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 Both Sides: Egyptian and Israeli Literature

I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.

mahfouz_postcardNaguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End

Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.

I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.

I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.

MishaniD. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence

A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.

Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.