Family Saga Set in Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz

This is not the edition I am talking about in the text; I simply love the cover photo.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny (originally published in 1956)

This is the first in the so-called Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz and the first book I ever read of his, even though there was a flurry of translation activity after his Nobel Prize win in 1988. I actually ordered this volume for the #1956Club back in March 2020, but ran out of time to read it. Historical fiction for present-day readers, as the events described in this book took place more than 100 years ago. However, when Mahfouz first published this, it was recent history, and it is not at all coy about the relationship between Egyptians and their ‘protectors’, the English.

This particular edition (paperback of the 1990 translation Doubleday, reissued in 1994 by Black Swan) did have quite a few typos, repeated or missing prepositions and articles etc. Initially, these jarred terribly, but once I got wrapped up in the story, I ceased to notice them as much. I assume this must have been a problem with the reissue, as I would like to think that any work involving the editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be of a high standard.

The trilogy is at once the story of a family, and also that of a city and a country in transition, although in the first volume the social and political landscapes only become dominant towards the end of the book. The story opens with the First World War (in which Egypt held an uneasy position, having formerly been an Ottoman colony, and now under British protectorate) and continues with the 1919 attempt at revolution for Egyptian independence.

The Al Jawad family lives in one of the older inner city neighbourhoods of Cairo, with narrow streets and latticed balconies from which the secluded wives can take a peek at the outside world without being seen. The family consists of the patriarch, Ahmad, his wife and five children, some grown, from two marriages. Ahmad is a wealthy shopkeeper and devout Muslim – more in theory than in practice, for he drinks, frequents places of ill repute and has a string of mistresses. However, at home, he is quite the domestic tyrant, keeping his wife and daughters indoors more than even their neighbours accept as traditional. His family tremble for fear whenever they ask him for something, for they know he is inflexible, quick to anger, violent and able to punish them where it hurts most, by kicking them out of the house and leaving them penniless. Outside the house, however, he is considered amiable, humorous and charming. He seems completely unaware of the hypocrisy of this stance, and indeed revels in doing the exact opposite of what his family asks him to do, even if he himself agrees with them, for fear that he might lost his position of dominance.

The five ‘children’ in the household are: Yasin ‘with the body of a bull and the elegance of a peacock’, Ahmad’s son from his first marriage, a civil servant in his early twenties; nineteen-year-old law student Fahmy and the happy-go-lucky schoolboy Kamal, the only one who can move easily between the feminine and masculine worlds. The two daughters are sixteen-year-old Aisha, famed for her blonde hair and blue eyes (unusual in Egypt and therefore much prized), and sharp-tongued Khadija, who at the age of twenty already considers herself an old maid and is afraid she will never get married because of her big nose.

Their mother Amina is the most docile, obedient and caring person you can imagine – downtrodden, yes, but by no means a one-dimensional character. She is devoted to her children, but is also keen to better herself. Her learning is largely limited to the Koranic verses that her youngest child teaches her while she in turn passes on old legends and stories, but she also enjoys discussing national and international political issues with her sons, in a naïve way, admittedly, because her husband does not believe women should be well-informed. As she tends her roof garden, she repeats a little prayer which I think encapsulates perfectly her gentle nature, wanting to please everyone:

God, I ask you to watch over my husband and children, my mother and Yasin, and all the people: Muslims and Christians, even the English, my Lord, but drive them from our land as a favor to Fahmy, who does not like them.

We follow the daily schedule of the family, including their much loved afternoon coffee gathering with all the siblings teasing each other, but there is no shortage of larger events happening over the course of the two years or so covered by the story. People fall in and out of love and lust, get married and, in some cases, divorced, and reconnect with their past. Yasin makes some sort of peace with his mother, whom he despises for daring to disobey his father, moving away and then constantly remarrying and divorcing. Fahmy the idealist is forbidden from marrying the neighbour’s daughter, and gets involved in the pro-independence movement. And even gentle Amina ventures outside the house to visit a mosque but is promptly punished by her husband.

However, the family story mirrors the political situation, with the sons in particular expressing increasing rebellion towards their domestic tyrant. For example, Yasin discovers his father enjoys the dissolute lifestyle just as much as he does and consequently starts losing his respect for him. At first he argues with his father mostly in his head, while his mouth utters the words their father wants to hear. As the author says in a different part of the book, this is a family that has learnt to hide things all too well.

‘As you wish,’ Yasin thought, ‘Who has ever gone against your wishes. You marry me and divorce me. You give me life and take it away. I don’t really exist… We’re nothing. You’re everything. No, there’s a limit. I’m no longer a child. I’m just as much a man as you are. I’m the one who is going to decide my destiny.’

But what he actually says is merely: ‘Whatever you want, Father’.

Gradually, however, these small rebellions multiply and grow, until Fahmy joins the freedom fighters in secret, very much against his parents’ wishes. He does so because he knows his mother worries his life might be in danger, but his father has a rather hypocritical attitude toward Egyptian independence too – or perhaps an attitude that many of us will find familiar when it comes to giving money to charities:

… he had been content to limit his patriotism to an emotional and psychic participation, not taking any action that might have altered the life he enjoyed so much… He had never even taken the trouble to go to one of their rallies. Would that not have been a waste of his precious time? The nation did not need his time, and he was eager to have every minute of it to spend on his family, on his business, and especially on his amusements with his friends and chums. Thus his time was reserved for his own life, and the nation was welcome to a share of his heart and emotions. It was easier to part with money than time.

I won’t tell you anything more about the story, other than that Ahmad learns he cannot control everything quite as much as he wants. It reminded me very strongly of Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Rather pulpy looking Arabic edition, from 1988.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists. It introduced me to a part of the world, a culture and a historical period that I knew very little about. Although I keep saying that I am not that keen on family sagas, as with Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, I really enjoyed being immersed in that world and have promptly ordered the next two volumes in the trilogy, albeit in a different edition (even if it spoils the symmetry on my bookshelf).

May Reading: The Book of Cairo

I’m not quite sure what to call my May reading challenge (although that sounds like it is a burden, so maybe May reading plan is more accurate), which comprises books from Egypt and Lebanon. Maybe my Arabic Reading Plan (but that sounds much more grandiose and all-encompassing)? Middle Eastern? That instantly brings to mind conflict, sadly, and, while it’s true that quite a few of the books translated into English from these regions address themes of war, violence, civil war and so on, this is not necessarily what the writers from these two countries write about exclusively or even predominantly.

Fantastic cover, as always, by Comma Press (design: David Eckersall)

So we should be grateful for Comma Press for their more varied and nuanced perspective on Egypt. The Book of Cairo was published in 2019 and features ten contemporary Egyptian authors writing about one of the largest and most diverse cities on the African continent (and ten different translators, which makes this an even more interesting chorus of voices). There are references to the Arab Spring movement from 2011-2013 and the ‘enforced state of forgetfulness’ that followed, but these do not make up the majority of the stories, and the references are hinted at rather than explicit. Each of the stories talks about a city in constant change and turmoil, in all its chaotic, noisy, messy resilience. Above all, it is a portrait of the charming, infuriating, eccentric inhabitants, the people who are the lifeblood of the city.

Most of the stories are very short, but they pack a lot in, and are often told in an inventive style rather than a very linear, traditional way. For example, the first story in the volume, ‘Gridlock’ by Mohamed Salah al-Azab (transl. Adam Talib) depicts a traffic jam, which is an everyday occurence in Cairo, but skillfully weaves together six different points of view in a deadpan, present-tense description that romps through timelines like a bulldozer. The loss of reputation of a surgeon via the rumour mill (and a very deliberate dig at social media) is handled in a dialogue bordering on the absurd in the story ‘Talk’ by Mohammed Kheir (transl. Kareem James Abu-Zeid). The author imagines the job title of ‘fabricator of rumours’, who explains his mission thus:

“…you think all those rumours sprouted up out of thin air?… The true rumour, if I may be permitted the expression, must resemble its target, must touch something within that target… A rumour is only complete if there’s a reaction… immortality within our profession: a respectable conspiracy theory, one that stands the test of time.’

Very funny, but also making the reader wince at its truthfulness, like all good satire.

Some of the oblique, surreal storytelling felt very familiar – reminiscent of 20th century writers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union doing their best to avoid censorship. There is a lingering sense of unease and menace about these type of stories. ‘Into the Emptiness’ by Hassan Abdel Mawgoud (transl. Thoraya El-Rayyes) shows a narrator gradually losing his grip onto reality – his own lived-in experience seems to be the exact opposite of what the people around him believe is happening. His sense of identity is dissolving as surely as the sugar cubes in his tea.

Then there is the more overtly political story of the Major obsessed with finding out the Truth, by whatever means, to ‘safeguard the nation’s youth’, in ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ by Nael Eltoukhy (transl. Raph Comack):

…it is true that this physical interrogation is not strictly legal and it is also true that Major Haitham Hamdy does sometimes resort to it. But we should also say, firstly, that this does not poison the entire police apparatus, which is renowned for its courage and humanity, nor, secondly, does it even poison Major Haitham Hamdy himself, who may have personal flaws like any human being and, like any human being, may sometimes be overcome by these flaws. Major Haitham Hamdy was a human to his core, we have already seen how he fasts, how he enjoys intellectual pursuits and how his mind wanders like everyone else’s. So it’s no surprise that every day and night after reading the morning and afternoon reports, he repeats this phrase: ‘I am a corrupt officer but I do not represent my colleagues… I am one man. I am the exception. I am extraordinary. I am outside the herd.’

But it’s not all about offices, politics and the busy city streets. Several of the stories are about shifting perceptions of gender and modern relationships in present-day Egypt. ‘The Other Balcony’ is a charming depiction of the narrow streets of Cairo, with windows allowing almost too much intimacy with one’s neighbours. ‘The Soul at Rest’ is about an obituary for a belly dancer and how she is both admired but also despised by those around her. ‘Siniora’ is about a long-term on-off affair, where the woman gains the upper hand and demonstrates her superiority both in business and love.

These are tales of the unexpected, which toy with you and introduce you to a new world. I would perhaps have liked to see the inclusion of a few longer stories or a wider range of dates when the stories were written, but it would be churlish not to be grateful for this brief introduction into the great variety of authors writing in (or about) Egypt today. Thank you to Comma Press for tackling lesser-known cities and providing us with such an enticing literary travel guide.

Reading Plans for May and June

Yes, you might call this an excessive amount of forward thinking, but I am rather enjoying having a plan that gives me a theme and a purpose, but is flexible enough to allow for additional recreational reading of whatever takes my fancy.

May Day dancing, painting by Maurice Prendergast.

May

I don’t seem to have read a lot of Arabic literature, so I will attempt to remedy that in May. I will ‘visit’ two countries very close to my heart, Egypt (my second-oldest friend from primary school comes from there) and Lebanon (one of my dearest Mum friends still has most of her family living there; incidentally, she is one of the most talented home cooks I know). For Egypt, I have The Book of Cairo from Comma Press; the book which I never got around to reading for the #1956Club Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz; and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. For Lebanon, there is a bit of a common theme going on: I have Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game about two brothers who find themselves on opposing sides during the civil war; Elias Khoury’s White Masks is another take on the civil war, based upon a true event, the murder of a journalist; while Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller tells the story of a young man who has grown up in Germany returning to the country of his birth to search for his father.

June – Netgalley Blast

Horrendous how many books have been lurking there for years and years, even though they seemed irresistible at the time. And I really need to improve my feedback ratio (currently only 52%).

Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind – to continue a bit with the 1936 theme – although the book was published in 1922, Kraus himself died in 1936, and I have been waiting six years to read this one

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days – has also been on my Kindle since 2015 – in honour of her being longlisted for the Women’s Prize with her latest book, I feel I owe it to her to read her first (I believe)

Valeria Luiselli: Lost Children Archive – this one has only been lurking on the virtual shelf for about two years

More recent ones too: Salena Godden: Mrs Death Misses Death; Lissa Evans: V for Victory; Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man; David Young: The Stasi Game; Joy Kluver: Last Seen; Minae Mizumura: An I Novel; Kotaro Isaka: Bullet Train (I just can’t seem able to stay away from those Japanese, right?)

Well, that all sounds like an ambitious plan and might end up spilling over into July and August as well. But it’s a nice combination of easy, quick reads and more challenging ones. After that… well, Women in Translation will no doubt loom large over the summer!

Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.