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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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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