At a Cairo cafÃ©, a cross-section of Egyptian society, young and old, rich and poor, are drawn together by the quality of its coffee and the allure of its owner, legendary former dancer Qurunfula. When three of the young patrons disappear for prolonged periods, the older customers display varying reactions to the news. On their return, they recount horrific stories of arrest and torture at the hands of the secret police, and the habituÃ©s of the cafÃ© begin to withdraw from each other in fear, suspecting that there is an informer among them. With the nighttime arrests and the devastation of the country s defeat in the 1967 War, the cafÃ© is transformed from a haven of camaraderie and bright-eyed idealism to an atmosphere charged with mounting suspicion, betrayal, and crushing disillusionment. Exposing the dark underbelly of ideology, and delving into the idea of the necessary evils of social upheaval, Karnak CafÃ© remains one of the Nobel laureate's most pointedly critical works, as relevant and incisive today as it was when it was first published in 1971.
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ROGER ALLEN is professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his translations are Naguib Mahfouzs Mirrors (AUC Press, 1999) and Bensalem Himmichs The Polymath (AUC Press, 2000).
QurunfulaIt was sheer chance that brought me to the Karnak Cafe. One day I'd made my way to al-Mahdi Street to get my watch repaired; the job was going to take several hours, so I had to wait. To kill the time I decided to look at all the watches, jewelry, and trinkets on display in the store windows on both sides of the street. And that's how I came to stumble across the cafe.It's very small and off the main street. Since that day it's become my favorite place to sit and pass the time. To tell you the truth, at first I hesitated by the entrance for a moment, but then I spotted a woman sitting on a stool by the cash register, the usual spot for the manageress. You could tell she was getting old, and yet she still had vestiges of her former beauty. Those clear, refined features of hers jogged something buried deep in my memory. All of a sudden the images came flooding back. I could hear music and drums. I was sitting there watching a gorgeous body swaying from side to side; the air was permeated by the aroma of incense. A dancer, that's what she was. Yes, the star of 'Imad al-Din, none other than Qurunfula herself! Now there she was sitting on the stool, Qurunfula in person, the roseate dream from the 1940s.So that was how I came to enter the Karnak Cafe. I felt drawn in by some obscure magic force and a carefree heart, and all because of someone who had never even heard of me. We had never had any kind of relationship, whether of affection, self-interest, or simply courtesy. At one time she had been a real star, whereas I was just one of her contemporaries. The admiring glances that I directed at her still-glorious figure seemed to have absolutely no effect on her, and I did not feel I had any reason to go over and say hello. So I just took a seat and started looking around the cafe.It seemed to consist simply of one large room, but it was all neat and tidy. There was wallpaper on the walls, and the chairs and tables looked new; mirrors all around and colored lamps as well. The plates, dishes, and cups looked clean. All in all, its attractions as a place to sit were pretty irresistible. Every time the opportunity arose, I stared long and hard at Qurunfula. The bewitching femininity of her earlier days was long gone, of course, along with the bloom of youth, but in their place there was an enigmatic kind of beauty, accentuated by a sorrowful expression that touched your heart. Her body was still lithe and svelte, and gave the impression that she could still be lively and energetic when need be. And with it all there was a sense of a carefully controlled inner strength, the result of many years of experience and work. The carefree mood that she exuded was totally captivating. Her glances would take in the entire establishment and kept the wine-steward, waiter, and cleaner on their toes. For the relatively few regulars at the cafe she showed tremendous affection; the place was so small that they all seemed like a single family. There were three old men who may have been in retirement, another middle-aged man, and a group of younger people, including a very pretty girl.All this made me feel out of place. I certainly was feeling happy enough, but still I got the impression that somehow I was intruding. Good God, I told myself, I really like this place. The coffee is excellent, the water is pure, and the cups and glasses are models of cleanliness. Beyond that, there's that sweetness about Qurunfula, the respectability of those old men, and the lively atmosphere that those young people over there bring in, not to mention the pretty girl. It's right in the middle of the big city, just the place for a wanderer like me to relax for a while. Here you get to sense past and present in a warm embrace, the sweet past and glorious present. To top it all, there is that enticement that the unknown brings. There I was, needing to have my watch repaired, and now I find myself succumbing to a multi-faceted infatuation! Very well then, Karnak Cafe can be my haven of rest and relaxation whenever time permits.At that moment I had a very agreeable surprise. Qurunfula apparently decided to walk over and welcome me as a new customer. She left her chair and came toward me. She was wearing dark blue slacks and a white blouse."I'm pleased to see you here," she said, standing right in front of me.We shook hands, and I thanked her for her welcome."Did you like the coffee?" she asked."Very much," I replied truthfully, "an excellent blend."She smiled contentedly and stared at me for a moment. "I get the impression," she went on, "that you remember me from before. Am I right?""Yes," I replied, "who could ever forget Qurunfula?""But can you remember what I really did for art?""Certainly, you were the first to modernize belly dancing.""Have you ever heard or read about anyone who acknowledges that fact?""Sometimes nations are afflicted with a corporate loss of memory," I replied, feeling awkward, "but it never lasts for- ever.""That's all very well," she replied, "but those are empty words.""To the contrary, what I just said is absolutely true." I was eager to get out of this tight corner, so I went on, "I wish you a very happy life. That's what's most important."She laughed. "Thus far," she said, "the conclusion seems to be a happy one." With that she turned away and went back to her chair, but not before she bade me farewell with the words, "But only God knows the unseen!"So we got to know each other; it was that simple. It turned into a new friendship, one that gave me then and has continued to give me much pleasure. It was new in one sense, and yet behind it there were other features that went back thirty years or more. Our meetings and conversations continued and indeed blossomed till a bond of genuine affection was established.One day it occurred to me that she may have been a brilliant and gorgeous dancer, yet at the same time she had always been respectable."You were a wonderful dancer," I told her, "but you still managed to keep your respectability. Wasn't that some kind of miracle?""Before me belly dancing involved the three b's: belly, bosom, and buttocks," she responded proudly. "I turned it into something more tasteful.""How did you manage that?""I made sure never to miss the dancing soirees at al-Bargula." She shook her head suggestively. "On the matter of respectability," she went on, "I made it a matter of public knowledge that I would never consent to any relationship which didn't involve genuine love, nor would I make love with anyone if there was no question of marriage.""And that was it?" I asked in amazement."If respectability has a public face," she replied with a laugh, "that's enough, isn't it?"I nodded in agreement. She muttered something that I couldn't hear, then continued, "True love will always give a relationship a legitimacy that is hard to fault.""So that's why no magazine ever dragged your name through the mud.""That's right, not even the worst of them.""Even so, there were a lot of men whose lives went downhill over you.""Yes," she replied with a sigh, "nightlife is filled with personal tragedies.""I can still remember the tale of that Finance Ministry official.""Shhhh!" she interrupted with a whisper. "Do you mean 'Arif Sulayman? He's over there, just a few yards away from you. He's the steward behind the bar!"I sneaked a look in his direction as he stood there in his usual spot. He looked paunchy, and his hair had turned white; his expression was downtrodden and submissive.Qurunfula obviously noticed how astonished I looked. "It's not the way you imagine," she said. "He wasn't a victim of mine; he was a victim of his own weakness."With that she told me a story that sounded quite normal. He had been absolutely crazy about her, but she had never given him the slightest encouragement. He had never had enough money to hang around the dancehall all the time, so he had started dipping his hand into the state's coffers. Among all the other customers he had looked like some rich heir, but she had never taken a single penny from him. The only relationship they had had was firmly based on the regulations and traditions of nightclubs. But matters had not proceeded very far before he was caught red-handed; he had been taken to court and given a prison sentence."It was a tragedy, sure enough," she said, "but it wasn't my fault. Years later he came out of prison. He showed up at the very same nightclub and told me that his life was in ruins. I felt sorry for the man and not a little anxious as well. I spoke to the club owner on his behalf and got him a job as a waiter. Once I stopped dancing and opened this cafe, I decided to hire him as wine-steward. He does a very good job.""Didn't his old infatuation sometimes get the better of him?" I asked, stroking my moustache."Oh yes, it did," she replied. "When he was a waiter at the nightclub, he kept on harassing me. That got him a really nasty beating. At the time I was married to a real elephant of a man who was a champion weight lifter. One year later, he married a dancer in one of the theater troupes; they're still married and have seven daughters. Today I think he's happy and successful enough. . . ." With that she dissolved into laughter. "These days we occasionally decide to exchange a love-kiss.""Thus is the past forgotten.""Then it happened that one of his former colleagues got an unexpected promotion to the rank of under-secretary in the Finance Ministry. That made him feel a real sense of grievance; he wanted to take revenge on the entire world. However, along came the 1952 Revolution, and his ex-colleague was pensioned off. With that he calmed down a lot and became one of the revolution's great admirers."I became part of the Karnak Cafe family. The entire group felt like an integral part of me. Qurunfula gave me her friendship, and I reciprocated. She used to play backgammon with the old men: Muhammad Bahgat, Rashad Magdi, and Taha al-Gharib. I also made the acquaintance of the young folk, especially Zaynab Diyab, Isma'il al-Shaykh, and Hilmi Hamada. I also met Zayn al-'Abidin 'Abdallah, who was public relations director at some company or other. Even Imam al-Fawwal, the waiter, and Gum'a, the bootblack and sweeper, became friends of mine. I discovered the secret behind the economics of Karnak Cafe: it didn't need to rely on the limited number of customers who came in, instead it counted on the owners and customers of the various taverns on al-Mahdi Street. That was why the drinks at the cafe were so good, in fact exceptional. There was another secret about the cafe too, namely that it was--and still is--a gathering-place for people with extremely interesting and provocative viewpoints; whether they yell or speak softly, they are expressing the realities of living history. Ever since I became a member of their company, the numerous conversations I've had there have been unforgettable, as has Qurunfula's own sense of gratitude every time she has intoned, "Thank God who has brought us the revolution!"Both 'Arif Sulayman, the wine-steward, and Zayn al-'Abidin, the public relations director, were fervent admirers of the revolution as well, each of them in his own particular way and for his own purposes. As far as the old men were concerned, they too were equally enthusiastic for the revolution, but they did occasionally introduce another note into the conversation: "The past wasn't all that bad," they would say with a properly nuanced caution.The young folk used to gather in a corner; from it, bursts of enthusiasm would emerge with a great roar. As far as they were concerned, history began with the 1952 Revolution. Everything before then was some obscure and inexplicable "period of ignorance." They were the real children of the revolution. But for its achievements, they would all have been loitering around the streets and alleys with no real sense of purpose. From time to time we would hear hints of opposition that suggested either the views of the extreme left or else a cautious mention under the breath of an affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, such ideas would soon be lost in the general hubbub. I was particularly struck by Imam al-Fawwal, the waiter, and Gum'a, the bootblack. Both of them used to complain about how hard their life was, and yet they could both burst into song in praise of the great pre-Islamic cavalier, 'Antar, and his various conquests; it was as if references to victory, honor, and hope could somehow make their poverty easier to bear.Actually, everyone was eager to share this feeling of elation, even those whose hearts were being eaten up by envy and hatred. All the people sitting there inside the cafe had buried deep inside them some kind of bitter experience, whether humiliation, defeat, or failure. Their craving for a full glass would inspire them to challenge all their former foes. They would drink to the very dregs and then start dancing for the sheer joy of it. What's the point of criticizing something with a whole load of drunks around? Bribery, you say? Pilfering, corruption, coercion, terrorism? Shit! Or, so what? Or, it's an inevitable evil. Or, how utterly trivial. Come on, take another swig from the magic glass, and let's dance together.Whenever Qurunfula gets back from the hairdresser, she looks really beautiful. Her honey-colored eyes sparkle. On one occasion this prompted me to ask her a question: "Aren't you married any more? Don't you have any children?"She didn't say anything, and I immediately regretted letting the question slip. For her part, she noticed that I was embarrassed."See these people?" she said, pointing at the customers. "I love them, and they love me."Just then for no apparent reason she whispered to herself the words, "Love, love.""We all had good times being in love with the people we loved," she went on sadly, "but the only thing that lingers is a sense of disappointment.""Disappointment?""Yes, disappointment. That's what happens to a love that manages to escape from reality's clutches, only to linger on as a tantalizing hope.""Have you ever been disappointed in love?" I asked discreetly.
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