This excerpt is from Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, a parable-like short novel published in Arabic in 1983; the English translation is forthcoming this year from Doubleday. It is the journal of a traveler, desolate over the thwarting of his marriage to Halima, the daughter of a Sheikh. He sets out with a caravan to explore the non-Islamic world, the final goal a mysterious and distant country named Gebel, from which no one has ever returned to tell the tale. The following episode describes his arrival at the first stop on the journey—the Land of Mashriq.

The column of camels began to move off to the rhythm of the singing of the cameleer and my heart became immersed in the tender pain of saying farewell. Deep within me there stirred memories of my mother and of Halima, wrapped around in a grief that encompassed my whole motherland. In the heart of the darkness I mumbled, “O God, bless the steps I take.”