A Curiosity: Andrew Madigan on Naguib Mahfouz’s Before the Throne

Before the Throne, Naguib Mahfouz, trans. Raymond Stock, American University in Cairo Press, 2009

First published as Amam al-’arsh in 1983, Before the Throne is a story of Egypt’s past, an allegory about its leaders and the ethics of leadership. Nearly 60 of the nation’s former rulers, from the obscure to the world-famous, from 3000 BCE to the 1980s, are called before a tribunal. They are to be judged by the Gods Osiris, Isis and Horus, while Thoth, Scribe of the Gods, records the proceedings. Those who are deemed worthy, who served the best interests of the people, will be granted immortality.

Mahfouz’s method is to bring Egypt’s rulers, who are otherwise seen as demigods, down to smaller, human proportions by placing them before Gods. Through this juxtaposition, we’re supposed to see them more clearly and honestly rather than being overwhelmed by their fame and majesty. King Menes, who originally unified the nation and cultivated its strengths, is the first to be called. The Gods debate his strengths and weaknesses as a leader and as a moral being:

“You reaped one hundred thousand of the Libyans’ lives,” Osiris reproached him.
“They were the aggressors, My Lord,” said Menes in his own defense.
“And of the Egyptians, northerners and southerners combined, two hundred thousand fell as well,” Osiris reminded him.
“They sacrificed themselves for the sake of our nation’s unity,” said Menes.
“Then security and peace reigned over all, while the blood that had regularly been shed in periodic fighting ceased to flow into the waters of the Nile.”
“Could you not win the people over with words before resorting to the sword?” asked Osiris. (3)

This process is repeated, with little variation, throughout the book. Egypt’s rulers must answer for their decisions, without the excuse of expediency, executive privilege or personal glory. This is an intrinsically complex task, however. Menes sums up the difficulty with this project of accountability: “‘Thoth, your sacred scribbler, has condensed my life in words….How easy is the telling, and how hard was the doing!’” (2).

Most of the rulers are judged leniently and given a favorable judgment. Raymond Stock, the novel’s translator, writes: “only those who serve that great national ka–according to Mahfouz’s own strict criteria–are worthy of his praise and a seat among the immortals” Afterword 152). The “national ka” refers to Egypt’s identity and glory; Mahfouz’s criteria, which isn’t altogether strict, amounts in some cases to imperialism and national strength. Most of the country’s rulers are acquitted of their crimes. The ones who aren’t, curiously, are often judged in large groups and given very little space in the text to account for themselves. Chapter 31, for instance, is the trial of Ramesses IV-XII; nine rulers are sent to Purgatory with only a half-page of analysis, and Chapter 9 sees six kings condemned to Hell with only one page of discussion.

Before the Throne is a dialogue, though it’s not a work of philosophy. In an interview, Mahfouz claimed that it was a work of history, but this is not defensible (Afterword 145). We learn bits and scraps about Egypt and its past, but the book lacks the objectivity, thoroughness, attention to detail, academic rigor, and of course the basic verisimilitude of History (the putative tribunal, for instance, is not factual). Before the Throne recalls the work of Diderot more than anything else; fiction is used as a canvas for thinly-dramatized vignettes relating to non-fictional events and ideas. It’s an intriguing book, a curiosity, but ultimately it would have been better if it were either more fictionalized or more dedicated to History, Philosophy or some other discipline. As it stands, the book is didactic, heavy-handed and repetitive, though it does offer, like an epic poem, a selective and concise summary of the Egyptian past.