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Connecting Egypt’s beloved author and Charles Dickens | By Susan Weissman | Photography by Peter Gutierrez

n a g u i b m a h fou z ’ s c a i ro


issue f o u r 2 0 1 0 | F O U R s e a s o n s m a g a z i n e

Café Culture Locals love to take in the bustle of Cairo over Turkish coffee or mint tea. Cafés are popular gathering spots and figure prominently in the novels of Egypt’s favourite writer, Naguib Mahfouz. F O U R s e a s o n s m a ga z i n e | I S S U E ? ? ? 2 00 8


N a g u i b M a h fou z ’ s C a i ro



Recipient of the Nobel

first encountered Naguib from al-Nahhasin, which he had observed for Prize for Literature Mahfouz at a challenging point in my life. I roughly half a century from his shop, the one he in 1988, Mahfouz is stumbled across the author’s Cairo Trilogy at owned. Here were establishments of Hasanayn the often compared to a small bookstore in Washington, DC. barber, Darwish the bean seller, al-Fuli the English novelist Fascinated by sepia-toned photos of Cairo’s milkman, Bayumi the drinks vendor and Abu Charles Dickens. bustling street life on the covers, I bought Sari’, who grilled snacks. Known for their location all three volumes. I had been to the city of on this street, they were also the features by which Similarly prolific, he the pharaohs, so I knew the backdrop for Palace Walk was identified. published more than the Egyptian author’s stories would take me (Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz, Anchor 50 novels and somewhere exotic—far away from the Books, New York, 1993, p. 154) hundreds of short demands of life as it was at the time and stories in his lifetime. fuelling my hope that I would return to my From the coffee houses, or ahwas, where inveterate travel ways again someday. men made sense of the world as they And like Dickens’ When I encountered the great writer in smoked shisha and drank mint tea and lively portraits of the early ’90s, not many outside the Middle Turkish coffee, to the quotidian activities of London, Mahfouz’s East were familiar with him. But in the housewives, shopkeepers and barbers, I was pages teem with the Middle East, he was widely read and much enthralled with the likes of an eloquent sights, sounds and beloved. The recipient of the Nobel Prize Middle Eastern soap opera. I woke early for Literature in 1988—the only Arabiceach day to get in an “episode” or two smells of Cairo. language writer to receive such a before the demands of the day set in. An distinction—he is often compared to the 19th-century English addiction took hold. And when I was done with the Trilogy, I novelist Charles Dickens. Similarly prolific, Mahfouz published began to read anything by Mahfouz that I could get my hands on. nearly 40 novels, hundreds of short stories, as well as some 25 Several years later—when I was travelling again—I headed to movie scripts and several plays over a career spanning more than Brazil on assignment. There, I met a now dear friend who was 70 years. And like Dickens’ portraits of London, Mahfouz’s pages working as a journalist covering film in the Middle East. In a teem with the sights, sounds and smells of Cairo. random conversation, she mentioned attending Mahfouz’s literary I raced through the novels of the Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of salons, or nadwas, and explained how she came to know him. I Desire and Sugar Street, each named for a street in Cairo and set in immediately engaged in banter about my love of Mahfouz and old sections of the city such as el-Gamaleya, where the author how attached I became to his writing back when I did. spent his youth. I sat for hours on end mesmerised by the In 2004, she took me to a nadwa in Cairo, where I met the Dickensian detail of people and place that shaped the narrative Nobel Laureate. In his early 90s at the time, he was accompaabout al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family as they were nied by bodyguards, a precaution since an assassination attempt transformed by the events occurring from World War I through against him in 1994. I professed to the author the joy his the 1950s. writing had brought to my life. I would see him again over the The old patriarch’s reflections on the view from his window years and each time I would be reminded of how he kept alive establish the landscape of the Trilogy: in me a desire to discover the amazing cultural diversity the world has to offer. Seated in a large chair on the latticed balcony, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd I will send a friend to the great city on the Nile late this year, al-Jawad gazed alternately at the street and at al-Ahram, the newspaper and I hope that he will fall in love with it in the same way that spread across his lap…. From his perch on the balcony, he seemed to be Naguib Mahfouz made me love it. 4S discovering the street for the first time. It was a lively, charming and entertaining street. Moreover, it had a special character distinguishing it Susan Weissman is the executive editor of Four Seasons Magazine. I

issue f o u r 2 0 1 0 | F O U R s e a s o n s m a g a z i n e

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