Book review: The Quarter, by Naguib Mahfouz

The skyline of Cairo as seen through a window of the Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo's Citadel PIC: Ed Giles/Getty Images
The skyline of Cairo as seen through a window of the Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo's Citadel PIC: Ed Giles/Getty Images
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As a general rule, it’s best to treat manuscripts “discovered” after the death of an author with a certain amount of scepticism. The chances of turning up an unpublished classic in this way are vanishingly slim, not least because there are very few circumstances in which an author in search of a paycheque would go to the trouble of writing a great work of literature, only to then lock it away in a cupboard and allow it to remain there gathering dust. The case of this collection of short stories by Naguib Mahfouz, however, who became the first Egyptian writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, is exceptional in more ways than one.

As translator Roger Allan explains in his introduction, the 18 stories in this volume came to light in 2018, when the Egyptian journalist Mohammed Shoair was in the process of writing a book about Mahfouz’s novel Awlad Haratina (literally “The Children of Our Quarter.”) In the course of his correspondence with Mahfouz’s daughter, Umm Kulthoum, Shoair learned that these stories had been discovered in a drawer with a note on the top saying simply “to be published in 1994.” To say the date is significant would be an understatement: in 1994 Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck in a failed assassination attempt after the so called “blind sheikh” Omar Abdul-Rahman issued a fatwah against him because he had failed to condemn Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

So – did Mahfouz decide that these stories should remain unpublished because, following the attack, he was afraid they would inflame the situation further? On the one hand, many of the characters appear to be archetypes, and Allen points out that Mahfouz had form for using the denizens of the quarter in a “highly symbolic fashion,” notably in Alwad Haratina, which first appeared in serial form in the Cairene newspaper Al-Ahram, and was condemned by Al-Azhar, the major centre for Muslim Sunni scholarship in the Egyptian capital.

On the other hand, however, Mahfouz was such a prolific writer that he sometimes seemed uncommonly unbothered about what happened to his work. Allen tells the story of the time in April 1952 when he went to see his publisher, Abd al-Hamid Jawdat al-Sahhar, with the 1,500-plus page manuscript for his famous Cairo Trilogy. When al-Sahhar baulked at the size of the book, Mahfouz left the office leaving the only copy behind. (Happily, Al-Sahar subsequently published it in three volumes in 1956 and 1957.)

We will probably never know why the stories in The Quarter were never published during Mahfouz’s lifetime, and it’s hard to see how speculation could prove fruitful. What we are left with, then, are the texts themselves, and the question of whether or not it was a good idea to release them into the world when their author apparently decided not to.

Some of the stories are so slight that they feel like little more than grim, extended jokes at the expense of those at the bottom of the pecking order of Cairo street life. In “Namla’s Prophecy,” for example, Namla, “the local madman” stops a beggar, Haraq, and tells him he has good news: “people will surround you, and rulers will come to see you!” Later the same night, Haraq drops down dead, a crowd gathers round his body and the authorities show up: “the police officer, the chief prosecutor and the official doctor.”

Other stories, though, have more substance to them, and are more specific in the way they attack the inequitable power structures that are the root causes of many people’s pain. “The Scream,” for example, begins with “Kamila, the lovely girl who had been divorced at noontime that very day” dousing herself in petrol and setting herself on fire. Then the author rewinds slowly through the events that led up to that moment, until we understand that Kamila’s husband had divorced her after learning that her mother ran a brothel, and that this information had been passed on by a jealous sheikh who had once wanted to marry her. Whether or not such implicit challenges to the status quo are the reason these stories remained hidden away for so long, there is no denying their intensity. - Roger Cox

The Quarter, by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allan, Saqi, 103pp, £10.99