Culture

'Karnak Cafe' awakens painful memories of 1967 war

REVIEW

BEIRUT: Forty years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the American University in Cairo Press has published Naguib Mahfouz's angriest novel about the crisis for the first time ever in English translation. The plot of "Karnak Cafe" spans the days before, during and after the war, as experienced by the denizens of a Cairene coffee shop who are shattered by the shock of a sudden and total defeat. The narrator of the story likens the Arab losses to the "most vicious of hammer blows smashing its way into our heads."

But even as "Karnak Cafe" is situated in a particular historical episode, the text remains painfully relevant today. The characters in the cafe lose their faith in a revolution and all it promised. With palpable cruelty, they are forced to re-examine the recent past and realize their previous enthusiasm was a gloss on repression, corruption and torture. Stripped down, they are left to face a future of certain violence, inevitable war and nothing to guide them but the spent remains of failed ideologies and broken belief systems. To read "Karnak Cafe" now is to crack open the core of any given conflict in the region, where dreams and disappointments have congealed like vile toxic goop.

The genius of Mahfouz's narrative, however, is that beneath both the historical specificity and the political rhetoric is a spare love story that literally breaks the novel in half. "Karnak Cafe" opens as the narrator, while having his watch repaired, ducks into the titular coffee shop. There he lays eyes on the manager, an older woman whose former beauty lingers in her aging face and physique.

"Those clear, refined features of hers jogged something deep in my memory," the narrator conveys. "All of a sudden the images came flooding back. I could hear music and drums. I was sitting there watching a gorgeous body swaying from side to side; the air was permeated by the aroma of incense. A dancer, that's what she was."

The narrator realizes the manager is, in fact, Qurunfula, "the roseate dream of the 1940s," a famous dancer who had, in her day, lifted the art of belly-dancing from vulgarity to respectability. The narrator is hooked; Karnak becomes his regular refuge. He meets the rest of the locals - an eclectic mix of the old, young, lovelorn, defiant and every political persuasion imaginable among them - and settles into a routine of rambling daily discussions.

But soon, three young people who frequent the cafe disappear: Ismael al-Shaykh, Zaynab Diyab and Hilmi Hamada, with whom Qurunfula is having a discreet amorous affair. Rumors of widespread arrests permeate the conversation at Karnak. Then, as quickly as they vanished, the three youngsters return, having been released from prison.

The name Khalid Safwan is repeated among them, darkening their mood. Twice more they disappear. The third time, Hilmi Hamada never returns. In the meantime, the 1967 war slams through the novel, rocking the rhythms of the cafe and shrouding its customers in anxiety and despair. Eventually, Ismael and Zaynab, visibly diminished, limp back into Karnak. Word comes that Khalid Safwan has been arrested, and Hilmi has died during interrogation, a euphemism for murder during detention.

"Karnak Cafe" is a novel in four parts. Each chapter is named for a character: Qurunfula, Ismael, Zaynab and Khalid Safwan. These episodes, alternating in gender, flesh out the story of the three youngsters, all self-proclaimed children of Egypt's 1952 revolution. They also establish an allegorical timeline. Qurunfula is the nostalgia and faded glamour of Egypt's past. Khalid Safwan is the ominous, sinister prediction of its future. Ismael and Zaynab rest uneasily on the fault lines of its present.

Hilmi's story is constructed by inference - through the woman who loved him and the man who killed him. But while he haunts all of the novel's brisk 99 pages, the Hilmi accounts serve as brackets for the central love story between Ismael and Zaynab.

As in all of Mahfouz's fiction, the late Nobel laureate sketches his characters in great detail. The reader learns of the building on Dabas Alley, in the Husayniya Quarter, where Ismael and Zaynab grew up, of their families and educations and forging affections for one another.

They are imprisoned for being suspected Communists and suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood alike. Through torture - and in Zaynab's case a horrific instance of gang rape - they are made informants, though neither tells the other they've sold out. Zaynab informs Ismael that her virginity has been forcefully obliterated by offering herself to him sexually. He accepts, and their relationship becomes increasingly complicated by all that is left unsaid.

In the end it is Zaynab who rats on Hilmi, and who shoulders the responsibility of his death. She also resorts to prostitution. Or so she says. Late in the novel, Zaynab introduces the possibility that her memory could be faulty, and her testimony to the narrator suspect.

Right at the division between Ismael and Zaynab's respective chapters, the narrator discovers that while Ismael holds out faint hope that he and Zaynab will reunite, Zaynab, deflated and cynical, is more certain they will not. The narrator's own heartache floods the novel's structural threshold. And while his sorrow binds the book together, the break - whether it is between Ismael and Zaynab or between Egypt before and after 1967 - seems both final and irreparable. When the villain of "Karnak Cafe," Khalid Safwan, arrives on the scene, he declares cryptically: "Perhaps the two fragments will come together again ... My, my ... the world's certainly changed."

Before Khalid Safwan enters the coffee shop, causing jaws to drop all around, the regular customers are stuck in an endless cycle of desperate politi-cal debate.

Perhaps the creepiest element of the book is that Khalid Safwan manages to worm his way into the heart of the cafe, in part because he cuts through the circular arguments to articulate a more concrete course of action. When pressed to defend his position, he says: "I want to be myself, no more, no less." The narrator, frustrated by excess verbiage and emotion, responds, not for the first time: "This idea needs further discussion."

Having given himself a moment's pause, the narrator glimpses a spark of romantic interest between Qurunfula and another young man in the cafe, which is enough to stir in him the hope and possibility of an innocence restored.

The prodigious author of more than 60 books, Mahfouz wrote "Karnak Cafe" in 1971. It was published in Arabic as "Al-Karnak" in 1974 and made into a film starring the legendary Egyptian screen siren Suad Husni in 1975.

As translator Roger Allen notes in his judiciously brief afterword, the film adaptation tacked on a new, politically exploitative ending - the Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal to face the Israelis in 1973.

This clunky, prosthetic triumph arguably unbalanced the nuances of Mahfouz's story. Forty years later, for English-language readers to be able to access the original text - and generate interest in this particular novel among Mahfouz's oeuvre overall, whatever the language - is another, equally compelling act of restoration.

Naguib Mahfouz's "Karnak Cafe," translated by Roger Allen, is published by the American University in Cairo Press

 

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