Few people have described at the same time in a very personal and so universal way, the Cairo from the 20th century. We are talking about the Egyptian writer who was born in Egypt in 1911 and died in the same city in 2006, and the one who surely is one of the most representative exponents of the contemporary prose written in Arabic language.
In his novels, common themes like in all human societies can be found, such as love, politics, betrayal, friendship…He talk about the things naturally, but the number of issues he dealt with at the same time gave him some trouble. In fact, in 1994 he was a victim of a terrorist attack that left him seriously injured. He even described the universality of love up to the limit of astonishment, like some of the main characters in his work do: when a man saw another man attractive then he could realize that he had an identical sister; or how the wife was limited in the jealous atmosphere of the most traditional and well-off families while the husband lived with the licence and hypocrisy within them. However, what he was transmiting in every word was the passion he felt for his city, despite all the defects he could find in it (which society has not?), and an ideal of values, when achieved, would not allow such higher quality literary works.
His most famous work is a trilogy that tells the story of a Cairo bourgeois family during interwar period. Palace walk, Palace of desire and Sugar street are the titles of this triple novel that provided him of world fame and justified his Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. By this, the literature written in Arabic acquired an excellent ambassador showing that the reality of Muslim-majority countries could be as universal as the Christian majority ones.
Le llamó la atención la presencia de algunos grupos de jóvenes sheijs, estudiantes del instituto religioso, que se dirigían a sus centros vestidos con sus túnicas negras y los turbantes blancos. Esta imagen le recordó “las palomitas de maíz” friéndose en una sartén. Naguib Mahfuz. Jan Aljalili. 1946.
I would, however, emphasise his book Khan El-Khalili. The most historic Islamic district of Cairo names a novel which describes the popular and bourgeois realities of Cairo during World War II. Intense life during those years become the framework and the background of this work, both aspects losing importance throughout the story while personal drama, at the end, overshadows the context. The war marks the character life though they often are unaware that they are part of geopolitical and military strategies. The chapters dialogue with one another from the most familiar reality to the most international one, through neighborhood and national issues. Naguib Magfuz has time, in his pages, to describe the neighborhood and its people, their customs and their misfortunes, and if you have ever visited the current Cairo (or lived in big cities like Naples or Barcelona), for sure you will find very familiar things. But it also has time to describe the long coffee conversations in which he allows us to glance at his political opinion through several characters that have different dialectic aptitude.
¿No se les ha ocurrido, por ejemplo, proclamar el principio de igualdad entre los campesinos y los animales? Según los dueños de los campos, es algo indiscutible que los animales tienen derecho a alimentarse, a tener abrigo y tener salud. Los campesinos ni siquiera tienen ese derecho. Naguib Mahfuz. Jan Aljalili. 1946.
One possible medicine to our ignorance towards south shore as a north shore, where so many people are selfconsidered of an anti-Islamic nature, is, without any doubt, to read Naguib Magfuz. In fact, the 20th century and ours are anything but different, unfortunately, even antagonisms are increasingly worsening in recent years. Perhaps when we realize this barbarity, it will be too late.
Translation: Paola López Colom
Original article: Gabino Martinez Muñoz