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Naguib Mahfouz: الكرنك (Al-Karnak; Karnak Café)

Mahfouz’ short novel, which has been translated twice into English, has both a familiar setting and a familiar theme for those who have read his other works. It is set primarily in the Al-Karnak café and concerns the political situation in Egypt in the 1960s. The café is owned by Qoronfola, a former successful belly dancer but now in middle age. The café is generally a happy place, where young people come and take their coffee and talk politics. One day, however, a group of them disappears and it seems that they have been arrested. Eventually, they return but the atmosphere in the café is far less jovial but gradually life resumes its course. Then they disappear again. Again they return, again there is misery and again life resumes its course. They disappear for a third time. This time, after the defeat of Egypt by Israel in 1967, they return again but one man is missing, apparently killed while in custody.

At this point, the narrator changes tack and tells the story of three of the protagonists. The first is Ismail el-Sheikh who is arrested and ill-treated. Eventually, he is brought before a senior official, Khaled Safwani, and accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he denies and he is eventually released. The next time he is arrested, he is accused of being a communist and to pressure him to talk Zeinab Diab, with whom he is in love, is brought in, and he confesses in order to spare her from being tortured. He is let go but has to be a spy for them. When he seemingly fails at that he is again arrested and only released after the 1967 war when Khaled Safwani is arrested. We follow a similar story for Zeinab Diab (who is raped in prison), while the third story-teller is Khaled Safwani, after his arrest and release, when he haunts the café.

Mahfouz tells these stories of imprisonment, brutality and political change very well and we get a clear though unpleasant picture of Egypt during that period, as well as the image of the café, symbolising Egypt, changing from a happy place to a sad one.

Publishing history

First published in 1974 by Maktabat Misr
First English translation in 1979 by York Press
Translated by Saad El-Gabalawy (1979 edition), Roger Allen (later editions)