Friday, May 22, 2009

Turning Point: Discovering Cairo With Naguib Mahfouz -- Linda Barghoorn

_Children of the Alley_; Mahfouz, Naguib

In the summer of 1986, my Egyptian-born fiancé whisked me off to his native land to survey what might one day be our mutual home. “If you’re going to marry me, you need to understand where we could end up living,” he told me. “I need to know if you can handle it.”

And so we flew to Egypt, where we spent two weeks exploring areas of Cairo –- old and new -– as well as parts of the Mediterranean coast around Alexandria. My travel reading was a book my fiancé had handed me: _Children of the Alley_, by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s literary giant. I’d always been an avid reader, devouring mostly Canadian content during my high school days and German authors' works while fulfilling my language studies requirements in university. Until then I’d had no real driving curiosity about Egyptian writers. Now was the time. I was eager to uncover what Egypt’s literary culture might tell me about the country, along with what I was about to see for myself.

Already renowned in Egypt and widely considered the best Arab writer alive, Mahfouz went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1988. Many of his books portray the lives of "average" Egyptians, whose stories unfold in the streets and alleyways of old Cairo, where Mahfouz grew up. Indeed, as we wandered the twisting, snake-like alleyways of Old Cairo, I could almost imagine his characters there in the street scenes that played out in front of me: weathered old men smoking shisha pipes at small street cafes, colourful laundry hanging over balconies to dry, women carrying baskets of wares on their heads as they made their way home to cook dinner.

While these scenes were fascinating, the realities of life in modern Cairo appeared rather daunting, and I tried to hide my trepidations with mixed results. Traffic-clogged streets, overpopulation and dirt were some of the first things to greet us when we stepped from the lobby of my fiancé’s family’s apartment. Naturally, language and cultural barriers loomed large as I struggled to fit gracefully into the huge circle of friends and extended family that surrounded my fiancé.

If I thought I might find refuge from the uncertainty of my future in Mahfouz’s fiction, I was mistaken. Far from providing an uplifting view of modern Egypt and her people, Mahfouz’s story revealed a rather bleak portrayal of humanity, which left me with few optimistic thoughts.

_Children of the Alley_ tells the story of the descendants of Gebelawi, a family patriarch, whose mansion sits like an oasis amidst the barren wasteland of the Muqattam Desert. As he casts out first one son from his estate and then the second, the generations that follow are doomed to live out their existence in the alleys which emerge from the desert around the mansion. His estate becomes the focal point of a family feud that grows increasingly wretched, as (for the most part) do the characters who arrive on the scene with each subsequent generation. Avarice/greed, envy/jealousy are key themes in the lives of the characters and ultimately cause the downfall or unhappiness of almost everyone in the book.

Was this what life in Egypt had taught Naguib Mahfouz? If the characters in his novels -- who had spent their entire lives in Cairo -- were struggling just to get along with one another and eke out an existence, where did that leave me?

As a small town girl from the Niagara Peninsula (Ontario’s fruit belt in Canada), my farthest adventures abroad before this trip had been several summers in Europe furthering university language studies, where the grand old villas in northern Italy whose paint was faded and peeling had seemed derelict at the time. That, however, was nothing compared to the pot-holed and garbage-strewn streets and the crumbling buildings of old Cairo or the back streets of Alexandria. To be fair, there were certainly some beautiful areas in these cities, but the crowded chaos of Cairo’s metropolis was so far removed from the tranquil green surroundings I had known growing up in our quiet little corner of Canada. Could I really do this?

Looking back, I’m not sure if my fiancé wasn’t testing the strength of my resolve to commit to this marriage, by providing me with a tour of some of the seedier areas of the cities, where I now understand we would never have lived had we actually moved there. But, I do remember distinctly one afternoon, as we wove our way through some particularly suspect streets in the back of Alexandria, turning to him in a panic and declaring, “I’m not sure I can do this after all.”

As I struggled to maintain an open mind to a potential new life in Egypt, I did also have many opportunities to explore the more romantic aspects of the country’s culture and history. We visited the mighty pyramids, the labyrinthine Egyptian museum with its impressive collection of ancient treasures, and the fascinating Khan al Khalili bazaar, where we bargained for everything from jewellery to leather to perfume. There was an entire world of smells, sounds and sights I had never experienced before. Some were thrilling: the muezzin cries calling the faithful to prayer at the mosque; snorting of cranky camels on our ride near pyramids; hush of the desert, which swallowed bustling sounds of the nearby city; and shouts of the galabaya-clad vendors at the centuries-old bazaar where scents of rich coffee and spices wafted through alleys. Others –- like the filthy canal in Cairo’s suburbs, where I watched children bathing and women doing laundry, were distressing.

In the end, as luck -- or fate -- would have it, I did not have the opportunity to find out whether I could manage a life in Egypt with my fiancé. While his career path ultimately led us to a number of international assignments, Egypt was not one of them. The marriage went ahead as planned upon our return to Toronto and I was never put to that particular test. Given my experiences since, I’m fairly confident that I would have survived though, and in fact, may have made a success of the adventure.

Over twenty years I have become more familiar with Mahfouz's oeuvre, although I have to admit his works are not easy reading. I’ve yet to find a number of uplifting messages in any one of his books. It was only after recommending _Alley_ for a monthly book club I attended while living in Belgium, that I really started to appreciate the brilliance of the author’s vision. There was definitely more to Mahfouz's story than I had absorbed under the "duress" of my introductory crash course.

When I researched Mahfouz and _Alley_ in more detail, I found an entire world of imagery and symbolism I had missed the first time around. On a more profound level, _Alley_ is an allegory, which does indeed offer a distinctly pessimistic view of the struggle of men and women for existence. The "everyday" characters though, are actually symbolic of master figures of some of the world’s major religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- stripped bare of their holiness to represent the history of humanity from Genesis to the modern day. Herein lies the genius of Mahfouz and this book, which was specifically cited as one of his master works upon receiving the Nobel Prize.

When I read Mahfouz today, I continue to marvel at his mastery of language, imagery and symbolism, which are woven deftly throughout his novels. More than anything, whenever I crack open the cover of _Alley_, I am instantly transported back to my first moments in Egypt as a nervous bride-to-be and relive sights and sounds that were such an intrinsic part of that trip and the uncertainty of what a future living outside of Canada might mean. It marked the beginning of a new turn in my not-so-conventional life, which continues today: a life of living in countries in the Middle East and Europe, testing my ability to adapt to new cultures, languages and to grow richer from them. It has been a unique journey, which has dramatically shaped and changed that small town girl from Niagara, who wasn’t sure she could.

Children of the Alley
Naguib Mahfouz
Translated to English by Peter Therous
Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, NY USA
Originally published in 1959

Linda Barghoorn grew up in the Niagara Peninsula, in south-western Ontario. She studied at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she obtained an Honours B.A. in Languages. Married with two daughters, she lives with her family in Surrey, UK. She is a freelance writer who enjoys reading, hiking and is deeply committed to philanthropy work.

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