Analysis of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy

The first great family saga of modern Arabic literature, The Cairo Trilogy tells the story of patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family over the course of more than 30 years, from World War I to eight years before the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. The titles of the trilogy’s three novels—Palace Walk (Bayn al-Quasrayn, 1956), Palace of Desire (Qasr al-Chawq, 1957), and Sugar Street (Al-Sukkariyya, 1957)—are taken from actual street names in the Al- Jamaliyya district of Cairo. The trilogy is considered by many to be Naguib Mahfouz’s magnum opus, written at the peak of his realist phase. The work has been hailed for its depiction of the changing conditions of Egypt’s urban society as it underwent political, social, and religious struggles during the turbulent interwar period following the end of World War I, producing a confl ict between Egypt’s nationalist aspirations and Great Britain’s imperialist and colonial power.

Having already spent over a decade examining contemporary national issues, particularly the confl ict of the aspiring individual against a convulsively changing society, Mahfouz wrote The Cairo Trilogy with the intent of tracing this tension on a broader scale. In 1952, upon completing what he considered to be his best work, Mahfouz tried to publish it as a single novel. The colossal work, however, was refused by his publisher, Said al-Sahhar, who claimed the “calamity” would cost too much to publish on its own. It was upon the launch of Yusuf al-Siba’i’s monthly review, al-Risalah al-Jadidah, that Mahfouz’s work finally began to appear in print a few years later, albeit in serialized form. When Palace Walk was finally published and received success in 1956, Mahfouz divided the work into three parts, publishing the latter two portions in 1957.

Palace Walk introduces a middle-class Muslim family that functions as the heart of the entire narrative. Around two-thirds of this first part is spent describing the everyday life of the family members—Amina, Yasin, Khadija, Fahmy, Aisha, and Kamal—as each negotiates issues of family, duty, and marriage under the strict authority of their father, al-Sayyad. Social rituals, especially surrounding food, are described in detail in Mahfouz’s cross section of modern Egyptian family life. Covering the two years leading up to the 1919 revolution, the novel also mediates the nation’s turbulent political events through the family members. The title of the novel, Bayn al-Qasrayn, meaning “between two places,” refers to Egypt’s liminal position both as part of the Ottoman Caliphate and as a newly emerging independent nation. In the second half of the book, the nation’s political struggle is encapsulated in Fahmy, whose death as a revolutionary martyr marks the end of Palace Walk.

Palace of Desire depicts a changed family in the wake of Fahmy’s death. The hypocritical al-Sayyad, partly characterized in Palace Walk by his nocturnal escapades with women and alcohol, is now declining in both health and patriarchal status due to the loss of his son five years ago. Change has also crept into his wife: The traditional coffee hour, previously held in the mother’s space on the ground floor, has now been moved to the top fl oor of the house (al-Sayyad’s domain) to refl ect Amina’s rising authority in the family. This part of the trilogy, however, centers primarily on her son Kamal’s struggles with issues of national identity, class, friendship, and first love—the fundamental themes of the novel. Kamal embarks on an intellectual quest reminiscent of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. Despite his various conversations with friends and family, however, he remains a thwarted character at the novel’s end, stunned by the death of Wafdist leader Sa’d Zaghlul (1857–1927). By this point in 1927, al-Sayyad has recovered from an illness that has caused him to become more pious, while Aisha has lost nearly her entire family to typhoid.

By 1935, the year marking the opening of Sugar Street, al-Sayyad’s authority has come to a near total decline. Not only has the former patriarch’s secret double life gradually been exposed to his sons, but both he and the coffee hour have also been forced to move to the ground floor on account of his weak heart, thus completing the household’s shift from patriarchy to democracy. Aisha, already an old woman at 34 years of age, has taken to smoking, while Khadija is known for her regular rows with her mother-in-law. Yasin has finally discovered a measure of stability in his third marriage, and Kamal is now a professor and a member of the Wafdist Party fighting for Egypt’s independence.

Politically, in Sugar Street Mahfouz continues to describe the state of revolution in Egypt as perpetual, with waves of oppression continually preventing the nation’s rebirth. Despite brief moments of revolutionary progress, with the outbreak of World War II at the novel’s end, Mahfouz remains pessimistic about the Egyptian people’s ability to liberate their nation. In the novel’s concluding chapters, Khadija’s sons Abd al- Muni’m and Ahmad Shawkat, the next generation of freedom fighters, are arrested for distributing subversive tracts across Cairo. Thus, the central confl ict of the trilogy—the tension between the individual and his or her society—remains a confl ict at its end, despite the upheavals undergone by both the family and the nation. Following the pattern of the previous two novels, the final part of the trilogy comes to a powerful conclusion with a death and a birth: Amina’s health fails her only a year after al-Sayyad’s funeral, while the birth of Yasin’s granddaughter marks yet another generational turn.

In the Cairo Trilogy as a whole, Mahfouz privileges a sense of the collective over the individual, represented by both al-Sayyad’s family as well as the formation of the Wafdist Party. It is this feature that makes Mahfouz’s novel uniquely Arab, for it deviates from the European novel’s conventional centering on a single protagonist. Along with a skilled use of narrative perspective, Mahfouz’s use of time is also unique in its dilation and contraction. While the events in Palace Walk (the longest of the three novels) occur gradually over the course of just two years, Palace of Desire quickens the pace of the story over four years, and in Sugar Street (the shortest) events are stretched across a span of 10 years. This distinctive use of time creates a sense of urgency that escalates over the course of the trilogy, mirroring the increasing urgency of a nation fighting to free itself of foreign rule.

The Cairo Trilogy is not just a literary masterpiece but also a valuable historical and anthropological document. Mahfouz’s observations concerning the contemporary sociopolitical state of Egypt are astutely woven throughout an intensely personal family saga, creating a fictionalized record of a significant turbulent period in the nation’s recent history. It is this combination of political and personal that has made the trilogy such an enormous success. Since it has been serialized for Arab television, al-Sayyad has become a household name in Egypt, as his largerthan- life character is seen to represent the archetypal Egyptian patriarch. The Cairo Trilogy, finally published in 2001 as the single volume Mahfouz intended, has been largely responsible for earning him Egypt’s State Literary Prize for the Novel (1957) and the Nobel Prize in literature (1988).

Beard, Michael, and Adnan Haydar, eds. Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993.
El-Enany, Rashad. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Gordon, Hayim. Naguib Mahfouz’s Egypt: Existential Themes in his Writings. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
Hafez, Sabry. “Introduction.” In The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street (1956–57), translated by William Maynard Hutchins et al., vii–xxiii. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (Random House), 2001.
Milson, Menahem. Naguib Mahfuz: The Novelist—Philosopher of Cairo. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Moosa, Matti. The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.
Peled, Mattityahu. Religion, My Own: The Literary Works of Najib Mahfuz. New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction Books, 1983.

Categories: Arabic Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: