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The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street (Everyman's Library) Hardcover – October 16, 2001
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“The highest achievement of The Cairo Trilogy [is] the creation of memorable characters whose circumstances of life are unimaginably remote from our own, but whose aspirations are the same. The Cairo Trilogy extends our knowledge of life; it also confirms it.” –Boston Globe
“Luminous…All the magic, mystery and suffering of Egypt in the 1920s are conveyed on a human scale.” –New York Times Book Review
“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens.” –Newsweek
“A masterful kaleidoscope of emotions, ideas and perspective. Mahfouz has captured a family and its homeland at one gloriously varied moment in a cycle.” –Newsday
“Mahfouz presents us with a different concept of the world and makes it real. His genius is not just that he shows us Egyptian colonial society in all its complexity; it is that he makes us look through the vision of his vivid characters and see people and ideas that no longer seem alien.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Arabic
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Palace Walk (The Cairo Trilogy #1) by Naguib Mahfouz
Originally published in Arabic in 1956, this novel was written by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is the first book of the Cairo Trilogy that was translated into English in 1990.
The setting of the novel is Cairo during and just after World War I, 1917 to 1919. Most of the story focuses on the life of one family living on a street named "Palace Walk," and toward the end the plot spreads to include demonstrations and protests leading up to the nationalist revolution of 1919.
The story provides a thorough description of a time and place as well as providing intimate character development of household members including three sons, two daughters, a maid servant, the wife, and a tyrannical husband. They are all observant Moslems, but the husband/head of household drinks alcohol and is an adulterer living a duplicitous life requiring strict conservative conduct at home and a gregarious personal life for himself outside the home.
This all takes place in an environment where the women of the family are required to not venture outside the home. When an official inquiry is received regarding a possible marriage proposal for the younger of the two daughters, the husband is puzzled why and how such an interest could exist because theoretically his daughters have never been seen by any men outside the household. We as readers know that the daughter's outline has been glimpsed through the slats covering a second story window. It doesn't take much of a view of the female form in this environment to enflame carnal passion.
The story follows the family through several crises which conclude in marriage of some of the children, birth of some grandchildren, and some marriage separations. Eventually family members become involve in the surrounding political agitation caused by the expectation that the British protectorate end and Egypt become an independent state. This part of the story is based on historical occurrences making this part of the book a historical novel.
Palace of Desire (Cairo Trilogy, #2) by Naguib Mahfouz
This is the second book of the Cairo Trilogy, that picks up approximately five years after the end of Palace Walk , the previous book, and covers the approximate time span from 1925 to 1927 of the life of a family living in old Cairo, Egypt. The previous book had ended with the tragic death of one of the sons who had shown great potential as a political leader. At the beginning of this book we learn that the father of the family (al-Sayyid Ahmad) had modified his profligate ways during the intervening five years and had abstained from adultery—but continued with partying into the night. At the beginning of this book he slips back into his old ways—after all one can't live a penitent life forever.
The oldest son (Yasin) leaves the family home to move to the house of his deceased biological mother located on Palace of Desire Alley. This move is forced because he married a woman unacceptable to the family, his step mother in particular. This second marriage of his soon fails like the first and he ends up marrying for a third time to an entertainer, which is more scandalous to the family's honor than the previous second marriage.
The love sick yearnings of the youngest son (Kamal) are thoroughly explored by the book. The account of his obsessive pinning for her love provides an account of the internal thoughts of a young man infatuated with a young lady. He is in his upper teens, his friends are headed in different directions, some to school, others to travel and work. In the end his unrequited love pushes him into sampling the life styles of his older brother and father.
I'm convinced that the story being told in this trilogy is largely autobiographic, and that the author sees himself in the character of Kamal. There are many pieces of evidence for this conclusion, and the final giveaway is the fact that Kamal in this story aspires to be a writer of novels. He dreams of writing a big long novel. This trilogy fits those aspirations. Mahfouz, the author, won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The political happenings in Egypt during this time period are mentioned but are very much peripheral to the story. The consequences of a fast-modernizing society with differing expectations and possibilities are implicit throughout the story.
The book ends with simultaneous pending death and pending birth. Near the end the aging father has some health problems leading the reader to expect perhaps he will die. Instead the ending goes in another direction.
Sugar Street (The Cairo Trilogy #3) by Naguib Mahfouz
Third book of the Cairo Trilogy, this book begins in 1935, some eight years after the end of the previous volume, Palace of Desire. Spanning ten years, Sugar Street is set against the backdrop of the Second World War and domestic Egyptian political unrest. A new generation has grown up since the close of the previous book, the tyrannical patriarch of the family from the previous volumes is now in his dotage, and the matriarch mother is at peace with life making daily pilgrimages to the local mosque.
Kamal, the precocious child of the first volume and the aspiring student of the second volume is now a middle aged teacher/writer doomed to ponder his unrequited romantic aspirations. Fortunes have reversed for some with a rich family from the previous story now reduced to common status, a former local fruit vendor now wealthy, and the son of the lowly shop clerk now a successful prosecuting attorney.
In this final volume life has become more modern and westernized with the political/religious/philosophical debates discussed front and center through the dialogs and internal thinking of the book's characters. The book ends with two young third generation members of the family held in prison on suspicion of sedition, one being a Marxist and the other a member of the Moslem Brotherhood, thus generating a portent of future generations of Egyptian political unrest. Symbolically, a 4th generation child of one of the imprisoned young men is about to be born as the book ends providing a reminder that life goes on.
This trilogy provides a glimpse into a time capsule of Arabic middle class urban Cairo during the first half of the twentieth century. It represents a region of the world that continues to play a significant part of international politics in today's news.
The central figure spanning all three volumes is the imposing patriarch, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. He dominates over his household with the authority of a tyrannical king. He presents himself as a man living up to the highest standards of religion and morality. By day, among his family he acts like a man of stern principles and devout prayer. Yet his hypocrisy is dually noted early on in the narrative, as he is also a man of uninhibited indulgence. By night, he carouses, drinks, and engages in adultery. He represents Mahfouz's quintessential literary focus on allegory, which is prevalent throughout most of the trilogy. Al-Sayyid Ahmad embodies someone who thinks he is free to do anything he wants without consequence, while at the same time he forbids others from the same behavior. In other words, Ahmad portrays himself as everything he is not, just as the historical backdrop of the trilogy shows how the free reign of British colonialism to do whatever it wants is anything but free of guilt.
Palace Walk, volume 1 of the trilogy, shifts gears from a family saga to a historical drama when Mahfouz begins to highlight the forces and events surrounding the Egyptian revolution against the British occupation. With extraordinary realism and visceral affect, he brings to life the sights, sounds, and motives of the populace to confront the injustices of colonialism. He inserts the al-Jawad family in the hub of this maelstrom. Of the five children of al-Sayyid Ahmad, it is the middle son, the idealist and erudite Fahmy, who falls victim to martyrdom, even as his father defies him not to pledge the rebellion of 1919. The oldest son, Yasin, is from Ahmad's first marriage, and he portrays the second generation figure whose misguidance perpetuates the same sins of debauchery as his father. Ahmad's two daughters are diametrical opposites both in appearance and demeanor. The older daughter, Khadjia, has unflattering features, yet she is full of energy and seemingly cursed with a flair for sarcasm and cheekiness. Her younger sister, Aisha, is a radiant blonde with a voice like a songbird, yet she is prone to languishing and reverie. The most compelling child is the youngest, Kamal. Prone to playfulness and lies, he is mischievous with inquiry about the world and fascinated with religious studies. Like all the siblings, Kamal is terrified of his father. Then there is the matriarch, Amina, a paragon of nurturing and caring. She does for her family what any ideal mother would do, and yet she suffers the duality of pretending to turn a blind eye on her husband's transgressions. Palace Walk takes readers through the daily struggles and joys of the family up until the 1919 nationalist revolution in which Fahmy loses his life.
In volume 2, Palace of Desire, the saga of the al-Jawad family recommences in 1924 with the British reaching a rapprochement with the widely popular Wafd leader, Sa'dZaghlul. In this second volume, the fate of the next generation plays out. After several affairs and scandals, Yasin attempts to find monogamy with his second wife Zaynab, but again he fails to do so. Although she is the younger sister, Aisha is wed off to Khalil Shawkat, and shortly thereafter her older sister Khadija follows suit by having her marriage arranged to Khalil's much older brother, Ibrahim. The children of both these couples are in their infancy as this novel proceeds, but the most compelling figure in volume 2 is Kamal, the youngest sibling of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Amina. Now seventeen, Kamal has passed his exams to earn his baccalaureate. Against the wishes of his father, he insists on purposing philosophical truths and the search for meaning in an existential world. Kamal's disavowal of religion places him in conflict with his father, who pledges the fundamentalist tenets of Islam. As a free thinker catapulted into the field of modern science's quest for meaning and understanding, Kamal falls victim to despondency after he suffers from the agony of unrequited love. Palace of Desire focuses on Kamal's plight as the central figure of the second generation. His modernist vision of the world, as reliant on science and reason, reflects the Wafd Party's nationalist ideology of governing the nation free from the constraints of Islam as a political system. When the second book ends with the passing of the leader Sa'd, one sees the parallel between the painful end of an era and the pain Kamal feels with his own lofty hopes for love shattering around him.
By volume 3, Sugar Street, it is now 1935, and the third generation has become the focal point. This generation is most aptly depicted through the two polarizing figures of Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad, the two headstrong sons of Khadija and Ibrahim. Abd al Muni'm grafts himself to the fanaticism preached by Shaykh Ali al-Munufi, a religious zealot devoted to the budding philosophy that the Quran's teachings should be implemented as a political system and code, even in the modern world. As leader of the Muslim Brethren, al-Munufi ensnares vulnerable young minds such as Abd al-Muni'm during a time in Egypt's history when the country's political turmoil continues to consume everyday society. On the opposing side of ideologies, Ahmad finds solace in following AdliKarim, the open-minded Editor-in-Chief of The New Man magazine. Karim views the Wafdists as the starting point of Egypt's national movement towards independence and democracy. He, however, believes the nation must go beyond developing social freedom. Ahmad latches onto Karim's ideas and supports the mission of The New Man to confront the fanatics while at the same time promoting scientific mentality. Both brothers heed the patriotic call for revolution and independence, yet both see entirely different ways of achieving liberation from British rule. With a host of other family characters, friends, and acquaintances to supplement this diversion of the brothers' philosophies, Mahfouz ultimately brings this grand trilogy to a summation with the government's mass crackdown on political activists on each side of the divide. The arrests of both Abd al Muni'm and Ahmad bring this monumental work to a close.
In its totality, Mahfouz uses the three novels of The Cairo Trilogy to chart Egypt's tumultuous history through the meditations of various family members with distinctively different perceptions on life. He achieves this by also exposing and confronting the ideologies of both repressive colonialism and radical Islam. What he creates in the process is a breathtaking work of vivacity and bustle. The trilogy is allegorical and literal in his depictions of the al-Jawad family as a microcosm for the subsequent historical eras that three generations of the family endure. What stands out to me in everything that Mahfouz accomplishes is that he offers us a vast array of characters that go beyond giving us insight to the emotional chambers of their hearts. He reveals to us the essence of their souls so that we might seek to turn a mirror on ourselves and examine what it is in each of us that yearns for a better understanding of humanity and what it means to be human.
Having read the trilogy as a singular work, I believe in order to gain full appreciation of the novels, it is important to read them together as one book. So much transpires and reading the books separately or out of sequence may prevent one from experiencing the significance Mahfouz assigns to certain characters in each generation. For example, the patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad, is unyielding in his authority over his family from the beginning of volume 1, Palace Walk. However, with his aging and with the influence of modernity on his beliefs, he is shown as capable of changing. What is uniquely notable is that his grandson Ahmad (one of the prominent figures of volume 3, Sugar Street) clearly symbolizes tolerance and open-mindedness. To gain the full effect of this fascinating generational dichotomy requires an understanding of Ahmad the grandfather from Palace Walk. This type of symbolic contrast between characters occurs throughout the three novels, but without knowledge of what certain characters are like early in their lives, the effect of who they are in different volumes is not as impactful.
But I was a little disappointed with Kamal's adolescent introspections and found the book dragging in those places. Just a little too much of it!
Otherwise, the writing is as warm, fluent and vigorous as his earlier book.
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