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I came to Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Adrift on the Nile after having seen the movie of the same name. As I suspected, the director’s decisions [Hussein Kamal] were different than the novelist’s — particularly in the closing scenes — after the murder-by-automobile and the subsequent fracturing of the kif smoking crowd.

The plot outline is much the same for both film and novel. A group of friends in the 1960s  gathers nightly on a houseboat in the Nile to share a water pipe of kif, or hash. There is much sexual banter and empty talk. A serious woman, Samara,  joins the group and secretly takes notes. In the movie she’s a journalist planning an article for her magazine; in the novel she’s a playwright planning a play about the conflict between the Serious and the Absurd — which in fact is the quest of the novel itself.

One night, well stoned, they all cram into a car and, speeding along the road in the dark, hit, and kill someone. [In the film it is a peasant woman with on-lookers presumed to be her family.  In the book it is a solitary man.]  They flee,  even taking a vote on it. This leads to fear, sleeplessness, and a climactic confrontation on the boat the next day.   Pressed first by   Samara, and then by  Anis Zaki, the “host” of the parties — the one who sets out the pillows and pipe for the others — the group pleads, argues and fights. While the two  insist that responsibility for the death must be taken –the others argue that it is not necessary, and even foolish.  One  in the film argues that had they stopped to help, the family would have killed them;  therefore by fleeing they were saved from becoming killers.  In the mouths of different characters in movie and book the argument is advanced that by turning themselves in the women would be dishonored for hanging out with men  –seemingly more of a shame than being party to killing someone.

Here the movie and novel  separate in a significant way.  One wonders what Mahfouz thought of the departure from his ideas.

The movie has Anis making a fundamental break and re-discovery of conscience and connection to others during a trip to the front with Samara, the journalist,  to visit Egyptian soldiers  [what the war is, is not clear].   Long panning shots of bleak, bombed out city scape ties his self-discovery to a nationalist sort of emotion; moved by the seriousness of death and destruction, the self sacrifice of soldiers while he has self indulged.   He returns to his real, pre dope smoking self, though as somewhat of a mad-man, shouting his rediscovered responsibility through the streets of Cairo.

Everyone must stop smoking hash! Realize what you are doing! Everyone must stop now!

The houseboat, without him, is set adrift by the ancient boat-boy.  The rest of the group, unaware of what is happening, as they have been throughout the movie, drifts off.

The book, that is Mahfouz, not the director, has a fundamentally different take on events. Initially, Samara is also the moral center.  Throughout her visits she quizzes them on their views of life. She herself never partakes in the smoking.   Her own sense of what she is seeing is revealed in the notes for a play she wants to write, based on their lives, and hers, about the struggle between the Serious and the Absurd.  After the accident, all have had a sleepless night and re-gather on the boat to collect themselves.  Uneasily at first, but with increasing surety they try to make little of the killing.  She alone says they must confess. They must take responsibility.  The person killed in the car, she says, was herself — her own sense of rightness. But after persuasions and arguments, and the pressure of her own attraction to Ragab, the driver of the car,  she gives in, defeated.

Now Anis makes a break. [There is no trip to the front.] Having  been set to thinking  after reading Samara’s notes for her play, which he had stolen from her purse, and which had included scathing sketches of each of them, and lacking that evening  kif for the day, he finds himself sober, no longer waiting for the appearance of a whale surfacing from the Nile, “its mouth agape, ready to swallow the houseboat.”

First, he praises Samara for her capitulation.

“Samara is a girl with principles, but she is also a woman with a heart… We are indebted to love”

This is  a clear allusion to the outline for her play — in which the serious woman, Samara herself,  saves them all from their Absurdest escape — with love.  Now it is she who, ensnared by love, has fallen in with them.   Samara bursts into tears and Ragab, the magnetic attraction for all the women, throws himself on Anis.

In a terrible scuffle, to the point of pulling a kitchen knife on his friends, Anis insists that it is time to accept responsibility for the murder.

“…nothing is important except the murder”, he says.   “Justice must be done.. we must inform the authorities of our involvement at once…”

After threats and counter threats everyone leaves but Samara and Anis.   Amm Abduh, the boat boy who in the book is a giant of a man, a natural salt-of-the-earth man, each one of the other characters  comments on at some point,  says to them if Ragab had hit Anis one more time, he would have loosed the boat from its moorings.  Like a neighboring boat earlier in the story, it would have sunk.

“You would have drowned me, to save me!” says Anis

“At least you would have had the help of God,  Abduh replies.

Abduh leaves them with the last bit of dope, stirred into a cup of coffee.  Aniss reveals to Samara that he may not be as serious as his shouted  insistence had made him seem to be.

What made you do it?

I wanted to put it to a test… saying what should be said, that is…


I don’t know exactly, perhaps to examine the effect.

That is, not to accept actual responsibility, but to see what would happen if he “acted” as if he were calling for that.  He brings up her play, that is to say, the plan of the book we are reading, and its various possible endings all of which, in her conception, were a victory for the serious woman over the absurdist, escapist men.  He suggests there are other endings…that the heroine is defeated, or falls in love with him.

She confesses that she too understands the sense of absurdity, that she tries to be more serious than she really is…

“In my moments of leisure , absurdity gnaws at me like a toothache… But I fight it with my intellect and will..”

He suggests the play might end with the moral collapse of the heroine. She counters that she is determined to go on fighting.

He says it is not just will and intellect.  He recalls to her the Ferris wheel, that takes you up and lets you down and no matter the intellect and will the feeling in the stomach is just the same…

She began to speak about hope. He looked out at the Nile. The night fluttered its wings, and its secrets were scattered like stars. Her words died to a whisper echoing in the slumber of his dream. Before long, he knew, the dark waters would part to reveal the head of the whale (the dope in the coffee will have taken effect.)

He continues to drift and think as she interrupts him, with her will and intellect.

The cleverness of the ape is the root of all misfortune. He learned to walk on two legs and his hands were free. … And he came down from the apes’ paradise in the trees to the forest floor… And [the others ] said to him ‘Come back to the trees, or the beasts will get you.’  But he took a branch in one hand and a stone in the other and set off cautiously, looking away down the road that had no end….

And so the novel ends.  Unlike the movie it ends without an answer.  Is there any escape from the sense of the absurd, or is it built into the species?  That play, for Mahfouz, had not yet found its end….

It is extremely interesting to read Mahfouz wrestling with the same elements of the Absurd, and what should man’s reaction be, as Camus and the (mostly) French existentialists were wrestling with at the same time.  The novel is a much clearer dramatic exposition of the struggle than the film which turns itself into a kind of nationalist (Up Egypt!) morality play.  The novel was much more rewarding for me than the movie.  It had  meat to chew on, people I had some relation to, sympathy for, irritation at.   The film doesn’t have as much to work through.  The question is of lapsed morals, not existential dilemma.   It is  a movie maker’s view of Cairo at the time, pushing the bounds of titillation and then drawing back with the urgent message:  Come to your senses!  Don’t smoke hashish!  Not quite as bad as the anti-sex movies I saw in college, where after the beguiling shots of thighs and cleavage we got full color closeups of syphilis in action.  I don’t think anyone stopped their dangerous ways because of such movies….

The novel asks the more serious question:  What do we do, with ourselves, or our friends, if nothing seems worth doing, or if everything – the good and the evil- seem equal and doing anything makes no difference.  What do we do if  the temptations of giving up, in dope or despair,  beset us?