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There Is No Escape from Hope: A Memoir of Reading Naguib Mahfouz

By André Naffis-Sahely

The Coffeehouse by Naguib Mahfouz.
Translated by Raymond Stock.
American University in Cairo Press, 145pp, £16.99
April 2011, ISBN 9789774163517

Reading Naguib Mahfouz in my teenage years was a singular education. I had read a few of his most popular titles—Children of the Alley (1959), The Thief and the Dogs (1961) and Miramar (1967)—but it was not until I came to The Complete Mahfouz Library that I began to fully appreciate the range of his oeuvre, which, as Edward Said points out, spans “from historical fiction to the romance, saga, and picaresque tale, followed by work in realist, modernist, naturalist, symbolist, and absurdist modes.” Reading Mahfouz was proof that fiction-writing was full of possibility. As a teenager, I didn’t know about the precise traditions that Mahfouz had built on; every book of his seemed completely pioneering. I was living in Abu Dhabi then, which was “home” from the early 1990s until the mid 2000s. Books were a scarce commodity, daring ones in particular. For a long time, only three or four modestly stocked bookshops serviced the city of over one million inhabitants. They were more disorderly stockrooms than emporiums, their shelves brimming with science-fiction and fantasy titles. If I was lucky there’d be a smattering of weathered Wordsworth Classics in the mix. The Guggenheim and Louvre were only a decade away, but still unfathomable. And Abu Dhabi, now home to just under two million inhabitants, had until then sheltered only half that number. Indeed, back then, as the city was embarking on its breakneck frenzy of construction, a few more bookshops were added to this flimsy list, such as the Virgin Megastore, which opened in 2001. It didn’t last long, though it was promising for a time. While the Megastore originally stocked a large number of titles in French, Arabic, and English, these had shrunk within a couple of weeks to only a handful; soon all that was left were a few travel guides and coffee-table books. Even more depressing was the single public library on the island—the National Foundation—and many of its tomes could not be borrowed.

It is strange to reflect on how the Emirates was—even by the standards of its other Gulf neighbours (with the possible exception of Qatar)—a unique haven of tranquility in a region otherwise afflicted by decades of unrest and brutal military dictatorships. This state of affairs became all the more accentuated once the second Bush administration's War on Terror unfolded before our eyes. For the most part, while the rest of the Arab world endlessly debated and took sides in the battle being waged by media to define our daily realities, the Emirates carried on its day-to-day business of ambitious construction projects and the unfettered accumulation of wealth. Amidst this bizarrely unsettling insularity, I found a peculiar refuge in the sight of the papyrus-colored editions of Mahfouz novels published by the American University in Cairo. The books became a familiar, if at times discomfiting, window into a culture that I found to be out-of-bounds, being a mix of European and Middle Eastern myself—and this despite my fluency in Arabic. Thanks to my trusty Complete Mahfouz, I was able to indulge my irrepressible hungers, jumping into new novels without pause and re-reading familiar texts with only the shortest of interludes.

Mahfouz “made” Cairo in the way that Joyce made Dublin or Svevo Trieste. Mahfouz's Cairo is his greatest character: he loves and criticizes it, but is above all determined to be a faithful chronicler of its evolution, or even, in some cases, its degeneration. I only began to grasp at the full implication of this novelistic mapping of one of the Arab world's greatest metropolises after reading Said's essay “Naguib Mahfouz and the Cruelty of Memory” years after first coming across the Complete Mahfouz, by which time  I was at university in Britain :

…when you get to the end of one of Mahfouz's novels you paradoxically experience both regret at what has happened to his characters in their long downward progress and a barely articulated hope that by going back to the beginning of the story you might be able to recover the sheer force of these people. There is a hint of…how gripping this process is in a fragment called “A message,” contained in the novelist's Echoes from an Autobiography (1994): “The cruelty of memory manifests itself in remembering what is dispelled in forgetfulness.” Mahfouz is an unredemptive but highly judgemental and precise recorder of the passage of time.

By the time I was reading Said's essays, it had been a year since I had left my Complete Mahfouz behind in Abu Dhabi, having left the Emirates in September 2004. My parents later sold it along with the rest of my library, my constant travelling having made carrying books around with me a luxury I could ill afford. Much of my former collection has been reconstituted since moving to London, but I have not regretted the loss of any of it as much as the Complete Mahfouz. I am told that the AUC Press plan to release a third (and supplemented) edition of The Complete Mahfouz Library in November 2011, to coincide with his centenary.

The time that elapsed between my initial and subsequent readings of his work would forever change the way in which I approached it. Though I have always read Mahfouz in Arabic—where his voice is distinctive and authoritative, though never overbearing—I had also started to read him in translation. I may have even read him more carefully this way. This was due to a variety of reasons. I had begun to write in English in those years, and so felt I needed a model who dealt with realities similar to my own. To read him in English was to witness firsthand that the translator's duties did not simply extend to rendering words from one language into another, but to becoming a competent stylist himself or herself, to having an in-depth knowledge of both the linguistic and cultural intricacies of the work in question, and perhaps most importantly, realizing the danger of creating a mere facsimile rather than a translation.

Despite the ways in which reading these translations challenged my notions of authoritative transposition I did not have an idea as to what Mahfouz could or should sound like in English. Ever since 1985, when the AUC Press acquired the sole foreign-language rights to his novels, they have commissioned no less than fifteen translators to render Mahfouz's thirty-five novels and short-story collections into English. At the start, this was because until the late 1980s, Denys Johnson Davies was one of the very few capable translators who could even contemplate taking on this monumental task. While he devoted himself to as many of Mahfouz's novels as he could, no single translator to date has dared—if that's the word—to recreate the entirety of Mahfouz's opus in English—in the way that, say, Michael Hofmann has with Joseph Roth, or Charles Scott Moncrief did with Proust. It doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon either. Mahfouz's work includes over forty novels and hundreds of short stories; it seems unlikely that any one translator could move through the entirety of this corpus. That said, the increasing critical authority (and popularity) that Mahfouz commands in non-Arabic speaking countries will probably ensure that if any Arab author will receive such 'royal' treatment, it will be him.

If we do not yet have a complete portrait of the writer, we at least can make something of how his works have been received. Among the works singled out by the Nobel Committee in their 1988 award was the allegorical Children of the Alley (or Awlad Haratina), which was condemned on publication by theologians at Al-Azhar. It was a product, I like to think, of Mahfouz's undergraduate degree in philosophy, which he gained at Cairo University in 1934. This parable playfully re-envisions the Judeo-Islamic tradition from a magical-realist perspective, sketching out humorous and thought-provoking caricatures of its prophets, from Adam and Abraham to Jesus and Muhammad. Children of the Alley continued to incense ultra-conservatives after its publication, with fanatical contempt for him and his work eventually flaring up in the aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which was later deemed to have contributed to the attack on Mahfouz's life in 1994. The irony of course being that one of the major reasons for Mahfouz's high reputation in the English-speaking world is that he provides a highly atypical vision of the Middle East, eschewing stereotypes to provide as factual a representation of the period and setting he is describing. He is able to speak of history without eulogizing the charms of that past while also showing how time whittles away at human virtues. This is perhaps crucial toward forming an understanding as to how Mahfouz has been able to garner such a steady readership in the West. There is something about the English language—perhaps its lexical variety and specificity—that makes its readers wary of abstractions, which in more “limited” languages do not seem as vague or flimsy. Let us not forget of course, that Arabic is “limited.” As Rafik Schami so ingeniously showed in one of his recent novels, The Calligrapher's Secret (Haus, 2010), neither its vocabulary nor its alphabet have proved adept at keeping pace with the modern world.

In his own language Mahfouz seems by turns multiple and amorphous. For a long time, this problem was central to the question of Arabic literature's reception in Western literary circles. For nearly three decades, Mahfouz was often the only Arab author readers outside of the Middle East had heard of. Though that situation has now changed, thanks to the work of Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon of Banipal, publishers such as Dar al-Saqi and now the “Arabic Booker”—as well as a horde of solvent Sheikhs who have restyled themselves as cultural impresarios.


One hopes that the new edition of The Complete Mahfouz will include The Coffeehouse, first published in 1988. This, Mahfouz's thirty-fifth and final novel, was being serialized in the pages of Cairo's al-Ahram in the months leading up to his Nobel Prize. Originally entitled Qushtumur, after the café where the five protagonists meet over the course of their lives, the novel encompasses three generations, a revolution, and two Kings: Fuad and Farouk. Befitting its status as a bookend to a long and prolific career, the plot of The Coffeehouse is a summary of the epochs explored in Mahfouz's other novels: from the middle years of the British Occupation (1882-1956) in The Trilogy, to the 1930s of Cairo Modern, the Second World War of The Beginning and the End, the 1950s of The Beggar and Autumn Quail, the 1960s of Miramar and Karnak Café and finally the early 1980s of The Day The Leader Was Killed.

Like some of his other titles, The Coffeehouse is encyclopedic and compact. The protagonists of The Coffeehouse, who, like Mahfouz, were born in the beginning of the second decade of the past century, are representative of many different walks of Cairene life, from the working class to the haute bourgeoisie. Their lives are a prism through which one glimpses the contradictions of modern Egypt. The five friends include the narrator, always unnamed; Ismail Qadri, whose father is an official in the railways; Hamada al-Halawani, whose father, a pasha, owns a “tahiniya factory in the country” that produces “sweets finer than air and stuffed with pistachio”; Tahir al-Armalawi, the son of a successful physician; and Sadiq Safwan, the only son of a petty bureaucrat in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. From the outset, we know they will never leave their tiny corner of Cairo, and that they “will all be buried in the Bab al-Nasr Cemetery.”

Deciding that “being loaded is the most important thing in the world,” Sadiq opens a novelty shop—the first in quiet Abbasiya, with the help of a rich relative. The first of the five to settle down and marry, Sadiq gains in wealth and standing. Meanwhile, Ismail, “more or less” the leader of this quintet, is the only one “whose family tree lacked any sort of distinction.” When his father dies during Ismail's entrance examinations, his career prospects are cut short, a twist of fate later cemented by his arrest following a demonstration against the pro-British monarchy. Tahir, on the other hand, briefly enrols in the School of Medicine, while working up the courage to confront his father, a doctor, with the news that “I'm a poet, Papa.” His father is unconvinced, and Tahir soon becomes engaged to Raifa, a nurse whom everyone suspects is a prostitute, taking her comings and goings out of strangers' houses for clandestine rendezvous. Last but not least is Hamada, who is able to forego a life of toil—and “live like an aristocrat”—thanks to his share of the profits from the tahiniya factory, which his older brother runs on his behalf. Hamada is the stereotypical dandy: endowed with an irrepressible appetite for prostitutes and hashish—and he installs himself as a corpulent (and persistently cynical) presence in the lives of the other four. He, more than any other character in The Coffeehouse, is a critique of the parasitic pashas (the aristocratic landlords who in order to protect their position, constantly acted as bulwarks to any reforms) that pervaded the Khedive in those days. It is important, after all, to remember that Mahfouz had been a committed Wafdist in his youth—a keen supporter of that nationalist-liberal movement, whose major goal had been the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Thanks to this experience, he had seen the negative influence that this class had on the rest of Egypt. Indeed, as Mahfouz perceived, the pashas' opposition to these reforms had directly contributed to  the establishment of a military dictatorship in Egypt, whose increasing repressiveness and corruption (particularly after Nasser's death) had postponed the hopes of many ordinary Egyptians for any real change, social or political.

As the five friends age, their fortunes rise and ebb; their surroundings change, and their parents die. Their children grow, and their biographies come to symbolize the battle for Egypt's future being waged before their eyes. As the friends congregate at their beloved coffeehouse without fail at least once a week, their ability to share in each others travails strengthens their bonds: Sadiq's son, Ibrahim, and Tahir's daughter, Darya, even get married. Still, their conversations always drift to higher concerns:

The evening chatter at the corner inside Qushtumur arrived at authenticity versus modernity, dazzling all that was new in thought and science, looking towards proper governance that would bring the benefits of independence and democracy. We followed with true and burning interest the Wafd's jihad against the dictatorship.

Their dreams for a progressive Egypt are frustrated by missed opportunities: the Wafd eventually loses momentum, and popular support swings toward more extremist factions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other leftist factions. Nevertheless there are still glimmers of promise. We are even told the lot of women is slowly improving. When Zubayda Hanem, al-Zayn Pasha's wife says that “girls from good families today took good jobs like men and that there was nothing wrong with that,” one can't help but feel optimistic.


For those uninitiated in Egypt's pre-Nasserist period, The Coffeehouse is a revealing introduction to an under-explored period in Egypt's history. And yet the book speaks from the heart and avoids inert and dryly related historical facts. Above all, Mahfouz is a chronicler of people and places, not of times. Some of the credit for the impact this new Mahfouz may have on English readers undoubtedly lies with its translator, Raymond Stock, who previously translated Khufu’s Wisdom (1939), The Dreams (2004), The Seventh Heaven (2005), Dreams of Departure (2007), and Before the Throne (2009). He is currently preparing a biography of Mahfouz for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Stock is among the finest of Mahfouz's many interpreters, and he provides additional, and invaluable, background to the novel in his afterword: “The Coffeehouse may be autobiographical, but, as fiction, it should not be taken too literally. Though we may safely assume that the anonymous narrator more or less represents the author, Mahfouz himself did not spend his early childhood in Abbasiya … nonetheless, [it] is less real autobiography than a biography—primarily of the place where Mahfouz grew up.” A “remarkably accurate” reconstruction, The Coffeehouse demands a lot from the reader. This owes to its intricate detail and references to the Egyptian politics of the time, and in particular the Wafd, which as Ismail Qadri declares, is the fourth religion in Egypt (after Islam, Christianity and Judaism.)

The Coffeehouse is unabashedly political. (One suspects that Mahfouz's liberal elitism would have found much in common with that of Anatole France, who once wrote that “a republic is ugliness set free.”) The narrator in The Coffeehouse, who is always unnamed and is presumed to be a sixth member of that group of friends, is almost immediately distrustful of Nasser, as are the others, except for Tahir al-Armalawi, who though equally skeptical of the newly entrenched regime, retains his faith in the “purity” of the great leader. This skepticism is not unusual; Mahfouz, after all, was a rare beast: a belletrist whose stories, novels, and screenplays attain a consistently wistful and delicate elegance and rise above the petty squabbling of lesser literati. He is acutely aware that while human beings are fully capable of wisdom, their lives are usually absurdly illogical. When the five friends discuss the “disaster of disasters,” the Arab defeat in the 1967 War, Hamada attempts to console Tahir with the thought that “so long as we're alive, there is no escape from hope.” And this hope takes on a physical presence: despite their numerous personal, marital, and political difficulties, the five friends are able to draw much solace from their Qushtumur, which, from the moment they begin to frequent it “in late 1923 or early 1924,” becomes an embankment against the tides of upheaval and decay:

Our desire to meet only increased, even though it was no longer for us a pure means of relief. For us there was only one weighty discussion: a sour political repast—we slept and its bitter dregs mixed with our saliva. The scarcity of laughter perhaps frightened us into contemplation and philosophizing. We spent the rest of the year, and the year that followed it, continuing in one mode as we edged closer to sixty.

For almost eight decades, Qushtumur remains wholly unchanged, unlike surrounding Abbasiya and the rest of Cairo. When its initial owner passes away, his son takes over and business carries on as usual, save a fresh lick of paint and new furniture. This fascination with coffeehouses is ubiquitous in Mahfouz's work. As Mohamed Salmawy—who delivered the Naguib Mahfouz Memorial Lecture in 2007—writes: “more than any other writer, Mahfouz had a strange affinity with coffeehouses” and “was a familiar face in a dozen or so coffeehouses in various parts of Cairo, from Gamaliya to Heliopolis.”[1]  He even had one named after him.


Like Mahfouz, I also nursed a love for coffeehouses, a love which has mostly gone unrequited. Even the most laidback of establishments in say Paris or Berlin do not come close to the uninterrupted calm one enjoys in their Arab counterparts. But as much as I relished reading Mahfouz's depictions of his coffeehouses, I never read in public. To me, the coffeehouse was something different. It was where my friends and I could congregate away from the prying eyes of our respective ethnic ghettoes. We would not, as a rule, frequent each other's homes. There were too many complications, too many taboos to be adhered to. Our parents, with some exceptions (including my own), thought their sons and daughters should mix only with those of similar ethnicities and classes. So coffeehouses became our interzones, where our tongues were free to speak our own peculiar creole of Arabic, Hindi, and a Television-influenced Anglo-American.

But unlike the five friends of The Coffeehouse, our Qushtumurs were not a “second homeland”; they were our only homeland. We were cosmopolitans adrift in swirling waters, and this was our island. Many, like myself, were products of mixed marriages that even in these supposedly enlightened times never fail to raise eyebrows. Despite such varied backgrounds, however, I recognised elements of Mahfouz's characters in each of my friends—who reminded me of the people of Midaq Alley and of The Beginning and the End: hopeful, thwarted, troubled souls looking for a way out of claustrophobic strictures.

Though our rootlessness provided us with a chameleonic predisposition to adaptation – in a linguistic and cultural sense—we were also impeded by it. Liberated from any fixed national mindset, we nonetheless lived in an intellectual no-man's-land. This particular situation was compounded by having growing up in the Emirates, where there was no single tradition that might serve to anchor  our thoughts and experiences, or place them into context. In fact, in so far as history was concerned, there were no reliable records or documents that attested to bygone eras. In this sense, Abu Dhabi seemed like an apparition, a ghost town. Aside from the work of Wilfred Thesinger—who is widely fêted by Emaratis—almost no worthwhile histories of Bedouin cultures have yet been written, and certainly none by local writers. And though the ruling Sheikhs there aspire to transform their fiefdoms into financial and cultural powerhouses along the lines of medieval European city-states, this is an enterprise that is built on blood, censorship, and untold abuses of power. There is no rule of law in those countries, nor is there an understanding of history, without which, of course, there can be no true conception for a fairer future.


Thus, what should have been uplifting reports from Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the Middle East over the past months have failed to move me. Why? Because aside from the largely unsuccessful protests in Muscat and Manama, hardly a leaf has stirred elsewhere in the Gulf—from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Kuwait City to Doha. Millions there routinely suffer under lawless and senseless exploitation—and thousands of mestizos who should really represent a new chapter in those countries' histories, find that not only can they never truly belong to their adopted homes, but that their “real” origins—those indicated on their passports—do not truly belong to them either. They will only be able to remain in those transitory lounges so long as they can prove their practical worth to their hosts. There are people who have worked in those countries their whole lives and are refused even the privilege of being buried there, despite having nowhere else to go. The situation of these wayward souls is the same as that of foreign nationals stranded in turmoil-stricken countries. When looking for a way out, you call your Embassy only to be told: You are on your own.

In these airport-lounge-like entities a new Babel is developing. Here the words of the German poet Durs Grünbein, “travel is a foretaste of Hell,” acquire a sinister new reality. But it is perhaps this very hard cosmopolitanism that passes through the halls of embassies and is ignored by so many states in the Gulf and in the Middle East that allowed me to appreciate Mahfouz in the first place. Though he is quick to criticize, he knows, like Ismail Qadri, that “no one is absolved of their responsibility” and that “we always err by putting the blame on one or two people.” Critics of Mubarak and Gaddafi, for instance, might do well to remember this. That said, when one places politics to one side, the feeling of kinship that exists between all peoples becomes self-evident. As the narrator in The Coffeehouse puts it: “In fact, in culture we did not differ as Wafdists or Liberal Constitutionalists, nor did our political passions influence our appreciating merit in our opponents. Indeed, were we not charmed by some English writers, though England was our enemy?”

All over the world, Mahfouz tells us, there are thousands of Qushtumurs. Personally I like to think that a Mahfouz novel is a coffeehouse of the soul; just like Qushtumur, it “instils patience and mutual tolerance.” To him, these cafés were modern agoras: where people were able to share their diverse political opinions and where real and open dialogue was possible. Yet Mahfouz, a true liberal, never let his politics cut short his compassion for each and every one of his characters, however diverse or flawed. That is not to say that he was not critical of his time, or the political situation around him. Rather, as Ismail Qadri—whom Raymond Stock acknowledges is the most similar of Qushtumur's regulars to Mahfouz—says: “there is no democracy without social justice.” To put it simply, though compassionate, Mahfouz did not let this cloud his ethics, but instead used the former to accentuate the latter. On an intellectual level, social justice to Mahfouz meant above all the unfettered exchange of ideas, conducted in an atmosphere of respect and not fear. This was not mere idealism on Mahfouz's part: he had witnessed  the evils that befall a society that does not adhere to this basic tenet. Like all other Egyptians, he had experienced the stifling grip of censorship; felt the lack of security and chafed against the corruption in the spheres of government and public life. Further complicating matters, as Mahfouz himself discovered, was a new type of social alienation, one created by an urban metropolis that no longer affords its residents the ability to root themselves to physical settings, as renovation and gentrification continually remodel public places to the point where they become  unrecognisable. It is for that reason that the scenes evoked in his novels allow its readers to take the ideas and fragrances of those long-since-demolished cafés and transport them into their own new worlds—if only briefly. Long before the massive crowds of Tahrir Square were the whispers, gossip, and political talk of these cafés, real and imagined. That is where the real revolutions begin.


[1] Mohamed Salmawy, 'Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz: Centres of Creativity'. Al-Ahram Weekly. 28 June - 4 July 2007. Issue No. 851.

Published Oct 4, 2011   Copyright 2011 André Naffis-Sahely

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