Zaabalawi by Nagiub Mahfouz is a classic story that has a very heavy lean toward religion and social studies. A common man is inflicted with a disease that he is unable to seek out a cure for, so he sets out in search of the mysterious Zaabalawi who has been known to cure illnesses. His search invites outside acquaintances who he hopes may be able to tell him where he can find Zaabalawi. By the end of the story it is clear that Zaabalawi is much less a holy man, but more so a figure one’s own desire for spiritual fulfillment.
The common man, played by the narrator, seems to have made a half-hearted attempted to find the cure by traditional means, but not finding success he has decided to seek out Zaabalawi; a man described almost entirely as elusive as the cure to his own illness. Nevertheless, he is determined to seek out Zaabalawi, a man who he believes will be able to cure his ailment, and ultimately cure his affliction by whatever means necessary.
Here the narrator gives up on the traditionally accepted means of finding a solution to his problem, and seeks out a more less common, misunderstood means to find it. At this point in the story it is not really clear if Zaabalawi is a real man, or is simply an idea, or a symbol for something greater. Being that Zaabalawi represents a solution to his greater problem at this point, it is clear he has decided that Zaabalawi is the absolute answer. As the story develops further, we see several people enter the story who claim to have once known Zaabalawi.
Sheik Quamar, a lawyer in Cairo, suggests that he once knew Zaabalawi but has since fallen out of contact and remembers almost nothing about him. Sheiks situation seems indicative of a man who has fallen out of touch with his spiritual side and has forgotten a lot of things he used to believe in before he found success. This same idea is repeated when the District Officer enters the story. We see a man who appears incapable of offering any real assistance, and goes on to say how his preoccupation with the cares of the world have almost made him completely forget about him.
Interestingly, we see here that the man further goes on to explain that the narrators inquiry had made him remember his youth. Here again, we see a man who has fallen out of touch with many of the things that he believed in as a child. Both Sheik and the district officer have fallen out of touch with the beliefs they had once placed importance on, and given them up for the world. Mahfouz is pointing out mans mistake of misplacing importance, and how we lose touch with certain things due to the istractions of this world. The narrator is now led to the house of the calligrapher, Hassanein. Hassanein is found to be very much in touch with his faith and has his memories of Zaabalawi intact. It is where the search for what makes this man different from Sheik and the District Officer begins. Hassanein goes on to explain how everything he is able to do is because of God, and how he believes sincerely that Zaabalawi would be able to heal the narrator’s illness.
Mahfouz introduces another character to further support the progress the narrator is beginning to find. The narrator now finds himself at the home of the famous musician, Sheikh Gad. Gad appears to be in tune with everything around him. His presence is calm, and he proves to be very enlightening. He goes on to explain to the narrator that through his suffering he will certainly find the cure. They continue to talk and Gad explains how through their meeting is no coincidence, and that it is all nothing short of God’s work.
The last scene of the story takes place in a bar, where the narrator finds himself in need of a drink after his long, seemingly fruitless search. At this point, the narrator is stripped of all the things that had built up his tolerance to the world. He was able to forget the worldly matters that have held him back, like many of his acquaintances, in his search for Zaabalawi. We now see the narrator acknowledge his awareness of Zaabalawi, and how his is completely motivated to continue to know him.
Zaabalawi started out as the image of a man that would provide the narrator with a quick fix to his problem, but throughout the story we see how Mahfouz continually points out that quick fixes aren’t always as important as finding the reasons behind them. Through the narrator’s disease, he lets go of all the worldly things that end up taking precedence of many people’s lives, and we see how through this he develops an understanding for what is really important in life. Zaabalawi may not be the man the narrator set out to find, but he represents the symbol of understanding and enlightenment that he so desperately needed.