- Date:Dec 23, 2020
Naguib Mahfouz’s Zaabalawi is an Arabic story, narrated in the first person, about the quest of the narrator to find the character Zaabalawi, who is a renowned healer who can cure everything. The narrator suffers from an incurable disease, at least from the medical point of view, and the townspeople’s reference to Zaabalawi causes the narrator to go in a search for him in an effort to be cured. In his quest for the ever-elusive Zaabalawi, the narrator meets many others, including a lawyer trained in religion, a bookseller, a government official, a calligraphist as well as a professional musician. He tries to inquire as to the whereabouts of Zaabalawi from them but fails. Thus, a seed of doubt is sowed in his mind as to the very existence of this near-mythical character. However, afterward, in a drunken stupor, he dreams of being in a scenic garden, feeling a sense of accord with the world and complete satisfaction. Upon awakening, he discovers that Zaabalawi, the healer, had been with him, but is gone again now. Even though the narrator is distressed at having missed the chance of meeting the healer, his dream has made him confident that he will one day meet Zaabalawi. Hence, the story ends on a positive note, with the protagonist convinced that his quest will succeed. The story represents the spiritual quest that all humans seem to be on, whereby they seek to find inner peace and contentment, not realizing that it is actually within them from the start – they have only to reach inside them and find it.
Surrounded by materialistic concerns and worldly affairs, most people feel the urge to find inner contentment. The world is full of material comfort, it seems, and people feel the need to acquire inner peace that materialistic things seem to lack in providing. This is what Mahfouz tries to portray through the incurable illness of the protagonist – he suffers from a disease that the worldly healers cannot seem to be able to cure. Thus begins the quest for Zaabalawi who is “a true saint of God, a remover of worries and troubles” (Mahfouz). It was him who cured the sickness of the narrator’s father, who says, “Were it not for him I would have died miserably” (Mahfouz). This reveals that the father of the protagonist also suffered from something that the worldly healers had no power to heal, whereby Zaabalawi healed him, giving him what can only be construed to be inner peace.
All around the world, there are people who seem to be fulfilled in a worldly sense; however, they lack inner peace and inner harmony. Often, despite being seemingly perfect, if the surface is scratched a lot of hopelessness and despair is unearthed. The story also represents this, it is replete with ruined settings, thereby giving the impression of despair and hopelessness, “a courtyard which, despite it being supposedly in the charge of a caretaker, was being used as a rubbish dump” (Mahfouz). Placing the narrator there is Mahfouz’s way of representing such despair and hopelessness that most people feel.
In a quest for inner peace, despair is often found. When we do not know how to search for or locate inner peace, we are stricken with despair and think that we shall never achieve it. This is also represented in the story by the protagonist’s despair whereby he felt his illness increase so much that he felt sure that he “would not be able to hold out much longer” (Mahfouz).
It is not easy to find inner peace, and it requires much patience and endurance. The secret is not to give up easily, as the narrator is advised “Do not give in to defeat. This extraordinary man brings fatigue to all who seek him… but have patience” (Mahfouz). Thereby, the readers are advised that once they set out to seek inner peace, they should not give up, despite any obstacles or despair they may face.
Consequently, people discover that the inner peace they set out to seek was within them all along. The narrator finds upon awakening from a drunken sleep that Zaabalawi, the symbol of inner peace, had been sitting with him all the while he was sleeping in the tavern. It is hard to reach inner peace, that much is true, however, those who persevere, find that it was within them from the start, they only have to look hard enough.