Naguib Mahfouz is arguably one of the writers that shaped contemporary Egyptian literature as we know it today. Till date, he is the first and only Arab writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1988. With a career that spanned over 70 years, he published many novels, plays, op-eds and short stories before his death in 2006. In 2019, as if leaving behind a gift, some of his unpublished short stories were discovered by his daughter and later in September, Saqi Books published the English translation of those stories as a collection called The Quarter.
Each story in this book is set in the bustling Gamaliya quarter in Cairo, Egypt, and for readers that are familiar with Mahfouz’s oeuvre; that is another indication of his penchant for highlighting ‘communality’ in his writings. However, Mahfouz’s writing style in The Quarter is the antithesis of the styles with which he wrote his other books: instead of dedicating substantial parts of each story to describing the scenery where each story played out, he plunges directly into the story. The results of which are stories that are no more than seven pages long- with the shortest being only two pages -yet, still effectively delivered.
Although the vignettes feature different characters living in or returning to the Gamaliya quarter, the quarter isn’t the only fixed variable in book. Two characters, the shaykh al-hara, the head of the quarter, and the imam, the religious figure, are constant through the narratives and often are put in positions where they have to make sense of the goings-on in the quarter.
Another interesting but inanimate variable in this book is the qabw (cellar). The qabw is a focal point for many of the narratives for the simple reason that the characters who live in or have visited it, ends up having encounters with an ‘unseen force’. This unseen force contributes significantly to the overall delivery of many of the vignettes in The Quarter.
In the opening entry, ‘The Oven”, Mahfouz introduces the reader to Ayousha, the beautiful daughter of a rich merchant, Amm Jumaa, who runs off with Zeinhum, a baker’s boy. Quickly, the reader is made privy to the common practice of equating a woman’s conduct to her family’s honor when the narrator tells us that “Ayousha has now knocked her father off his pedestal of decency and respect”. The reader also gets a taste of gossiping: which inevitably follows a scandal like that in any neighborhood so that even when the reader isn’t familiar with Egyptian quarters, they can invariably relate to the atmosphere of the story.
Another vignette that features this harmful view of women’s conducts is ‘The Scream’ and it highlights the brilliance of Mahfouz’s new writing style in this collection. ‘The Scream’ opens with “a resounding scream” whose description takes up half of the first page. After this scream, the reader finds the story of Kamila, a lovely girl who immolates herself on the same day she was divorced. The cause of the divorce is a secret about Kamila’s life that she was unaware of but that somehow found its way to her husband. Sheikh Abu al-Makarim, the husband, quickly proclaimed the divorce because “he felt utterly humiliated his traditional sense of dignity insulted” by this secret, even while aware of Kamila’s ignorance of the said secret. In two shorts sentences at the end of the story, Mahfouz reveals the culprit behind the spread of this secret, his motive, and how Kamila’s scream echoed the punishment of his crime. The reader is bound to miss the significance of the scream’s lengthy description until later on in the story- and that is the brilliance this writing style.
Some stories, like ‘Our Father Igwa’ subtly tackles the issue of ageism in Egyptian societies and others like ‘Tawhida’ show the reader the “peerless beauty” in assimilating the good from other cultures (western cultures) without relegating one’s own (Egyptian culture) to the sidelines.
In the entries where he uses the “unseen force” trope, Mahfouz makes sure to add varieties to how this force manifests in the quarter. So that in ‘Your Lot in Life’, the reader sees an “unusual phenomenon” that causes the inhabitants of the quarter to break out into never-ending wails. The shaykh al-hara is summoned to investigate the phenomenon and the interactions that ensued amongst the inhabitants shows that many of them shy away from talking about the tragedies they’ve encountered in their lives. In this narration, Mahfouz adroitly teaches the reader that sharing one’s experiences might be the first step towards happiness because it is in a way, coming to terms with one’s lot in life.
Another vignette, “Son of the Quarter”, makes better use of the ‘unknown force’ trope. Here, a man, simply called ‘Son of the Quarter’ began hearing a deep voice in the qabw, where he has made his home. He rose to the fame of sainthood when he uses the knowledge given to him by the voice to save a man from a falling rock. But then the voice began targeting more powerful but corrupt inhabitants. After incurring many beatings for speaking the truth obtained from the voice to power, the Son of the Quarter’s actions catalyzes an event that broke people out of their apathy towards the corruptions of their elites.
“Nabqa in the Old Fort” is similar to “Son of the Quarter” in its use of the “unseen force” to address corruption. Here, Nabqa, a water-seller’s son, also begins to accuse important people of moral and financial wrongdoings, after a visit to the qabw. But in this vignette, the readers see how the shaykh al-hara and the imam used their positions of power to silence Nabqa. They accuse him of “disrespecting the law” and “spreading heresy” and these accusations mirror some of the ones that social and political activists are branded with in Egyptian societies. So while Mahfouz switched up his writing style in this collection, he did not stop his constructive criticism of his society.
In addition to the eighteen vignettes, The Quarter also contains Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; an introduction from award-winning author, Elif Shafak; an explanatory foreword from translator, Roger Allen and the original Arabic manuscripts for four of the stories.
The Quarter by Naguib Mahfouz is indeed a bundle of unexpected literary gifts that the contemporary literary world is grateful for.