When I was 22, I went to live in Egypt for 18 months. I barely knew anything about the country but I did know about Naguib Mahfouz. Just four years earlier, he’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and my mother had so loved his work that she wrote to him via his publisher. To her immense surprise, she got a response. (The note is among the Wilson family archives, i.e. in a box in a garage somewhere.)
Naguib Mahfouz was to Egyptian literature what Gabriel García Márquez was to Colombian, Chinua Achebe to Nigerian, Machado de Assis to Brazilian. He was the fons et origo, the precursor and the master.
He’s best known for The Cairo Trilogy, works set in little Egyptian neighborhoods where all of society comes to life, the classes clashing, men and women bickering, old and new worlds colliding. If it sounds like a soap opera, it is. But one with a superior literary style and a vividness of characterization and place that makes you want to re-read whole passages.
Mahfouz was a man of the alley. For inspiration, he frequented the streets, chatting to barbers, mendicants, delivery boys, the whole whirling caboodle of street life. By all accounts, he loved nothing more than good gossip, along with a shisha pipe and a Turkish coffee. Indeed, I thought his best novels – Midaq Alley, Palace Walk, and Sugar Street – were named for the streets they took place in.
When I was there, I heard about the cafe where he used to hang out with other intellectuals. The cafe happened to be near the suburb of Dokki, where I was living. I went to that cafe several times, wondering if I’d ever bump into him. Ridiculous. Those were pre-internet days and his picture didn’t appear on the back of his books, or at least not on the editions I owned. I wouldn’t have known him if he’d walked through my front door. But I remember the cafe as somewhat anonymous – large and bare, with a view of a zillion cars belching fumes along Dokki’s main drag.
All of this came back to me while reading the October 25 edition of The Nation. In it, Ursula Lindsey reviews a book of Mahfouz’s non-fiction:
Essays of the Sadat Era, 1974–1981. Or rather she doesn’t review it. Instead, she writes a lovely personal essay which begins with her tongue-tied meeting with Mahfouz in Cairo. It took me back to those happy days.
For me, they were days of discovery, wandering blindly around Cairo. I went to places like The City of the Dead, a massive graveyard in which poor families lived side by side with their dead ancestors, and the winding souk Khan el Khalili, where hawkers sold you gold nuggets or sugary tea or what looked like magic carpets.
I was still some way off becoming a published author, but something that happened there would later become the subject of my essay “What I Found Amongst the Ruins,” which was published in a Penguin anthology, IC3 The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain. The piece described an earthquake that wrecked half of Cairo. I focused on the thousands of urban poor sitting out in the streets, their houses collapsed behind them. I was attempting to channel Mahfouz.
The year after I left Egypt, I heard there was an assassination attempt on Mahfouz. A religious fundamentalist objected to the master’s novel Children of Gebelawi and stabbed him in the neck while Mahfouz was sitting in a car. Mahfouz was 82 when it happened. He survived, but for the last twelve years of his life he was unable to write for more than a few minutes at a time.
For those readers who don’t know his work, start with the shorter stuff – Midaq Alley or The Thief and The Dogs. Then read The Cairo Triogy. It’s an incredible achievement – an inter-generational potboiler and a portrait of the soul of a nation.