Thebes at War – Naguib Mahfouz

In Thebes at War, nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz transports the reader back to the waning years of the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt. The story opens at the court of Thebes c.1560 BCE where Seqenenra has made the momentous decision to revolt against Hyksos domination. The rebellion is short-lived. The Hyksos king Apophis raises his full army and kills the challenger, forcing the Theban royal family to flee to Nubia where, for ten years, Seqenenra’s son Kamose and grandson Ahmose make preparations to return. Most of Thebes at War is dedicated to Ahmose’s infiltration of the the kingdom and the subsequent, triumphal liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos.

It would be easy to be critical of Mahfouz’ liberties with Egyptian history in telling this tale, including that he manipulates the royal family tree of Thebes and inserts a Nubian exile where in there was common interest between Nubia and Egypt. But such dramatic license is almost always taken in historical fiction.

More interesting are the ways in which the past and the present are collapsed in Thebes at War. For instance, in terms of Egyptian geography where many of the locations (e.g. Ptolemais) that Mahfouz refers to in upper and central Egypt were Hellenistic Greek foundations. The more telling example, though, is the oft-repeated detail that the noble Egyptians are of dark skin and the evil Hyksos are white-skinned invaders who brutalize and oppress the Egyptians. Restoring Egypt for Egyptians is, for Mahfouz, the greatest moment in Egyptian history, and he conspicuously avoids mention of the founding of an empire under the New Kingdom. It is impossible to read Thebes at War (published 1944) as anything other than a parable about Egypt under the British Mandate.

I like Mahfouz’ style and am sympathetic to the position he takes in Thebes at War, but this is a book that I did not love. The style is formal and authoritative that seems designed to convey the gravity of the subject and therefore feeling more appropriate of a historical drama than a novel. There are some concessions, including a love story involving the Hyksos princess that challenges Prince Ahmose’s commitment to his Egyptian wife and people, but these had only so much emotional resonance in the book’s formal register.

I understand why Thebes at War won accolades when it came out. Its themes were directly relevant to its contemporary circumstances and Mahfouz’ design of a 40-book series of novels on Egyptian history helps construct the vision of an Egyptian national identity that has remained constant through millennia. This is obvious nonsense, but national illusions (often, delusions) are pervasive and powerful. Historiographically bankrupt a these stories may be, this should not diminish their political utility in galvanizing a population against exploitative colonial infrastructures and corrupt regimes. Nothing in this paragraph should indicate that I particularly liked Thebes at War, but looking at the novel at the intersection of literature, history, and contemporary politics at least makes the resulting conversation more complex and nuanced—even in a book that unfolds as straightforwardly as this one does..

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I’ve fallen a bit behind here because I haven’t been at my computer for the last few days and so have also finished reading Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. This morning I started reading China Miéville’s Embassytown.

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