Mysterious Fort, Familiar Alley: Mahfouz’s ‘Lost’ Collection

It’s publication day for the “lost” collection of short stories (or short texts) by Naguib Mahfouz, titled The Whisper of Stars in Arabic. The collection will also be available in English, from Saqi Books, next fall:

Ahead of that, ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey talked to the discoverer of the texts — Mohammed Shoair — as well as its translator Roger Allen, and literary agent Yasmine Jraissati, who is representing the book.

Allen retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, where he spent forty-three years as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature. He is translator of numerous works, including five of Mahfouz’s novels: Mirrors (1999); Autumn Quail (1986); Karnak Café (2008); Khan al-Khalili (2009); and The Final Hour (2010). He was also co-translator of a short-story collection, God’s World, with Akef Abadir. 

When I spoke to him by phone last month, he had just finished a first-draft translation of the newly discovered Mahfouz collection: “I dropped everything and just started doing these because I was so fascinated.”

Some of Allen’s reflections appear in a piece that appears today in LitHub, along with those of journalist and critic Mohammad Shoair, who discovered the new collection, as well as agent Yasmina Jraissati.

More extended comments by Allen and Jraissati appear below.

Roger, I believe your first published translation was God’s World in 1973. How did that come about? When did you first meet Mahfouz? I think I read it was 1967? 

On a houseboat near Mahfouz’s home. “By this time,” Allen explains, “Mahfouz was substantially blind and not a little deaf, so the person to his left in the picture is what we called his ‘shouter’ who, every few minutes, would tell Mahfouz what we had been talking about. Needless to say, we would all wait for his responses, more often than not, very witty.”

Roger Allen: It was 1969.

Magdi Wahba, the Undersecretary of State to the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, was a very close friend of my supervisor at Oxford, Mustafa Badawi. He asked me one day if I’d like to go and meet Naguib Mahfouz. Of course I’d heard his name, but I was still working on [Muhammad] Muwayhili [1858-1930].

So Magdi Wahba took me to meet Naguib Mahfouz, who was working at the Ministry of Culture as the censor for Egyptian cinema at the time. We met in his office. It was shuttered, and he wore dark glasses, as all his life he had bad eyes.

I told him what I was working on, and he said, Oh, my father knew Muwaylihi very well, and he made me memorize a lot of his stuff. So we talked about my dissertation for a long time, and then he said, Well, would you like to read some of my stuff? And I said, Yes, recently I’ve been reading some of your stories in the newspaper. And he said, Would you like to translate some of them?

He said, Write down the ones you’d like to do, and I’ll sign. So I did that. That was the beginning of working with a colleague in New York, Akef Abadir, on God’s World.

Then, of course, God’s World turned out to be one of the books that the Nobel committee used to assess his work from 1987-88.

How is this collection, The Whisper of Stars, different from the short stories in God’s World?

RA: These aren’t short stories. They are narratives that are short. But you see the thing that I find interesting and very significant is that they are set in the same place, which uses the very significant hara, or quarter.

It’s the same setting, the same set of characters appear in almost all of them. You have the head of the quarter, Sheikh al-Hara. The Imam of the mosque. The local café. And, above all, on the edge of this quarter, there is an old fort. And anybody who goes to that fort comes back somehow transformed. And like very many of his later works, it brings in a very strong notion of the Sufi differentiation between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown.

Many of the people who go to that old fort come back completely transformed, or doing things which nobody expects them to do.

It reminds me of one work in particular, Echoes of an Autobiography [1994, translation by Denys Johnson-Davies 1997] , which is a set of 114 short extracts, most of the second half of which are the pronouncements of a sheikh. This book seems to me to be very, very like that.

The major point is that all these stories are of a unity. They all have the same setting, they have many of the same characters, and, above all, they have the same feel, the same atmosphere to them. And what this does for me is it puts me in mind of the fact that, throughout his career, that Mahfouz made use of this institution called the haraor quarter, initially in his realistic works, but beginning with his most famously notorious book, Children of Gebelawi, using the quarter, the hara, in a very allegorical way. Which is reflected in these stories too.

So you’ve got Awlad Haratna or Children of Gebelawi (1959), and then in 1974 he publishes another book called Stories of our Quarter (Hakayat al-Haratna), although the English translation of that is Fountain and Tomb for some reason.

Throughout his early career—when he’s trying to do realistic presentations of life in Egypt, or after the Trilogy is published and he turns to a very different writing style with the Children of Gebelawi—he’s always used the institution of the haraor quarter, particularly for allegorical purposes.

To me it’s exciting and interesting and even surprising this little cache has appeared, totally reflecting this writing.

Yasmina, Roger has suggested that these don’t meet the criteria of short stories. How do you see them? Linked short stories? Or sections of a whole (if possibly unfinished) work?

Yasmina Jraissati: I think this is a collection of linked short stories. They each stand alone. They also each have this twist good short stories have, where within just a couple of pages, sometimes even less, the author creates a situation with an ending that tells you so much about the characters. But the stories are connected, which I think adds another dimension to the book: The stories all unfold in that same alley, which is closed by an old fort on one end. The fort is usually closed to the public, but the less fortunate seek refuge in a basement that extends under it.

The fort is very present in the stories. Either it is used to indicate the location of a house or a shop, or it is believed to host ghosts and djinn, which play a part in a particular story, or the character lives in the basement under the fort, etc. This fort creates a strong sense of coherence. Probably the various characters of the different stories know each other? It’s almost as if, if you could see the scene, you would recognize a character from another story passing by in the background. I would be curious to know if other short stories by Mahfouz have taken place in the same alley, or if this alley is common to only these 18 stories. This is a question Mahmoud Shoair and Roger Allen must have an answer to.

Roger, how does this make us re-see his the quarters in his other books?

RA: One thing I think needs to be done in the context of these narratives is to prepare a study that looks at the way Mahfouz makes use of this highly allegorical entity in a variety of works, probably starting with the Children of Gebelawi, but then going through Stories of our Quarter (1974), and Harafish (1976), and maybe some other things in between, before you get to Echoes of an Autobiography(1994), and then Dreams (2003), and now this! It’s a sequence… Mahfouz was always going back, looking at things he’d done before.

How did you come to be the translator?

RA: Lynn Gaspard [the publisher of Saqi Books in London] obviously knew who I was, and that I’d been connected with Mahfouz and his Nobel. She just contacted me, I don’t think it was more than 10 days ago, to say, We’ve just got the rights to this newly discovered text of Mahfouz, and would you be interested in looking at it and writing us a reader’s report saying if it’s worth doing?

[Roger laughs.]

So she sent it, and I read through the stories quickly, and I said, “you’ve got to be kidding of course it’s worth doing!” I mean, we’re talking about Naguib Mahfouz here, and a completely new set of stories.

Do you think this is for a specialist or a general audience?

RA: That’s a question I’m thrashing around now.

It does have a rather esoteric side to it. Saqi has asked me to write a translator’s foreword, which I’ll do, about the process of translating it, but I think there also is a need for an interpretive essay at the beginning, whether by me or by someone else. My initial sense is that this is rather more for a restricted readership, instead of a general one. Obviously it’s very important in and of itself. For what it does, what it says, who wrote it, and in what circumstances. I’ll have to give it to my wife as a first test to see what happens.

I’ve read all these things and therefore I am quite familiar with what he’s doing, and the kind of ways he’s writing, but once you’ve transferred that into English it becomes a whole different ballgame.

Yasmina? Do you think these stories require a Mahfouzian background?

YJ: I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of Mahfouz. Of course, I have read some of his books a long time ago, but not recently. Yet I loved these stories. I found them interesting, fresh, witty, sometimes funny. I think the fact that they take place in the same alley creates a world that the reader explores, and an atmosphere that stays with him. Story after story, the reader learns the mechanisms and rules of the world Mahfouz is depicting, and along the way the reader reaches a point where he is able to grasp so much more than what is written. To be able to say so much in so little space is quite amazing. It’s like a very eloquent sketch, where what is not drawn is precisely visible. There is also a beautiful irony that makes the read very enjoyable, but also is somehow touching in other places where the irony is almost tender. I guess all these are the marks of a great storyteller.

Roger, Mohammed Shoair suggested to me that this collection was reminiscent of The Harafish.

RA: Yes. Harafishis indeed about a quarter and the citizens who dominate it. Now this one doesn’t have thugs, but I’d extend that to say: This is an example of Mahfouz’s use of the quarter in allegories to do a variety of more philosophical, contemplative, religious, ethical things—that he doesn’t do in his other works.

Certainly Harafishis one of them. Undoubtedly. And Echoes of an Autobiography

Have you changed as a translator-of-Mahfouz, from the point of doing God’s World, then five of his novels, to now?

RA: No, as I say I’ve done the first translation which is always very literal. Now I’m going to, first, look at it against the new edition which I didn’t have at the beginning, to make the first translation which I did very quickly representative of this newly edited text. Then I’ll probably let it set for a while. I don’t know how long, but I normally do that. And then I’ll go back through at the English and see how it reads. But that’s the technique I’ve used with whatever it is, and whoever it is.

His dialogue is in standard Arabic. There are a few slight colloquialisms, but I’m just going to do it in the same kind of English as I’ve done his other works.

Are there any particular challenges to translating this work?

RA: I don’t think so. The language is pretty clear, and what he’s trying to do, allegorically, is pretty clear. He does use Sufi terminology.

But I do think the book does need a generous introductory essay.

What would you want that essay to do?

RA: Give the history of Mahfouz’s concern with the hara entity, starting probably with Children of Gebelawi, but also giving some notions about the Sufi differentiation of the seen and this world, and the unseen and the unknowable world, both past and future, and putting that into a general context so that, when people look at some of these quiet cryptic conversations they won’t be completely flummoxed as to what people are talking about.

So they need some kind of background in Sufism?

RA: A lot of the characters in these short narratives go to the old fort. And the question is what happens to them there. Some people say, Who resides there? What forces reside there? Because people who come back from that fort seem to have changed in radical ways.

For example, one story has a perfectly normal character with a perfectly normal life, but he goes to the fort and he comes back and he starts challenging all the major figures in the quarter, saying, Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Because, you know, You did this, you that. And the guy says, How did you know that? And he says, Well, I had a glimpse of the unseen.

Things like that. You need something to explain all that, otherwise the dialogue in these stories could be somewhat perplexing.

What else would you like to know about these texts, if you could ask Mahfouz?

RA: What I would like to know, and don’t know, and don’t think we’ll ever find out is where in the sequence of his writings does this fit. It’s coming out now as something vestigial. But what other works is it between?

I would love to think of this as a set of short narratives he was thinking of turning into something which would be another allegorical look at the quarter and the entire Sufi vision, which he started to bring into his work with the Children of Gebelawi.

It’s all so damn tantalizing, you know?