The night throws its canopy gently over the Great Pyramids at Giza, as if it were reluctant to smudge their sharp silhouettes. And as the first stars force their presence into a dusky sky, timelessness takes over the vision: there is an assurance that the pyramids are safe for another night as they have been for centuries. There is nothing more to be done there except to drive back into the heart of bustling Cairo and begin the search for the café where Naguib Mahfouz, the man who has alternatively been called Egypt’s Balzac or Zola or Galsworthy, breakfasted and wrote for four decades.
It is not an easy journey. Even as the hour turns late, the streets are choked with cars, taxis and donkey carts piled high with large melons. We crawl past palaces and minarets, restaurants and shopping malls; clearly, there are no closing hours. And the night seems to be throwing a picnic for the entire city under the gently swaying date palms. On the bridge over the Nile, young couples, groups of young men, desperate fishermen, entire families on plastic chairs lean over as they gossip, watching the sparkling boats on their dinner cruises over the darkly rippling waters. And children, as always, clamber over the four huge lions that guard the bridge, once built for royalty.
Finally, we are at Tahrir Square, crowded and brightly lit, where everything seems to be happening at once. Café Ali Baba is right there, except that it is abandoned and boarded up. A traffic policeman gladly turns away from his impossible job and explains that the old café has been sold by its owner; a fast food establishment is soon to open in its place! Fast food in a place where men have sat for decades (and been joined by women only in recent years) to drink tea and coffee and pull at their water hubble-bubbles, exchange gossip, discuss revolutions and coups, play backgammon and dominoes and watch life go about its daily business in the Square, the Square about which Naguib Mahfouz once told an interviewer: “The square has had many scenes. It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people — and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” I stare at the second floor windows where Egypt’s best-known literary observer would have sat in the early mornings: they are dark and shut, the end of many things.
My disappointment must have dripped from my face, for, my guide quickly said: “There is another café, just like this one. Very old and he used to go there sometimes too.” Literary pilgrims must be quick to believe such things, so I followed him deeper into the heart of the old city, past mosques and crowded squares, through narrow crowded alleys, to the El Fishawy Café. Its rounded tables and chairs have taken over the alley occupied by the several grizzled old men who seem to have been sitting there forever, under the old carved mirrors, round fans and brass chandeliers, counting their beads and smoking their hookahs. The place clearly belongs to them, not to tourists who have their coffee, take photographs and continue their souvenir-hunting in the alleys beyond.
It is easy to imagine Mahfouz’s “Karnak Café”, the café of the title of the angry novella set against the 1967 war. In that café, under the watchful gaze of the fascinating proprietress Qurunfula (“the roseate dream from the 1940s”), Mahfouz’s troubled characters suffer under the difficult political circumstances of the times. It is a place, much like the one in which I sip my mint tea, where “you get to sense past and present in a warm embrace, the sweet past and glorious present.”
Virtually unknown beyond the Arab world until 1988, when the Nobel Prize brought instant international acclaim, Naguib Mahfouz had based his immense body of work on the three pillars of faith, love and politics — but politics “is by all odds the most essential”. More than 30 novels , including the epic Cairo Trilogy, several short story collections, screenplays and articles, all written in classical Arabic, created, as the Nobel citation notes, a work “rich in nuance — now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous…an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.”
Committed to writing
Beginning at the age of 17, when he was surprised that an editor actually paid him a pound for a story (“One gets paid as well!”) and combining his writing with a day job as a civil servant, Mahfouz worked with a rigorous work discipline to pack in as much reading and writing as possible: the early café mornings and the fact that he even put off marriage till the age of 43 are evidence of that. In early novels he explored Egypt’s Pharaonic past but his most memorable work chronicles, in fiction, Egypt’s tryst with modernity in the mid-20th century. In novels such as Cairo Modern, Midaq Alley and finally the trilogy — Palace Work, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street — he examined the contradictions of a traditional society in the throes of change. The remnants of British influence, the degeneration of an authoritarian bureaucracy, rampant unemployment, student anger, militant nationalism, increasing radicalisation all come under his steady gaze. Reading Mahfouz, one can understand the deprivation and the hunger that leads to revolutions in such a society, the disillusionment that follows (Mahfouz fell silent for five years after Nasser’s 1952 takeover), the temptations of fundamentalism, the bitterness of defeat. As Edward Said wrote of Mahfouz: “He has a decidedly catholic and, in a way, overbearing view of his country, and like an emperor surveying his realm, he feels capable of summing up, judging, and shaping its long history and complex position as one of the world’s oldest, most fascinating and coveted prizes for conquerors like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, as well as its own natives.”
As I muse over all this, the bazaar seems to have entered the El-Fishawy Café. Caps, shoes, beads, snapshot cigarette cases are all for sale at our table. A man almost forcibly takes my shoes to polish them. A waiter walks around with tongs and hot coals to replenish the hookahs. There is a call for a fresh ball of tobacco. It is well after midnight but life here does not stop by the clock.