As the collection progresses, stories become less like Sufi folktales and more like mystical puzzles. "The Prayer of Shaykh Qaf" is a murder-mystery in which we know the who, what, and why from the first seven sentences. The apparently guilty party confesses, and our story seems complete. But somehow, the quarterʹs "hidden tongue" spreads it about that the confession is false.

The Head of the Quarter is troubled and visits the home of Shaykh Qaf, who seems to know who did it. The two men exchange cryptic comments, shake hands, and Shaykh Qaf says, meaningfully, that he hopes heʹll see the Head of the Quarter again. Thus, a story that began in clarity ends in mystery.

Throughout the collection, rational causality is dethroned in favour of unexplained tragedy. Sandstorms blow up, arrows are shot out of nowhere, hidden tongues speak hard truths, and wild brawls rage. At one point, there is an epidemic of weeping with no apparent cause.

The weeping comes in "Your Lot in Life". This storyʹs opening phrase re-makes the Arabic folktale formula. A traditional tale might begin kan ya ma kan fi qadim az-zaman, "it was or it wasnʹt in the oldness of time." Mahfouzʹs story opens: "We do not know precisely when the phenomenon began to occur. All those who witnessed it have their own version. Time lost its order."

The translation has a few extra words that could have been tightened out. But by and large, itʹs smooth reading.

The laughter cure

In "Your Lot in Life", unexplained weeping troubles the quarter. The Imam suggests "hot baths and cold drinks" will remedy the mass weep-in, while an old woman insists exorcism is the cure.

Finally, the Health Inspector arrives. He goes door to door, turning up nothing. Finally, exhausted, he goes to rest with a local musician. The people hear the musician sing, "Your lot in life is bound to find you…" Soon, the epidemic of weeping ends. This is not thanks to hot baths and cold drinks, exorcism, or the Health Inspectorʹs investigations. Instead, itʹs thanks to the music that: "They all dissolved into laughter."

Irreverence, laughter, and music provide the small joys of this collection. The Imam tells an orphan truth-teller "go back to your mosque", and the 10-year-old cheekily turns the same phrase back on him: "You go back to your mosque!" In addition to the curative musician in "Your Lot in Life", we also hear Munira, Abd al-Hayy, Beethoven and Sayyid Darwish.

Music, after all, might be the most universal form of communication. A song can be appreciated in the Quarter and in Europe, by the Health Inspector and by the old woman. In the end, Mahfouzʹs The Quarter leans heavily on these non-verbal intertexts. And while it might not be the complete work he intended, it is a compelling experiment in sound and echo.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© Qantara.de 2019

More on this topic