KARNAK CAFÉ BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ 110 PP AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO PRESS
REVIEWER: ALAN HUNTER
This is a modern Novel by Mahfouz situated during the aftermath of the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel in which Egypt was defeated. Mahfouz who was not a supporter of Nasser, but nevertheless constructs a narrative tale about four young people caught up in the aftermath of the crisis. He uses a narrator who is nameless to recount the four tales and splits the book up accordingly. It is a very clever way of writing a novel by splitting the chapters up into segments representing different people.
Roger Allen the Translator comments on how Mahfouz has written the Novel “the political discussions both before and after the 1967 defeat and the stark choices facing Egyptian people in its aftermath are all portrayed with disarming accuracy”. .
We start the tale with Qurunfula who is the female owner of the café who is in love with Hilmi Hamada one of the young persons involved and a communist. There is a background of unease after the defeat of 1967, the state’s secret police is rounding up people who they think have not supported the 1967 War and are critical of Nasser and his government. “Once they had all recovered from the blow of the June 1967 defeat they all started talking, bit by bit about a struggle on the broadest possible scale”. .
Mahfouz uses the Café as a starting point to explain first the disappearance of the four young people and what they experience when they are arrested. Most of them are supporters of the 1952 Nasser Revolution, but the secret police feel that they need some casualties and they start rounding people up torturing them and trying to beat confessions out of them.
As Ismail al Shayk explains “My only allegiance is to the July 1952 revolution. I’ve considered Egyptian history as really beginning on 23rdJuly 1952”. .
“It was a bitter experience for him, as a result he came to totally distrust a government agency namely the secret police and his belief in the state itself and the revolution remained rock solid and unshaken”. . Al-Shaykh is in love with Zaynab Dijab another young person who is arrested and tortured and shown the body of Hilmi Hadda murdered by the secret police in his cell. She like Al-Shaykh is forced to spy in return for lenient treatment. “So that is the way he emerged from his prison an informer with a fixed salary and a tortured conscience”. . Al-Shaykh shows that , although they supported the Revolution the role of the secret police and their activities would destroy any support they had for the revolution. Al-Shakh and Zaynab’s relationship would be broken as a result of their spying activity. “From this point on our belief in the Revolution were contaminated by a deep seated anger”. .
Zaynab’s had a similar experience as Al-Shaykh, but any meaningful relationship was destroyed by the actions of the state and their secret police. Khalid Safran the interrogator and in a sense a villain explains to Zaynab the role of the secret police in protecting the revolution. “We are here to protect the revolution and that’s much more important than the few isolated mistakes we may happen to make.You will be leaving here a brand new boon-friendship”. .
The bourgeois nationalist revolution now turned to use the tactics of Stalinism, the counter revolutionary clique that emerged in the USSR after the revolution and consigned thousands of revolutionaries to the gulags and concentration camps leading to murders and massacres.
Mahfouz invests the interrogator with his own thoughts on the 1952 revolution and shows how the role of the secret police will alter honourable people by using them as informers and state spies.
Safran is the realist who himself finds himself interrogated imprisoned and finally released. It is a cynical unprincipled Safran who reveals the truth of the matter.Malhfouz invests him with an anti-hero status.
“We’ve been defeated and now we have to pay the price. We should leave the rest of it for the future”. .
Khalid, the realist reflects the views of Mahfouz in his final comment “Thirdly we have to rely on the principles of freedom, public opinion and respect for all our fellow human beings”. .
Mahfouz in this important political novel lays all the problems and contradictions that faced Egyptian society then and now. As Allen comments “It was not merely the scale of the defeat and the loss of land that had such an impact on people but equally if not more important the fact that the entire authority structure of the Arab World had been caught red handed in the act of systematically lying for the entire six day war”. .
Mahfouz by retelling a story involving young idealists shows the contradictions, splits and divisions and how the state by terror and imprisonment hoped to atone for its defeat. All it showed is that lies and deceit will be discovered. Mahfouz a reformist in outlook in the end has no solution. Egypt today racked by another brutal army dictatorship can only attain socialism through the construction of a Revolutionary Trotskyist party, any other road is doomed to defeat as reflected in Mahfouz’s novel, although perceptive has no answers for the solution. The 4 people however principled are thoroughly demoralised and destroyed. Without a scientific and materialist method to guide them they will remain lost and bewildered.
This is never less an important political novel and I would recommend it to all of our readers.
- Karnak Café pp38
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