I read Naguib Mahfouz out of curiosity for Egypt, the anicent civilization of Pharaohs, Sphinx and the pyramids. Indeed, for centuries most Westerners thought of the Middle East as a place of mystery, where writers like Sir Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence swaggered across sandy landscapes and returned with accounts of the exotic customs they had glimpsed there. More recently, the mystery has turned sinister; many of us have come to believe that the entire Islamic world is seething with inscrutable religious fanaticism that ferments violence and mayhem.
It was in the midst of all these stereotypes that Naguib Mahfouz, then unknown to the English-speaking world, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Until this year, his masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy, published in Arabic in 1956-57, has been unavailable in translation. Now, finally, readers can see for themselves why Mr. Mahfouz has long been considered the finest Arab writer of modern times.
Palace Walk, the first volume of the trilogy, centers on the life of a family living through the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the 1919 revolution against British rule, a time of dramatic change in Egypt. The family’s patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is a member of the colorful fraternity of Cairo merchants. At home, he is a tyrant who has forbidden his wife to go outside the walls of the house for 25 years. When he discovers that his adolescent son Fahmy has a crush on a neighbor’s daughter, al-Sayyid is enraged. Yet his wife and children revere him as much as they fear him. The father is a complex figure, whose life is “composed of a diversity of mutually contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity.” In his shop he is generous and gregarious, and on his nightly carousings with other middle-aged businessmen he is a connoisseur of fine wines and fleshly courtesans.
Then, as now, the issues in Egypt center on several key themes: the role of women in society, moderate versus radical Islam, democracy, and military repression. The recent revolution distinguished itself in that women fought alongside the men in Tahrir Square. Yet those same women were sidelined in the formation of the new government. And some of them were arrested by the military and issued humiliating “virginity tests.” The same old battles remain. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, promises to respect international treaties and even to choose a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. But he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, known for marginalizing women and Christians.
Mahfouz describes the first days of post-revolutionary Cairo as having a tenuous calm. At the same time, he describes Cairo as having “come back to life … The heart of the nation was throbbing. It was alive and in rebellion.” It’s a sentiment recently shared by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who tells of the same euphoria after the 2011 uprising, describing friends on antidepressants “who, over the 20 days of revolution, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian revolution.”
The series hardly seems to have aged in the nearly six decades since publication. The novels record the voice of a people coming to terms with their own power, facing the thrill—and fear—of taking their destiny in their own hands. There has perhaps never been a better time to read them.