An extract from novelist and critic Ibrahim Farghali’s Sawiris Prize-winning novel أبناء الجبلاوي (Dar Al Ain, 2009) [The Sons of Gebelawi]. The works of the late Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz have mysteriously vanished from shelves and stores across Cairo and as the government attempts to grapple with the situation, strange rumours begin to spread:
It’s said all smoke comes from fire, but no one knew what coal it was that first sparked the firestorm of rumour about characters from Naguib Mahfouz’s novels showing up in various corners of Cairo. Some said they’d seen Kamal Abdel Jawad with their own eyes, not as depicted in the films of Hassan Al Imam, but as Mahfouz himself had described him in the trilogy. Others reported that Hamida was appearing by night in Midaq Alley.
A rumour spread of a scream, rising into a wail, from a woman struggling in the river’s waters late at night by one of the bridges overlooking the Nile. The peddlers of this tale said they’d seen Nafisa thrashing in the current, gasping and imploring passers-by to save her from her fearful fate, apparently ignoring the fact that in A Beginning and an End she’d died a suicide—acquiescing to the wish of her younger brother Hassanein, who’d cast himself into the river directly after her—to efface the dishonour she’d brought on her family by working as a prostitute. Others offered detailed descriptions of Ahmed Abdel Jawad walking the streets and alleys of Gamaliya by night, inspecting the neighbourhood within whose twists and turns he’d passed his long life and from which he had emerged, with all his qualities, good and ill, to stand for decades as the archetype of Oriental man.. He’d been so tall, they insisted, that in Khan Al Khalili his head had almost run level with the first floors of that market’s antique buildings.
Reports of this colossal figure were met with counter-rumour: the giant was none other than Gebelawi. The next day, though, a group of residents from the City of the Dead set a story of their own going: that the giant who’d been spied in Gamaliya and Khan Al Khalili was Ashour Al Nagi. And because all these characters only came out at night—according to the rumours doing the rounds—it was impossible for people to check.
Time passed and the rumours tangled together and no one could any longer tell fact from fantasy, particularly after certain accounts began—out of ignorance—to introduce characters that Mahfouz had never written about in any of his books, such as the claims of one man, volunteered during a televised interview, that he’d seen a woman he called Amaal, a part that had been played by Lubna Abdel Aziz in The Empty Pillow alongside Abdel Halim Hafez. The man offered a precise description of the film star, one of whose signature features was her dark skin and green eyes. Another insisted he had caught sight of “Mervat” in one of the alleyways off Haram Street wearing nothing but a red dress and accompanied by a handsome young man, the pair of them heading back to his house. Then he added, with a laugh, that her name was actually Nahed, a good-hearted girl, but by night a devil rode her, turning her from a dreamy, romantic girl into an impish whore who gave her body freely to whichever of the nightclub lovers her fancy chose. The presenter interrupted him to say that this character wasn’t one of Naguib Mahfouz’s, but a role played by the late film star Soad Hosny in The Well of Privation, directed by Salah Abou Seif in the late Sixties, adding that the original story was by Ihsan Abdel Qaddous. But the citizen maintained that he was telling the truth, that he’d seen the minx with his own two eyes, and the presenter was forced to turn to someone else.
The satellite channels took a cautious approach to broadcasting reports about the rumours, especially in the wake of an interview that one of them had aired with a member of the public who claimed he’d seen Yassin Abdel Jawad, the eldest son of Ahmed Abdel Jawad by his first wife. According to the man’s testimony, Yassin had been spotted in the Gamaliya area walking behind a woman who held a black wrap tight about her and swayed seductively. The man gave a description of Yassin that did not match that of the actor Abdel Moneim Ibrahim in the film, and said:
“Walking, it was his wont to stroll with good-natured forbearance, to swagger with pride and vanity, as though he were not for one instant unaware that he was the owner of that great body and the face brimming with vigour and virility.”
The presenter smiled in admiration at the man’s memory and eloquence and, indeed, he did seem to have quite exceptional powers of recall. He had memorized all the lines attributed to Yassin in Palace Walk, and as Mahfouz wrote them, not as they appear in the film, and quickly added that he had heard Yassin saying, as he followed that swaying woman,
“Dear God, bring not an end to this street nor to this jiggling motion before me. What a queenly rump, blending hard pride and tenderness! At a single glance a wretch like me can almost feel its softness and tautness, both.”
For a moment the presenter didn’t know what was going on and imagined the man was flirting, praising her rear, and she stood there in silence, smiling shyly at him as her naturally pale face turned pink, while he, too, maintained a confused silence broken only by the intervention of the director who cut to a commercial break. Immediately before the break and during it the presenter’s mind drifted as she recalled flattering phrases she’d received from lovers and passing strangers alike, most particularly those that had referred her behind with a coarseness that stemmed from an inexcusable desire to violate—in streets and alleys, from the sexually repressed, the oppressed, the psychologically and morally neutered who could only feel manly if they violated a woman’s honour.
In the end, state media channels received direct orders to distract people’s attention from the rumours and they switched to broadcasting news and variety shows that focused on two main issues: the first, bonuses to improve the income of employees in the government and private sectors and the second, incidences of sexual harassment and rape involving young women in Cairo’ more far-flung neighbourhoods and the inability of the police to catch the serial offender involved due to the discrepancies in the descriptions offered by the harassed and raped women, raising suspicions that there might be more than one offender. Once again, interest in the disappearance of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels and the mysterious nighttime appearance of those novels’ characters took a backseat to the fascination of the new.
But things did not proceed as planned. It was mobile phones, and not TV channels or newspapers, which carried word about a character called Sanaa who’d been seen being gang-raped on a patch of wasteland. An “update” to these text messages soon followed, explaining that Sanaa had consented to the assault, since all the rapists had been known to her, including characters that text referred to by name: Ahmed Sadeq—described as he appears in the film The Sinners: fair and handsome—Anis Al Bahrawi, Mamdouh Farid, Hafez Bey, Fahmy, Hassan and Dr. Tahsin. Then a subsequent round of texts carried a further update, asserting that Mahjoub Abdel Dayem had been sighted near the scene of the incident and that he had been responsible for bringing all these characters and Sanaa together that night, but that his inability to arrange times and dates efficiently had seen the affair slip out of his control and turn into what the texts called an “orgy” of rape. Other messages, meanwhile, substituted the word “sex” for “rape”. The rumour became the focus of much attention, the subject of comments in gatherings public and private, at cafes and parties—even between the young men and women and husbands and wives who found it a spur to their sexual fantasy more effective than pills and potions, thus making it one of the most powerful rumours of all.
All the efforts of the official media channels to divert attention from these rumours and check their spread and popularity, which flourished with the cornucopia of wonders contained in every new round of texts, some of which added details to their descriptions of what Sanaa did that night that were, to say the least, frankly immoral, others appending descriptions of some of the characters involved or names that never appeared in Mahfouz’s tale, while some contained names of famous individuals—all these efforts were in vain. The rumour had turned into a terrible snowball beyond anyone’s control and yet, despite the abundance of thick smoke, nor was anyone able to divine what coal had first sparked these strange events to life.
Just a few days prior to the outbreak of these rumours, whispers about a Committee began to leak out to public sector workers. Despite the pledges of confidentiality and caution sworn by its members, details of its inner workings gradually began to leak out, and revealed the following:
The Committee had begun by taking a multi-pronged approach to its task. A team of movie experts were tasked with watching every single minute of every film based on Mahfouz’s works and its more literarily gifted members charged with converting the dialogue into a text. A few of the Committee’s members were indeed able to render these screenplays into novelistic form, but when their texts were presented to the Mahfouz specialists it became clear that they lacked the linguistic qualities which rendered the author’s works so distinctive, while the descriptive passages suffered from a number of difficulties, not least an absence of the precision for which the Mahfouzian narrative style was known.
A second team attempted to re-Arabize English and French translations of Naguib Mahfouz’s books. They started with Palace Walk, with the idea that the Cairo Trilogy would be the first thing they restored. They worked with the dedication and zeal of an austere priesthood, with the commitment, precision and devotion of the guardians of ancient mysteries handed down from generation to generation, but the result came as a blow to them all. The specialists in the language and literature of Mahfouz read the texts quite contentedly, yet felt that the authentic spirit of the works—Mahfouz’s classical phrasing, his eloquence, the Egyptian soul pulsing through his oeuvre—was missing. A painful setback for all concerned, particularly the Committee’s members, but they did not despair and, having given it some thought, they decided to add German to the mix and compare the Arabic renderings from the three languages to the films and to convene a writing workshop to edit the text into its final form.
That same night the Committee held a meeting that lasted through until dawn. They wanted to come up with a final and effective solution, particularly as their progress was the subject of close interest at the highest levels of government, from Western cultural bodies, and from unexpectedly curious public—not to mention the pressure being exerted by the intellectuals.
Next morning the papers carried the announcement of an official contest, with a similar announcement broadcast on state-controlled television channels, both of which mentioned the large reward that was on offer to any person, possessed of a powerful memory, who had memorized narrative passages from the works of Mahfouz. With the self-same zeal as before a subsidiary committee was formed with the task of sorting through applications for the prize and interviewing the applicants in the presence of a panel of writers, critics and academics known for their detailed knowledge of the books and their language, to establish whether these applicants really had committed sections of the man’s narrative to memory, or whether they were simply chancers.
Contrary to the Committee members’ expectations a huge number of applications poured in, more than two hundred and fifty of them. The official in charge of the contest strode the Committee chairman’s office and greeted him, smiling broadly and rubbing his hands together.
But the chairman met the man’s grin with indifference. Experience told him that people will grasp at any opportunity such as this one, where winning means money, even if they have not the slightest familiarity with the matter at hand. And he was right. At one end of an airy hall in a building belonging to the Department of Rare Manuscripts the members of the judging committee clustered around a long, raised table, while the contestants sat on chairs laid out in rows from where each one advanced to a podium surmounted by a comfortable chair, itself overhung by a powerful light, where they read their selection. On the wall behind the podium was a large portrait of Naguib Mahfouz taken in the final years of his life, sparsely bearded and smiling the mild smile freighted with the weight of his many years. As for the contestants, it was soon established that those who’d memorized anything of Mahfouz’s work numbered no more than twelve, just a few scant paragraphs and extracts in the majority of cases. Most common were Echoes of an Autobiography, Dreams from a Convalescence, the opening sections of The Harafish, and Palace Walk. In the end the panel’s interest was confined to a single contestant, who closed his eyes, fell silent for three minutes, then began to recite from memory, rapidly and with no pauses of any kind. The contestant, who looked to be in his mid-thirties, read out random extracts from various parts of The Harafish—not because he couldn’t get it in order, but in order to showcase his extraordinary capacities.
The committee members and observers who witnessed these moments would later describe them as by far and away the most affecting and exciting in that body’s history. They shed their customary dignity and calm. One and all they left their seats and, brimful of passion, they came to their feet and started applauding with wild enthusiasm, loudly acclaiming the young man and showering him with words of praise and approval, overwhelmed by joy at their triumph. For some these emotions recalled the day Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, for others, it brought back memories of Egypt’s historic victory over Israel in the war of ’73.
The man opened his grey eyes as though waking from a strange dream. He rubbed his hairless head and stared slack-jawed at the members of the Committee, but soon recovered his self-control and gave them a grateful smile. With his recital done it took the panel just minutes to make their decision, paying the applicable protocols no respect at all and announcing the contestant’s victory directly after the end of the session. The judging committee was instructed to declare the result despite this being a breach of the general rules agreed on by the contest’s administration, among them, that the judging committee should come to its final decision in closed session.
But two surprises awaited them. The first was that the name of the bald contestant had not been entered on the list of applicants. The second was provided by the final contestant, by all appearances a youth of no more than fifteen, dressed in a white T-shirt with a colour picture on the front of a naked Cleopatra on her death bed and faded blue jeans. Speaking in classical Arabic with a powerful, hoarse voice that sat strangely with his juvenile features, he declaimed: “You are transgressing all the rules!” And before any of them could reply he raised his voice still further: “The individual for whom you have scorched your hands with applause recited what he remembered from a single volume, committing errors of grammar and pronunciation on several occasions… and not one of you noticed, and thus did you all fall for his deception. He has blinded ye and ye do not see, and yet this blindness of yours does not mean that I am not present, nor does it annul my own abilities, to which I am most ashamed to have to draw attention thusly, compelled by your failing to perform your duties in the requisite manner.”
The hall was struck by something like an enchantment. The eyes of all the judging committee’s members swiveled to focus on the boy’s face, and it seemed as if they had lost the ability to see anything but his well-knit, brown features: his precise little nose, his small lips, his delicate pointed chin, the thick yet well-groomed hair on his head. Taking advantage of the state they were in, the young man began to recite The Children of Our Alley, all one hundred and fourteen chapters without a break, in a clear voice whose beauty was lost on no one, knowing just when to pause and when to draw breath so as not to interrupt the narrative’s surge and flow. He was skilled at colouring his voice to suit each of the novel’s characters, from Gebelawi, to his rebellious son, Idris and his successor Adham and Adahm’s wife, who enticed her husband to enter the very room that Gebelawi had forbidden them to enter in his imposing palace, and many other characters and events besides. And when he was done his eyes brimmed with unshed tears and the members of the judging committee fainted clean away, not, as might be supposed, from exhaustion—for the recital had lasted a whole day and ended in the middle of the night—but rather overcome by the boy’s voice and by the text itself, unaware that the recording device they’d used to gather every word uttered by the contestants had stopped.
The boy passed before them, and they saw him not, and so departed, a scornful smile on his lips which for a very long time afterwards lived on in their minds as though they had seen it in a dream dreamt while they were in deepest sleep.
When they came round both contestants had vanished. Not a trace of them remained save the white T-shirt that bore a perfect colour reproduction of a painting that showed Cleopatra, naked on her death bed, with her alluring, moon-white body and full breasts, while on the floor beside her knelt a maidservant rent by pain and grief.
Naguib Mahfouz’s novels became the talk of the hour, with violent quarrels breaking out between officials from the Committee for the Works of Naguib Mahfouz and the judges of the contest. The surprise disappearance of the two most talented entrants had left everyone disheartened. Their matchless performances and stellar memories meant that they could offer a solution that seemed to the committee members akin to a miracle, especially now the government was putting pressure on the Committee and giving them no more than a month to sort the issue out, whatever it took.
The government’s economic bodies had meanwhile emphatically rejected all attempts by Western nations to help, including proposals from major powers and international research and academic groups that they contribute to solving the crisis. A statement was issued in which officials stressed that this was by way of being an internal affair in which no foreign party should be permitted to meddle and that the state had all the capabilities and resources necessary to put its finger on the answer to the riddle and to expose those who were behind it all and had contributed to both its planning and implementation.
It was on one of these fraught days that the chairman of the judging committee received an unexpected early morning phone call at home. The caller’s voice came down the line warmly wishing him a good morning and, although he’d just that moment woken to the telephone’s ringing, it took him just seconds to register that the voice belonged to competitor with the grey eyes and smooth bald head who’d recited out several chapters of The Harafish before his committee.
“Hello there! Where on earth did you get to?”
“I’m calling to ask about the result.”
“As if you need to ask!”
“I won, you mean? Or was it someone else?”
“My dear man, we chose you of course. It’s just that we might split the prize between you and your fellow competitor, if he turns up, too.”
“Ah… so you’re splitting the prize.”
“If he turns up, that is.”
“But you never said that the prize could be split.”
“You’re quite correct, but we weren’t anticipating two entrants with such an enormous talent for memorizing Mahfouz.”
“Anyway, I was calling to say that the prize money doesn’t really do it for me, so I’m bowing out.”
“Bowing out? No, no… My dear sir, you knew about the rules and the prize money from the outset and you entered the contest on that basis.”
“True, but I’ve realised that I’ve made a mistake, so I’m calling you now to apologise and inform you I’m withdrawing.”
“Look, I don’t think this is something for the phone. Perhaps you would do me the honour of coming to my office at a time that suits you and we can discuss the matter calmly.”
“No problem. Could I see you in an hour’s time, for instance?”
“Of course, of course! I’ll be expecting you.”
The conclusion of this meeting, which took place in his office in the Department of Rare Manuscripts, in his capacity as chairman of the judging committee for the contest to memorize the works of Naguib Mahfouz, found our official in a sorry state. His compact, lined face was astonishingly red and so great was his vexation that he had neglected to attend to the hair which in normal circumstances he kept most carefully combed, and which now rose up alarmingly. The cause lay in the acrimonious exchange that had taken place between himself and the young contestant who had so excelled in his memorization of Naguib Mahfouz, and who had surprised the chairman by stating that he would not cooperate with the committee unless he received a cheque for twenty million Egyptian pounds. The man found it hard to believe that this pimply youth could demand such a sum, one he considered excessive, overblown, and provocative, and his hair immediately pointed straight up in the air—though he tried to maintain a semblance of self-control. With great difficulty he painted a thin smile on his lips:
“Are you seriously asking for that much? It’s more than the entire budget for the parent committee.”
“The committee’s objective is to transcribe the works of Mahfouz and I can supply you with the lot, simple as that. The budget will be spent and you’ll achieve want you want.”
The man was swept by conflicting emotions and a powerful suspicion that this youth must be part of an organized crime syndicate or a tool in the hands of a gang whose mastermind sat offstage pulling the strings.
He studied the young man’s features with a degree of investigative rigour, but their childlike appearance and the innocence in his eyes left the official smiling scornfully at what he read as naivety and an underestimation of his own intelligence. With his opportunistic instincts, he was the last person to consider acceding so straightforwardly to the young man’s demands, just as, deep down, he regarded the offer as a species of insolence. More importantly, the manner in which the thing had been proposed made it look like an attempt at arm-twisting directed not only at his own person, but at the judging committee, the Ministry of Culture and the government as a whole. And since convention dictated that no one, regardless of who they were, could be allowed to twist the government’s arm, the chairman began to manifest a certain air of contempt for the boy.
Schemes bounced around the chairman’s head, some of which he considered and others he dismissed out of hand. But when it came to the idea of summoning the aid of the police he felt pretty much persuaded: they could instruct their men to investigate the youth and charge him with attempting to blackmail the committee. Once locked up, Naguib Mahfouz’s texts could be extracted from him by force, and free of charge as well.
The chairman’s mood changed at the thought and he smiled, but this did not help his hair settle. He had a sudden desire for a glass of whiskey from the broom cupboard next to the library that faced his office, but then he heard a faint tapping at the door and before he could reach it he found his pretty blonde secretary standing before him. But she, without uttering a syllable, went quickly out and closed the door behind her. The sound of hysterical laughter reached his ears. Like a virus, the laughter seemed to spread from the secretary to the other employees in the office and then to the offices next door.
When he walked outside farce turned to tragedy. His bristling hair provoked wave after wave of laughter which ended with the greatest spate of wage-cuts and sackings in the history of the Department of Rare Manuscripts.