I was in my library standing in front of one of the shelves feeling uncertain and in a double-mind — to re-read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or pick up Claire Messud’s new novel The Emperor's Children — when I heard the BBC Radio newscaster saying that the Arabic writer Naguib Mahfouz had died.
The First Reaction
The immediate thought was a surprise that he was still alive. I then sat down on a chair, dropped my head on the writing desk, closed my eyes, and thought of Kamal, Khadija, Ayesha, Umm Hanafi, Widow Shawkat, Bayn al-Qasrayn street, and Khalil Agha School.
The sky outside remained blue and sunny. Birds continued with their frolicking. There was no stopping of the shrill screams of the children playing outside in the stairs. There was no cease in the continuous hum of the bulldozers, cranes, and other heavy equipment emanating from the site of a new mall being built behind my apartment complex. However, the reality was gradually settling in: Mahfouz was no longer a part of this breathing world.
The Unforgettable Gift from Cairo
I started searching for Mahfouz. The copies of the novels in which I made my first reading of the Cairo trilogy — Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street — were arranged between Middle East cookbooks in a wooden shelf in my dining room. They were handy, decent-looking paperbacks and quite special to me. After all, it was through them that I had discovered Mahfouz. Another three volumes, extremely handsome editions with evocative covers transporting right into the heart of early 20th-century Egypt, were standing upright against the Jane Austens on my writing desk. And then there was my most prized Mahfouz: the Cairo trilogy collected together between a single hardbound.
A friend of mine, who is no longer a friend, had gone to visit the pyramids early this year and had gotten me this beautiful edition. It was printed in Cairo. It was a most thoughtful present: a story about Cairo with a printed-in-Cairo stamp. It had an authentic, straight-from-the-Egypt flavor.
Former Friend and a Dead Writer
I was missing that estranged friend who had gifted me the precious Cairo trilogy. I was also missing Amina, the kind, gentle mother of the Palace Walk — the first novel in the trilogy.