Fam­ily saga for the ages

For the last in our se­ries on clas­sic Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture, Rym Ghazal looks at The Cairo Tril­ogy, a time­less mas­ter­piece ex­plor­ing the com­plex­i­ties of hu­man ex­is­tence in a chang­ing world, by Egyp­tian No­bel Prize-win­ner Naguib Mah­fouz

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Con­ceived by leg­endary Egyp­tian writer Naguib Mah­fouz as a sin­gle novel of about 1,500 pages, The Cairo Tril­ogy is a time­less work of mod­ern Arab lit­er­a­ture, with themes, char­ac­ters and ideas that are fa­mil­iar and ring true al­most 60 years af­ter it was pub­lished.

“The Cairo Tril­ogy is a work on a par with Leo Tol­stoy’s War and Peace and Thomas Mann’s Bud­den­brooks,” says Dr Rasheed El Enany, dean of the School of So­cial Sci­ences and Hu­man­i­ties, pro­fes­sor of Ara­bic and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture, and pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter.

Fi­nan­cial pres­sures caused the pub­lisher to split Mah­fouz’s mas­ter­piece into three vol­umes pub­lished be­tween 1956 and 1957. The ti­tles – Palace Walk (Bayn Al Qas­rayn), Palace of De­sire (Qasr Al Showq) and Sugar Street ( Al Sukkariyyah) – are real streets in Cairo’s Al Ga­maliya district, where Mah­fouz lived.

The Cairo Tril­ogy is a saga span­ning three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily led by tyran­ni­cal pa­tri­arch Al Sayyid Ah­mad Abd Al Jawad, who rules his house­hold with a strict hand while liv­ing a hyp­o­crit­i­cal se­cret life of self-in­dul­gence. As they con­front mid­dle-class mor­tal­ity and cul­tural chal­lenges, the fam­ily’s tri­als mir­ror those of their coun­try dur­ing the tur­bu­lent years be­tween the First and Sec­ond World Wars.

“It deals with the hu­man con­di­tion on a large scale,” says El Enany. “Ev­ery hu­man pas­sion and con­di­tion is in it: what­ever type of per­son you are, what­ever your life ex­pe­ri­ence, it will have some­thing to say to you.”

It took Mah­fouz more than six years to com­plete and was one of the works that helped earn him the 1988 No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture, the only Arab to re­ceive the award.

“The Cairo Tril­ogy was a unique work in its scope,” says El Enany. “It is the first saga novel, or ‘ro­man-fleuve’, in Ara­bic, trac­ing the lives of three gen­er­a­tions of one fam­ily – but with that, the life of a whole na­tion, Egypt, at a crit­i­cal tran­si­tional stage of its life, as it moved from a tra­di­tional way of life to a western-in­spired moder­nity with all the pains at­ten­dant with that, so­cially and in­di­vid­u­ally.

“And in do­ing that, all ma­jor hu­man emo­tions and ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions are probed and shown at work in the lives of the novel’s mul­ti­tudi­nous char­ac­ters.”

El Enany says he chose to study Mah­fouz’s work ex­ten­sively “be­cause he helped me an­swer some of the big life ques­tions”. He adds: “From his works, a com­plete sys­tem of thought emerged – maybe that was an in­flu­ence of his study of phi­los­o­phy – where all the pieces of the jig­saw of ex­is­tence fell in place. That makes him very re­ward­ing to study. Naguib Mah­fouz An­chor, Dh50

“I think The Cairo Tril­ogy is above crit­i­cism. I am not say­ing Mah­houz is above crit­i­cism but this mag­num opus of his cer­tainly is.”

The Cairo Tril­ogy has au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ments, and Mah­fouz said he is rep­re­sented by the char­ac­ter of Ka­mal Abd Al Jawwad.

“This char­ac­ter evokes the gen­er­a­tion of the 1940s, the peo­ple who shoul­dered the bur­den of lib­er­at­ing Egypt from Bri­tish rule,” he told The Jerusalem Re­view. “But all other char­ac­ters are rel­a­tively weak. Their con­fu­sion sym­bol­ises the gen­er­a­tions of frus­tra­tions and ser­vil­ity who lived un­der the yoke of the Bri­tish.

“My own per­son­al­ity ap­pears, in bits and pieces, in ev­ery­thing I’ve writ­ten. But it al­ways serves as a means to my end: to give ex­pres­sion to a gen­er­a­tion, not an in­di­vid­ual. I use my­self to show the prob­lems of the life of an en­tire Egyp­tian gen­er­a­tion.”

Palace Walk in­tro­duces us to Amina, a gen­tle, op­pressed wife; her shel­tered daugh­ters Aisha and Khadija; and three sons – tragic and ide­al­is­tic Fahmy, dis­so­lute he­do­nist Yasin, and Ka­mal, a soul- search­ing, in­tel­lec­tual, Ham­let-like fig­ure.

The re­bel­lious chil­dren strug­gle to es­cape their fa­ther’s dom­i­na­tion in Palace of De­sire, as the world around them opens up to the cur­rents of moder­nity and po­lit­i­cal and do­mes­tic tur­moil in the 1920s.

Against the back­drop of an evolv­ing Egypt, Sugar Street brings a dra­matic cli­max as the age­ing pa­tri­arch sees one grand­son be­come a Com­mu­nist and an­other a Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ist. Mohammad Khodour, chief book­seller at Dar Al Shorouk, says Mah­fouz’s books re­main in high de­mand.

“Any­one who wants to dis­cover Mah­fouz has to start with The Cairo Tril­ogy,” he says. “It cap­tures ev­ery­thing that is beau­ti­ful and ugly about our cul­ture and his­tory. He is the god­fa­ther of Arab lit­er­a­ture.” He points out Mah­fouz was ahead of his time, writ­ing sim­pli­fied ver­sions of his books for younger read­ers, mak­ing it easy for them to be added to school cur­ric­ula. “We read Mah­fouz in my time in schools,” says Khodour. “It is some­thing we need to bring back, for Mah­fouz didn’t just write about Egypt – what he wrote cap­tured the true story of the lost Arab soul and its con­flicts and con­fu­sions.”

Mah­fouz’s books have in­spired gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers.

“His writ­ing has taught me to re­fine the lan­guage I use in my writ­ing,” says Noura Al Khoori, an Emi­rati au­thor of books for chil­dren and young adults.

“His writ­ing opened my eyes to twists and tricks writ­ers use in their plots. Mah­fouz was in­tel­li­gent in how he could play on the read­ers’ emo­tions and thinking. His style and voice are gripping, so that you feel you want to go back to his books time and time again. The in­tri­cate plots. The clear char­ac­ters. But most of all, his use of the lan­guage – not a wasted word.

“Any­one can read and en­joy Naguib Mah­fouz, from a univer­sity pro­fes­sor to a sim­ple labourer.” M Lynx Qua­ley, a free­lance writer in Cairo and blog­ger for the Arab-lit­er­a­ture blog arablit. word­press.com, says she iden­ti­fies with one of the char­ac­ters in The Cairo Tril­ogy.

“Like Mah­fouz, I iden­tify with Ka­mal, and so Ka­mal’s fate – as an un­mar­ried teacher and emo­tion­ally crip­pled recluse – stretches me ev­ery time I reach it,” she says. “I think I’ve recog­nised my­self in his fail­ures ever since I was a teenager, which per­haps has helped soften life’s blows.

“I trea­sure Mah­fouz be­cause he is so eas­ily en­joy­able. You can pull his books around you and live in­side them. But of course there also has to be the sec­ond part: his worlds con­tinue to help us un­der­stand our­selves and oth­ers, as well as the world around us.”

The first English trans­la­tion of The Cairo Tril­ogy, in the early 1990s, was in part thanks to Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis who, as an ed­i­tor at Dou­ble­day, read it in French to con­sider for pub­li­ca­tion.

Like his char­ac­ters, Mah­fouz faced chal­lenges and con­tro­ver­sies. Some of his works were banned, and in 1994 he was stabbed in the neck by an ex­trem­ist, leav­ing his right arm partly paralysed.

His for­give­ness of the at­tacker, and de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­tinue work­ing, added to his stature as a man ded­i­cated to the writ­ten word, jus­ti­fy­ing the award of the No­bel for “an Ara­bian nar­ra­tive art that ap­plies to all mankind”.

Mah­fouz died in 2006, at the age of 94.

Barry Iver­son / Alamy Stock Photo

Late nov­el­ist Naguib Mah­fouz, pic­tured in 1989, is con­sid­ered the ‘god­fa­ther of Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture’ by many.

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