Monday, December 15, 2014

Epic of a Cairo Family

The Cairo Trilogy
by Naguib Mahfouz

On this day in 1911 the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born.

"Voices were blended and intermingled in a tumultuous swirl around which eddied laughter, shouts, the squeaking of doors and windows, piano and accordion music, rollicking handclaps, a policeman's bark, braying, grunts, coughs of hashish addicts and screams of drunkards, anonymous calls for help, raps of a stick, and singing by individuals and groups."  --from PALACE OF DESIRE (1957)

It is hard to overemphasize the beauty and intelligence of this family saga. Of course it is much more than that, being also an historical epic about Cairo and Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.  The first novel, Palace Walk, introduces the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad: his wife Amina, sons Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha. This family will be the center of all three novels as Mahfouz chronicles their experiences living within a Cairo neighborhood identified by the street, Palace Walk, home to the family. Prominent among the themes of the first novel is the freedom of the family (or lack of freedom) under the authoritarian rule of the father. Mahfouz slowly develops the relationships within the family and the novel builds upon events that epitomize the growth of each family member. Just as the middle son Fahmy excels in school he begins to seek freedom in the growth of nationalist fervor during the era of the Great War. Amina, who is present on the first page has the temerity to defy her husband and pays a price, yet demonstrates growth in stature within the family. Amina's life and personality is the lifeblood of the home life of the family, bracketed by the scenes of the coffee hour and Amina on the roof overlooking the city. As the first novel ends we find the family's peace and structure threatened portending more change in the novels that follow.

In my continuing traversal of this massive novel I find the pace of events quickening. The narrative, which started slowly as the author introduced Ahmad and his family, gradually picks up speed as the eldest son and daughters are married. The change seems to be a form of familial evolution as the members of the family interact. Just as slowly the world beyond the family's Cairo neighborhood begins to intrude into their lives with the growth of Egyptian nationalist fervor in response to the English protectorate. In addition, Mahfouz's philosophical background can be seen in both the descriptions ("a Platonic world. . ." in chapter five) and the narrative perspective. All of this impresses me as Mahfouz masterfully blends the psychological portraits of the individuals with the society that they encounter in their daily lives. The result is a type of suspense encountered only in the work of the best authors I have read. Mahfouz joins them.

The second novel of Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy is titled Palace of Desire. The family of Ahmad al-Jawad has expanded as the married daughters and son have children. Particularly touching and revelatory is a scene where Ahmad becomes the doting grandfather demonstrating a side of his character that we did not see in the first novel of the trilogy. We also see the permutations of love and desire on display as the family evolves through the maturation of the second generation. There is a particular focus on the development of Kamal, the youngest of the children, who has seen success in school and slowly leaves behind his youthful innocence as he develops into a thinker, a writer, and an admirer of the perfection of beauty as embodied in the young Aida Shaddad. His view of love is doomed to an unsuccessful search for perfection when the one he adores, Aida, rejects him and leaves Egypt with another. Kamal will eventually satisfy his bodily needs with girls from the brothel district while he lives an ascetic life of the philosophic writer and teacher. He also highlights one other theme of the novel with his popularization of western philosophy as Egyptian nationalism grows and the culture of Ahmad's family is buffeted by the new ideas. Perhaps the eldest son, Yasin, best represents the view of love as mere desire. Even in the first novel Yasin had demonstrated his inability to control his natural desire for women and this lack of control continues to complicate his life. Unlike his father, who could discreetly maintain his life with the singers of the night separately from his home life, Yasin blunders about, endangering both his home life and his career. Desire permeates this story even as the world of Ahmad, the father, slowly begins to lose the control that seemed to be his main characteristic as the trilogy began.

The novel Sugar Street ends Naguib Mahfouz's masterpiece bringing the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's family to a close. With the death of Al-Sayyid his wife Amina is all alone. In a moving chapter we hear her voice and see the world through her eyes as she feels more alone than ever before. The house and the coffee hour are no longer the same. But the focus has turned to the grandchildren, particularly Ahmad and al-Muni'm, sons of Khadija. Each is seeking new directions, mirroring the political and cultural changes in Egypt as World War II approaches. Kamal continues to pine for his ideal love, Aida, and almost finds it in her younger sister, Budur. His own indecision prevents him from making a commitment to her, turning away when she makes the slightest advance. Superficially his life resembles that of his nephew Ridwan, the beautiful son of his brother Yasin. Kamal meets his old friend Husayn Shaddad one final time, learning of the fate of Aida and the Shaddad family, but not with any sense of encouragement or satisfaction. As the novel ends family change occurs once again with the passing of Amina and the birth of Yasin's first grandchild. There is a hopeful sign as Yasin goes out with Kamal to buy clothes for the new baby.

Mahfouz's trilogy has epic sweep in its depiction of the changes to Cairo over the first half of the twentieth century mirrored in the growth and change of the Ahmad family. He presents ideas and demonstrates them with the actions and interactions of the characters as they love and learn and die. The outside world, first seen in the occupation of the British, grows throughout and looms ever larger as the final novel in the trilogy ends. Twentieth century ideologies are beginning to affect Egypt with the power seen elsewhere in the world and the portent is ominous. Yet with that Mahfouz leaves the reader with the possibility of hope and the encouragement that can only be found in a great literary achievement.

The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.  Published October 16th 2001 by Everyman's Library (first published 1957)


Brian Joseph said...

Great post.

This sounds like a worthwhile and important story from an author that I know little about. I really need to read more writers from cultures different from my own. This I will put Naguib Mahfouz on my list.

James said...


Thanks for your observation about writers from different cultures. There are both similarities and differences from our own culture. Mahfouz does well in bridging the gap.