Third in Trilogy Offers Social Study of Cairo
WITH the final volume in Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz's renowned Cairo trilogy now available in English translation, the story of the Abd al-Jawad family concludes. Although written 40 years ago and covering only the interwar period, the saga's forward momentum carries it headlong into the present. Social columns in today's Cairene newspapers could easily be mistaken for Mahfouzian plot extensions.
For the panoramic power of the closely related installments Palace Walk,Palace of Desire," and "Sugar Street," Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, has alternately been called the Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy of Egyptian fiction. But as fine as it is as cultural mise en scene, history of Arab ideas, and walking tour of medieval Cairo, the trilogy's main achievement is in foreseeing so many of the social and political problems buffeting his country as the 20th century draws to a close .
Each volume in the series is named for a street of slightly higher social status, as al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jamad's children find ways of rising from their lowly start in a decrepit building not far from his tiny grocery.
The family's widening residential ambit is mirrored in the concentric circles of each novel's principal theme. The first novel dwells almost exclusively at home where insignificant trifles bear repeated discussion because of the deadened lives of mother Amina and daughters Aisha and Khadija. Sadly, such a cloistered, harem-based household leads to the involution of the family, with individual aspiration stifled and kinship ties made claustrophobic.
In turn, Palace of Desire is where al-Sayyid Ahmad's ne'er-do-well son Yasin moves to establish a separate household with a succession of wives well below his own station in life. This second novel focuses on the social conflicts that inevitably afflict a country in the throes of capitalist penetration, class stratification, and decolonization.
Here, also, enters the family's next generation - Yasin's equally hedonistic son Ridwan, Khadija's sons Ahmad and Abd al-Muni'm, and Aisha's brood of three who all die young.
Khadija's home on Sugar Street is in a new district built to the standards of Western comfort. There, her children are exposed to liberal arts education, relaxed social values, and the rewards of working in the foreign-run civil service. The dominant theme of "Sugar Street" is the political turmoils caused by the end games of the Egyptian monarchy and British imperialism.
Unlike Kamal and his father, who remembered young adulthood as "a tightly wound scroll crowded with hopes," Kamal's nephews come of age at an uncertain time, before the tumultuous backdrop of World War II. Squabbling political parties squander opportunities for their country's independence, the Muslim Brotherhood first flexes the muscles of Islamic fundamentalism, and international communism arrives in force on Egyptian shores.
It is perhaps just as well that the boys' infirm grandfather finally had taken to his bed - this is a world he would no longer be able to explain. Nor, finally, would al-Sayyid Ahmad understand the narrow choices made by the grandsons, for he was a man able to balance wildly disparate elements - from the most upright to the most debauched - within one strong personality.
His grandsons, on the other hand, throw themselves into recklessly one-sided, mutually divergent paths. And in this, Mahfouz's story echoes the primal overtones of Dostoyevsky's "Brothers Karamazov." Ridwan parlays a homosexual liaison into a position of influence and material comfort to insulate himself from life's grim reality. Abd al-Muni'm enters the Muslim Brotherhood and, duty-bound, agrees to marry not one but both of his female cousins.
Even Ahmad, once the family's pampered baby, becomes a self-loathing communist unable ever again to share in their most harmless bourgeois pleasures. At book's end, the grandsons' separate paths reconverge in a jail cell shared by a fundamentalist, an atheist, a drunkard, and a thief - representing, one wonders, Mahfouz's view of modern Egypt?
So it is that kaleidoscopic urban space, a branching family tree, and the intensely lived inner worlds of the Abd al-Jawads overlap layer upon layer until what finally emerges is the best social study of Cairo yet to appear in English. And for this we should not forget to salute the capable principal translator, William Maynard Hutchins, who has brought the trilogy to us in its entirety.