الكرنك (Karnak Café)

I never went to Egypt, and it remains one of my dreams. But sometimes, a picture can be sufficient to go on a journey …

The bazaar district of Khan El Khalili is one of Cairo’s main attractions for tourists and Egyptians alike. It is definitely not the quietest area in Cairo. Between hoards of tourists, packs of vendors apparently skilled in the art of creative heckling, horrendous parking situation, to go there is a lively, crowded experience in the heart of the Capital.

Those who love this area also know one of the Khan’s most tasteful spots, the Naguib Mahfouz Café.

Naguib Mahfouz was the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1988. He was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. He died in August 2006.

His nearly forty novels and hundreds of short stories range from re-imaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Of his many works, the most famous is the Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1952.

Karnak Café was written in 1974 and made into a film of the same name one year later, starring the main figures of Egyptian cinema at the time.

At a Cairo café in the 1960s, a legendary former belly dancer lovingly presides over a boisterous family of regulars, including a group of idealistic university students. One day, amid reports of a wave of arrests, three of the students disappear: Hilmi, the manager’s lover, his friend Ismail, and Ismail’s beautiful girlfriend Zaynab.

When they return months later, they are apparently unharmed and yet subtly and profoundly changed. It is only years later, after their lives have been further shattered, that the narrator pieces together the young people’s horrific stories and learns how the government used them against one another. In a riveting final chapter, their torturer himself enters the Café and sits among his former victims, claiming a right to join their society of the disillusioned.

The page dedicated to Naguib Mahfouz, on the official website of the Nobel Prize, emphasizes, beside poetry, the “ancient Egyptian tradition of narrative that expresses itself in a wealth of different oral forms roots”. This tradition has remained vivid and alive to this day, the public storyteller having been a cultural institution for ages. The birth of the Egyptian novel in the modern era came then in the wake of a gradual liberation from oppression by foreign powers, starting in the aftermath of the Napoleonic occupation in the early 1800s, and the emergence of an intellectual class with broad international learning.

Egypt hosts in Alexandria, 230 kms away from Cairo, the headquarters of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue Between Cultures. Set up in 2005 as a network of civil society organisations dedicated to promoting intercultural dialogue in the Mediterranean region, it’s the only vivid institution in my view, of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. It is named in honour of Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minister who was murdered in 2003.

The Anna Lindh Foundation is focused on activities in fields which are essential for human and social dialogue: Education and Youth, Culture and Arts, Peace and Co-existence, Values, Religion and Spirituality, Cities and Migration, Media.

Let’s have a tea together at Naguib Mahfouz Café ?


Iconography : Naguib Mahfouz Café, Cairo, Egypt, November 22 2017, photograph by Amal Merzouk.


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