No end in sight

MahfouzEgypt and the Arab world have recently had their dreams of dominance in the Middle East burst by a swift Israeli victory in the 1967 war. But the revolution is still the driving force behind the young people of the country. Naguib Mahfouz follows a representative group of young revolutionaries who congregate at the Karnak Café and discuss the politics of their country. We read of the events of their lives, whether love affairs or imprisonment and torture. After their stories are all told and the remaining young revolutionaries meet in the Café, they have one final look to the future.

Remember that in this country we are told that there is a solid Arab or Moslem jihad against the United States: every man, woman, child, dog, or goat in the arab lands is full of hatred for Americans and will stop at nothing to kill Americans and destroy the United States. True, it’s the later part of the sixties but wasn’t the anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment even greater then? But this is what Mahfouz writes:

Often we find ourselves getting bored with the whole thing, at which point someone will suggest changing the topic before we all go absolutely mad. All of us enthusiastically support the idea and start on another subject, but discussion is usually uninspired and starts to flag. It’s not too long before it’s on its last legs, at which point we go back to our enduring topic. We’re flogging it to death, and it’s doing exactly the same thing to us, but there’s no letup and no end in sight.

“War, that’s the only way.”

“No, the fedayeen, they’re the way. And we must concentrate on defense.”

“The only feasible solution is one imposed by the Great Powers as a group.”

“Any negotiation implies surrender.”

“But there has to be negotiation. All nations negotiate with each other. Even America, China, Russia, Pakistan, and India do just that!”

“In this instance, the idea of a ‘peace settlement’ means that Israel will gain complete control of the region and swallow it up in one simple gulp.”

“But how come we’re so afraid of a settlement? Did the English and French swallow us up?”

“If the future reveals Israel to be a state with good intentions, then we can live with it. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be exactly the opposite, then we’ll have to get rid of it, just as we did the Crusaders many, many years ago.”

“The future belongs to us. Just consider our numbers and our wealth.”

“It’s a question of culture and science.”

“Okay then, let’s go to war. That’s the only solution.…”

“Russia isn’t providing us with the weapons we need.”

“No peace, no war—a stalemate. That’s all that’s left.”

“For us, that means a process of nonstop attrition.”

“No, as far as we’re concerned the real struggle will take place on the cultural plane. For us peace is more risky than war.”

“We should disband the army and start building ourselves up again from scratch.”

“We should announce our neutrality and demand that other nations respect it.”

“But what about the fedayeen? You’re all ignoring the one effective force in the entire situation!”

“We’ve been defeated, and now we have to pay the price. We should leave the rest of it for the future.”

“The Arabs’ worst enemy is themselves.”

“Their rulers, you mean.”

“The entire government system, more like it.”

“Everything depends on the Arabs being able to work as a unified entity.”

“On the fifth of June 1967 at least half the Arabs won.”

“Start on the inside, that’s what we have to do.”

“Fine! Religion then. Religion’s everything.”

“No! Communism’s the answer.”

“No! Democracy is what we need.”

“Responsibility should be taken away from the Arabs altogether.”

“Freedom … freedom!”


“Let’s call it democratic socialism.”

“Let’s start off with war. We’ll have time for reforms later.”

“No, the reforms have to come first, then solutions can be worked out some time in the future.”

“No, the two must go hand in hand.”

And so on and so on, ad infinitum.

From Karnak Café by Naguib Mahfouz.

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