Wednesday, August 30, 2006

naguib mahfouz

I don’t read many contemporary novels: Mostly because I can’t be trusted to pick a good one out of a line up. So I wait for them to come to me, and they do, on the lips of friends whose hearts and judgment I trust.

Bel Canto came to me that way from litwit; The Sixteen Pleasures came from opiliones; each title now a fragrant, much-loved memory.

I have During the Reign of the Queen of Persia still waiting for me on my shelf where it took its seat when it was first recommended to me many years ago by a woman who my dear friend TD4 loved, and so of course I loved her too. But she broke his heart before I had a chance to crack it open, and since then it’s simply sat there, collecting dust, because I don’t trust it anymore.

The Bridge on the Drina was pressed into my hands, a gift from someone I’d only just met, when we shared a table in a café and our chat evolved into a passionate conversation about his home, which he missed bitterly, in Bosnia, which then was on the brink of war. (There was an earnestness in eyes as we spoke. When the conversation ended he went next door to the bookshop and returned. “A gift for you,” he said. I never saw him again.)

Midaq Alley came to me that way too, through friends with whom I shared an almost carnal fascination with alphabets and far away places. We read it together on a dare and talked long into the night, loving it and all the people who populated it.

So when I heard today that Naguib Mahfouz had passed away at 94, I was glad that it was 5 o’clock so that I could end the workday and return home, to pull the book off its shelf and visit with old friends.

Before they knew it they were at the end of the street and they laughed aloud in unison. Then they turned and he suddenly realized that their meeting was approaching its end. Thoughts of a dreaded farewell swam before him. Sadness enveloped him and halfway along the street he asked nervously:

“Where shall we say goodbye?”

She understood what he meant and her lips trembled. She asked half-heartedly:


However, he opposed the idea, explaining:

“We can’t just snatch this farewell hurriedly, like thieves.”

“Where do you suggest?”

“Go home a bit ahead of me and wait for me on the stairs.”

She hurried off and he followed slowly. When he reached the alley, all the shops were closed and he made his way dreamily towards Mrs. Saniya Afifi’s house. He moved cautiously up the pitch-black stairs, breathing as quietly as possible, walking with one hand on the banister and one groping into the shadows before him.

From « Midaq Alley » by Nagub Mahfouz, who died today at 94. May he rest in peace.

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