The story starts with a detailed description of the daily domestic routine of an Old Cairo house. Ahmad Abd-al-Jawad rules it with an iron fist. No one in the family can talk back to him or look into his eyes. His wife is an epitome of submissiveness. She has never left the house and only sees the world outside through the latticed window of the first floor. Through it, she looks at the streets of Old Cairo and the mosque of Al Hussain (AS), where the severed head of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson, lovingly referred to by them as “Our master Hussain”, is believed to be buried. This is the decade of 1920s.
Through the same window, she sees her husband arrive late every night after enjoying the company of his mistress or after having spent mirth-filled hours with his life-long friends, music and wine. But she doesn’t know – and lacks the courage to ever ask – where he had been. She dutifully waits on him, as serving her husband and looking after her children are the sole aims of her life.
Naguib Mahfouz’s three novels that comprise the Cairo Trilogy, named after the city’s neighbourhoods (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street) trace the lives of all the members of this family and the generation that follows in elaborate detail, relating their joys and worries, adventures and sorrows, loves and betrayals – until the descriptions are vividly etched in the mind of the reader.
Egypt is under British occupation. A nationalist movement is on the rise under the leadership of Saad Zaghloul. People come out in droves in response to his calls for demonstrations. Every citizen is a supporter, but few get practically involved in the dangerous campaign of mobilising the masses. One such campaigner is Abd al-Jawad’s favourite son, who defies his father’s orders for the first time – something both the father and son are unaccustomed to – to continue his political activism. Therein we see the first sign indicating the loosening grip of the old order.
Family tragedy compels the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad to shun his decadent lifestyle. But he cannot stay away from the pleasures of his double life for more than a couple of years. The society of Old Cairo is shown to be extremely conservative, where women are allowed no liberties, but men can engage in all sorts of play, as long as they can keep their lives inside and outside the house completely separate. They don’t find this lifestyle in conflict with their deep religiosity, manifested in their earnest rituals and worship. Their scruples are at ease. They believe God Almighty would understand – overlook or forgive their dabbling in the pleasures of worldly life.
The life trajectories of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad’s progeny are reflective of the changing trends and emergent political consciousness of Egyptian society. His youngest son, Kamal, comes to occupy centrestage as the story progresses, as Mahfouz shifts the focus on to his spiritual and mental journey, perhaps a reflection of his own.
As time passes, the ageing generation witnesses the weakening of their authority. Among Abd al-Jawad’s grandchildren, one becomes a diehard member of the Muslim Brotherhood and another becomes a committed activist of socialism. When they debate their views in their social circles, the discomfort caused by emergent ideas is palpable. Both brothers meet the same unfavourable fate. Neither of them is viewed sympathetically by the power-holders.
Despite the cumulative length of the Cairo Trilogy, this magical tale draws the reader into the day-to-day happenings of this bygone world. Mahfouz reveals the unique traits of each carefully developed character as they grow, learn, adjust and age. One reads about how the completely insulated position of women with respect to the outside world undergoes a gradual change as space is created for their participation.
The way Mahfouz compassionately creates and nurtures each character compels the reader to care for them. While they may make bad choices, hurt and harm others, they remain the prisoners of their own conscience or desires or values, however warped they might be. Mahfouz doesn’t pass any explicit judgements, as he takes the reader on this epic journey that covers traditional mores, political struggle, conflicts of faith, enduring effects of lost love and ultimately a lost world – that one ends up crying after.
I was lucky to be in Egypt while reading this historic saga of the Abd al-Jawad family. I thought of Mahfouz’s characters as I observed the faces of Cairo’s men and women, young and old, clad in traditional jellabiyas and modern Western clothes.
The Cairo of today has undergone tremendous change but there are ample traces of how it used to be – for those who care to notice.