CAIRO: It’s hard to approach Naguib Mahfouz’s Karnak Café without remembering Ali Badrakhan’s harrowing 1975 film adaptation of this book about Nasser-era Egypt and our 1967 defeat to Israel.
This short, but powerful book is, as translator Roger Allen describes in his Translator’s Afterword, clearly one of the Nobel Laureate’s angriest and most explicit works of fiction.
Through conversations with the narrator we get to know the main characters, whose experiences illustrate the events that led to 1967 and their impact on an entire generation that called themselves the children of the revolution, referring to the 1952 socialist military coup to overthrow the king and rid Egypt of the British once and for all.
Like Mahfouz’s “Miramar, another highly symbolic work which critiques post-revolutionary Egypt, “Karnak Café is divided into chapters named after the various protagonists.
The setting is a café owned by former belly dancer Qurunfula.
The narrator chances upon the café and, recognizing the star of Imad al-din, Cairo’s nightclub district, he becomes a regular and through the years gets to know the others: university students Hilmi Hamada (Qurunfula’s lover), Ismail al-Shaykh and his sweetheart Zaynab Diyab and a handful of older men including an ex-civil servant, now a barman, a state official, a bootblack and a waiter.
One day, in this microcosm of Egyptian society, the three young students, who were always engaged in heated political debates, disappear for months. When they return, their spirits broken, the narrator tells Qurunfula: “Lets assume at this time that this café is one gigantic ear, and they try to steer clear of politics.
But the name Khalid Safwan, who we learn is the intelligence officer who had ordered their multiple arrest and torture, seems to haunt their gatherings.
Describing both their outward appearance and their inner torment when they return from their first detainment, the narrator says: “Their expressions were sad and cynical; at the corner of their mouths there lurked a suppressed anger. Once the conversation had warmed up a bit, these outward signs of hidden feelings would dissipate . however once the veil was lifted all that remained was a sense of languor and retreat from society.
The narrator’s conversations with Ismail and Zaynab reveal how in an autocracy a friend can be forced to become an informer and how lovers become alienated.
The political discussions before and after the 1967 defeat expose the stark choices Egyptians had in its aftermath. As Allen analyzes it, the short war proved that the entire authority structure in the Arab world “had been caught red-handed in the act of systematically lying for the entire six-day course of the conflict.
“Our entire world had gone through the trauma of the June war, Ismail tells the narrator, “now it was emerging from the initial daze of defeat. I found the entire social arena abuzz with phantoms, tales, stories, rumors and jokes. The general consensus was that we had been living through the biggest lie in our entire lives . My belief in everything was completely shattered.
One of the most intense and shocking chapters was the one with Zaynab who confesses that she was raped while she was in prison as a political detainee.
That scene was regarded as symbolic of the rape of Egypt during the pre-1967 era.
When she was released, she began to sell her body
For the most part, Allen’s translation captures the emotion of the characters. But, native Arabic speakers will immediately gather that in crucial scenes he failed to elicit the compassion one feels when reading the original text.
Be sure to read the Afterword, though, especially Allen’s critique of Badrakhan’s film, which he described as an example of rampant political exploitation.
Since the film was made in the early years of Sadat’s rule, following the 1973 6th of October victory, Allen says that in this historical context, the film intentionally cast a massive shadow across Nasser’s presidency by manipulating the sentiments of its viewers, not least by that unforgettable rape scene.
Karnak Café, 99 pagesBy Naguib MahfouzTranslated by Roger AllenAmerican University in Cairo Press, 2007