Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz, Father of Modern Arabian Narrative

Even though his name was featured on the Islamic fundamentalists' sprawling hit list, Naguib Mahfouz lived a long life. Age 94. Admirable, especially for a writer who survived a stab in the neck when he was 82 and still refused the protection of the Cairo police. Now, how's that for a courageous, snooty snub to those tiresome "cultural terrorists?"

I receive the news of Mahfouz's death while I am reading his Cairo Trilogy.

Mahfouz once said, "Everyday a writer must write something, anything." In that spirit, I urged myself to post this blog entry today, though lately I am feeling a bit of a sense of "shifting gears." Recently, my usual writing schedule has become a shade more unusual. Truncated.

Despite that, to come up with something to write on this blog, I imagined what it would be like for Mahfouz to come talk to a character of mine who has been living in my head for some months now. Her name is Riva Djinn. She enjoys cameos here and there on this blog, as is her roguish wont. I suppose she's in one of her more poetic moods to commune with the dead, to play with the shades.

Riva Djinn met Mister Mahfouz at a coffee house on Broadway and Belmont in Chicago. The place is called Latakia; it's owned by a man from Syria, named Malik, who quit his job as a chemical engineer after suffering too much indignity and employment discrimination because of his Middle Eastern accent. Now Malik is his own boss and makes a mean cafe latte, the best in town! He sets his jaw and tries to laugh when he tells the story of how his brother in Syria, who is a developer, has outstripped Malik in prosperity. "I'm the one who came to the States!" Malik says, as if it still surprises him that he ended up less impressive by his mother's estimation.

Malik is a character Mahfouz would have written about.

But Mahfouz won't write another word. No longer bound to his writing desk or his beloved Cairo, Mahfouz can haunt this coffee shop on a rainy day in Chicago. He can play chess with a fictitious coquette who checked out evey book he's ever written from the Chicago Public Library. Now she sits on this stack of his books so that she might be perched high enough to look over the chess board and into her opponent's shady gaze. Though she thinks herself as tall as a suprermodel, Riva is a dwarf or hobgoblin or troll, of sorts. She may be short on physical stature, but she's got soaring sex appeal. In this coffee shop, Riva's admirers sometimes wait for her to finish the contents of her mug. When she returns the mug, they pounce; they vie; who'll be next to put his lips where hers have been?

But now, Riva Djinn and Naguib Mahfouz occupy their own corner table in Malik's cafe, and they play chess in total silence while the chatter, stories, and aromas of the coffee shop swirl around them. That's all there is to this tale, so far. Nothing more. Riva Djinn, the quintessential urban hermit, and the ghost of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, go unnoticed in a coffee house in Chicago; each quietly contemplates the next strategic move. The vibrations of silence and din merge and dissolve, merge and dissolve. A stranger asks, "Does the Mastermind's heart beat here?" Another asks, "Can I get a free refill?"

Riva bows her head, lowers her lids, sighs, as Mahfouz reaches for his queen.

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