Karnak Cafe


Karnak Cafe
by Naguib Mahfouz
1974 / 101 pages
rating 9.25 – classic – 20th cent fiction

Back in 1954 Egypt was swept up by the July Revolution and granted independence from Britain.  King Faruk was unseated and the Republic of Egypt established under Abdel Nasser.   It took some time to adjust but then – Well,  then came the 6-Day War with Israel in 1967 which Egypt lost soundly and by 1971 the country was in trouble with Nasser’s death and Anwar Sadat in office as president, a new constitution and a general feeling of impotency. After an assassination attempt Sadat instituted a series of purges, the beginnings of a police state really.  There were protests but the voices were silenced.

Into this environment Mahfouz inserts the fictional but probably typical Cafe Karnak – a small, cozy meeting place for folks with very close and politically informed friendships.  There are old people from the days of the original uprisings in the 1950s and young people suspected of activity against Sadat.

And then one day the young people are gone.  Fear almost overwhelms the cafe patrons until 4 of the young people return but not a few of the most important.  Then grief is added to fear – and a longing for the days when opposition was honored or at least tolerated.  The new politics has also interfered with old friendships.

The unnamed narrator feels completely at home there and he describes the room, the customers and the owner, Qurunfula,   with love and detail. He then goes on to describe his interview Qurunfula and her life, her loves (including one of the young ones who disappeared) and her own knowledge about the disappearances.

The rest of the book is what the narrator learns from talking to three of the younger patrons who disappeared.  The chapters are named after these characters at the cafe,  Qurunfula is the basis of Chapter 1, and she is in love with one of the young ones who was arrested – Hilmi.  Quorunfula also represents the advances of the earlier eras. The younger crowd is concerned, although not actively involved,  with reform and other political issues.

Chapter 2 – Isma’il al-Shaykh
This student patron of the Cafe is very poor and got through law school but went to prison a few times.  Talks of girlfriend Zaynab.  But thrust of the chapter is Isma’il’s arrest and detention, interrogation and how eventually it changed him.  It’s here the fedayeen (Palestinian guerrilla forces) are brought up.

Chapter 3 Zaynab Diyab – Isma’il’s girlfriend –
She too was raised poor, got educated,  fell in love,  went to jail for protesting corruption (I guess).  Her story is very sad and degrading.  This secret police stuff has disrupted all the relationships of innocent people.

Chapter 4 -Khalid Safwan
Chatter about Egypt’s errors and next moves regarding war, alliances, economics, etc.  are constantly discussed at the cafe. One day in walks Khalid Safwan who has been mentioned from the beginning but is apparently not a regular patron of the cafe. He comes a couple times and his presence excites the patrons but he explains the situation to them and eventually joins the group.  Then he explains his own ideas.

The Translator’s Note at the end of my version has some fascinating background.