Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fountain and Tomb

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fountain and Tomb

Article excerpt

By Naguib Mahfouz. Three Continents Press, 1988. 250 pp. List: $8; AET: $6 for one, $8 for two.

Three Continents Press has recently published a splendid translation of the 1975 novel Fountain and Tomb by the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz, a work which struggles with many of the themes familiar to his longtime readers. The novel, in the form of 78 tales, is set in Cairo during the turbulent 1920s and explores the reactions of some of its inhabitants as they respond to the transformation of their city and society. Many of the stories ponder the accommodations of everyday Egyptians to changes for the most part beyond their comprehension. However, while the stories describe a particularly Egyptian way of life, Fountain and Tomb is equally relevant as an essay on human adaptability.

Cairo at the time of Egypt's struggle to gain independence was in ferment as social, political and economic factors came together in yet another wave of change for this crossroads of civilization. Fountain and Tomb tells of the evolution of a neighborhood through the eyes of a young boy as he grows older, and the alley in which he lives undergoes a metamorphosis of its own. The tales reflect changing social mores, such as the advent of the "working woman," and the shift in the political culture signalled by Egyptians' entry into mass politics.

Mahfouz employs a number of metaphors showing that, little by little, tradition makes way for new ideas. There is talk in the alley of urban expansion, and some forward-looking types even speak of tearing down the takiya, or Sufi monastery, which represents the physical and spiritual heart of Mahfouz's neighborhood. One by one, alley residents venture into society-at-large, bringing changes back with them. The story of Abdu, whose father Am Sukry decides to educate his son as a means of qualifying him for a government job, muses upon the new path to success:

When he was young, Am Sukry had dreamed of joining the gang, being the futuwa, or at least winning a crucial brawl, but time wreaks marvelous changes...Abdu comes to occupy a very high post in the Ministry, and thanks to him, we get electricity in our alley. …

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