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Khan al-Khalili    by Naguib Mafouz order for
Khan al-Khalili
by Naguib Mafouz
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2011 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Naguib Mafouz was one of the first Egyptians to write fiction. Born in 1911, his novel Khan al-Khalili was written when he was thirty-five years old, and is set in Cairo during the Second World War. The title refers to a particular quarter of Cairo to which the Akif family moves after their former neighborhood is bombed by the Germans, a terrifying experience for all three of them, but especially for the elderly parents of the main character, Ahmad Akif.

Ahmad, though the bombing has frightened him, mourns the loss of their former home, the only home that he has ever known. We meet him as he comes to the new apartment from work for the first time, uncertain exactly how to find it as the parents arranged the move quickly without any input from him. Ahmad has never married and has been supporting his parents and his younger brother Rushdi ever since his father was forced to retire before Ahmad had a chance to complete his education. He has helped to raise his much younger brother and paid for his education, and soon after the family moves to Khan al-Khalili, Rushdi is transferred back to Cairo. The whole family is happy about Rushdi's homecoming, however there are complications.

Ahmad is a gloomy unpleasant man, who feels sorry for himself for his lost opportunities, lack of education, and the fact that he isn't married. He thinks of himself as an intellectual and has spent many years in independent study trying to find a better job for himself than the lowly civil service position that he has. He resents his father for his indolence and the fact that supporting the family became Ahmad's job before he really was prepared. An early engagement fell through, apparently because he didn't earn enough money. However one wonders whether Ahmad's negative attitude toward others, particularly women, may have been just as significant. The first part of this book, where we learn about Ahmad and the other characters through Ahmad's eyes, is not easy reading. There seems to be no one in the book who strikes a sympathetic chord for a modern Western woman.

The descriptions of Cairo are wonderful, though, and the scenes in the café with the friends Ahmad makes in his new neighborhood are really interesting. When the family must take refuge in the bomb shelter, we feel their fear as they struggle to find their way down the stairs in the pitch dark while the sirens wail. Gradually, we begin to have some sympathy for Ahmad, whom the author seems to see as a pitiful middle-aged man, when he falls for a beautiful young girl and then is too shy court her because of the age difference before his beloved younger brother returns home and spoils his timid attempts to get acquainted with the girl.

Although this book gives an interesting picture of Cairo during the Second World War, I can't say I really enjoyed reading it. None of the characters are pleasant people, and their flaws range from mildly disagreeable to really obnoxious. Even the foreign setting doesn't quite make up for not liking those whose story this is. There is an Afterword by the translator who admired and knew Mahfouz before his death, but even reading these glowing remarks didn't help my enjoyment of the book. There was little in the way of plot during the first part of the book while we got acquainted with the supercilious Ahmad in great detail. Once Rushdi returned, the pace picked up, but the book remains gloomy. Frankly, I was glad to finish it.

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