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Naguib Mahfouz: المرايا (Mirrors)

This book is clearly a mixture of fact and fiction. It presents vignettes of fifty-five Egyptians, some real, many not, though clearly many of the fictional portraits are based on real people. His portraits give us a variegated picture of Cairo from the 1940s to the 1960s. Is it a novel? Mahfouz said not but it has been called a novel and many of the stories are linked and refer to other characters in the book. It could be boring but it is not. There is a lot of dialogue – Mahfouz talks to many of them. They are linked to their place of residence. We learn through his descriptions a lot about the history of Egypt of the period. And they do differ. Some are upbeat while some clearly are not. Some are good people while a few are less so. And, of course, though Egyptian, they are humans and have many of the problems and concerns that people the world over have. The key event for many of them, Mahfouz included, is the 1967 war with Israel and this war colours many of the stories but there are other losses suffered by some of the characters. In the hands of a lesser writer it could have been tiresome but Mahfouz really does make a coherent novel out of it.

Publishing history

First published in 1971 by Maktabat Misr
First English translation in 1977 by Bibliotheca Islamica, Minneapolis
Translated by Roger Allen