The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfuz is undoubtably a masterpiece of modern literature. Comparable to the great Russian novels for the complexity of his round-characters, The Cairo Trilogy makes Mahfuz the best Egyptian novelist, able to unveil the secrets and contradiction of the Egyptian society.
Divided into three books – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street – the trilogy covers the period form 1917 to 1944. It is a three-part family saga centred around the patriarchal figure of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family – his wife Amina, his children (three sons – Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal – and two daughters, Khadija and Aisha), and eventually his grandchildren.
Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is respected both by his family – that actually fears him – as well as by his friends. In his house, he is a very strict man, a devout believer and dictates the rules that apply indiscriminately to his wife and children. Outside, Al-Sayyid Ahmad shows a completely different personalty: he enjoys wine, women and the company of his friends with whom he spends every evening of the week. He is a shopkeeper known in Cairo’s old neighbourhoods for his generosity and honesty. He spends most of his days in the shop, returning home only for lunch and a siesta. Faithful to his routine, he would leave the house again in the afternoon to re-appear only at midnight when he finds Amina waiting for him on top of the stairs, holding a lamp in her hand to light her husband way to his room. Then, Amina would wash his feet in silence, talking only if she is asked to and mainly to share the happenings of the day, choosing the words prudently to avoid enraging her master/husband. Eventually, she would help him to undress and after folding his cloths on the chair, she would finally retire to her bedroom.
Amina is a relentless woman and the soul of the house. The first one to start the day, after performing the ablution she wakes up the maid and the children, bringing Palace Walk back to its livelty again.
Amina married at the age of 14 and she has been serving her husband dutifully since then, running the big house in Palace Walk impeccably. Adored by her children to whom she is a loving and indulgent mother, Amina spends her days within the four walls of the three-storey building, since al-Sayyid Ahmad never allows his wife and daughters to leave the premises. The women of Palace Walk see the world from the openings of the cage of latticework on the balcony, from where they look at the street vendors and admire the tops of the minarets. Occasionally, when Amina is permitted to visit her mother, al-Sayyid Ahmad would escort his wife travelling together in a carriage from where Amina would only catch glimpses of the outside world. The two daughters Khadija and Aisha show very different personalities, but each of them nurture respect and utter obedience to their father and give in to their status, which include no education beyond primary school and fulfilment of women’s duties such as devotion to the family and marriage.
Amina and al- Sayyid Ahmad remain the main figures throughout the trilogy. Over time, however, changes happen in the relationship between the two, and the sickness and weakness of the aging husband allow Amina the freedom she never enjoyed before: periodically, she walks the streets of Cairo alone to visit the children and grandchildren who live in Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, while everyday she goes praying for her husband health, visiting the mosques whose minarets were the only thing that for decades Amina was able to see from the limitedness of her balcony.
“I bet our family’s four centuries behind the times,” complains Ahmad – one of the grandchildren in the third volume Sugar Street – referring to the patriarch. Actually, al-Sayyid Ahmad’s family model is fairly old-fashion. Some of the most interesting aspects of the trilogy are the domestic and national transitions and how al-Sayyid Ahmad’s second and third generation adapt and refuse the changes going on.
Dealing with such a patriarch is not easy, but despite the fear of disappointing the father, the sons decide for themselves. Each one of them has a unique personality and as soon as they grow up the patriarch realizes that he is loosing the grip over them and cannot but witness powerlessly to their evolution. Alienated by their choices, al-Sayyid Ahmad fails to understand and fully accept the profound changes that his family, Egypt and Islam are going through.
It seems, however, that the patriarch’s children are somehow trapped by the culture and lifestyle they have been brought up in and eventually remain on the threshold of the new era. Kamal, the youngest of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s children, in a beautiful passage of the trilogy, says referring to Amina: ”Ignorance is your crime, ignorance … ignorance … ignorance. My father’s the manifestation of ignorant harshness and you of ignorant tenderness. As long as I live, I’ll remain the victim of the two opposites.” In fact, only al- Sayyid Ahmad’s grandchildren will manage to step into the new era and surf the wave of changes to the apex.
Sugar Street marks the climactic end of the trilogy. Readers see through the eyes of the grandchildren who give shape to modern Egypt. Ahmad is a communist activist, his brother Abd al-Muni’m is a Muslim fundamentalist, and their cousin Ridwan, the only inheritor of the charm and beauty of his father and grandfather, starts a distinguished political career helped by a homosexual affair with a prominent politician.
For the non-Arab readers, the english translation of The Cairo Trilogy by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny manges to convey the richness of the story, characters and language. The souciness of the dialogues and the wit of the protagonists never fail to entertain the reader, while the liveliness of the time frame in which the trilogy is set offer room for reflection on the history of modern Egypt, confirming Naguib Mahfouz as one of the best writers of modern times.