The Zafarani Files (originally published as Waqa'i' Harat al-Za'farani, 1976. Trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab. Cairo; New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2009) is a slapstick comedy set in a crowded, run-down alley of Cairo, with over 50 named and mostly zany characters, all of them obsessed by sex (their own and all their neighbors') and their social standing. Normally, they tolerate one another's routines -- including the effendi who pimps his own wife, the baker who is a male prostitute at the baths, the sergeant major (retired) and various others whose pretensions are far greater than their accomplishments. They view gossip, the frequent loud and violent quarrels of several of the women, and the occasional visit of a disoriented stranger as welcome entertainment. But one day the mysterious sheikh who lives in a tiny, dark apartment under the stairs and whom hardly anyone has ever seen, decides to begin his world-changing program in Zafarani Alley by depriving all the men there of that which they prize most: their sexual potency. This drives everybody over the brink. The pimp loses his customers, the male prostitute his job, the other men -- a taxi driver, a train fueler, a low-level bureaucrat, et al. -- their self-confidence, and the women have to resort to ever more desperate methods to get sexual satisfaction. Meanwhile, the government apparatus for political repression tries, with hopeless incompetence, to investigate these strange events while simultaneously denying to the world that anything unusual is occurring.
OK, my first problem is I'm probably missing a lot of the jokes. I don't know Cairo beyond what I've read in Mahfouz, and here there are word-games going on and what are probably sly references to larger political events of the 1970s. Secondly, there are so many named characters that it's hard to keep them straight, especially since the names are often similar. For example, Nabil, Nabila and Umm Nabila are three different characters, the first a young man that some of the local women fall in love with, the second a 26-year old female schoolteacher and unwilling spinster, and the third her mother. "Umm," I quickly figured out from the context, means "Mother of," and may be followed by the name of either a daughter or a son, as in Umm Yusif.
And finally, nothing ever gets resolved. With so many characters, each with his own craziness, there is no central element holding them all together as a story except the sheikh's curse (or blessing, or whatever it's supposed to be). But we never find out what happens to the sheikh (or even whether he really exists as they imagine him) or with the curse of impotence, which may still be in effect in that fictitious alley. What al-Ghitani must have been trying to do was to scandalize everybody, religious sheikhs, pretentious bureaucrats, ignorant shopkeepers and tradesmen, women generally, and the organs of the police state. The only characters who come across as reasonably sane are the "politico," possibly a Communist (or so the state bureaucracy imagines) just released from long imprisonment, and the young man who visits him to learn about the world.
But these are just reactions. Maybe tomorrow I can turn all this into a review.
I picked up his Collected Poems (1977), hoping to find "The Makers." Not to refresh my memory, because I know it by heart and often recite it to myself and anyone else who will listen, but rather to see what other poems he surrounded it with. But that poem didn't make it into this collection -- perhaps he wrote it after 1977. I did however find this deliciously disturbing reflection on our métier:
Theirs is a trade for egomaniacs,
People whose parents did not love them well.
It’s done by wasps and women, Jews and Blacks,
In every isolation ward in Hell.
They spend their workadays imagining
What never happened and what never will
To people who are not and whose non-being
Always depends on the next syllable.
(And three more stanzas. Click on link for the whole thing.)
Egomaniac? Moi? Maybe so. It is a very odd business, imagining all those people into being and then losing control over what they do, because sometimes the next syllable does not depend on the author but on the logic and rhythm of the prose. We are gods overtaken by our creatures.
New Glimpses of Life’s Puzzling Origins - NYTimes.com