‘The Quarter’ shows masterly hand of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz

The collection of short stories, published posthumously, gently lays bare the foibles of the denizens of a neighborhood in old Cairo.

Courtesy of Saqi Books
“The Quarter” by Naguib Mahfouz, Saqi Books, 87 pp.

I visited Cairo in 2006 to write a story about the legacy of Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who had recently died. The tribute that stood out to me was given by the manager of a cafe in which Mahfouz had gathered with other writers. He said, “Naguib Mahfouz gave the Nobel people the honor by accepting their award, not the other way around.”

Now the accuracy of that statement is reinforced by the publication in English of “The Quarter,” a collection of 18 stories that were found among Mahfouz’s papers. The slim book of short stories was first published in Arabic last year as “The Whisper of Stars.” 

Taken together, the collection of narratives adds up to a vivid and emotionally expansive expression of life and people in Gamaliya, the quarter of old Cairo where Mahfouz grew up and set some of his most famous works.

Mahfouz was a master at developing diverse characters, including the tyrannical patriarch of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad from his “Cairo Trilogy” and the petty clerk obsessed with becoming a minister in “Respected Sir,” Othman Bayyumi.   

In the quarter there is no deep probing of individuals. Rather it is the quarter residents in total – the quarter itself that is actually the character. In the work, Mahfouz displays his versatility as a writer who can be stimulating, poignant, and touching in stories that are at times little more than briefs.

The quarter people are at once gritty and other worldly, believing in healers, saints, and even demons that inhabit the cellar of an old fort. Authorities are disdained. Rumors dominate. The quarter "has its own hidden tongue, although no one knows to whom it belongs," writes Mahfouz. "It can whisper misgivings and reveal secrets."

My favorite story is “Your Lot in Life,” in which the official in charge, who is nameless and known simply as the Head of the Quarter comments on a new and unprecedented affliction, saying the area “never has its fill when it comes to generating disasters.” This time it's a crying epidemic that begins when a pastry seller bursts into tears while wielding his rolling pin and bawls so hard his family must take him home still crying. Then a shopper with a basketful of pickled vegetables suddenly begins weeping violently. “The stories kept multiplying and becoming more elaborate,” Mahfouz writes. “There were many victims, both men and women.” Eventually the Health Inspector arrives and goes from house to house to search for the cause. Yet he is afflicted too. The end this time, however, is happy as he is cured in a musician's house by rhythm, drum beats, clapping, and singing. All the weepers are transformed and burst into laughter from the musician's poetics.

A particularly moving story is “Tawhida,” about memories of a young girl who lived with the narrator's family, in whom “happiness, beauty and magic all came together.” Many years later, the two have a chance encounter in Alexandria and the narrator does not recognize her since her face has become “gaunt, pale and wrinkled” due to old age. But then "When I heard that sweet voice again, the past came rushing back like a perfume bottle smashing to the ground" and nostalgia fills the narrator's heart.

Compared by some to Balzac and Dickens, Mahfouz was credited by the Nobel committee with creating “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all of mankind.” His 34 novels are remarkably varied, ranging from ancient Egyptian themes at the start of his career to “Children of Gebelawi,” an allegory on human history to political novels in the 1960s that used symbolism to highlight the souring of the Egyptian revolution. His 13 short-story collections are also multifaceted. For example, “The Time and the Place,” a selection translated into English, contains “Zaabalawi,” which beautifully evokes Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and "The Norwegian Rat,” about how regimes use an external threat to consolidate their rule and exploitation.

It remains a mystery exactly when the stories in “The Quarter” were written although Mahfouz scholar Roger Allen, who translated them, sees similarities to another work published by the laureate in 1994. The stories were found with a note attached, saying "to be published in 1994" which never happened, perhaps because of the extremists’ attack on Mahfouz that year. It is also unclear whether the stories represent a complete work or are part of a larger work that was not finished. What is certain is that “The Quarter” stories, belated as they are in coming to light, offer further compelling testimony to the diversity of their author's creative genius.

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