Yoav Di-Capua’s article “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization,” Arab existentialism arose primarily as a result of a failed attempt at national liberation through influence of philosophers such as, “Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Guevara and Arthur Kostler” (1084). All of Mahfouz’s characters demonstrate a clear connection to these thinkers by defining themselves through their own actions rather than relying on the idea of fate, or some type of determinism.
Sartre’s vision of existence, for instance, closely resembles that of the sultan Shahriyar. In the beginning of the novel, he is described as a corrupt man who is responsible for the deaths of innocent people and the beheading of virgins. According to Shahrzad, his second wife, he is arrogant and immoral (Mahfouz 4). Although he is characterized as immoral by some, he himself begins the process of provoking existential thought with the words “Existence itself is the most inscrutable thing in existence” (Mahfouz 2). According to Sartre, existence must precede the essence of a thing, so that human existence begins subjectively (Sartre 2). Once the idea that one’s life is subjectively defined is accepted, one can proceed to defining oneself.
In Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” he uses the allegory of an artisan creating a paperknife to show how a definition of a thing can precede the existence of a thing and how humans, if created by God, are created with a purpose and with an intention in mind. However, men must define themselves according to their own will. Sartre further states that “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (3). Regardless of whether or not God exists, man is not only responsible for their own lives, but also “is responsible for all men” (4). This means that every action taken by man is in some way defining an aspect of mankind. Shahriyar, through time, is able to come to terms with himself. Shahrzad’s powerful tales works to reveal his errors which causes him to change his corrupt ways. Shahriyar is a representation of the consequences of realizing one’s reality, which is that that one’s life is not set or fated but is being continually defined in the present moment through a process of actions taken by oneself.
The character Sinbad, also faces the same struggle with finding meaning in his life and faces his own existential crisis. While conversing with some of his friends and acquaintances at a café, Sinbad reveals his dissatisfaction with life and states that he wants to “throw [himself] into the arms of the invisible” (Mahfouz 9). Sinbad sets off on a voyage where he encounters hardship, and is finally told by the sheikh that he must face himself, and death (Mahfouz 219). Sinbad’s call to the sea, in other words, will not be pacified until he is at peace with himself.
Sanaan al-Gamali is another character who represents an aspect of existentialism. Sanaan is a man who is unable to take responsibility for his actions, which inevitably leads him to his death. Like Sinbad, Sanaan is overcome with anxiety. This anxiety, which is provoked by a genie, causes Sanaan to rape and murder a 10-year-old girl. The genie, who stirs Sanaan, and tells him to kill Ali al-Saloulli the governor, who is known to be corrupt. In this way, the genie is attempting to get Sanaan to see the error of his ways and offering a chance at redeeming himself. Sanaan, upon killing the governor, pleads with the genie Qumqam to save his life and instead is told that “he who does good is not troubled by consequences” (Mahfouz 28). The intentions of the genie, although not entirely noble, causes Sanaan to confront himself regardless of what the consequences were.
Mahfouz’s novel provides an effective existentialist commentary on life and culture using characters familiar to the Arab world. His representation of Shahriyar, Sinbad, and Sanaan, provides the reader with clear examples of the consequences to leading a life that is corrupt, undefined, and irresponsible, but most importantly, without the search for truth. Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of existence clearly fits Mahfouz’s model for how man should seek to find meaning in a world that is corrupt and apparently meaningless. Like Sinbad, who is thrown into the sea, “the moment that [man] is thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 5). One, in essence, begins to exist once one is able to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
Bramann, Jorn K. “Sartre: Existentialism and the Modern World.”Existentialism. Frostburg State University, 2009. Web. 27 Aug. 2016. <http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Existentialism.htm>.
Di-Capua, Y. “Arab Existentialism: An Invisible Chapter in the Intellectual History of Decolonization.” The American Historical Review 117.4 (2012): 1061-091. Http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/. Web. 27 Aug. 2016.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Arabian Nights and Days. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.
Sartre, John P. “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Existentialism Is a Humanism. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2016. <homepages.wmich.edu/~baldner/existentialism.pdf>.