The Strange Case of the Novelist from Egypt


About mid-way through his Nobel Prize lecture, read by Mohamed Salmawy at the Swedish Academy in 1988, the acknowledged father of the Arabic novel Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) made the point that Europeans “may be wondering: This man coming from the third world, how did he find the peace of mind to write stories?” It’s a remark that has remained with me, not so much because it implies, absurdly, that no one from a third-world country is supposed to have either peace or mind enough for literature—it particularly annoys me when, addressing his European audience, Mahfouz goes on to say they’re “perfectly right” to be posing that question—but because this presumption of deprivation or lack, of writing being something over and above ordinary living and working, seems in a way to underlie the Egyptian novelist’s collective self-image. And, especially now that Egypt is barely surviving institutional collapse and civil conflict—something that despite war, regime change, and the turn of the millennium, never happened during the 94 years of Mahfouz’s life—as a person who lives in Cairo and writes novels in Arabic, it is an idea I am somehow expected to have about myself.

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Lost in affirmation: artists, Islamists and politicians

Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?


The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.


So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.


It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.

Don’t shoot the jester


In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.

Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.

Imam, who in his works and statements alike has never demonstrated intellectual depth, had—along with other pro-Mubarak stars who failed to support the revolution—been aptly compared to a court jester. Since he rose to fame in the early 1970s, in his film vehicles and his cabaret-style plays, there was rarely any attempt at profundity beyond bland blanket support for the poor and the man on the street. There are of course exceptions, notably Mohammed Khan’s 1983 Al-Harrif (The Pro) and Sherif Arafa’s 1992 Al-Irhab awl Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). In the latter, as in many films starring Imam, there is a harsh critique of corrupt religiosity and the association of terrorism with Islamic militants. It was under Mubarak, while the jihadist threat was being contained by State Security, that Imam made his greatest contribution to the portrayal of Wahhabis (later called Salafis) as terrorists posing a threat to society; this was of course in line with state policy.

Yet in many of his best-known plays—from the hilarious landmark Shaid mashafsh haga (A witness who saw nothing, 1976, five years before Mubarak came to power) to the inconsistent Al-Zaim (The Leader, 1993)—Imam provided scathing critiques of the police state and dictatorship (which he was of course careful not to associate with Mubarak off stage). Indeed many of his jokes were actually deployed in the verbal fight to bring down Mubarak in Tahrir Square even as he turned his back to the uprising. The use of such jokes was unavoidable as they had become ubiquitous. In fact Imam contributed to the shaping of spoken Arabic in Egypt, and much of that contribution (whether intentionally or not) was politically subversive.

The Fool is brought to trial not by a new and revolutionary King, however—whom I suspect would have honoured him, anyway—but by the insufferably Dark Ages-oriented Clergy whose power the revolution has facilitated. It is a question that we must ask ourselves as Egyptians, regarding Imam’s predicament as much as any number of issues: To what extent can support for the revolution be a measure of moral worth under the circumstances? And to what extent does political Islam have the right to inherit the new Egypt? Perhaps Imam is no tenable role model, but perhaps he should not be made to do hard labour. And if he is in any way punished, it had better be for his political position—not for failing to kowtow to the bearded inquisitors.

Empty Feeling: The Vagaries of the Sixties

The Egyptian writers who rose to prominence in the 1960s cast a long shadow over decades of Arabic fiction. Youssef Rakha considers the vexed legacy of a generation.

Hunger: A Modern Arabic Novel
Mohamed el Bisatie, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
American University in Cairo Press

In July 2007, I met the novelist Gamal al Ghitani in Cairo to discuss the Egyptian State Merit Award, which he had just received (too late, he felt). We agreed that the group of writers known in Egypt as the Generation of the Sixties – a politically engaged, predominantly working-class group of poetically-inclined writers who made their names in the late 1960s and early 1970s – remain the principle reference point for much contemporary Arabic literature. Al Ghitani said that the Sixties’ achievement comprises only two kinds of writing. “One draws on the news and other immediate manifestations of history to take realism to its logical conclusion; it is represented by Sonallah Ibrahim. The other, which is inspired by old books and uses the old storytelling to comment on the present, is my own.”

It seemed unnecessary to disagree at the time, but I thought to myself that there was a third Sixties contingent, one typified by Ibrahim Aslan and Mohamed el Bisatie. Their work is even more typical of “the movement” than either Ibrahim’s brand of hyper-realism or al Ghitani’s heritage-orientated approach. It embodies all the qualities that come to mind when you think of the Generation of the Sixties: it focuses on collective rather than individual experience. It works through evocation and insinuation, is often almost too subtle to understand, and prioritises style over storytelling. It asserts the importance of the lower-middle and working classes, which were more visible under the Nasser regime than they had ever been before.

What sets Aslan and el Bisatie – the former a postman-turned-editor, the latter (like Naguib Mahfouz) a lifelong civil servant – apart from their generational cohort is their almost exclusive emphasis on the experience of marginalised groups, rather than all of society or the ebb and flow of history. Their short stories – always short, sometimes rambling – are Faulkneresque in their focus on small communities and their vernaculars. Aslan has the Nile-side Cairo slum of Kitkat, el Bisatie an unnamed small town overlooking Lake Manzalah in the north-eastern Nile Delta. Like Ibrahim, both authors engage broad themes like sex, religion and politics, but only indirectly, only to the extent that they play out in the lives of the disinherited, and generally in a more personal register. Like al Ghitani, they situate their narratives in an explicitly historical context, but only on behalf of the small, poor communities in question.

In addition to his numerous short stories, Aslan has only produced two novels – Malik al Hazin (Heron, 1983) and Asafir al Nil (Nile Sparrows, 2000). Recently, in an unprecedented move for a Sixties Generation writer, he has branched out into literary non-fiction. El Bisatie, on the other hand, has spent the last three decades steadily producing short novels of starkly uneven quality. To a greater extent than Aslan, he has failed to remedy the shortcoming inherent in much of the new writing celebrated in the 1960s and 1970s: a lack of strong characters or gripping storylines. The power of language to convey an intimately observed environment – particularly one where common people live – was thought to be enough for literature. But it rarely is; now that the Sixties’ political points are no longer fresh, their style frequently seems stale as well.

“Hunger” is the idiomatic translation of both Al Ju’ and Ju’: the definite and indefinite forms of the word, respectively. El Bisatie’s choice of the latter as the title of his latest book (since published as Hunger by the American University in Cairo press) reflects a particular humility of the Sixties: the belief that, when the title of a book is a one-word abstraction, the definite article is too presumptuous to include. To call the book Al Ju’ (so goes this absurd argument, advanced by a whole range of Sixties critics) would imply that the author is laying exclusive claim to the concept of hunger (this is the rough opposite of how it works in English).

Reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – another recent book about poverty in the third world, one that recognises the age-old literary virtues of character and storyline – I was reminded of many such Sixties hang-ups (all of which Adiga transcends). They include a paradoxical combination of commitment to “the people” and a lack of concern for accessibility, a tendency to prioritise flashy language over storytelling, and commitment to the unwritten commandment “Thou shalt not make context clear or state the facts”. These qualities occasionally combined to produce an exquisite short story or novella (and are much less pronounced in al Ghitani and Ibrahim than in Aslan or el Bisatie), but they restricted the scope of much talent, alienated many readers and effected a huge drop in novel sales, which had reached a peak in the mid-1960s with the works of journalist-novelists like Ihsan abdul Quddous and Fathi Ghanem; contemporary Arabic literature has had serious trouble building a readership ever since.


El Bisatie devised his technique of a collective narrative voice in two 1978 novellas, Al Maqha az Zujaji (The Glass Cafe) and Al Ayyam as Sa’bah (Hard Days): simple, sad evocations of the lives of geographically isolated town-dwellers. In these books, as in the bulk of el Bisatie’s subsequent work, the narration is either delivered by an amorphous “we” or by a rapidly shifting blend of individual voices – in both cases, it as if el Bisatie’s small town itself is telling its own tale.

It is a technically impressive mode of writing, one el Bisatie employed to brilliant effect as recently as 1994, in Sakhab al Buhairah (Clamour of the Lake), a prose poem-cum-foundation myth of life in the rural space between the lake and the sea in the governorate of Domyat. But none of the collective voice’s potential poetic power (often squandered by sloppiness and repetition) makes up for a lack of absorbing drama or vivid individual characters. This helps explain why Ju’ is such a slow and dreary read.

The book opens with a woman named Sakina sitting by the doorstep of her rough-and-tumble, mostly mud-brick family house, her headscarf in a bundle between her legs. Her perpetually unemployed husband, Zaghloul, uses a piece of straw to clean his teeth – his way of telling her that she had better borrow a reghif or two of bread from the neighbour who baked that morning. Inside the house, their sons (Zaher, 12, and Ragab, 10), barely awake, caress their tummies. Dialogue between husband and wife is intermingled with their respective internal monologues, all rendered in a language somewhere between dialect and standard Arabic. El Bisatie’s usual poetic intensity is replaced by a more true-to-life, mundane idiom that is neither absorbing nor (as the intention sometimes seems to be) comic.

From the start, it is hard not to recall far more powerful depictions of the subjective experience of hunger (in Mohammad Choukri or Knut Hamsen, for example). You race through the next few pages, hoping for some more compelling situation or scene. But having taken in that first image, it turns out you have taken in the whole book: paper-thin characters on the lookout for food, only food, and not thinking much at all.

Ju’ is built around four anecdotes recalled without any indication of when they occur or how (or if) they relate. First, Zaghloul takes to eavesdropping on a group of young men from the town who are studying at university in Cairo. Home for the holiday, they are meeting at the cafe around which Zaghloul hovers (hoping against hope for a free drink, perhaps?). “Oh Sakina,” he later recalls to his wife, “education is so sweet… Sitting on the mastaba by the wall, I hear them talking. And, oh, what talk! I understand bit, I don’t understand a bit… They say that one shouldn’t work everyday like a water buffalo tied to a water wheel, one has to have time to think. But, people, think about what? They did not say. I wanted to ask them but I was silent.”

The encounter, far from influencing Zaghloul one way or the other, acts only to dehumanise him for the reader, to solidify him as a caricature of the sub-proletariat. Likewise, in the second anecdote he blasphemes: “God in His glory created the world and the people and everything, and ordered them to worship Him. I say to myself, if He created all this, what does He need their worshipping for … If He in His glory wants them to worship him, why doesn’t He appear in whatever form He likes and say ‘I created you, worship Me!’ Then nobody will say no.” This is a silly caricature of shallow atheism – neither interesting in its own right nor useful in developing Zaghloul’s character, which remains opaque and stereotyped: the poor man with poor thoughts who invariably ends up being beaten by the imam.

The third anecdote involves Hagg Abdur Rahim – a man who “returned home from foreign countries” to the village with as much new money as new weight, which renders him immobile. Zaghloul works for Hagg Abdur for two months, bringing his family a rare stretch of financial stability. In the fourth – and perhaps the most interesting – anecdote, Sakina is similarly subcontracted as a servant by the two female teenage servants of Hagg Hashem, another affluent member of the community. When she moves into Hashem’s house, she brings along her husband and children, who feast on the household’s supplies. But once again, the protagonists reveal no individuality, enacting their destiny (acquiring what food they can) like shadow puppets, two-dimensional and skin deep.

Ju’ ends with Zaher being beaten up by the father of his relatively affluent friend Abdalla, who has been providing him with much-needed snacks. “His father,” who does not want him to mix with such rabble, “was a teacher at the primary school and he had not one but four galabeyas, he wore an undershirt and had three meals a day.” Zaghloul accepts a few meters of fabric as compensation, but when Abdalla’s father hands Zaher a galabeya to replace the one that was torn during the beating, Zaher throws the garment on the ground and walks away. In The White Tiger, Adiga has his poor man protagonist, Balram, rebel – and transform himself with a brutal murder. In Ju’, el Bisatie has Zaher make a feeble, hackneyed gesture, without the slightest indication of whether or how the rebellion will improve (or worsen) his lot. Perhaps a gesture of this type is in character for Zaher; we never know him well enough to say.


Perhaps what al Ghitani was getting at (consciously or unconsciously) in our conversation was not that the Sixties produced only two kinds of writing but rather that only two kinds of writing have survived since. Aslan and el Bisatie’s mode, arguably the most characteristic of the Generation, is fast dying out, just like the predominantly deferential, ineffectual characters it depicts. Today, the Zaghlouls of Egyptian fiction are more like Adiga’s Balram: upwardly mobile heroes who at least try to change their lives. The heirs of the Generation of the Sixties (prose poets-turned-novelists some three decades younger, often referred to quite aptly as the Generation of the Nineties) have turned the principles of their forebears upside down. Writers like Mustafa Zikri and Ibrahim Farghali – however else you evaluate their achievement – have traded the collective for the individual, the musical swirl of the “we” for the developed narratives of the “I”. As a vehicle for conveying modern reality, el Bisatie’s collective voice sounds less and less convincing – like the echo of an echo, no longer beautiful twice removed. It is doubtful that the poetic style he perfected in Shakhab al Buhairah will live on much longer.

Early on, partly in response to the Sixties Generation’s obsession with “the people”, the Nineties writers avoided social and political engagement altogether, and edged away from the vernacular towards a dynamic, thoroughly contemporary standard Arabic designed for finding the magic in the quotidien. As a result, they are realists only insofar as they use everyday contemporary life as their starting point. They write about foreigners and rich people with fully developed and convincing personalities – and about ghosts, psychotic breaks, unrealistic and fantastical turns of events. Their styles borrow from across high and low culture. Most importantly, they show at least as much interest in plot and character development as style. They tell stories of love, death, hunger and the full range of specimens who experience them. In doing so, they offer the reader so much more than the Sixties version of reality which, through relentless, obstinate insistence on being true to the grassroots vernacular of its time (and nothing more), already appears unreal.


Tractatus Franco-Arabicus


Reading Sonallah Ibrahim’s last two books, Youssef Rakha suggests an early Wittgenstein-style formulation of the kind of literary problem Bonaparte’s Campaign to Egypt might present
1. An Arab novel can be written about Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801).
1.1. At first sight, this is perfectly self-evident: a novel in Arabic (or by an Arab writer) can be written about anything at all. But an Egyptian novelist writing about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, responding to a particular colonial legacy from the position of the colonised.
1.1.1. Bonaparte’s failed bid to take Egypt and Syria was intended to safeguard French trade in the Middle East and obstruct the British route to India. What it achieved was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the 22-volume Description de l’Egypte, as well as bringing the first print press into the country.
1.2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is, by definition, a response to both the left-wing idea that the campaign abused Egyptians and the right-wing idea that it propelled Egypt, a nominally Ottoman province ruled by feudal Mamelukes, into the modern age.
1.2.1. It was in the wake of the Campaign, and at least partly as a result of it, that the Ottoman general Muhammad Ali Pasha (1769-1849) founded the modern state of Egypt and Greater Syria, establishing not only a precedent for non-European modernity but also the basis of an Arab commonwealth in the Middle East, one whose energy and foresight initially made it a stronger world power than the Ottoman empire.
1.3. A novelist who has chosen to write about the Campaign will probably have political as well as literary motives.
1.3.1. Whether he agrees with him or not, it is likely that he will seek historical counsel with Abdel-Rahman Al-Jabarti (1753-1825), whose canonical chronicle, Aja’ib Al-Aathar fil-Tarajim wal Akhbaar (better known in English as Jabarti’s History of Egypt), remains the principal Arabic reference on the topic.
1.4. Already, these conditions moderate the notion of a novel considerably.
1.4.1. However else defined, a novel should remain fictitious, it should present individual characters in the process of change; it should make no concessions to a predetermined view of the forces affecting their lives.
1.4.2. The Arab novel as exemplified by its celebrated practitioner, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), has seldom had a political agenda. Even when it is intended as a statement on a historical period (Al-Karnak, 1974; The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), even when it is generically historical (Rhadopes of Nubia, 1943; The Struggle of Thebes, 1944), Mahfouz’s novel never presents history as a debate in which the writer might take sides (however representative or typical of that writer’s national identity the side he takes).
1.4.3. In this respect, Mahfouz follows in the footsteps of many 19th-century Russian and (ironically in the context of this tractatus) French masters of the novel.
1.4.4. To a greater or a lesser degree, younger (so called Generation of the Sixties) heirs of Mahfouz like Sonallah Ibrahim (b. 1937) were too morally or intellectually bound by historical grand narratives and political positions to practise novel writing with the same degree of political detachment.
1.4.5. Ideas of and about history affected these writers’ work to varying degrees, transporting much weight from the individual to the collective and from the shifting consciousness of a character in history to the fixed consciousness of the writer as a possible agent of historical change.
1.5. These ideas underpin what modification of the novel has taken place since Mahfouz. Apart from the more universal registers of Marxism, they have tended to converge on the image of an abused nation shedding the tethers of colonialism. Novelists like Ibrahim were, to use a word that did not yet exist when the Generation of the Sixties emerged on the scene, postcolonial.
1.5.1. In contemporary Arabic literature, “the Generation of the Sixties” remains an amorphous term, but with Ibrahim, at least, it is safe to define its significance in terms of a response to (the failure of) Arab nationalism, the earliest reflection in the language on what independence from British rule in 1956 and the emergence of a populist military dictatorship could mean for ordinary Egyptians.
1.6. Ibrahim’s standpoint will automatically favour the idea that the Campaign abused the people over the idea that it facilitated the emergence of Muhammad Ali’s commonwealth.
1.6.1. Its socialist dimension prevents him from sympathising any of the relevant historical parties – Ottomans, Mamelukes, French, British – since none of them can be identified with the people.
1.6.2. Its nationalist dimension precludes a positive view of the cultural intermingling and ethnic multiplicity those three years made possible even as he depicts them, since it prioritises the political significance of the event in them-and-us terms (the “us” in question being an undifferentiated and ultimately mute majority).
2. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign is likely to be written from a Generation of the Sixties standpoint.
2.1. This is because only a “postcolonial novelist” like Sonallah Ibrahim is likely to write such a novel.
2.1.2. A writer who is interested in neither the position of the colonised in general nor the French colonial legacy in particular – or one who is interested in these topics in a less prescribed way – cannot write such a novel without undermining basic precepts of Arab nationalism (in however sophisticated or watered-down a form these precepts may now be expressed) and in so doing he risks being called a traitor.
2.1.3. Such a writer is unlikely to find the subject of the Egyptian Campaign immediately appealing or directly relevant to the process of pronouncing fictitiously on contemporary Arab life anyway.
2.2. However disinterested in Jabarti per se, Ibrahim will peruse Aja’ib Al-Aathar to corroborate his standpoint. His novel Al-Amamah wal-Qubba’ah (The Turban and the Hat, Dar Al-Mustaqbal,2008) takes the form of a newly discovered manuscript – the secret diary of a fictional 18-year-old student/scribe of Jabarti’s who lives with the historian and works at one of the Campaign’s “scientific” centres in Cairo.
2.2.1. Somewhat too conveniently for comfort, and often sounding a far more modern note than would be expected of a person from Jabarti’s era, this unnamed chronicler has an affair with one of Napoleon’s courtesans, comes in close contact with the Coptic collaborators seeking independence from the Ottoman-Mameluke stronghold, and befriends the Syrian student Suleiman al Halabi – the assassin of Napoleon’s successor in Egypt, General Kléber – who will eventually be impaled on a stake.
2.2.2. Though he achieves a prose very like the 19th-century historian’s – creating a contemporary correlative of the relevant parts of the chronicle – Ibrahim reads Jabarti’s life and work with an agenda.
2.2.3. Jabarti, rather than being a source of inspiration as such, acts to bolster up a predetermined grand narrative in which the Ottomans (including Muhammad Ali) were holding back the people, and the French through a mixture of brute force and immoral guile exploited and abused them.
2.2.3. Jabarti himself becomes party to all manner of political scheming, hiding and replacing versions and/or parts of his own chronicle when he realises the Ottomans will replace the French as the Mamelukes’ conquerors of the day. (This is the moment directly preceding Muhammad Ali’s arrival as part of the Ottoman army.)
2.3. From a historical standpoint, as a student of Jabarti, it seems easy to contest this view of the genesis of the modern Arab nation. Yet it is equally easy to understand it – even, to some extent, sympathise with it – once Ibrahim’s standpoint is taken into account.
2.4. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different or less predetermined standpoint is to demand that he should not write about the Egyptian Campaign.
2.4.1. To demand that Ibrahim should have a different standpoint and still write about the Egyptian Campaign is to demand that Arab intellectual consciousness since the mid-1950s should change radically (that it should shed all vestiges of nationalism, for example).
2.5. Such demands are historically impossible.
3. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign can only say so much.
3.1. This becomes especially clear in Al-Qaanoun Al-Faransi (The French Law, Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2009), a kind of sequel to Ibrahim’s novel Amrikanli (Dar Al-Mustaqbal, 2003) in which the Cairo University historian protagonist of the latter, Dr Shukri, travels to France to participate in a conference on the Egyptian Campaign with a newly discovered manuscript by an apprentice of Jabarti’s.
3.1.2. That manuscript is The Turban and the Hat.
3.2. That an Arab novel about the Campaign can only say so much becomes clear in The French Law in a number of different ways.
3.2.1. One of these is that, without the pretence of being an 18th-century history student who happens to be sleeping with a lover of Bonaparte’s, Ibrahim’s political observations are far more resonant.
3.2.2. “The reason for all the problems we suffer in the Arab world,” Dr Shukri tells his colleagues during a meal at one point in the course of his trip, “is that we did not manage to establish an advanced national industry. At the beginning the Ottomans divested us of the kind of human and material resources that go into the accumulation necessary for the move into the age of the machine, and after them came the French and the English. Every attempt we made, the West immediately aborted.”
3.2.3. It is beyond the scope of the tractatus to advance an argument against this line of thinking. Such an argument is not only possible but necessary.
3.2.4. If they are neither Mamelukes nor Ottomans nor quasi-Ottoman proteges of the West, who are the “we” Dr Shukri refers to? Where would that advanced national industry come from, if not through the very colonies he sets out to critique? What might modern Arab consciousness be identified with beyond the peasants who had no role to play in the unfolding of history except through an originally Ottoman army?
3.3. Here as in Amrikanli, Dr Shukri stands in stark contrast to both his morally (for which read politically) compromised Arab colleagues and the more or less racist Westerners he comes in contact with.
3.4. As in The Turban and the Hat, from the aesthetic if not the intellectual point of view, the clash between east and west is most poignantly portrayed in an interracial amorous or erotic encounter.
3.4.1. Dr Shukri’s encounter with Celine, who does community work with the children of immigrants, is a strong expression of that clash. The two characters’ growing closeness is melodramatically and somewhat unconvincingly cut short when on Dr Shukri’s last night in France Celine, who has by then confessed to having breast cancer, gets drunk, becomes increasingly aggressive, and gives in to a seemingly irrational rage directed at Dr Shukri.
3.4.2. Celine not only dismisses Dr Shukri’s statements on postcolonial politics as so much rubbish, she also confesses to hating the children of immigrants with whom she works. (This seems a somewhat crass way of dismissing Western pretensions to equality and the desire to benefit humanity at large, regardless of race or creed, even though one might understand the urge to dismiss such pretensions).
3.5. The Turban and the Hat ends with the image of Dr Shukri waking up at 5 am to prepare for his return to the homeland – only to find that copy of the conference programme on which he had written his address for Celine to have on the floor outside the door to his room.
3.5.1. “I picked it up to find a line in pencil beneath my address… ‘My response is precisely that you are a naive, backward human being.’ I put the programme in my handbag and proceeded to the lift with heavy steps.”
4. An Arab novel about the Egyptian Campaign cannot go beyond that image.

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Centenary of Mahfouz

Al Ahram Weekly, December 2001

Revealing conflicts

Interviews by Youssef Rakha

Gaber Asfour

“He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live”

Writing is a vision. Its value depends on the depth, totality, diversity and richness of that vision. And it is through an assessment of all these elements that one distinguishes between a writer who rushes past, leaving nothing behind, and one who makes history, marking the beginnings and ends of literary epochs and schools through settling on new points of departure, or carrying existing traditions to unprecedented destinations. Naguib Mahfouz (whose 90th birthday we celebrate) is among those with whom writing is transformed, its presence, thanks to their creative contribution, gaining in depth and variety, and reaching out to undiscovered horizons. He is a decisive landmark in the history of Arabic writing, and a luminous point in that of world literature. He belongs to us as much as to humanity at large: his embodiment of our troubles, articulation of our dreams and awareness of our specificity make him triumphantly local; while the universal human paradigms and events he depicts make him a world figure to be reckoned with. He is Egyptian, Arab, human, international: his writing integrates all that connects a human being to a fellow human being through space and time, and across differences of language, religion, ethnicity and nationality.

This is why his readership grows increasingly through the world, the number of his translations, in every language, rising. The tendency is not merely a consequence of his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1988 (for how many writers received the prize over its century-long history, only to sink into obscurity soon afterwards) but, rather, a result of the penetrating power of his writing, which has proven capable of reaching human beings everywhere. That writing questions the human condition with respect to a range of issues relating to its most vital aspects, from the universal to the socio-political, particularly in their multifold connections to values of freedom, equality and progress. These are the values celebrated by Mahfouz’s novels and short stories, which he has not stopped writing for more than half a century. Thus he remains faithful to the art of literature, his vocation of choice, devoted to the toil it requires without once giving in to life’s spurious temptations, unflinching in his dogged exploration of a human consciousness bound by a place and a time. He breaks into terrain filled with land mines, giving voice to those human discourses repressed in the name of politics, society or religion. He is capable of showing us what we are not used to seeing, all that the conflicts of loss and profit hide from us: ourselves, and the transformations of the reality that we live, unaware of our presence in it.

The beginning of all this is the exceptional talent that accompanies his creative experience, penetrating to the universal root that resides deep within the essence of the local. The result is a human richness that remains inseparable from cultural specificity: thus does the international become an attribute of national identity. It would not be a digression to mention how, while receiving medical treatment in America, my doctor stopped to laud Naguib Mahfouz when he found out that I was an Egyptian teaching literature in the United States. And when I asked why he liked Mahfouz’s books (which he had read in English translation), the doctor replied that the reason was that they provided him with knowledge about Egypt and Arabs, while at the same time deepening his knowledge of himself. A statement to that effect was used as a promotion of Mahfouz’s books (20 of which have so far been translated into English) at Waterstone’s bookshops. Very similar words, in fact, are used to describe Mahfouz on the Nobel web site: his works speak to us all, the site says, as much as they speak to Arabs. So prevalent is this view of Mahfouz, and so often have I encountered it that I feel a distinct sense of pride knowing that I am his compatriot, that I have met him personally, that I have read every one of his works in its original language and that, in my own research, I study “the age of the novel,” the novel he did so much to create.

The abstract quality

Mohamed Berrada


“Throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad , young hero of the Trilogy: ‘What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history?’”

When I arrived in Cairo at the end of January 1989 the city’s pale winter sunlight was waiting for me. Radiant and sparkling on the surface of a Nile that had regained its full strength after several lean years, it felt like a deliverance from the cold and the persistent rain of Paris and Rabat, as well as an invitation to move. Waiting for my appointment with Naguib Mahfouz, my mind went back to the first time I had seen him on the no. 6 Ataba to Agouza bus when I was in my first year at university studying Literature. I had started reading his novels after seeing an article by Taha Hussein that praised them for their descriptions and for the way in which Mahfouz was able to make his characters live. Mahfouz was wearing dark glasses when I first saw him, but I recognised him because of the prominent mole below his nose. Sometimes I saw him talking with another passenger who had also recognised him, but I did not dare to talk to him myself. Instead, I read what the press had to say about him, and I read his novels and short stories…

From my return to Morocco in 1960 to the beginning of the 1980s, I read all Mahfouz’s novels and short stories as they appeared. As historical events and disappointments piled up, this author always knew how to open up new areas in writing that seemed to collect the echoes of Egyptian life and transform them into an ever more complex fictional world. In the 1950s Mahfouz had often been accused of being unable to push his vision beyond the timid ambitions of the urban petite bourgeoisie; but I found in these new texts a willingness to deal with the new questions that experience was now posing. In so doing, and by rephrasing these social questions in symbolic, imaginative form, he removed them from the realm of simple fantasy to that of disciplined artistic imagination, which would in turn become part of the way in which society saw itself. Perhaps throughout his career Mahfouz has always been trying to respond to the questions put by Kamal Abdel-Gawad, the young hero of the Trilogy: “What is truth and non-truth? What connection is there between reality and what goes on in our heads? What is the value of history? Myself, what am I?”

Reading Autumn Quail, Adrift on the Nile, Miramar, Karnak, Love under the Rain, Under the Bus Shelter, Stories of our Quarter and Wars’ Song in Rabat, I got used to living with shattered illusions and to questioning what was presented as historical truth. When I met Mahfouz in 1989, I spoke to him about the change I had detected in these novels, which now seemed more willing to go beneath the surface of things. “But this is true of all my novels,” he said. “When I try to read my novels, or rather when I remember them since I never re- read them, I find that I have always had two preoccupations: both a powerful interest in reality and an attempt to get at the forces that that surface reality hides.”

…Of all Mahfouz’s novels, the ones that stay with me are The Beggar, Wedding Song and The Thief and the Dogs. A tight thread connects these three books together, I think, and draws them back to the invisible “secret wound” at the base of all Mahfouz’s writings. It is a thread that is tautly stretched between uncontrollable impulses on the one hand and melancholy abandon on the other, a retreat towards the calm of death the better to observe the world of the living.


50th birthday celebration at Al-Ahram: Mahfouz seated between Um Kulthoum and Tawfik El-Hakim

In The Beggar, the lawyer Omar El- Hamzaoui breaks the mould of an uneventful life, carrying the reader off into a journey of doubt and emotional anarchy. The framework, conventions and values that have organised his life up to now are suddenly overthrown by an absurd feeling of unease that roots itself deep within him. The doctors are helpless; he seems to be in good health, but he is nevertheless being eaten away by anxiety and a feeling of futility. As a way of escape, he sets out to experience everything that goes against propriety and married life, losing himself in licentiousness and sexual pleasure in the hope of discovering the origin of his deep unease. However, his nightly adventures themselves disappear in the morning light, and he remains absent to the world. Repeating the words of a singer — “If you really want me, why have you abandoned me?” — he seems to have become a dead man among the living. Even when he meets his old friend the militant leftist Osman Khalil as the latter leaves prison, he cannot find himself again. He admires the energy of his friend, whose militant ardour years in prison have done nothing to cool, but he, Omar El-Hamzaoui, is undermined from within, like a body that has neither natural impulses nor desire. A dead beggar among the living, he now calls upon death to give him a taste for living again and the feeling that he belongs in the world.

The value of The Beggar does not lie in the dialogue it contains about the superiority of science over art in the technological age, which is a theme that is in any case exhausted. Instead, it lies in the fact that this novel introduced the Arab reader to the opposition between nihilism, or a life without horizons, and the belief that the world and society are open to change. In this novel, the latter belief is no longer tenable, being neither as full nor as positive as reforming discourse would have it be. Instead, the 1960s citizen has discovered his insignificance in the face of the nationalist State’s repressive machinery. Not even free to be himself, he is forced into evasion, silence and the silencing of his conscience.

In the Beggar, as in other novels by Mahfouz, a sense of metaphysical anguish, of a journey to the ends of the self, of a revolt against the kind of rationality that disciplines and justifies, is added to the writing’s social themes, this attraction to extreme states mixing Mahfouz’s description of the existing social world with the kind of imaginative vision that changes and enlarges that world’s limits. Mahfouz does not shy away from presenting large issues that lie buried in the unconscious… But even beyond this audacious, creative vision, what he is always looking for is ethical renewal. As he once said to me, “art sometimes seems to want to destroy morality, but if one looks at it more closely, one will always find that what it is calling for is a new morality and not morality’s destruction. Take the poetry of Abu Nawas. People call this licentious, but in fact it is a poetry that is calling for a new morality, one that has been freed from the taboos of the past.”

Extracted from (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated) by Mohamed Berrada, translated by David Tresilian.

Persistent questions

Soliman Fayyad


“His principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch.”

Naguib Mahfouz and I are linked, above all, by friendship. In this capacity, though, I maintain the right to silence. Reflections on a personal relationship, however interesting, are not for public consumption. I will therefore give you my opinion of him as a public figure and a writer, making a few impersonal, though I hope significant, remarks. It is worth adding that these statements are conceived irrespective of his status and his achievement, they are an individual’s observations, as it were, and they no doubt benefit from my association with the Harafish seminar and my keeping up with his work through the years.

I first read Mahfouz in Mansoura, in the late 1940s, coursing through Khan Al- Khalili and Zuqaq Al-Madaq. And to say that the realism and immediacy of these books struck me is to contribute nothing new. I will venture a remark relating to genre, rather, since the form in which a writer constructs his literary edifices can sometimes throw light on that writer’s achievement. Mahfouz, I think, is a much better novelist than a short story writer. Occasionally, no doubt, as in the case of the very memorable short story Al-Khalaa (The Waste Land), he will produce a museum piece, as it were. But more often his stories read like fragments of unfinished novels or stray snapshots of everyday life, inarticulate steps that lead nowhere. He is, foremost, a novelist. And his contribution is best understood in this context.

My second remark concerns Mahfouz’s earliest beginnings as a writer. Up until the early 1940s, when he launched his career in fiction with the ancient Egyptian novels and the early short stories, Mahfouz wrote philosophical articles, pondering purely intellectual questions in an abstract framework. And even though these magazine pieces were already gaining something of a reputation, it is little known that he started out as a writer of non-fiction. This fact is relevant to his entire corpus, since an intellectual, abstract strain runs through it to the end. At university he studied philosophy, you see, and his world view incorporated a significant historical dimension; thus, even in his least intellectually-minded works, he was deeply interested in history and the way it played out in the lives of the individuals, families and larger communities that populate his works, however subtly this interest might be expressed in some instances. History is always on his mind.

This makes of him a thinker. And — here we come to the third, important remark one might make about the man and his work — he is primarily a political thinker, someone with an articulate and integrated vision that takes in the historical moment and its implications for society. Indeed this provides a clue as to why the novel remained his most efficient vehicle, for the scope of the novel affords ample opportunity for the expression and formulation of such a vision. In a novel, Mahfouz has often said, one can combine poetry with philosophy and even science. Narrative, for him, is a mechanism of covert social-political commentary, operating in the framework of the novel, irrespective of the external trappings of the story that it tells.

Mahfouz’s literature deals with three modes of human interaction, three distinct circles encompassed by a single setting, the city of Cairo: the realm of state-employed bureaucrats; the world of the futwat (strongmen who levied a form of tax, itawa, on the inhabitants of certain popular neighbourhoods in return for alleged or actual protection against rival strongmen); and the life of middle-class, urban families. In these three modes he explored the depths and breadths not only of human character but of a number of overriding ideas that went into the making of his vision. Now in everyday life, Mahfouz may have been cautious about voicing his views on politics. But in all three fictional circles his vision turns out to be essentially political. Mahfouz’s principal concern is with the dichotomy of the ruler and the ruled: the state-endorsed authority, the framework of a bureaucratic hierarchy, the power struggles of the popular neighbourhood, the dominion of the family patriarch; these are his most prevalent themes. Power and its workings, in a social context, over time, is the fundamental precept of Mahfouz’s literary project.

The fourth and last remark I want to make is that no other writer, with the possible exception of Yehya Haqqi, was as eager to spend time with intellectuals and keep up with their affairs. And in the case of Mahfouz this tendency is part and parcel of his literary endeavour: he saw writing principally as a means of communication. He never cut himself off from social life. His friends included artists as well as writers, and his interaction with the likes of Tawfik Saleh and Ahmed Mazhar not only gave him a broad perspective on his social and political surroundings but provided him with what he saw as essential to his writing: immediate feedback. Mahfouz’s social role affords yet another, peculiar insight into his achievement. He was never as interested in the enduring, lasting qualities of literature as he was in the task at hand. In fact he once told me that, so long as a narrative of his was read and its ideas communicated, he didn’t care if it was then used as wrapping paper for vegetables. Literature to him is essentially a social message, and he writes to be read in the here and now, not necessarily for eternity or posterity. It is ironic, therefore, that of his generation of authors — writers like Mohamed Afifi and Adel Kamel, who emerged at the same time, were soon to disappear, never to be heard of again — he is the one who lived on. Single- handedly, and without the slightest illusion of grandeur, his is one of the great achievements of our times.


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Boutique battlefield

Samia Mehrez, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practise (paperback edition), Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010
Recently, in an otherwise casual conversation, a writer friend remarked that the Egyptian culture scene was like an oligarchy with no constituency beyond the oligarchs. As agents of what looks like the Victorian age of Arab arts and letters, she elaborated, Egyptian intellectuals are power mongers by default. Many are in the employ of institutions where the production of knowledge is less of an aim than a pretext – for income and status – or for preserving the political status quo. But even those who are not, in their isolation from society at large, end up developing delicate networks of interest among themselves; consciously or not, they engage in various forms of hypocrisy or corruption, blocking what creative potential exists apart from them. The result is that the cultural sphere reduces to a set of boutiques corresponding to institutions or cliques, mutually beneficial and unduly exclusive. And that – so my writer friend concluded – is because intellectuals rely for their survival  not on consumers of culture but on complex systems of patronage and their attendant discourses.
Of course relying on consumers bespeaks unmediated capitalism and so introduces a new set of issues. But it is the readiness of Egypt’s Culture Wars to pay attention to the commercially oriented and the popular as well as the “high”, the high-brow and the aesthetically pure that justifies its numerous and frequently disparate pursuits. The book respects the cerebral no more than the public or the overtly political, the settings and protagonists of the intellectual fables it presents no less than the hard theoretical plotlines by which they unfold.
Samia Mehrez is aware enough of my friend’s line of thinking not to pretend to stand apart from the constraints and confusions of what she is doing even as she writes: her ceaselessly evolving understanding of her own role as a cultural agent occupying a position of privilege and with a vested interest in her subject matter. But what makes Mehrez’s all but exhaustive statement on the topic compelling is the way it charts the soap opera-like developments of cultural icons and narratives pitted against society -  and especially the intellectual’s vulnerability to dependency and censorship – in a wide variety of contexts. The novelist Sonallah Ibrahim’s life-long refusal to have any dealings with a government-dominated literary establishment, for example – the implications of this stance for his writing, its reception, and the shifts it has undergone – is deployed to flesh out the notion of “the disinterested writer” and, more broadly, the theory and practice of engagement in its local modulations since the 1960s. Mehrez uses not only her own knowledge of Ibrahim and his work but also a newspaper column on Ibrahim by his contemporary the novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani, whose approach to the same goals of writerly “honour” and autonomy is markedly different from Ibrahim’s. What otherwise might have been a dry discussion of an abstract and frankly overdrawn subject suddenly takes on flesh-and-blood edge.
By juggling straightforward political commitments with bookish frameworks in which they do not always obviously fit – freedom of expression and gender awareness, for example, with Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of literary autonomy – Mehrez manages, for better or worse, to bring depth to arguably shallow cultural products like Alaa Al-Aswany’s phenomenal bestseller, The Yaqoubian Building; by the same token, she takes purely academic topics – the family in Egyptian literature of the 1990s, say – out of the narrow parameters of literary criticism. And the vitality with which she does this, her insistence on weaving in her own experience as both producer and consumer is, more than any theoretical or “intellectual” achievement, what makes Egypt’s Culture Wars an important and versatile stroke.
I could argue with Mehrez’s claim that “writing in English about the Egyptian cultural field” – a process, as she puts it, of translation – “places this local and localized text alongside a larger global one”, or at least probe the hows, wheres and whys of this premise. But it seems to me that the distance that same process generates is precisely what makes or breaks each interactive exercise the book proposes, that Mehrez’s half-committed standpoint – the heterogeneous and “postcolonial” pluralism of her approach – is precisely what hermeneutically enables her work. Like much interdisciplinary north-south scholarship, as it also seems to me, a certain common-sense rationalism, what I might call a pretend objectivity, belies the essentially subjective nature of this undertaking as a whole.
Discussing the attacks to which the American University in Cairo’s Naguib Mahfouz Award was subjected as a distorting and negative force in Egyptian literary life, for example, Mehrez employs the spot-on metaphor of the writers’ alley: an exclusive space for engagement undermined by foreign – specifically, American – intervention. But in so doing she seems to confuse the critic Sayed El-Bahrawy’s nationalist tirades against the prize itself with very valid criticisms of who the prize went to. The uproar surrounding its award to the Algerian writer Ahlam Mostaghanmi in 1998 has less to do with Mostaghanmi being a stranger to the writer’s alley – her position as an Algerian or a woman or a newcomer to the literary field – than it does with the patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well – something Mehrez neither brings up nor justifies.
Then again – and especially where gender is concerned – Mehrez is unashamedly subjective. “In December 1998 I found myself at the heart of a major crisis surrounding my teaching of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s controversial autobiographical text Al Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone) in one of my literature classes at the American University in Cairo,” she writes. “The crisis that began on campus as part of a debate over academic freedom and freedom of expression soon took on national, regional and international proportions when the parents of two students sent an unsigned letter to the AUC administration calling for my dismissal and threatening to take me and the university to court.” The “khubz crisis”, however, is but one spaciotemporal episode on what, grandiloquently but perhaps also ironically, she takes to be a battlefield where the forces of freedom do battle with those of dictatorship, dispossession, power and power abuse in literary-social relations.
Mehrez’s notion of right seems to be formulated slightly to the left of the liberal status quo of advanced capitalist societies, in line with her common-sense rationalism and the conditions under which she produced her work. But it is her far-fetchedly holistic accomplishment, the sense of a totality of culture and the totality of a specific culture in a specific sociotemporal space that, more than any sense of right, whether subjective or objective, makes an impression on this reader.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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Denys Johnson-Davies in Abu Dhabi

An Englishman’s life in translation

The Emirates as Denys Johnson-Davies might have seen them in the early 1950s. Courtesy Al Ittihad newspaper

Youssef Rakha enjoys a cup of coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies, one of Arab literature’s chief liaisons with the English language.

Having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies does not seem all that remarkable – until you remember that this silver-haired Englishman shared a table with Tawfik al Hakim three decades before you were born. Hakim may not be as familiar to western readers as Naguib Mahfouz, but he was a much bigger deal in his time. Then again, Johnson-Davies was a literary figure in Cairo long before Mahfouz made his name.

“Can you imagine,” he says, recalling his early days with the BBC in Evesham, where the broadcast company’s headquarters were relocated while London was bombed during the Second World War. “Here was Britain, with this enormous empire, throughout the Arab world – it didn’t have anybody who spoke Arabic. They did have this one Scotsman, Cowen,” he corrects himself, “but when the war came, there was nobody in Cambridge apart from me and Abba Eban,” he smiles, “who later became the Israeli foreign minister. When I started learning Arabic I was 15; they wouldn’t take me at Cambridge so I went to London, and I went to Cambridge when I was 16. The BBC had obviously contacted Cambridge and said, ‘Do you have anyone studying Arabic?’ And so I went to London, and I remember being taken into the studio to listen to a news bulletin in Arabic, and I didn’t even know what the subject was, let alone understand a word. But they took me on.” It was in Evesham, while living with the Arab employees (“mainly they were Egyptians”) in bunks in an army-managed dormitory, that Johnson-Davies began to learn Arabic for real: “It was a third university for me, and very much better than Cambridge or London. Directly I was released, I went to Cairo…”

Nearly six decades and numerous seminal translations later, Johnson-Davies received the inaugural Personality of the Year Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2007, adding incentive to complete his new book of Emirati short stories in translation, a project begun several years ago to be published by the American University in Cairo Press with support from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage in time for the next Abu Dhabi Book Fair. He is here with the final proofs, to revise them with Juma al Qubaisi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, to catch up with the poet Ahmad Rashid Thani and other friends and to reflect on his relationship with the Gulf. On his way to Abu Dhabi, Johnson-Davies stopped in Doha, and was amazed to find absolutely no sign of the city he first knew in 1951. “I would ask about certain things and say, ‘It was here a long time ago.’ And people would say, ‘How long ago? In the time of Sheikh Khalifa?’ No, Sheikh Ali [bin Abdulla Al Thani]. ‘Sheikh Ali!’ It was as if I was talking about prehistoric times.”

Johnson-Davies originally went to Doha to represent an American oil company: “I had signed a two-year contract, but after a year they said there was no oil in the sea – it was a marine company. And then while I was there, somebody came along to me and said that in Dubai, they want a translator to translate for Sheikh Said bin Maktoum, but they have no money, so are you ready to perform this service? And I said yes; I’d love to see Dubai. So, I went by private aeroplane. There was no airport or anything in Doha, and nothing at all in Dubai, no hotels or amenities. They put me up in a place belonging to the sheikh, and I translated for five days or so, but I saw Dubai in 1951. And then,” he goes on in the same breath, “I came here as the head of Sawt al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), which was a radio operated by the English, an Arabic broadcast, and all the employees were Palestinians, poor and cheerful men. The place was headquartered in Sharjah, but I would travel all round, to Ras al Khaimah, to Abu Dhabi. That was in 1969… So,” Johnson-Davies winds down abruptly, “I had experience very early on here.”

And as he gets up to greet the head waiter at the Beach Rotana, who welcomes him as an old friend, it suddenly dawns on you just how remarkable having coffee with Denys Johnson-Davies really is.

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Booker in The National

Zaki Nusseibeh in his library
Image via Wikipedia

Contenders for ‘Arabic Booker’ aim for shortlist

Alison McMeans

ABU DHABI // Sixteen books are in the running to make the shortlist of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2010, it was announced yesterday.

Works by authors from 17 countries including the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman were submitted for the competition. However, no UAE piece is among the 16 books up for consideration for the final shortlist.

The award, founded in 2007 and often referred to as “the Arabic Booker”, showcases the best of contemporary Arabic literature.

Zaki Nusseibeh, an IPAF trustee and the vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, said: “The previous two winners – Bahaa Taher [2008], and Youssef Ziedan [this year’s winner] – have joined a long list of Arabic literary greats.”

Joumana Haddad, the IPAF administrator, said: “It is so rewarding to see how the prize is already changing our cultural scene, by increasing book sales and encouraging translations.”

The final shortlist and the judges will be announced on December 15.

Each of the six authors on the shortlist will receive US$10,000 (Dh36,700), with the winner getting an additional $50,000.

Bidoun Review of Sons of Gebelawi

Abnaa al Gebelawi (Children of Gebelawi), By Ibrahim Farghali, Cairo: Al Ain, 2009


In Ibrahim Farghali’s Abnaa al Gebelawi, all of the texts of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz suddenly vanish from the face of the earth. This happens without explanation, reason, or ostensible cause: wherever they might be found – not only in libraries and bookshops but also on bookshelves and bedside bedside tables – novels by Mahfouz in their original Arabic are simply nowhere to be found. The authorities’ attempt to remedy the situation in the face of worldwide and (notably, if somewhat incredibly) popular uproar are juxtaposed with sightings of Mahfouz’s characters in a variety of locales, seldom having anything to do with the settings in which they actually appear in Mahfouz’s books.

With six – now seven – books to his name, Farghali (b. 1967) is among the most prolific novelists of his generation. In his devotion to the genre and his formal conservatism, he is perhaps the worthiest heir to Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Nobel prize winner most known for his mid-century tales of Cairo. Unlike Mahfouz, however, Farghali is firmly steeped in a magical realist tradition. Running through much of his prose are echoes of Jose Saramago’s nightmarish humour or shades of Italo Calvino’s fascination with the fantastical nature of fiction. He is taken by twins, telepathy and teleporting, and his firmly middle-class characters – otherwise utterly ordinary – have been known to reappear after they have died.

In Abnaa al Gebelawi – Farghali’s latest and greatest work – we face the prospect of a world without literature. The myriad voices in the book — for the young narrator cum author assumes many guises throughout these pages — express concern as to the fraught future of Arabic literature, about the erosion of the liberal and humane values that Mahfouz and his work represent, and (reflecting perhaps the essential fear of all true writers) about oblivion at large.

The events of the book are staged around a relatively uncomplex love affair involving the narrator and the eccentric daughter of a well-to-do family— occasion for Farghali to probe the psychology of class and sex in contemporary Egyptian society. Further in, however, the story breaks up and morphs into countless alternative and subordinate plot-lines, until it becomes clear (although it is never stated) that the whole of Abnaa al Gebelawi is but the barely coherent waste of a single pluralistic mind – the mind of a young writer concerned with the literary wasteland around him. The allegorical dimension remains predominant, and in this way recalls Awlad Haretnah (Children of Our Alley, 1959), the title of whose earlier English translation Farghali translates back verbatim for his own.

As it happens, Awlad Haretnah was the only book by Mahfouz to suffer censure from the religious establishment. In it the history of a popular residential quarter in Cairo stands in for the sum total of humanity’s spiritual experience. That quarter’s oldest, strongest and most benevolent resident – for many generations hidden away in his mansion – is called Gebelawi. Gebelawi has envoys or representatives, descendants or grandchildren, whose struggles to spread peace and justice make up episodes of the saga. Each is a retelling of the life of one of the prophets of Islam, starting with Adam and ending with the False Messiah. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad all feature, but at the end a rumour spreads that Gebelawi himself has died. In Arab literary circles it is frequently claimed that if not for Awlad Haretnah, Mahfouz would not have received the Nobel Prize. But it proved too much for orthodox, let alone radical Muslims, for whom Mahfouz would become the enemy soon enough.


a letter from Mahfouz to Mohammad al Badawi

Radical Islam had claimed many lives since the 1980s when in 1994 Mahfouz barely survived being knifed to death outside his house in Cairo. The irony was that, of all the helpless octogenarians his bearded young assailants could have targeted for apostasy, he was probably the least secular. A typical Cairene of the pre-bin ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Laden era, the man had led an all but exemplary (for which read profoundly unadventurous) life. He did not seek revolution, he did not take great risks. He had no utopian or transcendental illusions. And perhaps it was thanks to this and this alone that he was able to invent and reinvent the novel, the youngest genre in the language, defining it for generations of writers down to Farghali.

Applying every novelistic model at his disposal, Mahfouz produced a phenomenal number of readable books: social chronicles, political critiques, philosophical manuals. None was too difficult or experimental to render it inaccessible to even the most common reader. None sought to undermine whatever pillar of the status quo it came in contact with. Notwithstanding the elaborately veiled, painstakingly respectful Ages-of-Man narrative in Awlad Haretnah – a Muslim treatise on the meaning of life if ever there was one – in Mahfouz’s books, the family, the creed, the government are never attacked for what they are or what they stand for, but only for their most striking deviations, omissions or excesses.

For a magic realist like Farghali, Mahfouz may not be the most obvious point of departure; the Nobel laureate is, after all, best known for devotion to the real even in his least realistic works, and one would have trouble imagining him so much as hinting at the paranormal or the fantastical. Yet in Abnaa al Gebelawi, the grand opera to Farghali’s various arias, Mahfouz is an embodiment of something not so different from the sense of sight. His books stand in for almost everything Farghali values: Literature, Thought, Freedom, Knowledge, even Love. The premise could not have been more powerful.


All about our mothers

Watching TV at home, Youssef Rakha considers an Egyptian holiday’s message to society’s child-bearing half.

“Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day, Mama,” the woman spewed forth, her face taking up far too much of my TV screen. “Thanks so much for breast-feeding me for so long.”

The woman was too emphatically ordinary to be convincing as a representative of the Egyptian middle-class, and she stood in the middle of a supermarket which, like most stores on Egyptian TV, was far more spacious and better stocked than anywhere average Egyptians shop. She held the hand of a child named something like Ruba. “Ruba is with me here, ya Mama,” she added excitedly. “She too says Happy Mother’s Day and thank you.”
All I could do from switching off the TV was remind myself – this is only the commercial break. As I listened, I somehow did not soften to the thought of rapturous tears trickling down Mama’s cheeks (though you could almost hear her sputtering: “Ruba and her mother are on TV!”). Instead, I wondered what to make of the slogan in this all-Egyptian Mother’s day-special Pril detergent ad: “The sweetest Pril, for the sweetest mother.”
It has been eight weeks now since I moved back in with my mother. Pril or no Pril, I have been all but smothered by the bouts of irrational attention and excessive concern that now punctuate my life. It was natural that on March 21, the day when paeans to Egyptian matriarchy seep through public life more than usual, far-reaching thoughts on the subject would course through my head. Watching detergent commercials at home didn’t help.

Nearly five decades after the appearance on the silver screen of Egypt’s archetypal mother, Amina, the heroine of Naguib Mahfouza’s Cairo Trilogy, this is what we have come to: commercials that identify Egypt’s most valued cultural institution, motherhood, with a totally uninteresting imported product for sale, Pril.

I mention Amina because she is so often referenced and so seldom analysed. A recent post by Mohammad al Azraqi, a regular contributor to the online discussion forum, typified the way Amina is nostalgically celebrated as a model of the perfect mother and wife, unparalleled in her patience, “big heart” and “spotless morals”. Azraqi describes her as “a wife the way she should be” and “a true picture of woman in early 20th-century Egyptian society”. Such accounts are common.
For some reason, few people remember or admit (at least publicly) what Mahfouz’s Amina is really like: docile, ignorant, practically asexual, feverishly devoted to her children but incapable of understanding them. She is a prisoner of her household, where she does hard labour day in, day out, unaware even of the possibility of a different life. She is so obsequious and weak-willed that the one time she goes out without asking her husband’s permission – only because he happens to be away on business – she can barely stand up. “She had an oppressive feeling of doing something wrong,” Mahfouz writes. “Her gait seemed disturbed and unsteady, as though she had not mastered the first principles of walking.”
Amina soon faints from the overstimulation and heat, gets hit by a car, and fractures her collarbone. Terrified that her transgression will be discovered, she agrees to go along with a scheme devised by her children: when her husband Ahmad returns, she will say the accident happened within the house. But she cannot help giving herself away. “She would not be able to lie. The opportunity had escaped her without her knowing how.” As soon as she has healed, Sayyid Ahmad (as he tends to be referred to) banishes her from the household. Looking on his wife with eyes of steel, he barely refrains from issuing the capital punishment, divorce.
Never mind that Sayyid Ahmad is himself a double-faced household tyrant who projects perfect morality while spending his evenings with belly dancers and prostitutes, fallen women whom he treats infinitely better than his wife and children. Amina is not allowed to speak of this, and she doesn’t, not even to herself. And when Ahmad is prevailed upon to take Amina back into his house, she can barely contain her gratitude.
Economically and politically dispossessed, this woman is systematically cheated on, abused, exploited, then abandoned not because she disobeys but because she displays some will – the will to visit a nearby shrine, no more. She has no self-respect, let alone space in which to express it. She cannot raise an objection or voice a grievance, nor is she inclined to, even in the face of patent injustice. This is the Egyptian mother?
It is true, of course, that references to Amina in the popular discourse to which the Pril ad belongs may not be frequent or explicit. But just below the surface of Egypt’s contemporary social contract, which pays lip service to women’s lib (if only to encourage them to work and supplement their husband’s incomes), Amina lurks in wait for the slightest breach of accepted patriarchal norms. Indeed, if you talk to people in private, in situations where neither political correctness nor inter-generational defiance has any part to play, the vast majority of them, men and women, even express admiration for her, if not by name.
“To come home and not find the mid-day meal ready,” a friend recently complained to me, disregarding the fact that his wife’s job is just as demanding as his. “What kind of marriage is that?” One hears this sort of thing often.

Motherhood and Mother’s Day have always generated confusion in Egypt. March 21 is presented as a celebration of what is taken to be a feminine power, the power of selfless love (few images are as deeply rooted in Egyptian culture as that of a mother taking food from her own mouth to give it to her children). The discourse of the day emphasizes the wisdom, reliability and emotional generosity of society’s child-rearing half. But at the same time, it focuses almost exclusively on the woman’s role as mistress of her household: as Aminas.
In films, TV shows and advertisements (even court rooms) the good woman is still defined entirely in terms of her willingness and ability to provide men with comfortable living conditions. Hence the Pril ad and its message to mothers and wives: wash their dishes as efficiently as possible, making use of the latest developments on the consumerist front, all the while instilling the same values in the next generation. The mother is, disastrously for all involved, reduced to a manual labourer of love: a compulsive feeder, cleaner and clother.
Like all quasi-Platonic archetypes, Amina is of course non-existent. Contrary to Azraqi’s claims, it was extremely rare for women to be so housebound in early 20th-century Cairo; anyone who was would surely would have been murderously bitter about it. She is the worst kind of role model: one who only ever existed in a parable, yet has helped spawn real-life offspring. The new Aminas are everywhere in Egypt, though you may not recognize them right away, not even as they are being celebrated on Mother’s Day. But look closely next year: March 21 is not about working-class widows who struggle to put their children through school. It is not about giving women the right to go outside the house, or to have a job. It is not even about well-to-do sons buying their mother gold.
Women today are not only allowed to do the shopping, they are even allowed to appear on TV for everyone to see their bare faces (Amina would faint). They do so to tell themselves and each other, across the generations, that they exist to do the washing up, and to celebrate a product – the sweetest Pril – which might make the job easier.


Mahfouz’s Cairo


It is early afternoon on the first day of Eid al Fitr, an unusually tranquil time in Cairo. While I drive past the British Council in Agouza, a middle-class residential neighbourhood outside the city proper; it feels pleasantly appropriate that the Corniche on the opposite side of the road, normally a crawling behemoth of traffic, should be lying so quietly in the Nile’s embrace.

Novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo is much greener and slower-paced than today’s Cairo: it was a place where people enjoyed walking and tram and bus rides. Until later in life, Mahfouz, who never drove, was well-known for walking around the city in the early morning; along the Corniche and by Orman Parks near Cairo University.

Now, overcrowding and the the virtual occupation of the pavements by street vendors, beggars and the homeless have made walking unpleasant; the tram only operates in certain parts of the city and the bus, like a giant sardine can tramping around town, is a parody of itself.

Nevertheless I have the impression that the city on Eid day is far more like Mahfouz’s Cairo than it normally is. This is my tour of Mahfouz’s Cairo – in the course of a day, I want to rediscover Cairo as the late novelist, the only Nobel laureate in Arabic literature, experienced and depicted it. The Eid-induced quietude readily evokes that place of imagination and memory.

As I come to Ne’ma, the popular fast-food outlet opposite the Police Hospital (where at the age of 95, Mahfouz died after a fall at his home on August 30, 2006), my impression is confirmed by the fact that there are no vehicles semi-parked around the pavements with trays of shawarma and felafel balanced on their half-closed windows; no beggars or hawkers compete with waiters in soiled uniform for the attention of car drivers; and what little traffic goes by, goes smoothly.

Mahfouz moved into 172 Nile Street, one of several handsome apartment buildings constructed to overlook the water in the 1930s and 1940s, after marrying in 1954 at the age of 43.

The magnitude of Mahfouz’s achievement prior to that point was already impressive: he had concluded the “ancient Egyptian phase” of his work, produced three more noteworthy books including Midaq Alley (1947), one of the first effective works of realism in the Arabic language, and completed his huge, celebrated Trilogy still to be published in 1956 to 1957.

Through the political and military turmoil of the 1950s, the closest Agouza neighbourhood would have come to any evidence of unrest were the demonstrations, many miles further due south-west, at what is now Cairo University, where Mahfouz had studied philosophy from 1930 to 1934.

The remoteness and repose of his house would have afforded Mahfouz an appropriate environment for observing events from afar – what he did best – and registering the effects on his fellow citizens-turned-characters, as he transformed history into lower middle-class drama, following the nap he took on coming home from work each day.


Edging closer to Mahfouz’s house, my thoughts are interrupted by the realisation that I have just passed the spot where he was stabbed in the neck in 1994 following his identification with such “infidels” as Salman Rushdie, the Indian-British novelist. The thought that by the 1990s, Mahfouz was sufficiently estranged from the city that he had helped to define to be physically assaulted on his own doorstep, takes away from the happy coincidence of having set out on this journey during Eid when most of Cairo’s residents are celebrating.

Even prior to this attempt on his life, Mahfouz had not always had an easy relationship with Islamists. Yet he had done his best to stay on the right side of Muslim orthodoxy embodied by Al Azhar (the mosque-madrasa’s location was, after all, in Fatimid-era Cairo, a part of the city that he was to like above any other until the end of his life).

Though instrumental to his Nobel Prize many years later, Children of Our Alley, an attempt at a spiritual history of humanity, was not a work Mahfouz sought to promote once Al Azhar blocked its publication in book form: his mild personality drove him to downplay its importance. By the time that he condemned Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa on Rushdie’s life – never mind that he did so in a spirit of religious tolerance, not out of sympathy with Rushdie’s portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed in The Satanic Verses – the nature of Islamic practice had so changed that this most conservative of intellectuals, could suddenly be declared “an enemy of religion”. An unprovoked physical assault on an unsuspecting octogenarian, it occurs to me as I step out of the car and walk to the entrance of the building, would not have happened in Mahfouz’s Cairo.


Signalling the household’s status as a national security liability (Mahfouz is survived by his wife and two daughters, who still live there), there is a lone police guard at the entrance – evidently used to people nosing around. “No, no,” he says when I ask him if he ever witnessed any disturbances, instead attesting to the kindness of the building’s famous occupants and unaccountably urging me (perhaps in hopes of bakshish) to go “upstairs to see the Haggah” – as he refers to Mahfouz’s wife, using the honorific title meaning someone who has made the pilgrimage to Makkah.

The voyeuristic prospect is tempting but I have neither an appointment nor any personal credentials, so I cross the street and walk along the Corniche instead, imagining the novelist in my shoes. It occurs to me that he would probably have taken such walks most frequently in the 1960s, while at the height of his achievement and physical health, working as a scriptwriter and a ministry of culture administrator in areas related to film.

During that decade of disillusionment with the Revolution (which Mahfouz initially supported), I imagine him seeking solace in a Nile houseboat now supplanted by riverside restaurants. A few, mostly derelict, survive on both sides of the river but the houseboat as a place of illicit pleasure is another aspect of Mahfouz’s Cairo that is all but extinct today. In Adrift on the Nile (1966), he used one as the setting for all manner of immoral acts by a cast of corrupt escapists, representing the gamut of professions – in order to prophesy, with terrifying accuracy, the collapse of President Nasser’s regime in 1967 after Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War with Israel.

After becoming one of the most outspoken supporters of the peace initiative by President Sadat, Mahfouz would reflect on the horrors of Nasser’s police state in novels such as Al Karnak (1974) – named, like several of his works, after a real or imagined café.


I drive past the island of Gezirah, crossing two bridges on my way into town. Parking is not so readily available off Tal’at Harb Square but eventually, with the help of an unlicensed valet, I’m firmly ensconced just behind Café Riche, where Mahfouz held his weekly gatherings for many years from 1963.

The effervescent hub of artistic life, Westelbalad (as downtown Cairo is known) remains as active and cosmopolitan as he knew it, though there are many more vehicles and the area’s commercial decline is evident. The weekly salon tradition is still upheld, though not in Café Riche, and in a far less gracious and jovial spirit than Mahfouz’s. While intellectual gatherings still take place, they have been polarised into Western or Westernised art-based events or provincial, politicised gatherings.

Better known as the gathering point for activists and intellectuals of the Sixties generation – Mahfouz’s eventual literary heirs whom he found to be “a strange bunch” – Café Riche was shut down in 1990 following ownership disputes, when it reopened in early 2001, neither Mahfouz nor any of its former patrons ever set foot in there again.

The café retains many of its original features: neocolonial decor, marble-topped tables, wooden qahwa – or traditional café-style chairs and an alcohol license but its walls are now lined with black and white portraits of the dead writers and artists who used to patronise it – Mahfouz has now been added. Adopting an increasingly exclusive policy regarding its potential clientele, it feels more like a museum hall than a living, breathing space.

Much like Mahfouz’s five-star namesake in Khan al Khalili (1946), who reduces the atmosphere of his novels to kitsch, today Café Riche is more of a tourist destination than anything else.


For a while, sipping strong Turkish coffee and reviewing the tiny Cairo map on which I scribbled pointers while surveying the faces of such celebrated writers as Tawfik al Hakim, Youssef Idris and Amal Dunqul, I consider other cafés that I could visit. But both café Qushtumur (also the name of a novel published in 1988) in the upper-turned-lower, middle-class neighbourhood of Abbasia, where Mahfouz spent the greater part of his early life, and the Opera Café, located on the old Opera Square on the way to Fatimid-era Cairo, no longer exist.

I try to imagine a typical Mahfouz salon – a process facilitated by my meeting with the novelist, on the first-floor lounge of the Shepheard Hotel, overlooking the eastern bank of the Nile on the outskirts of Garden City, on one of the last days of 1999. By then, Mahfouz was nearly deaf and blind, his voice still hoarse from the damage to his vocal chords caused by the knife attack five years previously, and his physical condition altogether precarious.

Reflecting the changes in the constitution of the literary scene, he was accompanied, not by his old core group, the Harafish (named after his eponymous 1977 epic), but by younger, mainly pro-establishment figures. Two people sat on either side of him as his eyes and ears, which made our conversation about the role of the cafe in literary life slow and stilted.

Two aspects of Mahfouz’s social persona nonetheless came through clearly: his delight in jokes and laughter and the incredible courtesy with which he could make his point, however negative, to a presumptuous or irritating interviewer. There was about him a peculiar combination of forbidding intelligence and embracing warmth, and I remember thinking at the time that he was, in this sense, the embodiment of an earlier, more liberal and humane Cairo – a far less abrasive, if equally complex Cairo.


To save myself the trouble of parking on al Azhar Road – due to the presence of its many monuments, Eid or not, this is probably the worst place to park in the entire city – I give my valet some more money and find an old battered taxi playing, to my distress, the Egyptian pop idol Amr Diab – the kind of music Mahfouz, a personal friend of the diva Omm Kukthoum, would not even have recognised.

I exit alongside the newly renovated al Ghouri Complex, the Mameluke monument that had fallen into disrepair by the 1960s. Mahfouz spent some the happiest days of his life, starting in 1945, as a Ministry of Endowments’ librarian here.

Considering my own experience of the area in the 1990s – when it was a squatters’ slum full of drug dealers, where the narrow alleyways were often blocked by tiny pickup trucks and donkey-pulled carts – it is difficult to imagine al Ghouri as the clean, ordered, pedestrian-only neighbourhood it must have been in his time, imbued with an historical, as well as a religious, spirit of Islamic glory.

At least Fatimid-era Cairo’s principal thoroughfare, al Muiz li-Din Allah Street, on the other side of Hussein Mosque, has been converted into a pedestrian-only walkway, its wealth of Fatimid and Mameluke architecture finally attended to.

I cross under the road via a pedestrian tunnel and walk on through al Muiz Street to the neighbourhood of Gamaliyya, where Mahfouz was born on Dec 11, 1911 and spent the first nine years of his life before moving to the then upscale Abbasia neighbourhood. I pause at the Gamaliyya Police Station, looking across at the nondescript small apartment building with which the Mahfouz family home has been replaced. A sense of history still pervades the atmosphere, but hardly any visual clues remain.


Mahfouz drew on this area for two kinds of book: the realistic novel, exemplified by his Trilogy, which detailed lower middle-class life, and the legendary epic of strongman-controlled communities (set in the 18th and 19th centuries) and exemplified by The Harafish.

Little evidence remains of either world. The prosperous and lower-middle-class household in which the women were barely allowed to look out of the windows have been replaced by overcrowded rooms and women smoking shisha on street corners; and the galibeya-clad strongman holding the thick fighting stick known as the nabbout reincarnated as an unlicensed tour guide-cum-drug dealer, in jeans and beach shirt, likely armed with a hidden knife and looking to trick the hapless tourist into buying an overpriced souvenir.

Avoiding Khan al Khalili’s al Fishawi Café, which Mahfouz patronised briefly as a young man and has since become a perpetually overcrowded cliché of Islamic Cairo, I return by way of the labyrinth of alleyways adjoining the covered souk – from which his realist phase drew its greatest inspiration – asking directions to Bein al-Qasreen, Qasr al Shoq and Al Sukkariyya (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street: the titles of the three novels in question) as I go along. Calls, notably from Gamal al Ghitani, the novelist and editor, for introducing a sign system indicating the locations of these tiny venues and converting the area into a literary walk have so far fallen on deaf ears.

In Palace of Desire, Mahfouz wrote of these alleyways: “Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shots, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman’s bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups.”

Yet all I find of these alleyways are littered, narrow stretches with an excess of pickup trucks and a few barefoot children.

In Qasr al Shoq I meet a mechanic, an affable, sweaty young man in a pink shirt. “What do you think of Naguib Mahfouz?” I ask. “He’s that scientist,” he says, faltering. “That famous scientist who got the Nobel Prize, isn’t he?”

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