In the beginning there is the smell. Of fresh, soft, round bread, hundreds of loaves, bread which looks like rotis, far tougher than the roomali but much softer than the tandoori, spherical like a flying saucer, like a rugby ball, piled high in a cart, smelling of flour and smoke and fire, emerging straight out of the bakery. The bread is not stacked in rows; it is dumped in the cart as it is prepared, and people pick it up casually, pay the baker, and carry on, munching, their first meal of the day. Its smell is sweet. You hear the gentle pounding of the dough, which will soon take the shape of more bread.
It is not yet hot—it is the hour after the first prayers, and the street is full of old men walking the uneven streets, wearing their long gowns, pale blue and green, as they meander through the tiny streets, past shops opening for the day, patting children leaving for school, avoiding the holes on the sidewalk, ignoring the tourists, out with their flashy cameras and large telephoto lenses, capturing the slow beginning of activity of a street in old Cairo in the morning.
I had seen the old city from a garden the previous evening, before the sun went down. Minarets had sprouted on the horizon, and under that pale, fading sun, the domes had shone, making the twilight hour magical. The next day we were in al-Gamaliya—the long road that formed the central artery of Naguib Mahfouz’s life in Cairo, Egypt—the mosque of al-Hakim, the sabils, or water fountains built by devout traders for people thirsty for water, the suq (market) and the hamam (public bath), and those shops and the persistent hawkers of Khan al-Khalili. We saw women in niqab quietly inspecting lacy lingerie, concealing their excitement, shrouding it beneath their veils, the mountain of fresh olives and garlic and tomatoes and mint piled up for sale, the milkman pouring milk in steel tumblers and selling it to women who look away, hiding their faces when I try to photograph them. Then the shops with Qurans and carpets, a chicken seller, an old shop selling palm leaves, an ironing shop, the cafés with their fresh coffee and more bread, the store selling cotton by the sack, and toy stores now flooded with Chinese goods. Beyond, the wholesale market, where traders sell copper, coal and steel bars; and still beyond, the street with jewellery and perfumes. Across that, another store, as if stuck in 1917, selling large clocks and watches, each showing a different time, as if each is frozen in another age. A donkey cart passes by, oblivious of us.
This was the heart of Bayn al-Qasrayn, Mahfouz’s Palace Walk. Literally meaning between two palaces, Mahfouz began his The Cairo Trilogy, written in the 1950s and setting the stage of the nationalist revolution of 1919, revolving around the el-Gawad family, the two palaces signifying the milestones pointing out the political changes Egypt underwent. Qasr el-Shoak (Palace of Desire ) followed, bookended by El-Sukkareya ( Sugar Street ). Each a real street of old Cairo, each resonating with the calm mood of the city, encompassing the quarter-century between the Egyptian uprising against the British and the end of World War II. The three novels captured the essence of transformation in Egypt, solidifying Mahfouz’s reputation, leading to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.
This part of Cairo represented the soul of Mahfouz’s writing. “The shadows of the place, the voices of those gone, and the clamour of the passers-by,” Mahfouz wrote once, remained with him for long. “Everyone has a place in time and space, everyone has a point of departure for which he longs and adopts as a refuge, to go back in times of difficulties or when he is away from it. My place is in old Cairo, in al-Gamaliya. My soul is there always, in spite of the passing of long years,” he wrote.
Then in The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, Mahfouz wrote: “However much the place distances itself from me it will continue to let fall drops of affection, conferring memories that are never forgotten, and etching its mark, in the name of the homeland, in the very core of the heart. So long as I live I shall passionately love the effusions of the perfume vendors; the minarets and the domes; the radiant face of a pretty girl illuminating the lane; the mules of the privileged and the feet of the barefooted; the songs of the deranged and the melodies of the rebab; the prancing steeds and the lablab trees; the cooing of pigeons and the plaintive call of doves.”
I stepped into Mahfouz’s interior landscape that day with friends who have made Cairo their home, and we walked into the world of the Palace Walk. In the trilogy, the youngest son of the el-Gawad family is Kamal, who critics say is Mahfouz’s alter ego: a philosophy student grappling with the clash of his faith and science. He is a child in the first novel, grows to a university student in the second, and becomes a teacher in the final novel. As he grows older, he gets bitter, losing the certainties that childhood has taught him, not at ease with tradition. The gradual progression is redeemed at the end, when Mahfouz ends the novel on a note of quiet optimism, but it remains unremittingly bleak.
Change is inevitable, but certain things remain the same. Time, and its pace, are at the heart of those novels. Modern Cairo represents some of that—in the old Cairo, in the area around Khan al-Khalili, the activity is paced evenly, ambling like a stroll in the evening. Nobody is in any hurry, life goes on, as it always has, gently, the child going to school now will inherit the family home, and his children will wear the same sort of clothes, going to the same school, waking up to the sound of the muezzin’s prayer and the gentle thump of the dough being pounded for bread, the smell of fresh coffee wafting through the air. And step beyond the markets, to Cairo’s busy streets, where the traffic is snarling, cars weaving through the mess impatiently, the back of the driver’s palm never too far from the horn, the driver pressing the accelerator the moment he can see a bit of open space between his car and the one ahead, desperate to beat the traffic light about to turn amber.
Those different cities coexist, but Mahfouz’s Cairo is the old one, where couscous vendors sit by the façade of a seminary; minarets shooting up into the sky; domes lit in the glow of light; the parapet with statuettes, like spears bunched tightly together at the mosque of al-Husayn; those shrines of al-Sayyida Zaynab and al-Husayn, with the intricate green pattern; the quaint Arabic characters, looking like lattice work, carved on pieces of stones adorning the walls of a Sufi mosque; the chairs stacked high, one straight, one upside down, tilting but never falling, at a café yet to open; and there, Fishawi’s café.
Fishawi’s is an institution, a necessary respite under the hot sun, as if reaching an oasis after a trawl through the desert, its couches looking worn, the al-fresco seating area taken up by tourists, consulting their large maps and placing their guidebooks on the small tables, fanning themselves, pestered by young boys who emerge out of nowhere, pointing out their dusty shoes, promising to make them shine with the polish, the rag, and their energy.
You look inside Fishawi’s, with its lamps and marble-top tables, the arches and the imposing seats for families to sit undisturbed by other patrons, the trays on the table with the delicious lemonade, the large mirrors, the light blue china teapots, the mild yellow light from the large bulbs, the electric fan moving from left to right and then back. You can spend hours at Fishawi’s, and like in a café in Paris, the waiters will understand your need for solitude, taking their time to come to your table, replenishing your coffee only when asked, letting you be at peace with your thoughts. Mahfouz came here often.
The old shops have lanterns—some made of iron, with intricate carving, letting the light out not in one clear glow, but serrated, making the light shimmer, the lanterns swaying slightly, the landscape around you shifting, revealing what remained in darkness only moments ago.
We pass by a mosque—the faithful come out, looking content and pious, wearing their shoes left outside the mosque, and a man walks towards us with a censer, its smoke wafting, and he lets that smoke surround you, and you pay him, and he leaves. The man guarding my shoes asks where I’m from. “Turkey?” he guesses. “India,” I say. His eyes light up, as he holds my hand with both hands, and says: “Amitabh Bachchan!”
We go into the old home of a merchant. The inner courtyard is large, with a small garden and invitingly large space. Made of dark wood, its windows are intricate, jutting out on the street, with tiny holes no bigger than the human eye, offering a view of the world beyond. This is the women’s quarter; this is where they can look out from, but remain visible to the strangers on the street, secluded from the world, in their own inner space. You could picture the daughter of a merchant, standing in the morning, her eyes wandering down Hamam al-Sultan, taking in the ancient building with the public cistern. Perhaps she will see a young man there that she will fancy; perhaps she might run into him in the market, perhaps she might go to college, and find the young man in her class; perhaps they will meet in a café. And perhaps, they will fall in love. In Mahfouz’s trilogy, Kamal does, and then loses his love, embittering him further. Mahfouz recounts the pain quietly, as a matter of fact, with an air of inevitability.
Later one evening my friends take me on a felucca, the traditional sailboat which plies the Nile. We are now far from the old city; some minarets are visible, but so are the skyscrapers and hotels that dot the banks of the river. The felucca can take up to 10 people and the man who sails it plays music, and the children of our friends dance merrily. We share a large pizza, watching the sun turn orange, and then pink, as it lowers itself, hiding behind the skyscrapers, its light settling on the Nile, disturbed by the flow of water, the singular image of the orb disintegrating into a million little fireflies. The breeze gentle, the harshness gone, the Cairo day ends.