This riveting novel, more than any other I’ve read in recent memory, cemented for me…
“The manuscript of these narratives was found in a drawer with a note attached stating, ‘To be published in 1994’.”
This is what Roger Allen, long-time translator of Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, reveals in the introduction to The Quarter. He goes on to say that this was the same year that Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside his home in Cairo, following a fatwa which was issued by a Muslim cleric after Mahfouz refused to condemn The Satanic Verses – the seminal work of Mahfouz’s contemporary Salman Rushdie – to be heretical. The introduction to this recently-discovered short story collection does an immaculate job of familiarising us with the life, works, and politics of Naguib Mahfouz, and of framing these specific stories around his own life at the time that these stories should have been published.
“It all happened when the sun was high in the sky. The day was temperate and calm.”
The stories themselves all take place, as the name suggests, in a single hara, or quarter, of Cairo. It’s an anonymous district bustling with eccentric people both good and bad. There are familiar faces and places that we grow to know well, and others who float past us in a handful of pages. Transience, and the paradox of fluidity and tangibility, define this place, its stories, and its people. And even Allen himself remarks at the end of the introduction, “Since these eighteen narratives show a distinct unity of location, purpose and style, are they a complete work or merely part of what was to be a larger project that was begun but never completed? It is perhaps only appropriate that we are left with a mystery. Meanwhile, we are without a doubt grateful for this unexpected gift.”
A Perfect Microcosm
Only a man who had spent his literary career documenting through fiction the lives of Egyptian people on the ground would be confident enough to cast aside all of the rules that make the short story work as a medium, and instead provide us with eighteen narratives, often with no beginning and no end. Narratives with an average length of five pages, which typically open with a statement of tragedy, scandal, or unrest. Narratives that leave us as quickly as they arrive, demonstrating both the ever-shifting face of a neighbourhood and the cyclical rhythm of motion: there is an issue, it causes a stir, some laugh, some cry, some win, some lose, the Head of the Quarter is approached, the problem is resolved. Or it isn’t. That is the predictability, the beat of these narratives. Where they are compelling is in their content: the nature of the tragedy, and the actions of each individual.
“In spite of everything I have seen and heard, I know of no parallel to the period in our quarter’s life that has become known as ‘the black period’.”
Imagine the neighbourhood you grew up in. How easy would it be to turn each person on your street into a caricature? This, at first, is what Mahfouz seems to be doing with The Quarter. But it grows beyond that, as we start, for example, to see religious parallels between the actions of certain members of the quarter and biblical icons. We see Mahfouz being critical of his culture in certain moments, and celebratory in others. There is an admiration of Cairo and its people here, as well as a distrust in the political actions of the more powerful men of the quarter. Mahfouz came under fire in his native Egypt many times and for many reasons, as mentioned at the beginning, and it’s easy to see why, as an honest man could be so easily condemned by the dishonest powers that be. The Quarter is a demonstration of this honesty – a true depiction of the lives of Cairo’s people through surrealist caricature. An even observation of Egyptian, Arab, Muslim culture that demonstrates both adulation and cynicism.
My own favourite story came early on in the collection and is titled Pursuit. It opens with a woman who left the quarter after discovering that she has become pregnant, and then returns with a new-born baby. She then begins to sell sweets on the street outside a shop owned by the man who is the baby’s father. He refuses to have anything to do with her, complains about her to the sheikh, and begins to fall mad with anger and paranoia. The woman takes no charity and will not be moved, saying that she will “keep the baby where he can see it, so he’ll always remember his crime.” This was my absolute favourite narrative in The Quarter. It demonstrates the strength of a woman scorned, the powerlessness of a leader to condemn a woman who has committed no crime, and the fragility of a man’s ego when he is faced with his own transgression.
“One day at noontime, there was a resounding scream, one with blood-curdling depths, as it a body were being ripped apart.”
From here the stories grow in their strangeness, and yet are always entirely believable. As readers, we have no choice but to admire the strength of the Head of the Quarter as day after day he is pulled aside to deal with some crime; anything from a spat to a murder. In a later story, The Scream, a girl who has been divorced commits suicide through self-immolation. Her husband had divorced her after learning that her mother had been a brothel owner. This information had been spread by a jealous sheikh who had wanted to marry the woman but missed his chance. The corruption of power and social structure here is plain to see, and is demonstrated in other ways through many of the narratives in The Quarter.
All at once, this is a dramatic, comedic, entertaining collection of short snapshots of life in a small quarter of Cairo – and yet also it is a meditation on the complexities of power, religion, and relationships within a community. This quarter is a microcosm of 20th century Egyptian life. A temptation – a challenge – put to the reader to try and know the people of Cairo in all their darkness and their light.
There’s a kind of magic at play here, where it’s easy to imagine that nothing exists beyond the bounds of this quarter. Whenever a member of the community is described as having run off or journeyed abroad, we imagine them vanishing into empty space, as though the quarter exists in a bubble with nothing beyond it. It’s a perfect state, an absolute existence in its own right. And each person here we get to see in a fleeting moment commit a crime, give into some sin or other, or make a mistake that ripples out across the whole quarter. There’s an electric excitement to the lives of these people, as there is to the lives of all of us that’s plain to see when we stop and watch.
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