Rendezvous at Café Ali Baba

Swiss publisher Lucien Leitess was one of the first people in Europe to recognise Naguib Mahfouz's literary genius. In this article, he tells of the excitement of his first encounter in Cairo in 1989 with the now deceased Nobel Laureate

photo: dpa
Ever since 1986, Naguib Mahfouz has published a novel every year with Lucien Leitess's Unionsverlag

​​The publisher Gottfried Bermann-Fischer once reported that he sometimes took valerian to calm his nerves before his meetings with literary giant Thomas Mann, knowing that the future of the publishing house rested on the outcome. The young publisher Lucien Leitess would have loved to have had a bottle of that soothing remedy on hand in Cairo in January 1989.

The previous October, Naguib Mahfouz had won the Nobel Prize for literature. Immediately beforehand, in September, the fledgling Unionsverlag had asked for and received oral confirmation of a general option on all of Mahfouz' works from the author's friendly agency on Zürichberg. And, despite the sudden boom in interest on the part of all the major publishers when learning of the Nobel Prize, this word of honor had actually been kept.

But now it was time to get the necessary contracts signed in Cairo and to obtain the final word from the laureate himself. Everything depended on him.

Thus it came to a rendezvous with Naguib Mahfouz: 7:30 a.m. at Café Ali Baba on Tahrir Square. People familiar with Mahfouz' habits knew that he received his closest friends in his home. He met his literary friends every Friday at the Casino on the Nile. Formal meetings were conducted in his office in the editorial department of Al-Ahram. And more intense working meetings always took place early in the morning at Café Ali Baba. So it was a good omen.

His punctuality and regular habits are legendary – the street merchants on the Nile Bridge set their watches by him. Punctuality is not the strong suit of the young publisher, and the early morning hours not usually his most active time of day. So there is much to plan and precautions to be taken. The hustle and bustle of the Cairo streets always make his head spin, so he goes over the route from hotel to café the night before, just in case. It's so easy to get lost in this city, which is more like a continent.

He courageously takes a seat in the buzzing, smoke-filled café and is sure that everyone can tell how nervous he is. Like one of the tragically frivolous characters that people the novels of the now-coveted author, a beautiful woman at the next table drums her flaming red fingernails on the table and casts a glance at the young publisher. Her charms are lost on him, however, as it has suddenly occurred to him in a flash of terror that his alarm clock might fail to go off the next morning.

He buys another one at the market, idiotically expensive, but seemingly trustworthy: a weighty monster with two gigantic bells, which ticks as relentlessly as a metronome. He goes through his papers one more time and retires early.

At five-thirty the next morning, the new alarm clock goes off, the one he brought with him chimes in, and the hotel boy bangs on the door. The morning is crystal clear and fresh, Cairo is glowing, hardly a car in sight. An hour too early at Tahrir Square. Time for a walk, for a glass of tea in a side alley.

7:21 a.m. The publisher enters the empty café. The waiter already knows about the appointment and leads him up a stairway to the second floor. Naguib Mahfouz is sitting at the window, silhouetted against the light, bent over a newspaper. Briefly and without a word, he motions to the guest to take a seat at a table near the entrance, then he goes on reading unperturbed, turning the pages, puffing on his cigarette, focused on his newspaper...

Endless, leaden minutes pass. A thousand black thoughts. Racing heart. He won't even talk to me. Why? Unseld probably already spoke with him last week. Or he has chosen the project proposed by the professor who wants to translate 20 novels in five years with the help of his Arab students of German. All is lost. Oh, the misery, the shame. Why didn't you get here earlier? You've botched everything. The dream is over.

7:30 a.m. Naguib Mahfouz folds his paper. Shifts his packet of "Kent" cigarettes until it is lined up exactly with the stripes on the tablecloth. Stands up energetically, walks over to me, his worn black coat shimmering in the morning light. A wide, radiant smile makes my heart leap.

"Welcome Mr. Leitess! So pleased to meet you! I have been waiting for you!"

Lucien Leitess

© Lucien Leitess/ 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

This text was written in 2003 and is now published with kind courtesy of the author.

Born in Cairo in 1911, Naguib Mahfouz began writing when he was seventeen. His first novel was published in 1939 and ten more were written before the Egyptian Revolution of July 1952. The appearance of the Cairo Triology in 1957 made him famous throughout the Arab world as a depictor of traditional urban life. Until 1972, Mahfouz was employed as a civil servant. The years since his retirement from the Egyptian bureaucracy have seen an outburst of further creativity, much of it experimental. He is now the author of no fewer than thirty novels, more than a hundred short stories, and more than two hundred articles. Half of his novels have been made into films which have circulated throughout the Arabic-speaking world. In Egypt, each new publication is regarded as a major cultural event. Mahfouz died on 29 August.

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