"There is always an idea behind a novel, at least behind the novel as I know it," Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz once said. In his case, the idea frequently shed light on the cultural and political landscape of his native country, helping earn Mahfouz the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. That unquestionably occurs with Karnak Café.
Although written in 1974, the novella was not available in a stand-alone English edition until 2007, the year after Mahfouz's death. In barely 100 pages, Karnak Café takes the reader inside totalitarian aspects of Egyptian society following the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and the impact of the Six Day War in June 1967 on the nation's psyche. Even the title reflects Mahfouz's attempt to have his audience "sense past and present in a warm embrace." Karnack is the name of a huge temple complex that spans millennia of Egyptian history. The more modern café, meanwhile, is "a gathering-place for people with extremely interesting and provocative viewpoints."
Initially set in the 1960s, the book's unnamed narrator introduces us to the café ("my haven of rest and relaxation"), its owner and the regular customers. The regulars represent a range of Cairo's population, from a number of old men who play backgammon to a group of university students, including Hilmi, Isma'il and Ismai'il's girlfriend, Zaynab. For the students, "history began with the 1952 Revolution," making them its "real children."
Yet three times during the years the students no longer appear at the café, always following reports of arrests by the new government. Discussion in the café tends to be more subdued and avoids the political. While the students eventually return, each time some of them are never seen again. Hilmi is among those who doesn't return after the third disappearance.
In the balance of Karnak Café, the narrator relates Isma'il's and Zaynab's separate accounts of what transpired during the detentions. These are tales of physical and psychological torture, despair and betrayal. At the center is a name first uttered the first time the students returned, the name of their chief interrogator. Mahfouz, though, does not let the students' story provide the only viewpoint on what was recent Egyptian history when the story was published.