That Time in Cairo When I Met Mahfouz

Cairo, a steaming mess of a city that has the capacity to at first seduce and serenade you then almost immediately slap and violate you, and yet, despite it all you keep coming back for more.


And here I was, back again. On the balcony of my scruffy room in the Hotel Hussein, the hotel named after the severed head that resides in the Mosque next door, the head of the Prophets grandson, the same head curiously also resides in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, its curiosity that brings you to the Middle East, then keeps you here.

It was a day like any other, that is like any other day in Cairo. Crisp morning sunlight stinging your sleep deprived eyes, slurping down thick black tea with a boiled egg and triangle of cheese for breakfast, another dusty day stumbling around the lanes of Gamalaya in the shadow of the Fatimids. Then, just as has a habit of happening in this part of the world, you bump into a Nobel prize winner for literature.

It had been one of my frequent visits to Cairo working on my self-assigned street photography project, ( Previous Cairo Photography ) after my first visit to Egypt I began reading Naguib Mahfouz avidly and this project had been inspired by his words, the Egyptian Nobel laureate grew up in this overcrowded neighborhood, his childhood home a couple of streets away and this anarchic labyrinth the setting of many of his novels.


My days usually followed a similar pattern, an uncomfortable night followed by a disappointing breakfast tinged with self-doubt and medieval view shrouded in 21st century exhaust fumes. I’m not a morning person. After breakfast I would surrender myself to the all-consuming city and the first coffee shop in my path. By sunset I would be back at the hotel and trying to wash the grime away in a lukewarm trickle of a shower. Feeling marginally rejuvenated I would head downtown to explore the 1001 hedonistic delights of Koshery and bookstores and maybe a cheeky bottle of Egyptian Stella.

My evening is progressing as predicted, I’m propping up a bookshelf in shop just off Tahrir square and flipping through the pages of novel by my favorite Egyptian scribe when a diminutive chap sidled up beside me and with a nod and wink said “So you like Naguib Mahfouz” Yes that old chestnut I thought. So we got chatting about Egyptian literature and my pompous idea of a photography project, my new friend said his name was Bhar and taught English literature at a Cairo university.

After a short while he said I should follow him to a private club to meet some of his friends, he seemed harmless enough so we left the shop and walked to a near-by side street where a gathering of Cairo’s intelligentsia engaged heavily in existentialism and smoking. I was made very welcome and held court slumped in a worn out arm chair with my coffee perched precariously on my knee.

Conversation flowed, cigarettes were extinguished and lit, tea followed coffee and everyone agreed my project was terrific idea, I should meet this person and that, I couldn’t really keep up with the questions coming at me from different corners of the small back room. That’s arranged then said Bhar suddenly, and lead me back outside into the street with waves and goodbyes to my new found friends as I left.

I had no idea what had just been arranged but scuttled along after Bhar, it was quite late now and the usually crowded streets pretty quiet, after about twenty minutes walking we entered a closed office of an Egyptian newspaper, we risked a rickety elevator up several floors then a long a fluorescent corridor and tapped on door and entered without waiting for the answer. To this day I have no idea who I then shook hands with, tea was summoned and a conversation ensued, me and my grand project, phone calls were made and suddenly a photographer appeared and took my startled portrait, had I just been interviewed I wondered as we said our goodbyes and left the building.

As we walked in the general direction of my hotel, I tried to re-cap with Bhar what had just happened, the bottom line when it eventually transpired was that I had been invited the following evening to meet Naguib Mahfouz at hotel beside the Nile.

The following evening, I tried to flatten the rucksack induced creases from my best T-shirt and headed downtown to meet arguably the most important living writer in Arabic literature.

Born in 1911 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, like most great writers he was a divisive figure, known to be shy he was also very social able and approachable, these twin characteristics also lead to him being physically attacked, his daily routine of walking from his home to his office via Tahrir square had often been quoted in interviews, in 1994 outside his home an assailant stabbed him in the neck, already a frail man miraculously he survived.

I had no idea what to expect, I had some scribbled directions on a scrap of paper, the address was modern hotel overlooking the Nile. I found my way to the lounge some floors up and entered with that slight feeling of an imposter.

Mahfouz was unmistakably sitting on plump armchair in the corner surrounded by an entourage of devotees, a literary salon, conversation was hushed, his hearing-impaired questions to him were relayed through a friend sitting beside him. I was in good company and chatted with authors Raymond Stock and Gamal al-Ghitani and it was the latter that introduced me to Mahfouz and explained my project. Mahfouz approved of my idea and shared a childhood anecdote from the streets I was plying those December days. We shook hands and he wished me well.

phoca_thumb_l_naguib mahfouz
Shot made on 3200 iso Tmax pushed to the limit and smuggled passed airport x-rays

John Ezard writes: In 1990, when he was a physically wasted, half-blind yet zestful 79-year-old, I interviewed Naguib Mahfouz in the Ali Baba cafe overlooking Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, where he breakfasted for 40 years and which he had seen change from a Nile-side preserve of the rich to a demotic chaos. “The square has had many scenes,” he said. “It used to be more quiet. Now it is disturbing but more progressive, better for ordinary people – and therefore better for me also, as one who likes his fellow humans.” Any country is fortunate if it produces citizens like him.

He wrote of life and his fellow humans. I was fortunate to meet such a soul. He passed away a couple of years later.

No doubt this will be my last post of 2019 so I wish you all the very best for the holidays and the coming new year. Thank you for following and all your support.

Am I homeless or a Digital Nomad? The next few months are going to be unknown, exciting and a new chapter.

Stay Tuned and a coffee would be much appreciated

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66 thoughts on “That Time in Cairo When I Met Mahfouz

    1. Thank you Khurt.
      It really does please me to hear you say this, I don’t consider myself a writer but I do consider myself something of a story teller. I am glad you enjoyed the adventure-stay tuned as there is lots more to come 🙂
      Hope you enjoy a beer or two over the holidays and best wishes for the new year

  1. What a great experience, to meet an author you treasure. I love how you trusted Bhar to guide you in that city. I love your photos and your words.

    I’ve been on the road over 7 years, going where guided, where openings are for me, focused on my spiritual project for the world.

    Best wishes on your journey and whatever Dec. and beyond holds for you.


    1. Thank you Katelon.
      Yes was such a privilege.
      Yes I trusted him, often some of my adventures do seem a little misguided but I have faith in people and in this case was fully justified.
      I don’t need to tell you about following your instincts.
      Best wishe for Christmas and the new year and the continued journey 🙂

    1. Thank you Tracy.
      If you get the chance delve into his trilogy, its a long haul but worth it and may have you thinking about travel to Egypt!
      Thanks for all your support and best wishes 🙂

  2. What a fascinating, beautifully-written story. I love your first sentence about Cairo. I’ve only visited once, just a month after the Arab Spring uprising in Tahrir Square, and that sentence totally sums up how I felt (except I haven’t had the good fortune of coming back).

    1. Thank you Caroline
      You visited at a very interesting time to say the least! I was in Damascus then and made it to Cairo that summer.
      I have just been reading some of your wonderful Egypt posts-I have not yet managed to get to the White Desert but its high on my list and am currently writing something from my last visit to Siwa!
      Great stuff.
      Hope you get to return soon to Egypt
      Best wishes

    1. Thank you so much Mei 🙂
      have loved looking at your landscape images and I really hope in the coming year I find the time to get back to the UK to shoot something, maybe Wales.
      Best wishes for Christmas and an exciting image filled new year.

    1. Thank you Snow 🙂
      Please do read Mahfouz and ideally a visit to Cairo if you have not already been.
      Hoping its not too cold just now wherever you are and your thoughts are of the snow melting some place-I know mine are !
      Happy holidays and an exciting new year
      John 🙂

    1. Thank you.
      Its positive comments like this that keep me posting-much appreciated.
      Am looking forward to seeing how you get on in Georgia, been on my mind for some time.
      Best wishes for Christmas and an exciting new year

    1. Yes it certainly did.
      There was a time when I imagined the two of us would sit down and thumb through the images together and he would offer to write some text-but hey we can all dream 🙂
      Egypt can be hard work, Cairo is obviously very crowded but its possible to get away from the crowds and the country has so much to offer. Hope you have the chance one day.
      Best wishes for the holidays and a prosperous new year Marcus

  3. What a crazy beautiful adventure you had! I’ve heard my entire life through the Lebanese and the Armenian networks about this “everyone knows everyone” train. It’s not even “it’s a small world” line, no, no no, no… You fell right into it. Fabulous!

    1. Bea.
      It certainly was.
      Exactly-the Middle East is like that. When I meet a Syrian for the first time I almost expect us to have friends in common.
      Armenia and Lebanon are both on my mind these days-lets see what 2020 has to offer. Adventure one way or another for sure.
      Best wishes

    1. Thank you so much 🙂
      Hope you enjoyed Istanbul (love the girls with skateboards pic)
      Have just followed your blog-keen on hearing more about house sitting
      Best wishes for Christmas and a happy peaceful new year

  4. You may say photography is your primary talent, but I’d say you have at least two. You are also a gifted writer, John. Looks like a lot of these other commenters agree with me also!

    1. Thank you Nancy.
      The positive feedback inspires me and without it am sure I would not give the writing a second thought, I guess it comes down to self confidence, I have it with my photography (mostly) but not at all with my writing.
      Thankfully you encourage me so lots more to come.
      Best wishes for Christmas and a happy peaceful new year

  5. How wonderful I have just read the Yacoubian Buiding by Alaa alAswany which just fell into my hands a week or two ago, and fully intend to read Naguib Mahfouz now – you are so interesting, John, i look forward to your posts / both writing and photos. you are exploring a part of the world that thas a big fascination for me. My parents travelled through Iran/Iraq/Syria/ egypt the lebanon and Palestine during and after the war as deportees/exiles ffrom Poland/via Siberia, so for them whis area really was the promised land…

    1. Thank you Basia.
      The Yacoubian Building is a wonderful read. (I did search out the building once which is located a few hundred yards from the image I used as the cover here)
      Your parents journey sounds a fascinating one, would love to learn more.
      2020 is going to be exciting I hope-so stay tuned 🙂
      Best wishes for Christmas and a very happy new year

  6. Interesting. I suspect this sort of thing could only happen to someone who was comfortable with a culture and showed it – Bhar needed to trust you as much as you needed to trust him. How long ago did this happen?

    1. Thanks Dave.
      Yes for some unknown reason there is something about life in the middle east that does make me feel comfortable, I am in Turkey currently and as interesting as it is-its not the same.
      Good question and one I also considered-my memory for dates is absolute rubbish so its only notable occurrences that coincide that remind me. I had been in Lebanon in May/June 2000 just as the Israelis had withdrawn, when I was chatting with the Egyptians at the writers salon we had been discussing my travel, my guess it was the following winter of 2000, so it must have been between 2000 and when I went freelance in 2003. Mahfouz died in 2006 I think.
      Hope life is grand with you and best wishes for the new year

  7. I love your writing John. You show the experience so well that it’s like walking along side you. We all get to be part of your adventures. Have a safe and happy christmastime. I look forward to many more adventures in the new year.

    1. Thank you Wendy
      Its lovely for you all to come along.
      I do hope everything is okay in your part of the world, I know the weather is being harsh.
      Best wishes for Christmas and the new year
      John 🙂

  8. John, ALL of your stories are fascinating and captivating. They are pages from a book that one simply can’t put down. The same goes for your photography, which I find to be also evocative and thought-provoking; can’t look at your photos without feeling, always needing a second (and third) look. Together they tell of a compelling ad deeply personal journey. Sorry I don’t get to your blog as often as I should… Life… Take care.

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