Written by SarahZakzouk
My first encounter with Mahfouz’s work was actually not by choice; I was at a dinner party in London and across the table from me sat a young writer from Israel. Being from a publishing and literary background myself, our conversation turned quickly to the subject of books, naturally. We discussed this writer’s current undertaking, a novel with an intricate plot and complex characterisation. We talked about our personal backgrounds; I indulged him in details of my upbringing and my dual heritage – a mix of English and Egyptian.
Having tested me on my Arabic, the writer then said to me, ‘And what do you think of Naguib Mahfouz?’ I had of course heard of this writer, but had yet to experience his work. I replied, ‘I have never read anything by Naguib Mahfouz.’ He was astounded and simply said to me, ‘You cannot call yourself an Egyptian until you have read Naguib Mahfouz.’ Well there was a challenge one simply could not pass up, particularly as an Egyptian consumed by the world of literature. The Cairo Trilogy was the book I was tasked to read. And so in a bid to prove my heritage, and also having far too much pride for my own good, I ordered a copy of the colossal trilogy by the renowned Naguib Mahfouz.
And guess what? I was blown away by it. Comprised of three parts: Palace Walk (Bayn al Qasrayn), Palace of Desire (Qasr al Showq) and Sugar Street (Al-Sukkariyyah), the trilogy comprises of over a thousand pages and the story consumed me until I had completed all three parts. Just a note to self to refrain from buying hardback editions of collections of stories, as this makes for a somewhat challenging read on one’s commute to work. (Things you learn in hindsight).
Mahfouz’s writing is elegant, poignant and utterly engaging. The clever intertwining of the al Jawad family narrative with the story’s spatial surroundings makes for a tangible discourse; you can feel the growth, conflict and deterioration of the characters and the family structure as it plays out in the architectural spaces of the novel. My favourite of the three parts, Sugar Street made for a powerful conclusion to the trilogy, bringing to a close the dramas experienced in the first two parts.
Spanning ten years in 330 pages, Sugar Street is set against the backdrop of the Second World War, bringing to rest the fates of the patriarch and matriarch of the trilogy. In his familiar style Mahfouz continues to mirror the lives of the characters in their architectural surroundings, their temporal spaces serving as markers for character definition.
One of the most poignant images for me is the literal deterioration of the once virile matriarch Al Sayyed Ahmad Abd al Jawad, in his now elderly state, reflected in the ‘characterisation’ of his walking stick:
‘The stick, which had been his companion since he was a young man, when it had been a symbol of virility and of elegance, now helped to support him as he plodded along.’
What I enjoyed in reading this story was its powerful sense of tradition; the family unit is incredibly strong and although it experiences great conflicts and undergoes many changes over time, this familial structure remains. I find this incredibly relevant in the Egyptian society of today; peoples’ identities are based on their families and their experiences within this unit.
My own experiences of Egyptian culture have involved many a family gathering, people eating and sharing great food in large groups and large quantities! Some of my earliest memories of Cairo involve my grandparents; my grandmother would sit in the living room preparing plates and plates of delicious vine leaves – mahshi and many other traditional Egyptian dishes including: bamia and molakkhiyyah, not to mention a vast amount of beautifully prepared meat recipes. My grandfather on the other hand, successful judge and head of the household, would walk around the house supported by his wooden walking stick calling after me as I attempted to involve him in games of hide and seek. Over the course of the evening our relatives would fill the house, children running about, parents attempting to feed them as they came and went, the atmosphere was buzzing and loud – it was an experience and a fantastic childhood.
Mahfouz’s descriptions of the al Jawad family coffee hours and their trips into Cairo translate very much to what it is to be part of Egyptian culture, walking through the dusty streets of Cairo, experiencing the cacophony of noises, the sounds, the smells – they are all part of the experience. Caught up in an ever expanding sea of cars, donkeys and carts still trundle by and locals sell roasted sweet potatoes in the small spaces they can find, retaining this small part of history on the bustling streets of today’s Cairo.
This is a novel that lends itself beautifully to the complex history of Egypt, a masterpiece of narrative fiction by writer and Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz. Completed in 1952, the story is set amidst the chaos of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and bears witness to the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan in the wake of the British-ordered exile of revolutionary leader Saad Zaghlul. This is a fickle story of family, of loyalty and disloyalty, of love gained and love lost. The Cairo Trilogy is an allegorical minefield of imagery and political undertones represented in the layers that make up the narrative of the traditional family unit held at the forefront of the story. These stories are evidence of the richness of Egypt’s past, present and future, and its’ placement as a home to an inspiring world of literature.
Can I call myself an Egyptian now?