In a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, Egyptian writer Naguib Mafhouz, author of the Cairo Trilogy and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, acknowledged the absence of heroes from his stories, saying he liked to create recognizable characters from everyday life.
Why? Because I look at our society with a critical eye and find nothing extraordinary in the people I see.
Some might call that pessimistic, while others might call it realistic. However, given his compassionate warts-and-all treatment of men and women alike, a third word comes to mind: humane.
Mahfouz, who died in 2006, rose to fame in Egypt in the late 1950s with the publication of the Cairo Trilogy — Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street — the multi-generational saga of Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his family that spans the two world wars and runs to more than 1,200 pages. At home, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a stern, tradition-minded taskmaster, appalled that his beautiful daughter might steal glances at handsome men passing below the family balcony, while outside the home he is a jovial lover of wit, wine, and women, a side he never shows to his family. He’s a hypocrite yet believes he’s doing right by his family with his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach. His massive personality affects family and friends in myriad ways; his influence is both bad and good throughout the trilogy.
Fans of this monumental work will savor Khan al-Khalili, another work of social realism, first published in Arabic in 1946 and now translated into English for the first time.
The novel takes place in Cairo during World War II. Just before Ramadan, 1941, the Axis Powers are bombing the al-Sakakini quarter of the city, so Ahmad Akif, a 40-year-old bachelor who lives with his parents and works at the post office in a dead-end job, uproots the family to the ancient quarter of Khan al-Khalili, hopeful the Germans will spare the historic neighborhood famous for its bazaar and the al-Husayn Mosque, named in honor of Mohammad’s grandson.
The Akifs, we quickly discern, are not heroic people. The father was forced to retire from the government 20 years earlier because of insolent behavior. Consequently, support of the family fell to Ahmad, who never finished his studies and won’t be free of his obligation to the family until his younger brother, Rushdi, earns his degree. Ahmad loves his family (surprisingly, he doesn’t hold a grudge against his father) and yet harbors the delusion that his genius (for something, anything) will never be recognized. He is “a martyr to injustice, a genius consigned early to the grave, a victim of malicious fate.” That, too, is why he’s never found a wife, he tells himself.
All these sentiments only managed to have negative effects on his temperament; he became obstreperous, bad tempered, and arrogant, always ready to wax hyperbolic about his talents. His life was thus turned into a continuing succession of lies and sheer misery.
He’s pitiful yet humorous, reminiscent of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, another character whose ridiculous pride is the source of great comedic fodder. Like Ignatius, Ahmad is well read and refuses to believe that anyone is his intellectual equal, even though “all his readings were general; there was no specialization or depth involved.” When Ahmad visits the caf? in his new neighborhood, he meets a lawyer, Ahmad Rashid, who starts spouting off about Freud and Marx, who are unfamiliar to Ahmad Akif.
He was not insanely angry with his companion, but was obviously unwilling to display his own ignorance. He shook his head as though he was well acquainted with the views of the two men.
He’s a blustering fool, and we eagerly await his just deserts. But the unexpected happens: he falls in love. His 16-year-old neighbor, a girl with “honey-colored eyes,” is young enough to be his daughter. His room faces hers in the apartment complex, and each evening at sunset she honors him with respectful glances, which soon become smiles, “the kind his heart has craved for twenty long years.” This goes on for weeks, the diffident 40-year-old bachelor staring and smiling at Nawal, the beautiful, na?ve, charming teenager.
He realized, however, that it was not normal to settle for such exchanged glances and that he had to adopt a new approach. But could he do it? Was he actually capable of launching himself into life again just as he had managed to run away from it for all of twenty years?
The answer to that question is put on hold when Rushdi, his brother, returns to Cairo. The younger Akif is everything his brother is not: handsome, confident, outgoing, intemperate, and reckless. Rushdi’s room faces the same direction as his brother’s. And where Ahmad is indecisive, Rushdi is resolute.
Where love was concerned, he had limitless self-confidence, based on one success after another. It was all founded on tremendous patience, an iron will that never gave up, and an innate suavity much assisted by artifice.
Soon, Nawal is showering them both with appreciative glances, and our rooting interests are in question — on the one hand, there’s the self-sacrificing, delusional pedant who’s been loveless for 20 years; on the other, the charming, carousing cad who’s been living it up. Mahfouz could have made it easy to choose sides, but the brothers, alas, love each other, so our loyalties remain unsteady.
Rushdi adored his elder brother because the latter had crafted him with his own two hands, nourished him with his spirit, and spent his own money on his younger brother’s upbringing.
Ahmad, for his part, thinks Nawal is his last chance for happiness. But getting the girl is just the beginning of this tightly focused tale. Illness and death intercede, affecting both of their families, and concerns about the war (will the Germans invade?) are never far from mind.
Unlike the books of the Cairo Trilogy, each of which covers several years and includes the points of view of many characters, Khan al-Khalili takes place in one year and includes the points of view of only Ahmad, Rushdi, and Nawal. That’s more than enough, though, as Mahfouz explores the wants and needs of three people in love. In the end, at least one of them will be heartbroken, but will all be lost?
Life was dumb and cruel, like the dirt of the earth, and yet it could nurture hope.