I was in Cairo, trying desperately to interview the aging pop star Ahmed Adaweya, whose penis, depending on whom you talk to, was or was not cut off by Saudi royalty. It was a uniquely American endeavor, mocked a friend of mine: Invade the region with superior firepower, help topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, and then come in on a tourist visa to find a castrated singer.
“Next thing, you’ll probably want to steal this guy’s wife,” my friend said, way too loudly, waving in the direction of a Sa’idi in the corner of the coffee shop where we sat. “You’re like Genghis, but with loafers. You can just throw dollars at them. Or Michael Jackson records.” I looked nervously over my shoulder at the Sa’idi. Thankfully, he seemed oblivious to my home-wrecker plan, his eyes glued to the flickering television set. 50 Cent had his shirt off. His abs were glistening; they seemed almost extraterrestrial in their beauty. No one in the coffee shop was immune to their strange and terrifying allure.
“This is not the story of 50 Cent as object of the Sa’idi gaze,” said my friend, touching my leg just above the knee. “This is the story of what you choose to see when you come to Egypt. All you see is castration.”
“Isn’t it better than being really into Umm Kulthum’s glasses?” I asked. “Or Nasser’s Hawaiian shirts? Or Souad Hosni’s white dress?” The Egyptian singer Ruby started dancing on the television. “Or Ruby’s flared nostrils?”
“Her nostrils are beautiful,” said the coffee-shop owner. He finished adjusting the coals on our sheesha and blew his nose on the hem of his shirt. “I could write a ghazal about her nostrils.”
“We’re talking about Ahmed Adaweya’s penis,” announced my friend.
“Not much to talk about!” Exaggerated laughter. “Now Ruby’s nostrils—there’s an object worthy of being a subject!” He whistled lasciviously.
As the coffee-shop owner walked away, I tried to explain my idea about Adaweya. Because we spoke in Arabic, I used awkward, muddled phrases, each ending with a questioning lilt: It’s about more than the rumored castration? It’s about the history of Egyptian pop music? About the shift from classically trained poets and composers to working-class louts? About the man who sold a million tapes, even though the government wouldn’t allow his songs to be played on the radio? They were too lascivious? An allegory for the swamping of Egyptian nationalism by Saudi oil money?
“It’s just so crass,” my friend said. “You like Ahmed Adaweya because he’s crass. You like him for the same reason you like this coffee shop, because it’s crappy.” He started pointing: the rickety wooden chairs with torn woven wicker seats, the dented, aluminum-topped tables, the grains of Keda tea floating in tepid water . . .
“What’s wrong with Umm Kulthum?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with being fascinated with Mahfouz or Abd al-Haleem Hafez or Fairuz? Something that requires a mastery of Arabic music or history or the goddamn language?”
“Yeah,” said the coffee-shop owner, his jowls quivering with excitement, “and why don’t you go to a nicer coffee shop?”
“I’m leaving,” the Sa’idi suddenly announced. He twirled his magnificent mustache and walked out of the coffee shop.
“Where is he going?” I demanded. My friend looked embarrassed. The coffee-shop owner ignored me. Outside, the Sa’idi hailed a minibus and got in, heading off to wherever it is that Sa’idis go. Where do Sa’idis go?
But this is not the Sa’idi’s story. Nor is it the story of the Sa’idi’s mustache, which deserves a book-length study of its own. And it is most definitely not the story of Ahmed Adaweya, who is, let’s face it, kind of crass. It is, rather, the story of the novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who turned out to be worthy of fascination after all.
It turns out that meeting a Nobel laureate is far easier than meeting a washed-up and possibly castrated pop star.
I showed up to my meeting with Mahfouz wearing a new suit made of gray wool—but something had gone wrong in the tailoring; the arms reached down to my knuckles while the pants barely made it to my ankles. It was not, in any case, an easy suit to wear in the heat of a Cairo summer. By the time I reached Ustaz Mahfouz, my shirt was stuck to my back. To make things worse, I had worn bright socks that day, and by the time I arrived at the Shepherd Hotel in Garden City, they were stained a dusty brown.
I met Mahfouz in the hotel bar. He wore a striking white linen suit that hung loosely over his small frame. He was lost in a high-backed leather armchair. I shook his hand gingerly—this was three years before his death in 2006, and everything about him seemed delicate. I was worried that Mahfouz would see my socks or notice the poor cut of my suit. When I sat down, I could feel the stiff neck of my new dress shirt grown damp with sweat and nervousness.
Not that there was anything to be nervous about; Mahfouz was asleep for most of the evening. I was left alone with the coterie of men who made up the ranks of his salon, a group of intellectuals who filled the void of Mahfouz’s silence with talk of their own.
When they found out I was American, they roared and began to lecture me on the necessity of American intervention in the Middle East, using exotic names like Drudge Report and Fareed Zakaria. “America must push, push, PUSH on the Middle East!!” one yelled.
From time to time, someone would shake Mahfouz awake and yell a question into his ear: “Ya, Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of Ahmed Adaweya and shaabi music?”
“I love it.”
Cheers, applause, and laughter. “Ya Salaam, Naguib-bey!!”
“Naguib-bey still loves the music of the people!”
“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the movement toward democracy in Egypt?”
Silence, soft snore.
It took several attempts to get Mahfouz to answer the question. Finally, he whispered, “Where is this democracy movement?”
“Ahh, Naguib-bey!! So wise! Where is the democracy movement, indeed!”
“Naguib-bey: still the most intelligent critic in Egypt!!”
“Write that down and send it to America!”
And with that, everyone joined in the master’s silence, content to watch him doze peacefully. There was something calming about the sight of Mahfouz, the brightness of his suit set against the dusty red leather of his seat.
Mahfouz woke with a start and asked for the check. We all trailed after him as he made his way to his car, which, as I was informed several times by a member of his entourage, was the same car he had been driving for the past two decades and, indeed, the same car beside which he was stabbed a decade before.
But this is not a story about Mahfouz’s car. Nor is it a story about his entourage and their multiple ejaculations. It’s not even really about Naguib Mahfouz. Rather, it is the story of his miraculously pristine white linen suit, its elegance unperturbed by its surroundings, its whiteness unsullied by his obsequious hangers-on, let alone by me.
Excerpted from Bidoun(Spring-Summer 2008), an inventive quarterly magazine about arts and culture in the Middle East and a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for general excellence; www.bidoun.com.