Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café (American University in Cairo Press, 2007)
Naguib Mahfouz, Morning and Evening Talk (American University in Cairo Press, 2007)

I have read and reviewed quite a few modern Arabic novels from the American University in Cairo Press, including Zayni Barakat, Birds of Amber, and No One Sleeps in Alexandria. Although I've never reviewed it, I've read and greatly enjoyed Naguib Mahfouz's magnificent Cairo Trilogy, which initially piqued my interest in modern Egyptian culture and history. So when Karnak Cafe and Morning and Evening Talk showed up in the International Publishers Marketing catalog, I asked our editor to order review copies for me.

Naguib Mahfouz, who died in 2006, was a prolific and highly regarded novelist and essayist, born in Egypt in 1911, when that country was still a "protectorate" of the United Kingdom. He wrote in Arabic, but many of his works have been translated into English, as well as other languages. Written in the 1950s, The Cairo Trilogy is well over a thousand pages long and traces the lives of several members of an Egyptian family from the late nineteenth century through the years following World War II. It is straightforward urban historical fiction, written in a naturalistic style that reminds me of Emile Zola's Rougon Macquart series. Mahfouz also wrote a number of novels set in Pharaonic Egypt. That period's just not my cuppa tea, if you know what I mean.

Both of these books are very, very short.  Karnak Café is just 99 pages long (thus in fact a novella); Morning and Evening Talk is 204 pages long. Each book is, in a different way, experimental in style - which The Cairo Trilogy decidedly is not.  Karnak Café (also known as Al-Karnak), which takes place entirely in a café frequented by the unnamed first-person narrator, could be rendered as a stage play. Most of the text is either dialogue taking place in the novella's present time or is associated with a story told to the narrator by one of the other characters. 

Originally published in 1974, Karnak Café is clearly set during one of those difficult periods in modern Egyptian history when citizens were routinely picked up by the police, questioned and held without recourse, often for totally inexplicable reasons. These kinds of experiences form the background for the interactions that take place in the café in present time. The narrator chances upon this café and discovers that its proprietor, Qurunfula, was in her earlier days a famous dancer. He enjoys watching her and finds the company congenial, so he makes the café his regular hangout.

The other regulars at the café are 'people with extremely interesting and provocative viewpoints' (p. 8): a group of old men who play backgammon; some middle-aged men, including a wine-steward, a waiter, a bootblack and a public relations director; as well as several young adults, probably college students, whom the narrator finds terribly attractive. Among these is a woman named Zaynab - the only recurring female character besides the proprietress of the café. During this period in Egyptian history, it was still considered improper for a woman to spend time in public places frequented by men.

The story line follows the patterns of café life as the seasons change and the young people disappear and reappear. They explain their absences as periods of imprisonment, which they describe tearfully. These prison episodes have a considerable impact on their appearance and demeanor over time. Occasionally a character makes passing reference to the June War of 1967, also known as the Six-Day War, which pitted Egypt and a number of other Arabic nations against Israel. Israel won, gaining control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the process. A several-page afterword (which might have been more effective as a foreword) written by the translator, Roger Allen, provides the reader with some background on this conflict and its impact on the collective psyche on the Egyptian people.

Originally published in 1987, Morning and Evening Talk is even more stylistically challenging than Karnak Café. Not a novel in any conventional sense, it's comprised entirely of a series of brief sketches of sixty-seven characters who are members of three different Cairo families. These sketches are organized alphabetically (using the Arabic alphabet, of course) by the characters' first names. Varying in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages, they typically refer to the character's parents and closest blood relatives, to the neighborhood or village in which he or she lived, and to some event (historical or personal) that marked his or her life in a particular way.

Just to make this all a little more challenging, these characters live across several generations, but Mahfouz only occasionally provides a reference that enables the reader to determine easily which historical period each character inhabits. For example, he notes that Husni Hazim Surur completed an engineering degree in 1976, but of Dawud Yazid al-Misri he only says that he was born a year after his brother Aziz. Since there is no entry for Aziz, I could only get a rough approximation for Dawud's place in history by finding an entry for his father, Yazid al-Misri, of whom it is said that 'He arrived in Cairo a few days before the French invasion,' (p. 203), which means in 1798. Of course, that doesn't help too much, since I have no clue when Dawud was born. As I know from reading The Cairo Trilogy, it was not uncommon in those days for Egyptian men to sire children when they were well into their fifth, sixth, or even seventh decade of life. 

Following these character sketches, a glossary running a few pages in length provides the meanings of some of the common nouns, like narghile, the water pipe (smoked by men in the cafés of Egypt), as well as key personages and events, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1956 to 1970, and the 1919 Revolution, an early and unsuccessful effort by the Egyptian nationalists to achieve independence from British rule.

I would have found Morning and Evening Talk easier to follow if the publisher had included a set of tree diagrams showing the family lines of the characters. I have seen similar devices used in other novels in which there are a lot of characters or in which family lineages are an important factor. This might be a project that a small group of people interested in modern Egyptian history and literature could undertake together. It would be a lot of work for one person, and the Arabic names are sufficiently confusing to most Western readers so that a collaborative approach might result in a more accurate rendering of the family relationships. Without such an aid, I think Morning and Evening Talk represents more of a challenge than many readers expect from a work of fiction.

[Donna Bird]