weekend-readsA Voice from the Other World

Naguib Mahfouz

Translated from Arabic by Raymond Stock

1.

By God, what does this tomb want for the good things of a bygone existence? It is a fragment of life’s essence rich with lusciousness and luxury. Its walls are adorned with scenes of servants and slave girls. It is filled with the most lavish of furniture, the most sublime of embellishments. It has all that one could want of splendid fixtures and fragrances and decorative objects. It has a storehouse stuffed with seeds and fruits and vegetables, and what my library bore of books filled with wisdom, and what a writer may need from the tools of his trade. It is the world as I knew it. But do my senses now still taste life? Do I still need its distractions? Those who built this house for the dead surely labored in vain. And yet, I cannot deny—however strange it may seem—that I have not lost the urge to write. How amazing! What are these leaves that call to me with their beloved bewitchment? Is there still some part of me from which Death has not obliterated the desires of weakness and passion? Have we—the community of scribblers—been sentenced to suffer for our deeds in both of our lives? In any case, a period of waiting still lies before me, after which I shall begin my journey into eternity. So let me occupy this idle time with the stylus, for how often has this instrument enhanced my precious hours of leisure. . . .

O Lord! Do I not still remember the day that rent my world between life and death? Yes—on that day I left the Prince’s palace just before sunset, after exhausting efforts which had utterly absorbed me, until the Prince said to me: “Taw-ty, that’s enough work—don’t wear yourself out.” The sun was slanting toward the western horizon, the endless expanse of the realm of shadows. The flickerings of its fading rays shook with the shiver of Death upon the surface of the sacred Nile. I continued on my accustomed way, across from the sycamore tree at the southern edge of the village where my lovely house lies.

O holy Amon! What is this aching in my joints and my bones? It’s not a result of my efforts at work, for how often have I worked without a pause, and how often have I zealously persevered and patiently carried on and prevailed over fatigue by force and resolve! What is this consuming pain? And what is this powerful trembling—a new and unexpected thing? I am filled with fear. Could this be the malaise that does not descend upon the body until the condition is fatal? Fold up, village road—for I lack the strength to draw any charm from your beauty!

Be gone, you omen of heaven, for in Taw-ty’s breast there is no wish to summon you! I kept going down the road in dread of where it would end. At my home’s doorstep the face of my wife—the companion of my youth and the mother of my children—loomed before me. “My poor Taw-ty, why are you quivering so? Why do your eyes look so distressed?”, she cried. I said to her, in agony and despair, “O sister! Something unthinkable has occurred—a deadly disease has settled in the body of your husband. Make ready the bed and cover me up. . . . Summon the physician and our children and loved ones, and tell them that Taw-ty is on his bed, pleading to his Lord—and to plead along with him for his cure.”

She who had taken me to her breast carried me, and the doctor came to give me medicine. Pointing to heaven, he said, “O great writer Taw-ty, 0 servant of His Majesty the Prince, you are in need of the Lord’s compassion. Pray to Him from the depths of your heart!” And I lay there, without strength or resource. 0 Divine Amon, whose wisdom is lofty! Did I not accompany His Highness the Prince to the north in the armies of Pharaoh? Did I not witness the fighting in the deserts of Zahi[i] and Nubia? Was I not there at Kadesh[ii] in the courageous campaign? Indeed, 0 Lord—and I was delivered from the lances and the chariots and the battles. So how can Death threaten me in my dear, safe village, in the embrace of my spouse and my mother and my children? Meanwhile I drowned in the vapors of fever, as my dizziness increased. Senseless jabber flowed from my tongue, and I felt the hand of Doom moving for my heart. How cruel you are, O Death! I see you advancing toward your target on two sure feet, with a heart made of stone. You do not tire or weary, tears do not sway you, you do not show mercy, nor do hopes arouse your sympathy. You trample our tiny hearts, you disregard our desires and dreams—and you do not change your appointed ways even when your prey is in the blooming spring of youth. Taw-ty is in his twenty-sixth year, the father of sons and daughters—do you not hear? What would it harm you if you left my breath to recur in my breast? Send for me when I have been sated with this beautiful and beloved life. It has not brought me torment, nor have I abstained from it ever. I have loved it from the depth of my heart—and it is still in its prime. My health has been good, my money plentiful, my aspirations unbounded. Haven’t you noted all these things? Around me are hearts full of affection, souls and deities—haven’t you looked into their tearful eyes? It’s as if I haven’t lived one hour of this alluring life. What did I see of its scenes? What have I heard of its voices? And what have I learned of its sciences? What have I tasted of its arts? Which of its colors shall fade? What opportunities shall be lost tomorrow? What raptures shall be extinguished? What passions shall abate? What delights shall disappear?

I recalled this, all of it. In my eternity, other things, without boundaries or limits, that lay between the enchantments of the past, the magic of the present and the longings of the future, spun before me. The flowers and fields and waters and clouds and food and drink and songs and ideas and love and my children and the Prince’s palace and Pharaoh’s parties and the money I was paid and the medals and titles and the honors and the glory, were drawn before my senses. And I wondered, would all this vanish into the void?

My breast pounded heavily, and I was filled with sadness and grief, and every afflicted part of me shouted: “I do not want to die!” The legions of night followed in succession, and sleep overcame the little ones. My wife lingered about my head, my mother about my feet. Midnight came and as quickly passed while we remained in this state, until the baying of jackals startled me with the blue light of dawn. A bizarre feeling of alarm seized me, as a sinister silence settled over all. Then I felt my mother’s hand gripping my feet as she called in a quavering voice, “My son, my son!” My wife screamed, “Taw-ty, what do you see?” But I was unable to reply. Something, no doubt, aroused their apprehension. Did she see what this was? Did the warning show on my face? My gaze shifted against my will to the entrance of the room. The door was locked, yet the Messenger entered—he entered without needing to open the door. I knew him without knowing him before—he was the Messenger of the Hereafter, without any like him. He approached me in awesome silence and irresistible beauty. As he did so, my eyes were fixed upon him; he was all I could see. I wanted to call out to him but my tongue would not obey. He seemed to know my inner desire, for his smile grew broader, and I recognized him as my escort, while nothing else remained in my mind.

The whisperings of night and my agonies and infirmities all passed away, and I ignored the tears all around me, as I found myself in a state of well-being and security that I had never before experienced. I yielded myself to an infinite love, leaving my body alone in the struggle! I saw—without any anxiety—the blood in my veins resisting, my heart beating and straining, my muscles tightening and slackening, my breath deeply panting, my chest rising and falling. I felt the hands of affection lift my back and enfold me, and I saw my insides and my outside without any care or concern. Then the Messenger seemed to turn his attention from me to my body directly, to execute his mission with confidence and assurance, and a smile that did not leave his two handsome lips. And I saw the holy aura of life surrender to his will, and depart from my feet and my calves and my thighs and my belly and my chest, and the blood within them freeze and the limbs stiffen and the heart stop, until a deep sigh escaped my gaping mouth. My corpse became quiet as I sank into eternity, and the Messenger took his leave just as he came to me, without anyone’s noticing. A peculiar feeling pervaded me that I had left life behind, that I had ceased to dwell among the people of the world.

2.

The stunning sensation that I had actually died, that I no longer belonged to the realm of the living, truly overwhelmed me. I was still in my room, and the room was still as it was, so what had happened? What had changed within me? My mother and my wife were leaning over my body, when something occurred that I could not doubt—yet it was the most critical thing of all. I was not surprised, and if I had been able to reply to my wife—when she asked me, “Taw-ty, what do you see?”—I would have said, “I am dying.” But I had lost the power of speech and of other things. I was not surprised, as I have said, when I felt the depths of Death—as the bed feels the numbing flow of sleep—completely aware of what was happening. What could not be doubted is that Death is neither painful nor terrifying, as mortals imagine. If they knew the truth about it, they would seek it out as they do well-aged wine, preferring it over all others. For it is not regret or sadness that grips the dying person. Rather, life appears as something paltry and unimportant when one intuits on the horizon that divine and joyous light. I was shackled with fetters, then they were smashed. I was trapped inside a vessel, then I was set free. I was intensely heavy on the earth, then I shed my bonds and was rid of my weight. My form was narrow, then I stretched everywhere outward without any bounds. My senses were limited, then each faculty changed utterly; I could see all and I could hear all and I could comprehend all, and I could perceive all at once what was above me and below me and around me—as if I had left my body sprawled before me to take from Creation an entirely new one. This total transformation that defies description took place in an instant. Yet, I still felt that I had not quit the room that had witnessed the happiest moments of my previous existence. It was as though I had been made custodian of my former body until it reached its final rest.

So I continued to observe everything around me calmly and attentively, without apprehension. The air of the room was enveloped in pain and dejection, while my mother and wife persisted in working together over my body—my old companion—with its familiar features, lying motionless on the bed. Meanwhile, its color had gone white, tinged with blue, its eyelids closed, and its limbs went limp. The children and the servants kept calling to it; they all wept and cried. Those in attendance poured copious tears over it, until heartache, sorrow, and gloom seemed to consume them. All the time I watched them with an odd indifference, as if never for a day had I been close to them. What is this dead body? Why are these humans howling about it so? What is this misfortune that has made their faces ugly and distorted? No—I am no longer one of the people of the world, and their tears and lamentations cannot restore me to it. I wished that all my ties with it would be cut so that I could hover about in my new domain, but, regrettably, my dear ones still held a part of my liberty captive to the temporal world—so I steeled myself with patience as I took up this burden. Then my mother came with a sheet to cover my cadaver, while the children and servants went out. She took my wife by the hand as they both left the room and locked the door behind them. Yet they remained in my sight, because the walls did nothing to impede my view. I saw them both as they removed their clothing and dressed in black for mourning. Next they headed toward the house’s courtyard, loosening their braids and strewing dust over their heads, throwing off their sandals as they hurried toward the door. They rushed out, shouting and beating the sides of their faces, while my mother kept calling “My son!”, and my wife called out, “O my husband!” Then they both cried out together, “Mercy upon you, O poor Taw-ty—Death has taken you without compassion for your youth! ”

They left the house in this condition of moaning and weeping, continuing along until they passed the first home on the way. There the mistress of the house came out to them in fright. “O Sisters, what is upsetting you?”, she asked. The two women answered, “Our house is ruined! Our children are orphaned! The mother is bereaved! The wife is widowed! Mercy upon you, O Taw-ty!” So the woman bawled out from deep in her breast: “O heart dismayed! O youth deprived! O hopes destroyed!” And she followed the two women, all the while scattering dust on her own head and striking her cheeks. Each time they passed a house its mistress came out to join them, until all the women had flocked to their throng. A woman experienced in mourning led them onward, continually reciting my name and my virtues. On they went, cutting across all the streets in the village, bringing grief and desolation to every location. But this name of mine that the mourners were chanting, why did it not affect me at all?

Yes, this name had become as strange to me as my laid-out body. I kept wondering when—oh when—would all this end? Then, in the evening, the men came. As the wailing went up around us, they carried my body into the House of Embalming and placed it on the slab in the Sacred Chamber. The room was long and very wide, without a single window save for a skylight in the center of the ceiling. The slab was in the center of the room, and on either side of it were shelves stocked with jars full of chemicals. In the middle, under the skylight, was a huge trough flowing with the miraculous fluid. The men went out, leaving only two behind. These two were experts, as testified by the speed and dexterity with which they worked. One of them came with a basin, which he set down close to the slab. They collaborated in stripping the cadaver of its clothing until every part of it was completely exposed. They did this quietly and without concern. Then the one who had brought the basin said, while feeling the muscles of my chest and arms, “He was a tough man, look!” And the other said, “He was Taw-ty, one of the Prince’s men. In exchange for food and drink, he bravely undertook the hazards of war.” The one who had brought the basin muttered cautiously, “What if one could borrow these bodies?” The other replied, laughing, “You old geezer, what good is a corpse?” But the man just said, while shaking his head, “He was a strong man, he truly was. . . .”

And so the other man, still laughing, took a long, sharp knife from one of the shelves, and said, “Let’s see just how strong he is now!” He stabbed the left side of the breast with the blade, slicing his way down to the hip. Then he worked the insides with his hand, grabbing and pulling until he brought out the bowels and the stomach, and dropped them into the basin. Then he added the heart and the liver. In just a few moments, my entire internal organs were laid before me, as these men were embalmers of consummate skill. I inspected each organ with care, especially my stomach, which I knew to be strong and ever-active. Thanks to my magical powers of sight, I could view its contents clearly—the rice and figs and remains of the wine from the Prince’s banquet last night. I recalled his remark when he beckoned me to the table: “Eat and drink, Taw-ty—may you enjoy life, most trustworthy man!” I saw, and I remembered, without any feeling or effect, without any impact on my amazing indifference. Then I looked at my heart and saw a world filled with wonders—with the ruins of passionate love, of sorrow and rage, the images of lovers and friends. And of enemies—for I had left my romantic ardor and the glory of its depths to display my courage in the wars of Zahi and Nubia. In these lands I had beheld horrifying scenes of carnage on the battlefield, of bloody, hacked-off limbs—the traces of a struggle unencumbered by mercy—until I added to my dynasty’s land a plot which our neighbor had also coveted for a number of years. I saw in my heart the bulk of my life and the longings that had grieved me.

Meanwhile the man just kept on working with coolness and precision. He produced a pointed hook, which he shoved up my nose with great concentration, until he reached his objective. Then rapidly, with familiarity and violence, he forced out my big brain, which oozed away in a slimy stream, sending particles out into the air of what once had been my dazzling ideas, my dearest hopes, and the smoke of my dreams. These were my own thoughts that were painted before my eyes—but when I considered them in the light of the truth that my spirit now saw, they seemed no more than grotesque trivialities. The state in which I now found refuge tried hard to keep them out. How my head reeled from the effort!

Here I am, declaiming the poem that I had composed depicting the battle of Kadesh! And here are the speeches that I made before the Prince at public occasions, and here are my views on literature and good conduct, and the rules of astronomy that I memorized from the books of Qaqimna![iii] All of these the man removed with the bits of my brain. They settled between the stomach and the intestines in the tub full of blood—not counting that which fell upon the ground to be squashed underfoot. “Now the body has been well cleaned!”, the expert handling the hook pronounced. “When you die, may you find a hand as practiced as your own!”, his friend added, giggling. At this the two technicians carried what remained of my body to the great trough filled with the magic liquid, immersing it within. Then they washed their hands and left the chamber. Meanwhile, I understood that the room would not be opened again for a span of seventy days—the period of embalming. I was touched with unease. The thought struck me that my spirit should go out into the world to catch a glimpse of my final farewell….

3.

My soul was eager to go out into the world, and so I did. This did not entail actual movement as such, for it was enough that I simply direct my thoughts toward something and I would find it right in front of me. Yet the reality was even greater, for my sight became something trnly extraordinary—nothing was beyond it. It turned into a penetrating power that passed through barriers and cut through veils, seeing into minds and hidden recesses. However—though our parting had been decreed—my thoughts were pulled toward my family, so I found myself back in my home. The children had gone into a deep sleep which the turbulence did not disturb. My mother and wife lay down on the floor, the misery and suffering plain on their faces from the force of their crying and sorrow. Tomorrow their woes would multiply even more, when the sarcophagus would proceed to its perpetual place of burial. My spirit entered them and moved their heads and appeared before them in dreams, and I saw the two tortured hearts beating in agony and pain. What was all this worry? Something, however, attracted my vision. I saw in the dark oppression of each of their hearts a spot of white, and I knew it—for nothing was unknown to me—as the germ of forgetfulness. Oh! This germ would grow larger and spread wider until it covered the heart entire. Indeed, I saw all of this clearly, without being bothered, for nothing could trouble me now. Instead I wondered, intrigued by the taste of discovery, when might this happen? My two supernatural eyes brought me a picture from the future: I saw my mother take a young boy by her right hand and make her way through thickly crowded streets, waving a lotus flower. And I learned that she had come out—or that she would come out—to take part in our village’s happiest festival, the feast of the goddess Isis. Her face was jubilant, and my son was hooting with laughter. I saw my wife prepare a banquet—with food of the best kinds found in her world—and invite a man that I knew to it. This was her maternal cousin Sa-wu—and what an excellent husband he was! If the dead could feel pleasure, then I would have been pleased for her. Sa-wu was a man of virtue, for he who makes happy my wife and tends well to my children is a good man indeed.

With this my spirit left my house, and I stopped on the wayside at the sweet Prince’s palace. I peered into the Prince’s consciousness and found him, who had appreciated me and prized me in the most moving manner, feeling sorry for my loss. His mind was preoccupied with choosing my successor. I read within his memory the name of the new candidate: Ab-Ra’, one of my more promising subordinates—though we had not been intimate.

All this was fine. But why remain in my village today, when Pharaoh is to receive the envoy of the Hittites, come to sign a pact of peace and reconciliation? I saw Memphis—in a glance of the eye—clamoring with her teeming multitudes, and the palace at the height of its splendor. The King, the ambassador, the priests, the nobles, and the generals were gathered in the hall of the Great Throne. All of these masters of the world were met in one place. The triumphant monarch was speaking to the representative of the mighty Hittites with an air of warm civility. But the King’s breast was filled with scorn, and a single expression recurred in his mind: “There’s no avoiding the unavoidable.” As for the envoy, his heart was brimming over with hate, and this thought was dammed up with it: “Be patient until this powerful ruler dies.”

My eyes wandered everywhere. I saw the faces and the clothes and the hearts and the minds and the bellies. I saw the outer world and the inner one without any hindrance, and amused myself for a time by examining the exquisite food and the vintage wine in their stomachs—until I came across onion and garlic in the gut of a priest. These are both forbidden for the clergy! I asked myself, do you see how this pious man takes advantage of his fellows’ distraction to sneak down this food? In part of a nobleman’s stomach, I caught the creep of the disease that would sap away his life. At this moment, the man was talking to a general with glee and delight. Inwardly, I said to him, “May you be welcome!” Then my sight fell on the governor Tety, infamous for his cruelty and ruthlessness, to the point that Pharaoh had to admonish him to be moderate in overseeing his province. I scrutinized him carefully, immediately discovering that his body was frail, his limbs were sick, and that he complained bitterly and ceaselessly about his teeth and his joints. Each time the pain assailed him, he yearned to be able to sever the infection from his body. This explained why he was gripped by cruelty, as he did not hesitate to cut out the crooked from among his subjects with merciless brutality. In addition to Tety, I saw the vizier, Mina. That obdurate man, who fought the idea of peace with all this force, who was always agitating for war. Do you see the secret of this dangerous minister’s stubbornness? I saw that his mind was brilliant but his bowels were feeble. The morsels of his food remained trapped in them a long time, corrupting his blood as it circulated, so that it reached his brain spoiled, fouling his reason. As a result, that which issued from his mouth possessed great evil! The man satisfied with his own opinion sees it as straight and rightly guided, though I saw his mind as blackened and polluted.

Next my vision turned to the breasts of those present, looking into their hidden corners and behind their grinning faces. One was horribly bored, whispering to his companion, “When can we go back to the palace to hear the courtesans sing?” And that one over there muttered, “If the man had died from his illness, I would now be commander of the spear-throwers brigade!” And this other one pondered to himself in anguish, “When will the imbecile leave for his tour of inspection, so that I may rush to be with his gorgeous wife, whom I adore—ahhh!” And yet another told a friend from his deepest heart, “A human being doesn’t know when his appointed time will come.” And, “After today, I will not put off building my tomb.” Or, “Of what good is money, then?” Confusion so controlled his heart that he told a comrade, “Akhenaten said that the Lord is Aton, while Horamheb said that He was Amon. There is also a sect that worships Ra’—so why did the Lord leave us in dissension?” I did not tarry too long at Pharaoh’s magnificent party, for I soon succumbed to ennui. I turned away from it, to find myself once more abroad in the wide world.

Many scenes from the earth and the heavens passed before me. I grasped their essential truths, seeing into their deepest aspects, until I fixed upon an egg being fertilized in a womb. I beheld its flesh and bones forming, and watched its birth, while my vision ran with it towards its future. I saw it as a child, as a boy, as a youth, as a grown man, as an old man—and as a dead man. I saw the events that befell him, his pleasure and torment and contentment and anger and hope and despair and his health and his illness, his passion and his boredom. I saw all these together in just a minute, until the cries of his birth and the moans of his death were mingled together in my ears! A capricious desire to play overcame me, and I followed the lifetimes of many individuals from their births to their demise. I savored enormously the flow of their different states of being, which were hardly divided in time. For here a face would laugh and then it would scowl and then guffaw and then frown tens and tens of times in a fraction of a second! This woman wanders about as a young beauty, then she falls in love and marries and becomes pregnant and has children and goes into senility and withers away and becomes loathesome to look upon, all in a brief interval. Loyalty and treachery are not cleaved by an instant. These and countless other things are what make a farce of life—if the deceased could laugh, then I would drown in laughter. It seemed to me as though there is no reality in the world except for change! My soul wished that all these people and their crazy lives would just go away and be gone from my sight. I regarded them from afar as a numberless, limitless horde. Their forms diminished and their features dissolved and the distinctions between them disappeared. They became a single block, silent and still, without life or movement. I continued to stare at them in shock and perplexity that slowly lessened by degrees—until a new dimension was revealed to me that had previously been concealed.

I saw this calm darkness ignite with an all-encompassing light, as the faint, fading beams that pulsated in each brain, which by themselves were weak and dying, all clung to each other in one cohesive mass, emanating a powerful, dazzling incandescence. I saw in its radiance a gleaming truth, a pure goodness and a luminous beauty, and my wonder and bewilderment returned. O Lord, no matter how the soul suffers and is tortured, it goes on inventing and creating just the same. And Lord, Taw-ty has seen glorious things and will see yet more glorious and awesome things. I became convinced that this light that glowed upon me was but a mere speck of the heaven to which I would ascend. I looked away and turned my back to the world, to find myself once again in the Sacred Chamber for Embalming—and a divine ecstasy that cannot be conveyed embued my spirit.

The seventy days of embalming were done. The men came again. They removed my body from the trough and wrapped it in layers of cloth. They brought with them a sarcophagus, upon which an image of the youthful Taw-ty was most flatteringly engraved, and placed the body inside it. Then they hoisted it upon the backs of their necks and filed outside, where they met my family and my neighbors, who struck their faces and wailed. Their shrieks were worse than those on the day my death was announced. They proceeded to the Nile and embarked on a huge boat, which bore them to the City of Immortality on the West Bank. They jostled around the sarcophagus, calling out and howling, “My tears will not dry, my heart knows no peace after you, Taw-ty!”, while my wife entreated aloud, “O my husband, why was I condemned to live after you?”

The Prince’s chamberlain declared, “O glorious writer, Taw-ty—you have left your place empty!”

For a long while I watched with these two eyes that had forgotten their past, as if there were no ties that bound me to this world, nor with these humans. The boat pulled up to the shore, and they hoisted up the sarcophagus once more. From there they marched with it to the mausoleum—on which I had spent the best part of my treasure—and set it down in its intended place. During all this, a band of priests intoned some verses from the Book of the Dead—lecturing me on how to behave in the afterlife! Then they began to withdraw, one after another, until the tomb was deserted. There was nothing left to hear but the sound of distant mourning. The doors were sealed and sand shoveled over them. Thus perished all relations between the world that I had bid good-bye, and the world that I now greet. . . .

Note: Here the hieroglyphic text breaks off. Perhaps the period of waiting to which the writer referred at the start of this document had ended, or perhaps his voyage into Eternity had begun. There he would be diverted from his much-cherished stylus-and from all things.


Notes

First published in Arabic in 1945 as Sawt min al-‘alam al-akhar copyright 1945 by Naguib Mahfouz; English translation, copyright 2000 by Raymond Stock. Published by arrangement with the American University in Cairo Press. For text used in translation, see: Najib Mahfuz, “Sawt min al-‘alam al-akhar,” from collection Hams al-junun. Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 10th printing, 1989, 293-306.

[i] Zahi in ancient Egyptian refers roughly to the area of Palestine and Syria, or Greater Syria in later times.

[ii] Kadesh was a city-state in the Orontes Valley (present-day Syria) which often served as a base for the Hittites against their rivals, the Egyptians. For more on this “campaign,” see the translator’s commentary in the following work.

[iii] Apparently, Kagemni-an Old Kingdom official under Huni (2599-2575 B.C.), the last king of the Third Dynasty, and Snofru (2575-2552 B.C.), first king of the Fourth Dynasty. A sketchy character who may actually have been two separate persons, the writings of Kagemni deal mainly with manners and the proper relations between ruler and subject.

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