The Quarter by Naguib Mahfouz

Translated by Roger Allen

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

On the rare occasions that someone uncovers unpublished work by a deceased writer, publishing takes an archeological turn. An unpublished manuscript, like a mummified pharaoh or a Stone Age tool, can prove to be a gift from beyond the grave – for literature lovers and no doubt publishers’ piggy banks, too. It provides a sneak peak into an author at their rawest, through writing that has been left untouched by editorial processes. With no comments from the author to be heard, these exhumed works truly live lives of their own, and as such, leave all the more for critics and readers to read into them.

In this case, the find fits comfortably in the category of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Rosetta Stone, clearly distinct from the commonplace Roman coins and Medieval drinking vessels. Naguib Mahfouz holds the unofficial title of Egypt’s most eminent writer, becoming the first author writing in Arabic to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. His works – numerous novels, short story anthologies, and several plays and screenplays – re-imagine ancient myths and provide commentary on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture.

The Quarter brings all of this together in the form of 18 recently discovered stories, marked for ‘publishing in 1994’ – yet never making it to the publisher before now. Enter Cairo’s Gamaliya quarter, which serves as a miniature model of Egyptian society, with various residents overseen by two reappearing key figures, the shaykh al-hara, or the administrative head, and the imam. There, the everyday is coloured with encounters with the inexplicable and otherworldly, and a sense of magical realism emanates from a cellar, a recurring theme in narratives.

In Shaikhun, the eponymous protagonist returns to the quarter “after an absence so long he had been forgotten” and ventures from offering inspiring words and blessings to other residents into curing their illnesses. Nabqa in the old fort tells the tale of the water-seller’s son, Nabqa, who as a child is given away to serve the imam, to honour a promise made by his father. As he gains permission to enter the cellar, he ends up spending time as a guest of the departed and, upon emerging, drastically changes the course of his life. In the equally magical Your lot in life, the residents of the quarter are hit by a mystery epidemic of weeping.

To call the stories in The Quarter short stories would be misleading because they break so many conventions associated with the short story; they are perhaps better described as narratives in the vein of flash fiction, or just snippets of society and its way of tackling overlaps of the mundane and otherworldly. There is minimal description of place in these snippets, and the reader is dropped straight into the narrative without any preliminaries. As such, the introduction by Roger Allen, the English translator of the collection, proves invaluable in understanding and appreciating Mahfouz’s style for those not familiar with his literary ways, as well as setting the scene of Mahfouz’s Egypt.

There is necessarily something of an unfinished feel to the texts, and the reader is left with an uncertainty over what they would have been had the author lived to publish them: were they meant to be brought together by framing them with some overarching narrative? Was there more to be added to some of the stories? As such, The Quarter is not something you dip into, but rather an intriguing offering to anyone willing to give time – and interpretive effort – for the snippets to unfold.

Probably the best person to voice the question of ‘what if’ is Allen: “In the end, however, we are left with an unanswered (and probably unanswerable) question: since these eighteen narratives show a distinct unity of location, purpose and style, are they a complete work or merely part of what was to be a larger project that was begun but never completed?” Just like in archeology, the reader is given something incomplete, but that does not make The Quarter any less worth reading.

Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

Naguib Mahfouz, trans Roger Allen, The Quarter (Saqi Books, 2019). 978-0863563751, 128pp., paperback.

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