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Four cities, four writers

If you are visiting Cairo, you should not overlook the father of Arabic novel art, Naguib Mahfouz. In this book essay, Fredrik Giertsen takes us to Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran and Jerusalem, where we encounter exciting situation reports and memoirs that shed light on everyday life in the Middle East.


In 1988, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (b. 1911) became the first Arabic-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. Cairo Trilogy is among this prolific author's most famous books, and it's about a family going through two world wars. These books were published in the 1950s, and strangely enough, two of Mahfouz's heirs have in recent years both come up with memoirs from the Middle East that concentrate on about the same era: Orhan Pamuks Istanbul – Memories and the City (in Norwegian this spring) and Amos Oz ' A tale of love and darkness. The picture can be complemented by a startling book from Iran's capital: Azar Nafisis To read Lolita in Tehran.

Europe's outposts: Jerusalem and Istanbul

Jerusalem must be the world's most sought after city, while Istanbul, as the former capital of the Austro-Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, holds a symbolic place in every historical consciousness. The foremost contemporary writers these cities have produced are Amos Oz and Orhan Pamuk, respectively, and it's a bit of a coincidence that they each come with their own personal city portraits almost simultaneously, and that they have such strong similarities: they deal with both the authors' childhood and youth, and ends up deciding to become writers. Now they do not belong to the same generation, Oz was born in 1939 and Pamuk in 1952, but Pamuk still writes a lot about Istanbul in the 1950s.

Pamuk Istanbul is full of beautiful black and white photographs of what the city looked like before, when it was dominated by wooden houses along the Bosphorus. These were later burned down, as Istanbul grew from just over half a million inhabitants to an insane ten million in just 50 years. That's why Istanbul's past Orhan Pamuk is looking for, recounting his own walks in squats in a bygone city. But even though little Orhan is a vulnerable boy with an attraction to art, he is a fairly protected upper-class child who looks at the poverty around him – and he actually seems quite happy.

Amos Oz wasn't happy when he was little. And if Orhan Pamuk provides an artistic portrait of a city that could well be painted and hung on the walls of civilian homes, then it is Jerusalem that we meet in A tale of love and darkness rather a frightening disappointment. Admittedly, the action takes place outside the city center, in a drab town full of immigrants to the Promised Land. But life is hard and the earth is dry, reminiscent of what meets the naïve Swedish fanatics of Selma Lagerlöfs Jerusalem (1901-02).

Amos in Short Pants is a boy who grows up in a dysfunctional family, with a nervous and cranky, forever fluttering father, and a beautiful but dreamy and enigmatic mother. But beyond that, and rather than being a city portrait as Pamuk's book is, this is a historical portrayal of something as concrete as the state of Israel. Amos Oz reveals that the Israelites, who seem so oblivious to their rights, at least at that time were confused and skinless individuals.

Both Jerusalem and Istanbul are constantly referred to as alleged meeting places for East and West – Jerusalem for its history that springs from the major religions, Istanbul most of all for its location. Contrary to what one might think from a modern geopolitical utilitarian thinking, it is nevertheless Amos Oz's book, and his Jerusalem, which holds the dynamic tensions, while the metropolis Istanbul with Orhan Pamuk buzzes around as in a backwater of world history. Despite Atatürk, it probably shone more before.

To read Lolita in Tehran

A fairly neat book that was published in 2003, the Iranian literature professor Azar Nafisis To read Lolita in Tehran, is a relevant and touching description of the role of literature in a free country. It is a true story of how Nafisi revolted against Khomeini's revolution in Iran, and refused to carry a gun while teaching at a university in Tehran. She talks about how she gathered a bunch of female students at home every Thursday, where they talked mostly about literature, but preferably about themselves. The real story unfolds in the dialectic between these women's lives and the books of Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James.

Nabokov Lolita they read as if an individual's life, the twelve-year-old girl, is being seized by another, rapist Humbert Humbert. It is no wonder they find parallels in their own lives, where they are constantly being checked by strangers for hairstyle and nail polish, though Nafisi hesitates to draw this too far. Nabokov's ingenious trait is that he deceives us to take a certain interest in the charmingly ragged, but alas, pedophile Humbert, who in the courtroom defends himself with the following: "The honorable freed jurist [...] it was she who seduced me." The irony of this is that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the lower age limit for marriage for "women" is nine years, that is, three years younger than Lolita.

Gradually, the class at the university sets up a lawsuit against Fitzgerald's character Gatsby, who is a man in love who has not kept his path completely clean, yet does not act out of evil intent. The most eager Islamists in the class typically blend Gatsby's morals with the United States itself, but Nafisi, in turn, praises the novel's "basic democratic structure," since it emphasizes dropping many different characters. Her students are clearly completely untrained in critical thinking, and do not even realize that merely paraphrasing the professor is against the nature of literature.

Nafisi left Iran in 1997 and went to the United States, where she had studied in the 1970s. A small objection to this gem of a book is in this context, something the author even admits, that she basically feels more American than really Iranian. It could be exciting to read what these women also thought of writers from their own cultural circles who are fighting a battle more like their own?

Cairo Trilogy

Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo trilogy consists of Between two castles (1956) The palace of desire og The sugar house (both 1957). Rarely can a writer and his work to the degrees be linked to one city, or even a single city, and the relatively peaceful Cairo is still today a somewhat underestimated force in the historical, political and religious life of the Middle East.

It was Egypt's socialist President Gamal-Abdel Nasser who initiated pan-Arabism in the 1950s, while many believe that Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) was the ideological sponsor of today's Islamism. Naguib Mahfouz also received a knife in the throat outside his home for his descriptions of hash-smoking abusers in his book Gebelawi's childrenthat both The Quran og Bibelen forming literary backdrops. One can therefore safely say that Mahfouz is much loved and deeply hated in his hometown. An illustrative anecdote says that Sayyid Qutb, who has been an important ideological inspiration for Osama bin Laden before he became radicalized, actually helped Naguib Mahfouz come to light.

Cairo Trilogy is about three generations of the Abd el-Gawwad family, who live in the ancient Muslim part of the Egyptian capital. Central to the beginning is the patriarch and family tyrant Ahmed, who lives a double life where he can enjoy his interests as a decadent pleasure-addict outside Quranic jurisdiction, while his wife barely leaves the home. His five children live in fear, but they eventually take over the focus of the books, taking on various roles that show the diversity of Egypt's social development: Some enjoy life, others ponder about poetry or religion, while the country is born through independence from Britain. With the Muslim Brotherhood and the denial of God as extremes in the country's history of ideas, the author also takes the time to embed a strong and strange love story as the novel focuses increasingly on Ahmed's youngest son Kemal, the poet.

1950 century

Thus, Naguib Mahfouz takes us into the world from the First World War up to Egypt's independence in 1952, and the political-religious polarization of the time that still holds true today. The same 1950s that were so important to Cairo are portrayed by Amos Oz as formative in the modern history of Jerusalem, while for Orhan Pamuk it is only an object of nostalgia in Istanbul.

When it comes to Iran, it seems that the country is far behind in the development of society. Tehran lacks the dynamics of Cairo and Jerusalem and the peace of Istanbul. The relative freedom of these three great cities in the Middle East is disappointingly absent in the land of the Persians. The paranoid state censorship is without mercy, and Nafisi does not conceal that it is Ayatolla Khomeini and the Islamist revolution that are to blame.

If Cairo's 50s dualism can be found in Nafisis Tehran, it must be through some of the books they use in their reading circles. Russian Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita came out in 1955, long after he had made an American of himself. Ironically, it was in the 1950s that Iran's independence reached its highest point, only to see the strategist behind the nationalization of the oil, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, be overthrown in a coup led by US and UK agents in 1953.

The novel and democracy

The novel form is often perceived as the most democratic literary art. This is exemplified by referring to the great novel projects of nineteenth-century writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, in which the democracy lies in the fact that the writers give votes to almost as many different people as possible, women and men from all walks of life.

Azar Nafisi, as I said, highlights this argument in her lectures, where she also goes through Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald (she could well have included Mahfouz), but precisely in relation to Nabokov's Lolita this becomes more problematic. This groundbreaking novel is probably an example of the language and the power of charm to seduce and subjugate, and whether the novel should be democratic in general, shows Lolita that democracy can weather terrible horrors, almost without the reader noticing. This, in my opinion, is Nabokov's brilliant suggestion. Nafisi's own book is rather an example of how rebellious the novel can be, while the works it mentions glow in its applicability.

According to the same definition, the memoirs of Amos Oz and Orhan Pamuk, with their pronounced subjectivity, should not have the same diversity of meaning. But democracy is also the invention of the enterprising bourgeoisie. For Pamuk's part, it seems that nostalgia and melancholy lie in the fact that democracy has already been invented, and the happy struggle has already become past. Amos Oz, on the other hand, shows the traumatic upbringing conditions of a child of a Zionist immigrant family as well as Israeli democracy. What Oz is in the middle of is what Pamuk longs for. So lucky they are who can write.

Fredrik Giertsen holds a Master of Philosophy. with a major in General Literature.

Naguib Mahfouz

"The Cairo Trilogy: Between Two Castles, the Desire's Palace and the Sugar House" (three volumes)

Pax Forlag, 1990 and 1991

Amos Oz:

“A Tale of Love and Darkness”

Pax Publishers, 550 pages, 2005

Orhan Pamuk:

“Istanbul – Memoirs and the City”

Alfred A. Knopf (New York), 368 pages, 2005

Azar Nafis:

“Reading Lolita in Tehran. A story of love, books and revolution ”

Humanist Publishing House, 400 pages, 2004

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