Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Afya battles (I love this)

Dialogues of Naguib Mahfouz
Centres of creativity
By Mohamed Salmawy

More than any other writer, Naguib Mahfouz had a strange affinity with coffeehouses. Tawfiq Al-Hakim was also a frequenter of coffeehouses, but his name was only linked to one or two cafés, the best known being Café Petro in Alexandria. Mahfouz, however, was a familiar face in a dozen or so coffeehouses in various parts of Cairo, from Gammaliya to Heliopolis.

A French writer once told me with obvious relish that he went to the Khan Al-Khalili and sat at the Naguib Mahfouz Café. "You're luckier than Mahfouz," I said. The writer never frequented that café named after him. The story is that when Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988, this coffeehouse was ready to open and the owners asked Mahfouz to let them name it after him, and he agreed. Mahfouz went to the coffeehouse once, admired its decoration, and never went back.

I once asked Mahfouz about his favourite coffeehouse, and he said he couldn't tell me that, any more than he could tell me which of his works he favoured. Mahfouz liked all the coffeehouses he used to go to at different phases of his life. The first of those, he once told me, was Qoshtomor Café, which still exists. Mahfouz named a novel after that particular café -- the novel was being serialised in Al-Ahram at the time Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize.

Mahfouz believed that Qoshtomor Café was named after a Mameluke minister. It was situated a short distance from the famous Orabi Café, which was frequented by the top writers of the generation preceding that of Mahfouz. So Mahfouz and his generation didn't dare go to that particular venue until the older generation had died.

Qoshtomor is a landmark in Mahfouz's life, being the first café that he ever frequented regularly. But the café closer to his heart was Al-Fishawi in Khan Al-Khalili, which he frequented only in Ramadan, between the sunset meal, or Iftar, and the pre-dawn one, or Sohour . At the time, Al-Fishawi occupied a much bigger area than it does now and was one of the best- known coffeehouses in the city.

One of Al-Fishawi's owners told me, before he died, that he would never forget a certain Ramadan night. On that night, a man known for his great skill in the game known as Al-Qafiyah, or the rhyme, came to the café. He was unsurpassed in this game of wit and verbal fencing. He started exchanging jabs with Mahfouz, and this lasted all night, each man prompting the other with the refrain of ishmena, or "what about that?" This man never showed up at the café again, having been so badly defeated by Mahfouz.

Other famous cafés Mahfouz frequented were Safiya Hilmi at Midan Al-Opera; Casino Qasr Al-Nil; Ahmed Abdallah Café, which he described in the Trilogy; and-in his latter days-Farah Boat.

I asked Mahfouz about his attachment to cafés and whether he wrote some of his works there, as some imagined. He said that he never wrote anything except at his desk at home. But the cafés offered him with the ideas, situations, and characters he needed for his novels. "For me, the cafés were the biggest depository of ideas and characters, and I drew a lot from this depository," he said.

1 comment:

Amnesiac said...

Very nice.