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Tarun Singh

TF: Hale

A Story of Dichotomies

Yahya Haqqi’s short story “The Saint’s Lamp” is a narrative of a man named Ismail who

is torn from his family during adolescence as he travels to Europe to become an optometrist.

However, upon Ismail’s return he finds that his home in Cairo no longer holds the same appeal as

it did before. Ismail no longer finds any relevance in societal and religious traditions and finds

himself in an internal struggle. Throughout the story, the Saint’s lamp that hangs above the

mosque in the local square serves as the embodiment of Ismail’s transformation. Ismail’s

interpretation of the lamp changes with his interpretation of life. Haqqi makes an effort to carry

the metaphor of enlightenment vs. darkness throughout the story to represent the changes seen in

Ismail. The importance of the Saint’s lamp is perhaps best seen with Ismail’s struggle to find a

balance between collectivism vs. individualism, East vs. West and faith vs. science and

ultimately it is the lamp that provides him with the understanding to reconcile these struggles.

The importance of the collective in the day to day life of Cairo residents is a major theme

throughout the story. At the outset Haqqi writes that “the Saint’s feast and calendar had become

ours,” suggesting that a person’s day to day life was governed by religion and presence of the

mosque in the square (Haqqi 2). Similarly, the idea of giving up individual desires for the

collective is seen with the sacrifices made by Ismail’s family in order for him to study abroad.

This is seen when the author writes “a whole generation was wasting itself so that one single

individual may have the chance to develop” (Haqqi 4). The importance given to the collective is

also seen when Ismail’s family distributes food to beggars in the square upon Ismail receiving

positive exam results. The author describes Ismail as being lost “naturally in the crowd of the
square like a raindrop in the ocean” (Haqqi 7). Thus, Ismail, his family and his town shares its

struggles, hopes and joys with each other. It is important to note that at this point the Saint’s

lamp is described as being so bright that “no stone walls could contain its light” (Haqqi 5).

This collectivism is juxtaposed with the strong sense of individualism that is reinforced in

Ismail’s head while in Europe. Haqqi describes Ismail’s compassion and care for his patients,

especially the poor amongst them, as being a product of his Egyptian upbringing. However, as

Ismail spends more time in Europe he begins to believe Mary’s calls that “You are not Jesus

Christ!” (Haqqi 20) and begins to place more weight on individualism. Ismail begins to see

religion as a way to control the masses and believes that unless one is an individual, one is a

slave to society. Ismail is described as having once been “a grain of sand merged with countless

others,” but now finds this collective approach to stifle his individualism (Haqqi 21). It is no

surprise that when Ismail describes the Saint’s lamp upon his return to Egypt he says “it emitted

more smoke than light” (Haqqi 29).

Ismail’s struggle to find a balance between the practices of the East vs. those of the West

is a major conflict throughout the short story. At the beginning of the narrative, Ismail’s family is

described as bowing its’ head at the mosque despite it being considered a superstition by the

religious elite. However, upon his return from Europe, Ismail makes an effort to point out the

superstition of his mother as she poured oil from the Saint’s lamp into Fatima’s eyes as remedy

for her progressing blindness. Ismail’s past is marked by the lamp which not only provides

physical light but is also supposed to restore light in Fatima’s eyes, while his post-European self

is marked by a self-righteousness that rejects the “superstitions” of Egypt. Ismail’s distaste for

the East is best exemplified by his impatience with Egyptians. Instead, Ismail’s self-

righteousness instills in him a desire to revolutionize Egypt and to be the transformative figure
that makes the East into the West. This internal struggle comes to a head when Ismail destroys

the Saint’s lamp at the mosque – ironically it is Sheikh Dardiri, a facilitator of the “superstition,”

that saves Ismail from death at the hands of worshipers. After destroying the lamp Ismail is left

saying “I…I…I.” while the word “Muslim” means one who submits to God and forgoes the self.

Haqqi stresses the use of the word “I” to emphasize the shift in Ismail’s thinking and as a sign

that Ismail has fully accepted Western thinking. Thus, Haqqi uses Ismail’s view of the Saint’s

lamp and the destruction of the lamp as a symbol of the internal conflict and destruction that is

tearing at Ismail’s soul.

Finally, the struggle between faith and science is evident throughout the short story as

Ismail attempts to redefine himself. Initially, it was Ismail’s religious upbringing and peasant

origin that were assets that separated him from his peers at school. The extent to which faith

played a role in Ismail and his family’s life, Haqqi writes that “Moslem law was both truth and

science” (Haqqi 12). In fact, had it not been for a voice telling his father to trust God – Ismail

may have never traveled to Europe to become an optometrist. As Ismail departed for Europe his

father gave him the advice “live as you lived here observing strictly your religion” showing that

in the environment Ismail was raised in, there was little room for compromising religious

principles (Haqqi 12).

However, after attending university abroad, Ismail perceived religion to be a superstition

and he no longer looked at religion as something to lean on. Ismail had lost his chastity and had

taken to drinking and dancing; all practices which his father had warned him against. Instead of

faith, Ismail now believed in science which had effectively taken the place of religion in Ismail’s

life. He had forgotten his religious upbringing and manners, which was exemplified when he

scolded at his mother for pouring hot oil from the Saint’s lamp into Fatima’s eyes. Ismail
physically and symbolically dismisses his religion and faith when he snatches the oil of the

Saint’s lamp from his mother and throws the bottle out of the window. This caused his father to

ask “Is all our reward that you should come back to us an infidel?” (Haqqi 26). Instead of relying

on religion and faith for healing, Ismail chooses to treat Fatima’s eyes using the scientific

techniques and methods that he had learned and refined in Europe. Ultimately, Ismail’s efforts to

treat Fatima’s eyes using the scientific methods of Europe are fruitless and only accelerate

Fatima’s blindness. This is not because Haqqi wants to debunk Western optometry but rather

because Haqqi is using Fatima’s blindness as a metaphor to show that blindly applying Western

thinking to the East is fruitless. Thus, the theme of light and the Saint’s lamp are the center of

Ismail’s struggle and development.

Ultimately, despite desiring to return to Europe and running away from home, it is the

Saint’s lamp and faith that provides the final way to reconcile his internal struggle. This

reconciliation between the East and West begins when Ismail questions whether a square such as

Sayyida Zaynab exists in all of Europe. Ismail notes that “Love and pity there existed only after

the day’s work was over…” (Haqqi 33). Thus, Ismail begins to recognize that his binary

characterization of the world is not as valid as it seemed, and that even Europe had its

inadequacies. Although, Ismail attempts to convince himself that this type of reasoning is invalid

as it undermines science, he ultimately finds himself returning to Sayyida square. The

reconciliation reaches a climax during the time of Ramadan, even though it didn’t occur to Ismail

that it was time to fast, he was impressed by how the square had become rejuvenated, finally

finding his fellow Egyptians tolerable. He says faith as the common bond that united everyone

and realized that his comparisons of Europe and Egypt were unfair. Ismail understands that love

and comparison cannot coexist and it was this love that tied everyone together. The author makes
an effort to stress that Ismail’s revelation occurred on the night of al-qadr, the same night when

the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammad. Al-qadr was “a white spot in the darkness of

all other nights” (Haqqi 35). Ultimately Ismail realizes that “there can be no science without

faith” (Haqqi 36) and welcomes the light of the Saint’s lamp into his life.

Ismail returns from studying in the West and finds himself in a struggle about how to

reconcile the conflicts of collectivism vs. individualism, East vs. West and faith vs. science.

Yahya Haqqi uses the Saint’s lamp not only as a metaphor for how Ismail’s European education

changed his views, but also uses it to describe how Ismail is able to reconcile these conflicts.

Paradoxically, and at the same time intuitively, the internal struggle described by the prophet

Mohammad as jihad-e-akbar, or the large jihad, is only reconciled for Ismail through the most

prominent symbol of religion in his life, the Saint’s lamp.