Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Khan al-Khalil, published in 1945, is set two years earlier, during the second world war, with the campaign in north Africa ongoing and the Germans bombing the city of Cairo. The story begins with Ahmad Akif, a civil servant, leaving his work place and heading to the new apartment he has moved himself and his parents into. Following on from a particularly heavy night of shelling, Ahmad’s father insisted that they move away from their area of Sakakini to the lower class area of Khan al-Khalil, next to the mosque of al-Hussein, which the father believes will protect them. Also, the father argues the Germans will not bomb “the heart of Islam” when they are trying to court Muslim public opinion. This proves not to be the case in the next few nights, when they regularly have to go to the bomb shelters. The father’s unfounded optimism is ironically highlighted in the end of the opening chapter, when Ahmed prays this new home will be a blessed home, just before a voice from the street cries out “God curse the wordl!”
Ahmad is not too pleased about the move however he does what he feels to be his duty, which sums up his character – a rather dour and humorless one, but with strict notions of duty. Ahmad is not a sympathetic character; he has pretensions of being an intellectual, and secretly resents the fact that he was forced to go into a job without many prospects straight after school due to his father’s forced early retirement, putting his younger brother Rushdi through college and supporting his family. In the first few days following on from the move, he gets to know the residents of the area, who meet in the Zahra cafe to discuss politics and the unfairness of living in ”a nation of beggars and a handful of millionaires,” among many other topics.
The discussions in the café are I think the most interesting parts of the book. As this review notes,
The men that Ahmad spends time with at the Zahra Cafe are constantly debating politics and ideas. Some are sympathetic to Hitler and the Germans, some to the Russians, but most are not fond of the British, who occupied Egypt from the 1880s until the 1930s.
It is in the cafe that Ahmad’s intellectual philosophizing is dashed by a younger man, Ahmad Rashed with pretensions of his own, who cites European figures rather than those Ahmad is familiar with. At one point, Ahmed recites poetry by Ibn al-Mutaz to prove a point, and Ahmad Rashed, takes him to task for looking to the past for answers and ignoring the present.
One of the most amusing parts of the book for me was the discussion about “modern” music, with moderns identified as Um Kulthum and Abd al Wahab, and the traditional being Munira, (sample of music) and Abd al Hay. Young Ahmad Rashed of course likes foreign music, to which Ahmad Akif quotes Ibn Khaldun on the ruled mimicking their rulers (taqleed almahkumin lilhakimeen). The two Ahmads represent tose who cling to a fading past and those who want to usher in a forerign future:
Ahmad Akif objects: But the past has prophets.
Ahmed Rashed retorts: Today has its prophets too.
The discussion moves onto religion, with the young Ahmed Rashed asking what the point of the superstition of religion is in the modern age. Nunu, who has the catch-phrase ”God curse the world” is another anti-theist, as he tells Ahmad: ”obedience and sinning are like day and night, not possible to seperate. Or are you a Hanbali?”
Ahmad Akif attempts to join this group of people by getting into their hashish circle and fails in that endeavor, but is happy to be one of the cafe-goer’s, finally, in the fourth decade of his life. He also meets a young woman, Nawal, who he begins to dream of marrying, although their exchanges don’t go further than sign language through the window.
Later on in the novel, Rushdi, who was sent to work in Assiut, returns to Cairo. The younger, more handsome brother has a room next to Ahmad’s and his room faces Nawal’s as well. Predictably, it is Rushdi gets the girl – but here the novel falls straight into melodrama, as Rushdi contracts a debilitating sickness and fades away. The novel ends however, not neatly, with Ahmad and Nawal reunited, but with an awkward silence between them, and the family packing up to leave: Farewell, Khan el Khalili, the last sentence reads.
And here is the novel as audio book.