Before the Throne: A Modern Arabic Novel
© 1982 Naguib Mafouz, trans. 2008 Raymond Stock
In ancient Egyptian mythology, the souls of the dead were weighed before the gods. In Before the Throne, the dead pharaohs, generals, leaders, and dictator-presidents of Egypt process before the heavenly court, where the great lord of their ancestors, Osiris, sits waiting to judge them. Even as Egypt is conquered and her people forget the gods, Osiris and his divine family maintain a watchful eye on the Land of the Nile, whose people are theirs. Originally written in Arabic in the 1980s, Before the Throne is a history of an ancient people, who have endured much but have finally regained independence, told through a fantastical trial.
Some sixty men and women are brought before Osiris’s throne, and at first their judgments follow a fairly predictable formula: Thoth, the court reporter, offers a brief recap of the individual’s life, followed by the defendant asserting his merits. Osiris is rarely impressed, cross-examining to the point of grilling his mortal subject, while his sister-wife Isis plays the part of public defender, offering grounds for mercy. Most of the time the subject in question is allowed — if grudgingly — admittance to glory, while some are cast into purgatory and a rare few into Hell itself. As more pharaohs pass muster, however, they become active spectators to successive trials; great pharaohs bemoan their descendants’ stupidity in losing hard-won gains, or exult in their successors’ steadfast defense of Egypt’s people against a multitude of greater empires, fighting to their last. The ranks of the judged include noble pharaohs and revolutionaries alike, and they bicker with one another and the defendants. Akhenaten, for instance, noted for turning away from Egyptian mythology in favor of a new monotheism, is written as single-minded religious fanatic who is profoundly unhappy with every leader who follows until he sees in the rise of Islam the fulfillment of his own vision. After the Persian conquest, when Egyptians endure many centuries of foreign rule, individuals who fought for Egypt as Egypt are singled for scrutiny; the gods acknowledge limits to their sovereignty, as they begin wishing leaders success in their Christian and Islamic trials. They are Egypt’s gods, even if Egypt has become the domain of another deity.
Translated from the Arabic, this is a most curious book. There is virtually no awkwardness in the translation, although each rulers’ time is so short that few have personality. The few who do (Akhenaten ) gain it only by complaining in every trial, least until Osiris demands that they behave. The fact that Mahfouz is writing for a predominately Muslim audience while wanting to connect to the gods of Egypt’s past reveals itself in the complete lack of concern on the god’s part about Akhenaten’s revelation, and the fact that they acknowledge their children have become the wards of the Abrahamic faiths. Judging by the book’s conclusion, in which some of the major subjects implore Egyptians to learn the lessons of their lives — lessons like the importance of justice, of fighting for Egypt as a thing itself distinct from the Arab people or from global Islam, of revolution as a progressive force to realize the nation’s potential — Magfouz wrote to offer encouragement in a time when Egypt was struggling to find its place in the “modern” middle east, finally governing itself again and trying to contend against powers like the United States as unrest was sweeping the middle east. The book’s published translation so soon after the Arab spring, in which again the land was given with chaos, is a most appropriate season for looking back at the leaders of the past, both noble monarchs and revolutionary leaders of the people, and examining where they failed and where they prospered.