We discussed an interesting short story by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz was the first Arab to ever win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He explores themes of existentialism and has published 34 novels. (And here I am struggling to write my first proper novel.) He has also written over 340 short stories, dozens of film scripts and 5 plays. (I got the stats from Wikipedia). I am actually surprised that despite having seen copies of his novels in the University library, I haven’t actually read any of his novels. I had read a couple of short stories a long time back, but that was it. Perhaps when I read those short stories at the tender age of 13 I hadn’t really found something in them that let me cling on to his writings. After really analyzing a short story by him today, I have added him to the list of writers I will be exploring during the summer.
Read the story here.
The story we read in class today was translated from Arabic to English. Titled “The Answer is No”, it starts with a female teacher’s reaction to the news of who the new headmaster is. She is clearly uncomfortable and there is evidence of history between the two. She shudders at the idea of shaking his hand (when all the teachers go to greet him). We soon find out that the headmaster, Badran Badawi used to be the girl’s private Mathematics tutor. The story unfolds from the girl’s point of view and we’re equipped with the knowledge that Badawi rapes her during one of their private tutoring sessions while her father is away. This was when she was 14 and he was 25 years her senior. The traumatizing sexual encounter scars her for life and completely changes it’s course. In the story we see that Badawi comes back into her life twice after the encounter – once to ask her for her hand in marriage because he had promised her that he would come back and marry her, and the second time when he is appointed the headmaster at the school she works in.
That is it in a nutshell, but there is a lot more to the story. An interesting aspect of the story by Mahfouz is that we never find out the girl’s name, or the names of any of the secondary characters. The only name that is revealed is that of Badran Badawi, which in English translates to two full moons (according to an Arab friend of mine).
Names in stories always have some significance, and my personal analysis shows that the indication of the numbers in the name connects him to his profession (Mathematician), and while a full moon is beautiful and strong in appearance, a couple of them together would be even more dominating and powerful (he dominates her and exerts his power over her when he rapes her).
Full moons are round which is similar to the description we are given of Badawi – “with a tendency to portliness and spherical face”. He is also described as a man of medium height, hooked nose, and bulging eyes – in short, he’s not much to look at. We are taken back to the point in the story where the 14 year old version of the girl remarks that “His appearance is a mess, but he explains things well.” This line is also an indication that shows that the girl was too young to have any inclination of thinking of him as a “man” – to her he was the disorderly looking tutor who explained things. The messy appearance also tells us that he isn’t handsome and he isn’t someone who is bothered about the way he looks.
After he rapes her he tells her that he loves her and he promises to marry her when she comes of age. He uses her innocence to manipulate her. When he comes back to fulfill that promise he is startled by her harsh and severe response when she rejects him.
Now that the above has been mentioned, a look at the themes in the story is essential. One of the major themes in the story is that of rejection something or that of “No”. The simple word “no”. This is supported by the title as well (The Answer Is No). The girl rejects his marriage proposal, she rejects the institution of marriage entirely, and she rejects herself any happiness that would have come through marriage and motherhood. She focuses on finding peace through her individuality. Her rejection is also towards male dominance in the society and towards her own weakness that was created when he rapes her. One question comes up at this point – if she was so inclined towards being independent, why is she still living with her mother? Why does she need the presence of a mother in her stable life?
Why does he rape her and then promise to marry her? When we hear stories (And unfortunately we do hear such stories) of a girl who is raped, very rarely does the rapist end the deed with promises of marriage and that of a happy life together. We do, however, hear of rapists who tell their victim that they love them and that is probably to make the action seem okay and acceptable in their own eyes. Here’s the thing about Badran Badawi; he’s a mathematician and he calculates. That’s his profession and that’s the only thing he seems to be good at and he is shown as a man who has climbed the ladder in the academic field and risen from being a private tutor to the headmaster of a school. Most of it can be accounted to his ability of calculating. That’s exactly what he does with the girl who was rich, beautiful, intelligent and clearly beyond his reach – he calculates the situation in order to manipulate the events. First he marks his territory by raping her. This is something that cats and dogs do, only they pee on something to mark it as theirs. He simply raped her. And then promised her that he would marry her.
Badawi, being so influenced by numbers and Math – treats humans the same way. However, human beings are not numbers and psychology and perspective can’t be eliminated from the equation. As the girl matures and grows up – and the idea of rejecting or the word “no” grows up along with her – her perspective changes and she realizes that she doesn’t have to bind herself in an ugly marriage to an ugly man. This is something Badawi does not oversee. When she rejects him he is taken aback and tries to stop her but she is firm. At the very end of the story Badawi asks her how she is and she tells him that she’s fine, then he asks her if she ever married and she repeats her answer. It almost seems like she is convincing herself that he life is perfect and good.
We ask ourselves again, why does Badawi rape the girl? Because he feels inferior to her, and in order to assert his “power” he uses cheap tactics. There are no signs of lust or love in his actions and behavior, he is calm and calculative. The girl is unattainable because she is way above him in terms of beauty, and wealth. So why would she marry him – a man she considered her second father? Here comes in the ugliness of his character. So he steps out of where he belongs (Consider the Chain of Being) and this creates a rift in her life.
The idea of a man being calculative towards a marriage proposal brings me to another story we recently studied for a class – A Christmas Tree and A Wedding by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I recommend you read it.
One of the themes in the story is the struggle for power between the two sexes and that of feminism. He takes advantage of her vulnerability and nobility – which is implicit of the general assumption men have of women. She overcomes her weakness and makes it her strength, she makes her own decision and chooses whats right for her and she does what she wants to – and this indicates the theme of feminism. He asserts his power and then she asserts her own power by rejecting him.
There is a lot left in the story that I haven’t touched upon and that’s mostly because I am overwhelmed by the huge set of questions that a simple short story can raise. I am also still in the process of analyzing the story so I might add some more to it later.
I think Naguib Mahfouz is a wonderful writer and like I said before, I will definitely expand my readership when it comes particularly to his works. If you’ve read his work and found something really interesting then do recommend. 🙂