KARNAK CAFE

KARNAK CAFÉ BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ    110 PP AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO PRESS

REVIEWER: ALAN HUNTER

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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”.  [1].

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”.  [2].

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”. [3].

“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”.  [4]. 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”. [5].  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”. [6].

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”. [7].

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”. [8].

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”. [9].

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”. [10].

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.

NOTES

  1.  Karnak  Café   pp38
  2.      Ditto             pp 43
  3.       Ditto            pp59
  4.        Ditto           pp   62
  5.        Ditto           pp     78
  6.         Ditto          pp    89
  7.         Ditto          pp      96
  8.          Ditto          pp 102
  9.          Ditto           pp  109
  10.          Ditto           pp  54

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akhenatenAKHENATEN DWELLER IN TRUTH A NOVEL BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ ANCHOR BOOKS 168 pp.

REVIEWER: LAURENCE HUMPHRIES

Naguib Mahfouz an Egyptian Novelist who died in 1972 wrote over 40 Novels, short stories and plays, a great majority of them have been translated into English and other Languages.

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Akhenaten was the ‘Heretic Pharaoh’ of the 18th dynasty who launched a revolution in Egypt by eliminating all other Egyptian gods and advocating only one god ‘The Aten or Sun God’. By this action Akhenaten sought to remove all the priests and scribes who through corruption had amassed a huge wealth which of course they kept for themselves. Much of Akhenaten’s reign and life were shrouded in mystery and many Archaeologists are split on the role he gave to ancient Egypt. The Amarna tablets recently uncovered show that there were discussions between the Mitanni and Egypt. Akhenaten took a Mitanni Princess Tadukhipa as a wife and she was the daughter of Tushratta the King of the Mitanni. In the tablets written using the first languages known Tushratta complains to Akhenaten that he has not received proper payment in gold for his daughter Tadukhipa.  In the Valley of the Kings you will find no mention of Akhenaten or his successors, Ay and his son Tutankhamun his son. Tutankhamun is famous now because of the Howard Carter excavations in the 1920. Akhenaten was a revolutionary who attacked the power of the priests and scribes who had grown rich and corrupt through the wealth of Egypt. The power of Amun is reflected in their continual dedication to him. Akhenaten attacked the temples and destroyed the temples of Amun and said there would be only one god and that was The Aten. This belief in one god would be repeated by the Jews and a small sect led by a carpenter from Nazareth called Jesus.

Mahfouz has cleverly interwoven a story of Akhenaten by using a young man called Meriamun who goes back to Amarna to discover the truth about Akhenaten’s revolutionary role. After Akhenaten had destroyed the temples and images of Amun at Thebes he moved the capital to what is known as Amarna to the north of Thebes.

Meriamun begins by interviewing all the people who knew and served under Akhenaten, some of them were his devoted followers; others were hostile to him because he had deprived them of a source of wealth. Meriamun first interviews the High Priest of Amun who shows his dislike of Akhenaten   “Akhenaten erased his name from all the monuments. He said he meant to erase the name of Amun” [1].

Ay the chief vizier is next interviewed a supporter of Akhenaten at the time but suspected of being involved in his death. “Thebes master (Akhenaten) is nothing but a den of rapacious merchants, debauchery and fornication, who are the these great priests. They delude people with superstition and take from the poor what little they have” [2]. Referring to the high priests Ay comments “He claims that he is concerned for the Empire when in fact he is only worried about his share of the goods that flow into the temple” [3].

Horembeb who would follow him as a Pharaoh would be responsible for Akhenaten’s name being removed from the list of Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. He was a commander and chief of the army.  “I despised him for his weakness and his femine appearance could not picture myself as a friend of his” [4].

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“By moving to the new capital Akhenaten declared war on all the deities” [5]. Meriamun comments. In all the wall paintings of Akhenaten and his Wife Nefertiti and their family all that is depicted is a man of peace and love.  “Beauty and Peace vanished when Akhenaten left our world” [6].

Meri-Ray, a high priest and a devoted follower of Akhenaten commented “Perhaps I was the only one who was driven out of Akhenaten by force. I refused to abandon my King. The voice of God was silenced. The temple was destroyed” [7].  Meri-Ray continues “At first he renounced all the deities, then he abolished their worship, confiscated the temples and allocated the patrimonies to the poor” [8].

Bento his physician provided a good description on how Akhenaten will be remembered in History “The fact is that Akhenaten was a very special being. He was a visionary promoting a paradise irreconcilable with human nature”. [9].

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Mahfouz has written a very sympathetic account of Akhenaten an early revolutionary, although a King sought to try and change the system from within. His attack on the priesthood as a revolutionary act, the destruction of the temples he hoped to erase their influence, but in the end Akhenaten failed. The Amun priesthood was reinstated, Akhenaten was eliminated and the power of the priests installed once again. Mahfouz has cleverly adopted a narrative style and presented a very readable story about a revolutionary in the 18th Dynasty who tried to overthrow the existing belief system .It would be left to other religious sects like Christianity and Judaism to continue the tradition. It must be pointed out that Christianity is now part of the ruling and ideological basis of Capitalism. Atenism which died in the 18th Dynasty was a revolutionary movement that for a time sought to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Akhenaten was a visionary before his time. Other Revolutionaries would follow and Egypt in the 20th Century would again have Revolutions firstly starting with the Bourgeois revolution of Nasser. Today Egypt is once again in the midst of revolutionary upheavals and it will be the Working Class that will now overthrow Imperialism and Capitalism.

NOTES

  1.  Akhenaten  Dweller in Truth A Novel of Ancient Egypt  pp 13
  2.   Ditto                                                       Ditto                        pp30
  3.    Ditto                                                       Ditto                        pp 37&50
  4.    Ditto                                                        Ditto                        pp 57
  5.     Ditto                                                        Ditto                        pp  64
  6.      Ditto                                                        Ditto                        pp  103
  7.       Ditto                                                        Ditto                       pp107
  8.        Ditto                                                       Ditto                      pp   107
  9.        Akhenaten Dweller in Truth      A Novel of Ancient Egypt  pp138