At a Cairo cafe, a cross-section of Egyptian society, young and old, rich and poor, are drawn together by the quality of its coffee and the allure of its owner, legendary former dancer Qurunfula. When three of the young patrons disappear for prolonged periods, the older customers display varying reactions to the news. On their return, they recount horrific stories of arrest and torture at the hands of the secret police, and the habitues of the cafe begin to withdraw from each other in fear, suspecting that there is an informer among them. With the night-time arrests and the devastation of the country's defeat in the 1967 War, the cafe is transformed from a haven of cameraderie and bright-eyed idealism to an atmosphere charged with mounting suspicion, betrayal, and crushing disillusionment. Exposing the dark underbelly of ideology, and delving into the idea of the 'necessary evils' of social upheaval, "Karnak Cafe" remains one of the Nobel laureate's most pointedly critical works, as relevant and incisive today as it was when it was first published in 1971.
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QurunfulaIt was sheer chance that brought me to the Karnak Cafe. One day I'd made my way to al-Mahdi Street to get my watch repaired; the job was going to take several hours, so I had to wait. To kill the time I decided to look at all the watches, jewelry, and trinkets on display in the store windows on both sides of the street. And that's how I came to stumble across the cafe.It's very small and off the main street. Since that day it's become my favorite place to sit and pass the time. To tell you the truth, at first I hesitated by the entrance for a moment, but then I spotted a woman sitting on a stool by the cash register, the usual spot for the manageress. You could tell she was getting old, and yet she still had vestiges of her former beauty. Those clear, refined features of hers jogged something buried deep in my memory. All of a sudden the images came flooding back. I could hear music and drums. I was sitting there watching a gorgeous body swaying from side to side; the air was permeated by the aroma of incense. A dancer, that's what she was. Yes, the star of 'Imad al-Din, none other than Qurunfula herself! Now there she was sitting on the stool, Qurunfula in person, the roseate dream from the 1940s.So that was how I came to enter the Karnak Cafe. I felt drawn in by some obscure magic force and a carefree heart, and all because of someone who had never even heard of me. We had never had any kind of relationship, whether of affection, self-interest, or simply courtesy. At one time she had been a real star, whereas I was just one of her contemporaries. The admiring glances that I directed at her still-glorious figure seemed to have absolutely no effect on her, and I did not feel I had any reason to go over and say hello. So I just took a seat and started looking around the cafe.It seemed to consist simply of one large room, but it was all neat and tidy. There was wallpaper on the walls, and the chairs and tables looked new; mirrors all around and colored lamps as well. The plates, dishes, and cups looked clean. All in all, its attractions as a place to sit were pretty irresistible. Every time the opportunity arose, I stared long and hard at Qurunfula. The bewitching femininity of her earlier days was long gone, of course, along with the bloom of youth, but in their place there was an enigmatic kind of beauty, accentuated by a sorrowful expression that touched your heart. Her body was still lithe and svelte, and gave the impression that she could still be lively and energetic when need be. And with it all there was a sense of a carefully controlled inner strength, the result of many years of experience and work. The carefree mood that she exuded was totally captivating. Her glances would take in the entire establishment and kept the wine-steward, waiter, and cleaner on their toes. For the relatively few regulars at the cafe she showed tremendous affection; the place was so small that they all seemed like a single family. There were three old men who may have been in retirement, another middle-aged man, and a group of younger people, including a very pretty girl.All this made me feel out of place. I certainly was feeling happy enough, but still I got the impression that somehow I was intruding. Good God, I told myself, I really like this place. The coffee is excellent, the water is pure, and the cups and glasses are models of cleanliness. Beyond that, there's that sweetness about Qurunfula, the respectability of those old men, and the lively atmosphere that those young people over there bring in, not to mention the pretty girl. It's right in the middle of the big city, just the place for a wanderer like me to relax for a while. Here you get to sense past and present in a warm embrace, the sweet past and glorious present. To top it all, there is that enticement that the unknown brings. There I was, needing to have my watch repaired, and now I find myself succumbing to a multi-faceted infatuation! Very well then, Karnak Cafe can be my haven of rest and relaxation whenever time permits.At that moment I had a very agreeable surprise. Qurunfula apparently decided to walk over and welcome me as a new customer. She left her chair and came toward me. She was wearing dark blue slacks and a white blouse."I'm pleased to see you here," she said, standing right in front of me.We shook hands, and I thanked her for her welcome."Did you like the coffee?" she asked."Very much," I replied truthfully, "an excellent blend."She smiled contentedly and stared at me for a moment. "I get the impression," she went on, "that you remember me from before. Am I right?""Yes," I replied, "who could ever forget Qurunfula?""But can you remember what I really did for art?""Certainly, you were the first to modernize belly dancing.""Have you ever heard or read about anyone who acknowledges that fact?""Sometimes nations are afflicted with a corporate loss of memory," I replied, feeling awkward, "but it never lasts for- ever.""That's all very well," she replied, "but those are empty words.""To the contrary, what I just said is absolutely true." I was eager to get out of this tight corner, so I went on, "I wish you a very happy life. That's what's most important."She laughed. "Thus far," she said, "the conclusion seems to be a happy one." With that she turned away and went back to her chair, but not before she bade me farewell with the words, "But only God knows the unseen!"So we got to know each other; it was that simple. It turned into a new friendship, one that gave me then and has continued to give me much pleasure. It was new in one sense, and yet behind it there were other features that went back thirty years or more. Our meetings and conversations continued and indeed blossomed till a bond of genuine affection was established.One day it occurred to me that she may have been a brilliant and gorgeous dancer, yet at the same time she had always been respectable."You were a wonderful dancer," I told her, "but you still managed to keep your respectability. Wasn't that some kind of miracle?""Before me belly dancing involved the three b's: belly, bosom, and buttocks," she responded proudly. "I turned it into something more tasteful.""How did you manage that?""I made sure never to miss the dancing soirees at al-Bargula." She shook her head suggestively. "On the matter of respectability," she went on, "I made it a matter of public knowledge that I would never consent to any relationship which didn't involve genuine love, nor would I make love with anyone if there was no question of marriage.""And that was it?" I asked in amazement."If respectability has a public face," she replied with a laugh, "that's enough, isn't it?"I nodded in agreement. She muttered something that I couldn't hear, then continued, "True love will always give a relationship a legitimacy that is hard to fault.""So that's why no magazine ever dragged your name through the mud.""That's right, not even the worst of them.""Even so, there were a lot of men whose lives went downhill over you.""Yes," she replied with a sigh, "nightlife is filled with personal tragedies.""I can still remember the tale of that Finance Ministry official.""Shhhh!" she interrupted with a whisper. "Do you mean 'Arif Sulayman? He's over there, just a few yards away from you. He's the steward behind the bar!"I sneaked a look in his direction as he stood there in his usual spot. He looked paunchy, and his hair had turned white; his expression was downtrodden and submissive.Qurunfula obviously noticed how astonished I looked. "It's not the way you...
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