Khan al-Khalili: A Novel
The time is 1942, the Second World War is at its height, and the Africa Campaign is raging along the northern coast of Egypt as far as El Alamein. Against this backdrop of international upheaval, this novel tells the story of the Akifs, a middle-class family that has taken refuge in Cairos historic and bustling Khan al-Khalili neighborhood. Believing that the German forces will never bomb such a famously religious part of the city, they seek safety among the crowded alleyways, busy cafs, and ancient mosques of the Khan, adjacent to the area where Mahfouz himself spent much of his young life. Through the eyes of Ahmad, the eldest Akif son and the novels central character, Mahfouz presents a richly textured vision of the Khan, drawing on his own memories to assemble a lively cast of characters whose world is framed by the sights, smells, and flavors of his childhood home. As Ahmad, a minor civil servant who has sacrificed both education and personal ambition in order to support his family, interacts with the people and traditions of Khan al-Khalili, a debate emerges that pits old against new, history against modernity, and faith against secularism. Addressing one of the fundamental questions of the modern era, Mahfouz asks whether, like the German bombs that threaten Khan al-Khalili daily, progress must necessarily be accompanied by the destruction of the past.