“There is always an idea behind a novel, at least behind the novel as I know it,” Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz once said. In his case, the idea frequently shed light on the cultural and political landscape of his native country, helping earn Mahfouz the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. That unquestionably occurs with Karnak Café.
Although written in 1974, the novella was not available in a stand alone English edition until 2007, the year after Mahfouz’s death. In barely 100 pages, Karnak Café takes the reader inside totalitarian aspects of Egyptian society following the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and the impact of the Six Day War in June 1967 on the nation’s psyche. Even the title reflects Mahfouz’s attempt to have his audience “sense past and present in a warm embrace.” Karnack is the name of a huge temple complex that spans centuries of Egyptian history. The more modern café, meanwhile, is “a gathering-place for people with extremely interesting and provocative viewpoints.”
Initially set in the 1960s, the book’s unnamed narrator introduces us to the café (“my haven of rest and relaxation”), its owner and the regular customers. The regulars represent a range of Cairo’s population, from a number of old men who play backgammon to a group of university students, including Hilmi, Isma’il and Ismai’il’s girlfriend, Zaynab. For the students, “history began with the 1952 Revolution,” making them its “real children.”
Yet three times during the years the students no longer appear at the café, always following reports of arrests by the new government. Discussion in the café tends to be more subdued and avoids the political. While the students eventually return, each time some of them are never seen again. Hilmi is among those who doesn’t return after the third disappearance.
In the balance of Karnak Café, the narrator relates Isma’il’s and Zaynab’s separate accounts of what transpired during the detentions. These are tales of physical and psychological torture, despair and betrayal. At the center is a name first uttered the first time the students returned, the name of their chief interrogator. Mahfouz, though, does not let the students’ story provide the only viewpoint on what was recent Egyptian history when the story was published.
In the final chapter, the interrogator comes into the café, having spent three years in prison after being arrested following the Egyptian embarrassment in the Six Day War. When he enters the café, he is immediately recognized by Isma’il and, in turn, recognizes the students. Despite that, he announces his intent to become one of the café’s regulars. He sees no conflict or reason to preclude him, believng that what transpired in Egypt left “all of us both criminals and victims.” Although he becomes a regular, we do not hear his version of the specific events recounted by Isma’il and Zaynab. Regardless, the final chapter leaves little doubt a wide spectrum of Egyptian society entered the 1970s disappointed and disillusioned.
As translator Roger Allen points out in his excellent afterword, Karnak Café examines much that went dreadfully wrong with Egyptian society following the revolution and in and after the Six Day War. The afterword certainly helps the reader place the novel in the proper setting and context, which to some extent argues for it being a preface instead. Regardless, the focus here is on the story itself, one which Mahfouz never permits to become a tirade. Rather, the book adroitly explores the idea of a loss of faith, purity and innocence suffered by Egyptians almost entirely without regard for their political views. Equally as impressive — yet a sad commentary on the human condition — Mahfouz does so in a way that leaves the book perhaps universally and perpetually relevant.
Defending something that is despicable places you in the same category.
Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café