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Review | The book of laughter and loneliness: Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Quarter’

City stories: Cairo in the 19th century.

City stories: Cairo in the 19th century.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Mahfouz’s tales lie like little glowing embers in a warm hearth; we pick them up and blow on them and they spark to life in our heads

Writers who have spread the fragrance of joy and wisdom in this grief-ridden world of ours” — the phrase could well have been written about the late Naguib Mahfouz, but it is actually what Mahfouz said, with characteristic generosity, about other writers in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the transcript of which is included at the back of this new book.

Mahfouz in the speech goes on to speak of the great Pharaonic civilisation, choosing not its pyramids and carvings but the story of an ancient Pharaoh who, when asked to award instant punishment to some people, asked instead for the truth to be investigated before he delivered justice. This, says Mahfouz, is a far greater sign of civilisation than conquests or statuary. At a time when a nation’s Prime Minister has said that troublemakers can be identified by their clothes, these words spoken in 1988 ring loud today.

Committed to optimism

The speech is a powerful one, demanding that intellectuals“exert themselves to cleanse humanity of moral pollution”; granting with conviction the task of torch-bearing to that much-maligned breed. Mahfouz speaks of Africa, Palestine, the “moans of

Review | The book of laughter and loneliness: Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Quarter’

mankind” that must be heard. Yet, this collection of stories, so unexpectedly discovered among his old papers, does not hint at any despair. As the speech hints, the writer of these stories is someone clearly “committed to optimism”. And so, each story unfolds with parable-like simplicity; indeed, to say that they ‘unfold’ is to impute too great a complication. The tales merely are; they lie like little glowing embers in a warm hearth. We pick them up and blow on them and they spark to life in our heads.

In these 18 tales, Mahfouz returns to the quarter, the hara, a tiny, self-contained urban unit whose inhabitants are all familiar with each other; where there is a baker, a beggar, a merchant, the imam and the sheikh-al-hara, the quarter’s administrative head, the doctor and the police chief. There is a mosque and a fort and a cellar or qabw near it; there are ghosts and visions and mysterious voices. There are petty crimes and major tragedies; justice is sometimes served and sometimes not. The hara, in short, serves as a microcosm of the larger world around it.


The quarter had become the site for his fiction by the 1940s, but it was the publication of The Cairo Trilogy that catapulted Mahfouz to fame as a draughtsman of the minutiae of urban life. Then, by the 1980s, Mahfouz’s fiction, while still set in the quarter, became increasingly symbolical, allegorical and economical, often containing charged political commentary. These stories thus could date to the later stage of his writing, as translator Roger Allen concludes, each one zen-like in allusiveness and brevity.

In the two pages that the story ‘Shaikhun’ occupies, for instance, a young man leaves the quarter and returns after many years. His long absence and sudden return are enough to confer upon him a status of exaltation. He smiles mysteriously, he speaks words of wisdom, he becomes a ‘saint’. Until he is discovered and taken back by the officials of the asylum from which he has escaped. With the minimalism of a Kabir doha, Mahfouz conveys the eager gullibility of a people eternally seeking the crutches of a saviour.

Sufi thought

In ‘Bad Luck’ the unlucky Hassan has been married thrice, and each time the woman has died. Now nobody will give him a bride. Then Sunbula enters the household as servant to his mother. She is not beautiful, and he is not attracted, but she responds to Hassan and that is enough for him. Then he treats her badly and she rejects him, saying she has enough misery of her own. Hassan replies, “So have I. Each of us needs the other.” In 600-odd words, less than the length of a newspaper column, Mahfouz packs in grief and cruelty, loneliness and compromise.

Mahfouz was deeply interested in Sufi thought and it is clear that these narratives are modelled along the lines of Sufi aphorisms. The writer takes each story and hones and polishes it until it’s shorn of every excess, and gleams smooth and bare like a pebble from a riverbed. It is fascinating to see a writer refining his prose to such a fine intensity that he begins to cavil even at an excess of words, the very tools of his craft.

Each narrative acts like a koan, leaving the writer with a question or a paradox or a mystery that doesn’t yield easily to reason or logic. Instead, it demands that we turn it over in our minds, come up with our own answers, and chances are each reader might arrive at a different one. And that is as it should be.

Just like the sudden epidemic of weeping that breaks out in the quarter in ‘Your Lot in Life’ and ends, just as suddenly, with an outbreak of laughter, life is inexplicable. And wondrous. And Mahfouz seems to suggest that nothing more is asked of us really than that we live it with honesty.

The Quarter; Naguib Mahfouz, trs Roger Allen, Pan Macmillan India, ₹500

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 9:55:13 AM |

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