This quote from a character in the 1974 novel Al-Karnak (Karnak Café) by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006) sums up the reaction of millions of people in Egypt and the Arab world to the June 1967 Arab–Israeli war. Why did this war shatter their worldviews? A military defeat may occur for purely military reasons, in this case the better preparation of Israeli troops. Why should it cast doubt on a whole way of life? The answer to this question lies in the social and cognitive structure of nationalism, which I examine in a moment of crisis, after the 1967 war, when it became necessary for nationalist intellectuals to debate issues that had previously been taken for granted. Al-Karnak, which was made into a highly profitable and controversial film, provides a good starting point for studying these debates. However, it is important to understand them as products of the nationalist project of which Mahfouz was a part. I first analyze the history of that project, explaining its raison d'être and its success by the 1960s.
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