Naguib Mahfouz, born in 1911, was the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. But this belated recognition from the West was dwarfed by the legendary stature he already enjoyed in his home country, Egypt. As journalist Ben Lynfield wrote in The Christian Science Monitor last year, a café manager in Cairo told him in 2006, shortly after the writer’s death at the age of 94, that “Naguib Mahfouz gave the Nobel people the honour by accepting their award, not the other way around.”
When prefaced by such popular sentiment, the heady excitement in Arabic literary circles in 2018 on the discovery of 18 unpublished short stories by Mahfouz begins to make sense. Late last year these quirky tales were rendered into English by the Arabic scholar Roger Allen, and introduced in a preface by Turkish writer Elif Shafak. First published by Saqi Books, The Quarter made its way into India recently, courtesy Picador India, which took the bold, if somewhat risky, step of distributing it in the country.
Risky because, in spite of Mahfouz’s undoubted celebrity, these stories defy every familiar convention of plot and structure. When one of his daughters found the manuscript among his papers, there was a note attached with it, indicating that the stories were meant to be published in 1994. It was a blighted year for Mahfouz, when religious hardliners stabbed him in a bid to assassinate him for his refusal to denounce Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. There is no way for us to know if Mahfouz would have worked further on the stories, but even in the form in which they currently exist, with their varying lengths, tones and pitches, there is much literary curiosity to be gleaned from them.
Set in the eponymous “quarter”, the Gamaliya neighbourhood in old Cairo where much of Mahfouz’s best-loved novels also unfold, the stories are peopled with a distinctive cast of characters. In one story, for instance, a local madman tells a beggar one day that by nightfall, “people will surround you and rulers will come to see you!” His prophecy comes true in horrific circumstances. In another story, The Scream, Kamila sets herself on fire after learning unsavoury truths about her mother from her in-laws, and causes a terrible sensation among the neighbours. There is the deceptively titled Late Night Secret. Like a poetic outburst, it is rich with multiple meanings and metaphors. On one level, it is a straightforward story about a lover pining for a beauty, who leaves a trail of scent in her wake and vanishes from sight. And yet, in another sense, it could well be a parable about creativity, about a writer who is stuck and longing for the muse to bless him back with creativity. And then there are stories full of uncanny happenings, such as the one where the residents of the quarter are beset with inexplicable fits of weeping.
What stands out in The Quarter is Mahfouz’s playful indulgence in the shorter form, the ingenuity with which he unspools the thread of connection among his characters, but also allows the reader to forget who they are and read the stories on their individual merit. It is a salutary lesson in writing fiction without being encumbered by the outcome—setting aside worries about length, format or links between individual stories, the practicalities that are the stuff of modern publishing, considerations that hinder the free flow of talent and put the focus of attention on publicity rather than on the act of writing.
Were it not for the note with the date on it appended to the bundle of papers that is now The Quarter, it would be tempting to surmise if Mahfouz wrote these stories without any thought of publication at all. It’s true that by the time he worked on these stories, he was a star among his contemporaries, an icon to the generation of writers after him. So prolific was his output that the stories in The Quarter were but a drop in the ocean of words he wrote during his long life. Without a doubt, any thought he committed to paper would be snapped up by publishers and newspaper editors.
And yet, with all their eccentric elegance, refusal to be tamed by form, and scarce attention to commercial imperatives, the tales in The Quarter radiate an appeal that is pure in a primal sense. There is, to the rambling structures and swift movements of these tales, an aura of storytelling that goes back to the very beginning of the idea—when yarns used to be spun around crackling fires and story cycles like the Arabian Nights and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron were told aloud, with the pleasure of the listeners being the most paramount criterion.
Harking back to those ancient traditions, these “lost” stories of Mahfouz, which appeared in English weeks before the world went into the grip of the pandemic, are indeed a gift, a breath of fresh air, inventive and unfettered by staid conventions of form and commerce.