It has become impossible to miss the clear Chinese influence on the once unchallenged Egyptian crafts and avenues of Khan Al-Khalili. This is particularly the case if it is the visitor’s first stroll around the Khan in 20 years or so.
It was hard not to think that had the Chinese president passed by last month during his visit to Egypt, he would have seen how the products of his country are permeating the heart of traditional Egyptian crafts.
At the entrance of the Naguib Mahfouz Café, for a little break in the middle of a sunny winter afternoon stroll, one may wonder what the man who documented historic old Cairo would have thought at this scene.
“He believed in change and evolution – it is very clear in all his books, especially those that approached the socio-political developments of Egypt between 1919 and 1952 and beyond,” Salma said as we were seated into the newly renovated Obrai managed café.
“This is not evolution this is loss of ownership – it is as obnoxious as the Chinese theme that was imposed on Al-Karnak temple during the visit of the Chinese president last week,” I said as we both decided, prior to examining the menu, that the first thing we would have is tea with mint which was promptly served with fresh green leaves and a slightly too cold bottle of mineral water that the waiter assumed – and rightly so – that we needed.
As we drank the small glasses of warm tea, Salma added that she thought that what Mahfouz must have really believed in was “in fact revolution…In all of his novels there is wish for or act of a significant unexpected shift that is not necessarily produced by society or by a particular group but by a key character,” she said.
We discussed the sudden change of path of Ihsan, the leading female character in his novel Al-Kahira Al-Gadida (New Cairo) who decided maybe under the pressure of poverty to give up on her idealistic dreams that were given to her by Ali Taha and to simply become a part-time mistress for a rich older man.
“Revolution does not always have to be from good to bad, in the conservative moral sense of the word, I think; it is just about breaking the ties and taking a whole new path,” Salma said.
I was looking at the menu of drinks contemplating whether to go for a lemon-mint or for the yogurt frappe with mango – which seemed filling enough to replace a lunch of either the famous kofta (meat balls) or falafel sandwiches.
Still, I could not help remarking that Ihsan did not necessarily fully choose to take the path she took.
“She was driven into it – it is like when the media was encouraging people prior to the 30 June demonstrations to go out and protest the Muslim Brotherhood rule – as opposed to the actual revolution of Zohra in Miramar where the leading woman character willingly decided to abandon her village to avoid being forced into marrying an older man and decided instead to get a job in Alexandria and to pursue an end to her illiteracy,” I said as the waiter was getting an order of lemon-mint for Salma who was determined to have her kofta dish (not the sandwich) and my yogurt-mango frappe.
“So Ihsan is 30 June and Zohra is 25 January?” Salma asked with a loud laugh that echoed through what was a relatively empty café given the decline of tourism – something that the waiter could not have lamented more – and the time of the day which is not typical for the arrival of Egyptian clients who are more into the dinner and music scene of the evenings.
The drinks were both very fresh and the frappe did have more mango than I had expected and to my delight had no added sugar – something that I had forgotten to warn the waiter against.
“Ihsan had not naturally wanted to end up as being both the escort of the older minister and the wife of an immoral civil servant – she was encouraged or maybe pushed,“ I told Salma.
“This is not too sweet as it would have been in other places,” Salma commented on the first sip of her lemon-mint.
She then added that Zohra in Miramar was also subject to the attempts of an older man, Toulba Bey Marzouk, and an immoral civil servant “but Zohra was not blackmailed by the poverty of her family, especially of her younger brothers and sisters,” she added.
As she ordered her kofta grill dish, I decided to abandon my worry over the post lunch laziness syndrome and ordered a falafel platter and vine leaves.
We followed the suggestion of the waiter for us to move to another larger table where the plates could fit easily. Salma then told me that Ihsan is Egypt after the 1919 Revolution while Zohra is Egypt after the 1952 Revolution.
“Maybe, I mean Zohra is clearly Egypt being contested by contradicting political currents and El-Behiry is clearly the worst image of the 1952 Revolution – being the immoral, corrupt, and ambitious civil servant,” I said.
As we waited for our lunch I told Salma that I thought Mahfouz had a bias for the 1919 Revolution and the political figures of the time compared to the 1952 Revolution – “it is hard to miss if you read the last batch of his ‘dreams’ that were issued in a book late last year; you clearly see positive references to Saad Zaghloul, and Moustafa El-Nahhas even, but this is not the case with Gamal Abdel-Nasser”.
“It is clear that he thought of time under Nasser as the inevitable police state – you cannot miss this in his novel Al-Karnak,” Salma said.
As the food was placed to our table, conversation about the Mahfouz books was temporarily halted and we instead spoke of the quality of the food with an common agreement of “actually good”.
The grilled kofta was well-done but still juicy, the falafel were properly fried and the vine leaves were adequately cooked.
I told Salma that the last time I had eaten at this café was back in 1995 – “but at the time you could not find a single empty table. I remember my friends and I had to wait for 15 minutes before we were seated."
Following the meal, we ordered two Turkish coffees before we paid and decided to move on for the rest of our walk through Old Cairo that Salma noted had very little left from the one that Mahfouz described in his novels which, unlike Al-Kahira Al-Gedida and Miramar, were mostly happening around this neighbourhood.