Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mahfouz in Al-Hussein

In the closing days of Ramadan it is time to visit the Cairo district of Al-Hussein, once the home of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, as writer Dina Ezzat and photographer Sherif Sonbol discover


“I was born in Al-Hussein on 11 December 1911, and I have always felt inhabited by this place. When I walk through its streets, I feel a sudden joy that is similar to that of lovers when they meet. I always feel nostalgic for this place, often painfully so,” wrote Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz on his feelings for the neighbourhood of Al-Hussein at the heart of Islamic Cairo.

Mahfouz said that he always aimed to pass on his passionate love for Al-Hussein to his friends. It became a ritual, even after an evening spent at a performance by famous singer Om Kulthoum, to go for tea at the Al-Fishawi café in Al-Hussein.

Mahfouz lived in Islamic Cairo for a little over a decade before he moved to what was then the new district of Al-Abassiya. In his book The Cairo of One Thousand Years, the famous novelist Gamal Al-Ghitany, a close friend of Mahfouz, admitted a shared passion for this ancient quarter and for the Al-Fishawi café that saw years of his comings and goings and even formed the backdrop to some of his writings.


Today, Ahmed Kheireddin, a writer who had his first collection of short stories, “From the Window,” published this year, is also finding his way around the alleyways of Al-Hussein and the adjacent areas of Al-Azhar and Al-Ghouriya.

Born in Damietta at the northern end of the Delta, Kheireddin first came to Cairo to go to university 10 years ago. As of then and up to now, his true passion has been to trace the world of Mahfouz and Al-Ghitany in Al-Hussein and other Cairo districts.

“In 2007 I visited Islamic Cairo for the first time, looking for the streets and cafés mentioned by Mahfouz. I wanted to see them as I saw them in his novels, and I wanted to go through the many streets that Al-Ghitany has given life to in his many writings, literary as well as historical,” Kheireddin said.


Ten years later, he still finds it fascinating to walk around the streets of the district looking up at the old buildings that “tell of the many generations that have come to the very heart of the city”. He is equally fascinated by the area’s monuments “that tell the story of power struggles and the passion for constructing monuments that bear the names of rulers”.

But what Kheireddin finds most fascinating is perhaps the “endless melting together of place and people. It is very much there in the books of Mahfouz, where the place and the people interact, but it seems this is not something that is only the invention of Mahfouz as it reflects the way things really are. In Al-Hussein, people don’t just live in the place, and they don’t simply relate to it. They are part of the place and an integral part,” he said.

“They seem timeless,” he added, a word that the waiters at Al-Fishawi still sometimes use to describe the clients at this café that has been in its present position for close to a hundred years. They say they feel they have always been there, and that others are just passing through. Though they may seem different when they first come to Al-Fishawi, they soon become part of the same group that has been coming to get tea with mint, coffee, shisha and more for years or even decades.


Today, and even with the declining numbers of tourists, Al-Fishawi is still full after iftar, and there is still a long wait to get somewhere to sit even with the help of the waiters. The latter encourage entertainment that includes anything from passing groups of musicians performing old songs to women offering on-site henna drawings, vendors having a few items of silver to sell, and even a shoe-shining service.

All this is part of the setting and the area around the bazaar of Khan Al-Khalili with its many jewellery stores, some of them closed because of the economic crisis and the sharp decline in the number of tourists coming to Cairo.

“I think there is room to capture the imagination of people wanting to come to Cairo to see the worlds of Mahfouz and Al-Ghitany, who are among the most widely read Egyptian authors of the last century,” Kheireddin said.

However, with Ramadan in full moon, it is impossible for any of the stores, cafés or restaurants of Al-Hussein to complain about lack of clients. Today, it is full house everywhere, including at more expensive places like the Naguib Mahfouz Café in the heart of Khan Al-Khalili.

The area around the Al-Hussein Mosque has the highest concentration of people in Ramadan, with some coming just for the long prayer sessions, especially during the last ten days of the holy fasting month, and others for the meals given out from sunset to dawn for iftar and sohour.

“We have been seeing more people coming for meals this year – it is the month of charity and more and more people seem to be dependent on the charity of the well-off,” said Mahmoud, one of the attendants at the Al-Hussein Mosque. “This year, I have been seeing many people who are happy just to get a drink of apricot juice and a loaf of bread and nothing more,” he added.


In Al-Muizz Street adjacent to the Al-Hussein Mosque, people are going for a walk and a soft drink, and a group of young men is offering those passing by the chance to have their pictures taken in the traditional costumes that people would have worn in this neighbourhood some 100 years ago, in other words in the years of Mahfouz’s childhood.  

In this street flanked with old Fatimid and Mameluke monuments that was originally built in the 10th century as Al-Kassaba Street, people pause for pictures in old-fashioned costumes or just take selfies under a moon that is now getting smaller to announce the beginning of the end of what for this area of Cairo is the busiest month of the year.

“After Ramadan there is the eid, which is the high season for sales,” said Sherif, a 50-year-old vendor who walks the streets of Al-Hussein, Al-Azhar and sometimes Al-Ghouriya selling inexpensive Chinese-made toys for girls and boys.


Sherif used to have a workshop that made pens. But as a result of the economic crisis, it was not sustainable to keep the business, and he sold the workshop and became a street merchant instead. “Throughout the year people come to get the blessings of Al-Hussein. There are always clients as a result, but Ramadan and the feasts are the highest season,” he said.

Al-Hussein is named after the mosque where the head of one of the grandsons of the Prophet Mohamed is said to have been buried after he was killed in the first wave of inter-Muslim fighting that prompted the creation of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.

The mosque was given particular prominence during the rule of the Fatimids in the 10th century, who were followers of the Shia sect associated with Al-Hussein and the grandchildren of the Prophet. It was also the Fatimids who built Cairo as the fourth capital of Egypt after the Muslim conquest that proclaimed Al-Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Kataei as the country’s consecutive capitals.

After the end of Fatimid rule, Cairo gained new layers with each new ruler, each building his own contribution of mosques, palaces, sabils (water fountains) and mausoleums. It was only with the rule of Mohamed Ali in the 19th century that Islamic Cairo started to lose its importance with the expansion of the modern city that took place under the khedive Ismail in the 1860s and 1870s.

“What keeps this part of Islamic Cairo so very alive is the fact that its residents stick to the old ways of life. They may look different, but at heart they are still the same, and it is these people that keep the place much the way it was in the books of Mahfouz and Al-Ghitany,” Kheireddin concluded.

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