The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street



  Select Bibliography


  Palace Walk

  Palace of Desire

  Sugar Street


  Naguib Mahfouz is the first and, as yet, the only Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and one cannot think of a better text than his magisterial Cairo Trilogy to be the first modern Arabic literary work to appear in Everyman's Library. This superb narrative matches the great masters of the European tradition, invoking echoes of Balzac, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Dickens and even Dostoevsky. Its scope, richness, literary value, philosophical weight, dexterity of style, originality of insight, variety of characterization, tragic intensity, humour and vitality are unmatched by any other Arabic novel.

  The Trilogy is also one of those rare works which provides its reader with a deep insight into the culture which produced it. Reading this monumental yet highly enjoyable book enriches one more than any number of textbooks about Egypt's modern history, society and culture. It inscribes the physical appearance, atmosphere and the vibrant rhythms of Cairo's life into the very texture of its narrative.

  In 1911 two unconnected events took place and proved to be crucial for the future of the Arabic novel: one in the Quartier Latin in the heart of Paris, the other in the popular al-Gamaliya quarter of old Cairo. In Paris, while studying for his doctorate in law, Muhammad Husain Haykal (1888-1956) completed ^aynab, the book considered by many to mark the birth of the Arabic novel. In al-Gamaliya, in the heart of Cairo, Naguib Mahfouz was born on 11 December. Later he would overlook the last three weeks of the year and claim that he was born in 1912, the year of ^aynab's publication. aynab presented the rural aspects of the Egyptian character and opened the way for many stories about the countryside. Mahfouz's upbringing in the culturally rich and densely populous commercial district of al-Gamaliya qualified him to shift the fictional emphasis from the country to the city, to construct Egypt's urban novel, and to bring this emerging genre to full maturity. Furthermore, he succeeded in putting this new type of fiction on the world literary map.

  Mahfouz came from a middle-class background. His father was a high-ranking civil servant, and his family lived in comfort. As the youngest of six-four sisters and two brothers -Mahfouz enjoyed the attention and affection of everyone and relished his happy childhood in al-Gamaliya. His vivid recollections of old Cairo were an everlasting source of inspiration for his work, from his early novels up to his last one, Echoes of an Autobiography (1995).

  The lovel as a genre is considered by many to be the epic of the urban middle class. Mahfouz's Cairene origins thus equipped him to be scribe of this teeming metropolis, to which he devoted his life and prodigious work. As a young boy Mahfouz witnessed the 1919 revolution whose major events took place in Cairo, some of its confrontations with the British in the very square in which he lived. The common association between the rise of national fiction and the awakening of national consciousness made his experience of this revolution one of the vital developments of his literary education, and a rich sou rce of inspiration for his Trilogy.

  Mahfouz's literary education was not attained at home where ttiere was no library or literary culture; it was acquired through the popular storytelling of the bard in the coffee-house next to their house. When Mahfouz went to Cairo University in 1930 he studied philosophy and read avidly. His university years coincided with the economic crisis and political repression of the unstable minority governments in Egypt at that time. The University was a hive of political activity and Mahfouz was a liberal Wafdist - the Wafd was the majority party - working to end British occupation of the country, but he was aware of other political movements, particularly the Leftists and Muslim Brothers, whose exponents appear in many of his uoyels.

  On graduation in 1934 he worked for the University, contemplated postgraduate study and even registered for a PhD in philosophy with Sufism in Islamic philosophy as the topic of his research. His first publications were philosophical essays in cultural journals, but he soon abandoned academic endeavour and embarked on a literary career. Yet philosophical concepts and spiritual preoccupations pervade his work. One of the marginal but memorable characters of The Cairo Trilogy is Mutawalli Abd al-Samad, the clown of the piece in the Shakespearean sense. He is a perpetual voice of calm and premonition in the best tradition of Sufism, representing the timeless spirituality that dwells in the worldliness of al-Gamaliya.

  Novels were unknown in Arabic literature before the twentieth century. This is rather ironic in a culture that produced one of the most fascinating and influential narrative texts, The Arabian Nights. But, for centuries, this narrative gem, which is a potent arch-text in the work of contemporary writers such as Borges, Mrquez, Rushdie, Barth and Eco, was relegated to the ranks of popular culture. That did not prevent it from firing the imagination of the young Mahfouz and inspiring him to become the new Shahrazad of Arabic narrative. The thirty years between the birth of the Arabic novel and Mahfouz's first work can be seen retrospectively as preparing the ground for the arrival of the master par excellence of this genre in Arabic literature.

  The intervening works of Taha Husain (1889-1973), Ibrahim al-Mazini (1890-1949), Mahmud Tahir Lashin (1894-1954) and Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987), significant as they may be, succeeded only in rooting the conventions of the genre in Arabic culture and acquainting the readers with its rubrics. They were all works of limited scope, though their role in establishing the new genres (the novel, drama and the short story) cannot be overlooked. They convinced the reading public of their relevance, value and significance. Aware of the pioneering nature of their work, these writers diversified their literary endeavour and, with the exception of Lashin, did not dedicate themselves to one genre. In contrast, Mahfouz concentrated for much of his career almost entirely on the novel. After a few years of what may be considered apprenticeship in writing short stories, he devoted himself to the novel for twenty-five years, before dividing his energy between the two genres. In his prolific writing life, he published more than thirty novels and fifteen collections of stories.

  Mahfouz's literary career began soon after his graduation.

  In 1938, he published his first book, Hams al-Junun (Whispers of Madness), a collection of short stories. In 1939 he left the world of academia, opted for an undemanding civil service job and published his first novel, Abath al-Aqdar (Absurd Fates). This and the following two novels were historical works written as part of a grand project to employ the narrative genre in relating the history of Egypt from the time of the pharaohs to the present, a lifetime project of forty novels. Since studying Ivanhoe as part of the English curriculum at secondary school, Mahfouz had been fascinated by the historical novels of Walter Scott and embarked on this project under his influence. But Scott was no: the only model, for by the time he had completed his education and started writing, several Arabic historical novels had ap seared. Mahfouz's historical novels were clearly different from their predecessors in the genre. Although they had romantic overtones, they were marked by structural coherence and high artistic standards.

  The setting aimed to root the work in Egyptian history, but beneath the historical structure Mahfouz was clearly concerned with contemporary national issues. Aware of his nation's historical amnesia, he mirrors the present in the past in order to enable the nation to draw support and guidance from its own history. The past is clearly used to shape the imagined community and to bolster bruised national identity. The events narrated in these novels are mainly metaphoric representations of aspects of the national con
dition: the quest for independence, and the need to develop the national character and the individual's awareness of his role in society. After writing three such novels, two of which won important literary prizes, Mahfouz abandoned this genre, and turned his attention to the present. He realized that he had not made a dent in the vast history of Egypt, for he was still in the early pharaonic period.

  Three factors played an important role in this change of direction: reading nineteenth-century European novels, the outbreak of World War II and its impact on Egypt, and Mah-fouz's urban life. When Mahfouz was introduced to the novels of Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Thomas Mann and Dickens, he began to doubt the ability of the historical novel to deal with the rapidly changing reality of his time and the urgent issues of his community. The turbulent years of the war were characterized by protracted social, national and moral crises in Egypt, and Mahfouz became increasingly aware of the need to avoid historical metaphor and deal directly with burning social issues. He began to understand that his lack of first-hand experience and knowledge of the countryside militated against his historical project.

  The title of his first ‘realistic’ novel, al-Qahirah al-Jadidah {New Cairo), written in the first year of the war but not published until 1943, sums up his objective: to articulate the new reality of a changing city. During the remaining years of World War II he wrote three more novels surveying the socio-historical reality of Egypt from the beginning of the twentieth century up to the war. These novels are concerned with the transformation of Cairo, physical and cultural. The urban space of old and new Cairo is both the setting and the symbol of the clashes of cultural values which affect many of the inhabitants of this teeming third-world metropolis. The novels of this phase of Mahfouz's literary career reflect the trauma of change and its social, human and political consequences. They shift the focus of the Arabic novel from the country to the city, from the past to the present; they force it to deal with the problems of change and the conflict between the old and the new, between tradition and modernity.

  One of these novels, Midaq Alley (1946), skilfully demonstrates the intriguing but frequently tragic transformation of a society whose aspirations extend beyond its ability to realize them. The juxtaposition of the old alley and its desire for modernity and progress, with modern Cairo in which the colonial presence provides modernity with subordination, gives the novel potency and relevance. Its tragic heroine, Hamidah, is often perceived as a ‘metaphor’ for Egypt in her naive but just quest to improve her life and ameliorate her difficult situation. The novel shows the deterioration of Hamidah's strong character from the desirable belle of the old quarter to the cheap strumpet of the colonized city, overwhelmed by the dictates of the war. It demonstrates the inevitability of Hamidah prostituting herself in a city controlled by the forces of colonialism.

  The four realistic novels create in their richly textured canvas a literary typography of the Cairene urban scene. They eloquently express the predicament of its inhabitants who are caught in the web of tradition and unable to cope with the ramifications of the city's rapid transformation. But Mahfouz's realistic project was not to be fully realized until he wrote The Cairo Trilogy, the work that culminates this phase.

  The Trilogy is the magnum opus of the Cairene urban chronicles, a grand narrative project that took over six years (1946-52) to accomplish. Its completion coincided with the final collapse of the old regime. Inspired by John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, it was the first family saga in modern Arabic literature. Many others have followed, but it remains unique in scope and profundity. In the 1940s, Egypt was at a crossroads of conflicting visions and projects and needed a stocktaking narrative to elaborate its identity and articulate its choices. Mahfouz was also at a personal political crossroads. He had lost faith in, or at least harboured doubts about, his old Wafdist ideology after the Wafd was discredited for agreeing in 1942 to form a government at the request of the British. New ideologies and different narratives were springing up and he needed to examine them.

  Thus, the Trilogy was the result of his search for a sense of direction and of personal and national history. It is a multi-stranded narrative that records the socio-political transformation of modern Egypt in its quest for national identity and a role in the modern world. It also sketches the topography of the urban scene with its rich cultural heritage and elaborate network of human relations. It is a valuable document of social history and of cultural anthropology as well as a literary masterpiece. It should be read both as a realistic representation of its society and as an allegorical rendering of Egypt's quest for nationhood and modernity because of its intricate viewing of the ration from multiple narrative and ideological positions.

  The Cairo Trilogy, which appears in this edition for the first time as one book, was originally conceived as a single novel, and nor as three separate works. When Mahfouz finished what he considered his best achievement yet, he took the manuscript, over a thousand hand-written foolscap pages, to his publisher, Said al-Sahhar, who looked at the book and said without reading it: ‘What sort of a calamity is this?’ Sahhar returned the novel to Mahfouz and refused to publish it on the grounds of cost, despite the fact that the story was hailed by Taha Husain, the doyen of Arabic literature, as a great novel. Mahfouz was depressed and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

  What saved the author and his novel was a lucky coincidence. Yusuf al-Siba'i, the literary commissar of the new regime, was launching a monthly review, al-Risalah al-Jadidah, and looking, as was the custom in Egypt at the time, for a new novel to serialize. When he asked Mahfouz if he had a manuscript, Mahfouz told him the story of his rejected novel. Al-Siba'i was encouraged, rather than discouraged, by the length of the book. It would keep his review going for some time. In 1955, the serialization of Bayn al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), as the whole novel was originally entitled, started in al-Risalah al-Jadidah, but the book was much longer than the short-lived al-Risalah al-Jadidah could sustain.

  As soon as its early chapters were published, readers and critics alike realized that Mahfouz had produced a major literary work. However, Sahhar was still reluctant to publish the whole novel, though he agreed, in 1956, to bring out the serialized portion in book form, which became known as Palace Walk. When this was successful, he asked Mahfouz to give him another manageable portion of the novel to publish. That is when Mahfouz divided his work into three parts, with the inevitable revision to its narrative structure, giving the other two novels, published in 1957, the respective titles of Qasr al-Shawq (Palace of Desire) and al-Sukkariyyah (Sugar Street). The three titles are taken from actual street names in the district of al-Gamaliya.

  The Trilogy is the great family saga of modern Arabic literature and the work that enshrines middle class morality and culture. It places the Egyptian family at the heart of its narrative and follows its ups and downs over three different generations. Unlike many European novels of its ilk, it does not take the adventure or education of the individual as its core, but gives the central role to the family and the collective.

  It also makes the mother the unsung heroine of the family, despite the ostensible authority of the father. The mother is not only the hub of family life, 'the queen with no rival to her sovereignty'; she is also the one who provides the children, male and female alike, with comfort, confidence and support. More important for the novel is the fact that she is the one who sets the pace and controls the space of the narrative.

  Beneath the conventional patriarchal power structure of the story there is a subtle layer of narrative that steadily subverts patriarchal authority. This makes the novel an elegy charting the dwindling of patriarchy in Egypt's painful path to modernity. As such it is both a realistic family saga and a national allegory and each enriches the other, though the success of its realistic dimension often masks its allegorical one. The dual genealogy of the Trilogy is responsible for these two layers in its structure. Mahfouz's reading of the European realistic novel and his desire to cr
eate an Egyptian family saga inspires the realistic layer, while the allegorical dimension is a result of his awareness of an Egyptian tradition that uses the novel to mirror national reality and his need to circumvent political authoritarian control and challenge the prevailing establishment.

  The Trilogy spans a long and decisive period of Egypt's modern history. Palace Walk begins during World War I in 1917 with the: bombardment that discredited the Ottomans and ends with the outbreak of the 1919 nationalist revolution. Palace of Desire starts five years later in 1924 with the British negotiation with Sa'd Zaghlul, the charismatic leader of the Wafd, and ends with his death in 1927. Sugar Street begins in 1935 with Mustafa al-Nahhas, Zaghlul's successor, addressing a Wafd Party conference and ends with the mass arrest of political activists in 1944. But these political and historical events are mere temporal markers of the internal historical memory of the text and are inseparable from its spatial presentation.

  The novel is mainly concerned with the family and mediates political events through its various members. In Palace Walk, the Jaw ad family home is the locus of the narrative and the traditional quarter of al-Gamaliya is the main space of the novel. The novel's world is in the grip of historical transition. As the title Bayn al-Qasrayn indicates, literally 'between two palaces' and not Palace Walk, Egypt was in a liminal space between two political orders: the Ottoman Caliphate with its waning traditional legitimacy and the new independent nation whose difficult birth requires the sacrificial blood of Fahmy.

  If the Jawads' household dwells between these two orders, the Shaddads' mansion in Palace of Desire, is firmly lodged in the new state, where Egypt makes a conscious decision to emphasize its link with European culture and western lifestyles. It is the opposite of the Jawads' in every respect, as the new district of al-Abbasiya is distinctly different to that of al-Gamaliya. In Sugar Street, with its social polarization and conflicting ideologies, opposites and doubles of the Jawad family house emerge. These include contrasts - such as Professor Forster's villa in al-Ma'adi and Abd al-Rahim Pasha's palace in Helwan - and doubles, in the form of the Sugar Street house and Sawsan Hammad's basement flat.

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