Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café (1974) (Ron Scheer-archives)
This short novel by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is a sadly melancholy story of the crushing of youthful hope. Set in the 1960s around the time of the 1967 war with Israel, it describes how a generation of young Egyptians, the children of the revolution of 1954, were betrayed and lied to by their government, while being subjected to interrogation and imprisonment by secret police.
Their story is told by an older man (and stand-in for the author), who befriends a gathering of them who are regulars at a Cairo café, Al-Karnak. There they talk of politics and express their idealistic aspirations, both for themselves and their country. Abruptly disappearing for periods of time, they return shaken and demoralized. While in police custody, kept in windowless cells, they have endured harsh treatment and false accusations.
Eventually it’s revealed that they have been coerced into becoming informants, which corrodes their trust in each other and eventually leads to the death of one of them. Two, a loving couple at the story’s start, are driven apart by their guilt and shame.
Karnak Café is a troubling vision of life in a modern police state, and it sheds light for Westerners on the recent struggles in Egypt for freedom and justice. Novella-length, it takes a stand somewhat distant from political events, while clearly throwing its sympathies to the young people who speak on its pages. It is currently available in paper and ebook format at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott's blog.
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