First published in 1985, The Day the Leader Was Killed is set against the backdrop of an important era in Egypt’s history- the Sadat regime. During his term as president, Anwar al Sadat made many changes but most eminent was the introduction of the infitah, an open door economic policy that led to the rise of wealthy citizens but proved detrimental to the middle class and working poor. In this lyrical novel, Naguib examines its impact on ordinary middle class families.
The book is written in the narrative and three people take turns relating their experiences and events. There is Muhtashimi Zayed, a retired religious old man, his grandson Elwan Fawwaz Muhtashimi and his childhood friend and fiancé Randa Sulayman Mubarak. Zayed dotes on his grandson and muses about death most of the time; Randa is sweet, practical , and intelligent while Elwan is an idealistic young man; he hates the Sadat and yearns for the heroes of his youth.
The story begins as Zayed reminisces about the good old days: “……Gone are the days of eggs, cheese, pastarami and jam. Those were the days of the ancien regime or BI (Before Infitah)…..Prices have since rocketed, everything has gone berserk”.
Even with the combined incomes of all household members, there is barely enough for basic necessities. Elwan lives with his parents, and he shares a room with his grandfather. Randa also lives with her parents, in the same apartment building as Elwan’s family.
The two have been engaged for many years, and even though both are employed, they can’t afford to move out and start their life together. With each passing year, this seems impossible. Elwan says: “We have only love and determination. Neither she nor I have a solution. Our engagement was announced in the Nasser era and we were made to face reality in the days of the infitah. We sank in the whirl pool of the mad world……………… I am a man persecuted and burdened with responsibilities and doubts; she is pretty and desirable. There I stand broad as a dam blocking her path”
Randa is beautiful and educated, and the pressure on Elwan to marry her is huge; even their boss (they work in the same office) comments about their long engagement. Elwan finally breaks the engagement, Randa gets married to their boss; but this sets in a series of unfortunate events; one of which is the assassination of President Anwar al Sadat. This is the climax of the novel, all the narrators have different reactions to this news; but Elwan is affected by it the most- what he does later is rather shocking to the reader. But it marks an era of new beginnings.
This is the first book I have read by Naguib Mahfouz and I must admit I was impressed. The Day the Leader Was Killed is insightful, and gives the reader a glimpse into the Egyptians way of life in the 1980s. Originally written in Arabic, it was translated to English by Malak Mashem.