Finding a treasure trove of unpublished stories by a Nobel Prize winning author is something that only happens in fiction. However, this is exactly what happened in the case of the recently published collection of stories, The Quarter from Saqi Books, by Naguib Mahfouz. The sheaf of papers were in a drawer with a note attached to them saying “to be published in 1994”.
Discovered in 2018, 12 years after Mahfouz’s death in 2006, the stories in The Quarter all take place in Cairo’s Gamaliya district. Perhaps a neighbourhood like any other, but Mahfouz makes it a place of magic and wonder. There is a kind of lyricism to his writing that makes even the most commonplace sound poetic and fantastic.
While the stories in The Quarter have been elegantly translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen, the flow of the words makes you wish you could read them in their original language. This is not a critique of the translation, rather that English seems too clumsy to convey the finer points or details.
However, this shouldn’t diminish anyones enjoyment of these rather magnificent stories. Each chapter brings us a different glimpse into the lives of the various people in the quarter. From the holy men to the con men they are each represented and presented with love and affection.
Mahfouz had the rare talent to bring his characters and environments to life using only minimal words. You might find yourself finished reading a piece before you realize it, but what you’ve read is so precise and fascinating its left an indelible mark on your mind.
There’s the haunted fort where demons and perhaps jinn live, and its blamed for much of mischief which occurs throughout the area. Than there are the people and their foibles. The volume of people packed within the pages of The Quarter is such that it seems almost impossible for them to stay contained in this slim volume.
Which isn’t to say there are too many characters, or to imply the stories are in anyway confusing. Rather they are so bursting with life and energy it’s hard to see how they would be content with staying on the printed page.
The same is true of the city’s quarter where the stories take place. While reading you’d swear you could hear the sounds of shutters and doors creaking in the wind and catch whiffs of cooking smells and feel the dust from the streets brush against your face.
While these stories are short if you’ve never read anything by Mahfouz before they will provide a good introduction to what you’ve been missing out on. His ability to bring the streets and people to live borders on the magical and, without intending or trying, makes the most prosaic situation seem other worldly. The Quarter is a lovingly executed and as artistic collection of short stories as you’re liable to read anywhere.