Khan al-Khalili, first published in 1945, was the first of Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s contemporary novels set in his beloved Cairo.
The story is set in 1942, and the African campaign during World War II has started to directly affect the inhabitants of Egypt, as the Germans bomb the city. Ahmad Akif, a civil servant who hates his going-nowhere job, has had to move his parents and himself from a more prosperous neighborhood to the Khan al-Khalili — where they believe the holy site and mosque of al-Husayn will protect them from any future bombing sorties. Not the case.
Ahmad is a difficult protagonist to like at first, as he is so disdainful of everyone and everything around him. Profoundly insecure, he considers himself a genius and is constantly having an internal dialogue about how bad luck has held him back from any success in life. But the rich culture of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar is about to change his life in many ways. He will meet a young girl, Nawal, who touches his heart. He will make friends who open his eyes to thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. And he will realize exactly how much his younger brother Rushdi really means to him.
Nobel Prize-winning author (1988) Mahfouz paints a compelling picture of Cairo during the war — from an angle that many readers have probably never encountered before. The men that Ahmad spends time with at the Zahra Cafe are constantly debating politics and ideas. Some are sympathetic to Hitler and the Germans, some to the Russians, but most are not fond of the British, who occupied Egypt from the 1880s until the 1930s. But nothing, especially political sympathies, are simple for Ahmad or his circle. Cairo is caught in the crossfire, and there are as many criticisms of the Germans as hopeful thinking that they will banish the Brits and end the war.
Egyptian food and religious festivals, especially Ramadan, provide backdrop and texture for many of the emotional events in the novel. Soon the interpersonal tragedies of the Akifs far outweigh the fear and inconvenience of being rousted out of bed and having to go to a bomb shelter in the middle of the night. The war is always there in the background, but it is Ahmad’s growth, the opening of his heart, that is the main focus of the novel. The war and other circumstances all join to drag Ahmad from his classical and familiar Arabic texts into a more modern, if irrevocably changed, world. Khan al-Khalili is a great introduction to the work of Naguib Mahfouz and the rich and complicated life of modern Egypt and Egyptians.