Mahfouz, Naguib Entries

Sugar Street


After having explored the angst of patriarchy and that of unrequited love, Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, in its third volume Sugar Street, moves on to the angst of the existential. No one is happy and no one is wise in the al Jawad and Shawkat families as the economic depression of the late 1930s leads into the Second World War; Egypt has modernized, yet in many ways the revolution has stalled. The characters may no longer be under the strict tyrannical thumb of the family patriarch or the British colonizer, but neither do they have a clear sense of direction themselves. Their lives trickle away as their former oppressors linger on, becoming ever more decrepit and obsolete.

Unfortunately, no matter what kind of angst Mahfouz grants to the al Jawad family, I remain less than enthralled. The angst of patriarchy, explored in Palace Walk, was the most engaging for me personally (possibly because the most foreign to my own experience, possibly because most vividly evoked), but with the focus on Kamal's lovesickness in Palace of Desire and his endless existential indecisiveness in Sugar Street, I couldn't help losing patience. Where, in the Cairo Trilogy, is the insight and depth one would expect of a 1000+ page work? Where is the stylistic accomplishment? I just don't see it.

Which is unfortunate, because there is so much here that holds the potential for a great read: the modernization of a country over time; the interplay of the political and the personal in a time of revolution; the changing gender dynamics of twentieth-century Egypt; the politicization/radicalization of Islam in the 1930s and 40s. And indeed we do glimpse all these themes throughout Mahfouz's trilogy, but in a way that never ceases to seem, in my mind, somehow introductory or superficial. Mahfouz's love of introductions can't be denied: in Palace Walk, the first 200 pages consist almost entirely of character introductions, in which the author tells us all about the players' various physical and moral characteristics rather than demonstrating them through action. Even when action finally arrives, it is sufficiently episodic (especially in the later books) that one feels one is essentially being presented with a sketch of a potential narrative, rather than ever feeling what said action might be like in the moment. It's almost as if someone is telling you about a novel, rather than reading the actual novel itself. Mahfouz re-introduces all the characters at the beginning of the two subsequent books, and by the time he reaches Sugar Street the action is SO episodic that months and even years may pass between chapters, necessitating the repetition of all those physical and emotional descriptions all over again at frequent intervals throughout the novel.

On the other hand, the few times I truly felt immersed in a character's mental or emotional landscape, I perversely wished myself away again. Kamal's endless indecision about whether or not to get married, for example—I'm sure that Mahfouz is attempting to make some kind of Henry James-style statement about how Kamal's preoccupation with philosophy and his overly analytical nature are trapping him into a life of non-action, but Sugar Street is no Beast in the Jungle1: rather than plumbing the depths of Kamal's psyche or confronting the reader with the ruins of his wasted life, Kamal's sections here resemble more the experience of hanging out repeatedly with an extremely whiny friend who delivers the same self-pitying diatribe every time one takes him out for a beer. Not only that, but Mahfouz's style (or the style of William Maynard Hutchins's translation) fails to add much humor or aesthetic pleasure to the characters' neuroses:

Kamal went around in circles while the whole world advanced. He kept asking himself, "Are you going to get married or not?" Life seemed to offer nothing but gloomy confusion. His opportunity was neither ideal nor worthless. Love was difficult. It was characterized by controversy and suffering. If only she would marry someone else so he could free himself from this confusion and torment.

I mean, I can understand struggling with angst because one's father is a near-schizophrenic tyrant who never stops yelling at one, but come on: "Love was difficult"? Who ever said that it wouldn't be? What a stellar reason for life-long paralysis.

All this venting aside, there were a few interesting aspects to Sugar Street. I appreciated that Yasin, late in life, grew a sense of humor and became prone to saying things like "We're a religious family. Yes, we're dissolute inebriates, but we all plan to repent eventually." I found the storyline concerning al-Jawad grandson Ridwan interesting to the point where I wished he would be given his own novel, full of ambitious young gay Egyptian politicos doing their sexy turncoat thing. Ahmad and Sawsan and their naive yet refreshingly active and companionable life as Communist activists were also intriguing. And I was interested in the tendency, as Egyptian society becomes marginally less oppressive, for nearly all the characters to wax nostalgic about how far things have declined from its former glories: even Amina takes time to reminisce about the good old times when she was confined to the house on pain of eviction. Those were the days! Simultaneously, both Kamal and Yasin chastise themselves for their failure to measure up to their father, who, they imagine, was drinking and whoring from his heart, whereas they're just doing it to kill time:

Jalila's lover had been a passionate and impetuous man with a heart untroubled by qualms. What was Kamal compared to that man? Even when he visited the brothel each Thursday, only alcohol could release him from his worries long enough for him to enjoy "love" here.

So there you go, mums and dads: be sure to engage in your brothel-patronage with both buttocks, as Montaigne would say, if you want to win the respect of your offspring. In all seriousness, given that the al-Jawad père we saw as readers hardly possessed the "heart untroubled by qualms" imagined by his son, this passage does comment interestingly on how the compulsive dishonesty of the al-Jawad family leads to false impressions that haunt its members for the rest of their lives. Not interestingly enough, though, for me to mourn the end of Sugar Street and the Cairo Trilogy as a whole.


1That's right, I'm comparing a book to a Henry James novella, and the James is winning out. Those who know my feelings on Henry James will appreciate how uncomplimentary this is. Although the thing is: I can appreciate that James is an accomplished artist, albeit one whose work I don't enjoy. Whereas I honestly don't understand the source of the Nobel Prize Committee's admiration for Mahfouz's art.


Despite my snide comments, thanks are due to Richard for organizing this readalong. You are a sport, friend!

Palace of Desire


Warning: Contains spoilers for Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk and Palace of Desire.

It's always difficult to sum up one's reactions to the middle book in a trilogy; one's first impressions are long past, but one doesn't yet have the perspective to look back over the whole series and draw out common themes and larger narrative trends. With that limitation in mind, let me just say:

Holy sexual complexes, Batman!

Yes, my friends, those are my basic thoughts on Palace of Desire, the second installment of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. Because if there is a theme running through the pages of this novel, it's the bizarrely and consistently distorted sexual dynamics displayed by almost all its characters, most of them in some way instilled by their relationship to family patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad. Not since the middle portion of In Search of Lost Time, for example, have I read such over-the-top passages of obsessive unrequited love as Mahfouz gives us in the sections about the youngest al-Jawad sibling Kamal:

       How he wished he could see her in this role, that of a woman in love. He had never imagined it in his wildest dreams. What did the glow of passion and affection look like in her dark eyes, which cast him patronizing glances? Although fatal to his heart, it would be a vision to light up the mind with a firebrand of sacred truth justifying an eternal curse on any skeptic.
       "Your spirit flutters like a trapped bird wishing to fly free. The world is a crossroads of ruins. It would be pleasant to leave it. But even if you're certain their lips have met in a rose-red kiss, you can look forward to the pleasure of absolute freedom in the whirlpool of madness."

Well, that's good then. At least he has the whirlpool of madness to fall back on.

Such oddly purple prose brings to the fore Mahfouz's caginess as a narrator: how seriously are we supposed to take Kamal here? Is his seventeen-year-old crush being taken seriously as a madness-inducing "firebrand of sacred truth"? Or are we readers intended to laugh at him for his outsized, extremist idealism? Perhaps we're merely supposed to sigh and shake our heads at his overheatedness? Or, as Valerie suggested last month, is the stiff and overwrought quality in passages like these (and there are many of them) down to a sub-par translation job?

There were times when nearly all the characters in Palace of Desire were so entirely lacking in perspective, and so bratty and overwrought, that I had trouble taking any of them seriously as humans living in the world, much less adult humans. Kamal's seventeen years provide him with some excuse, but what of his brother Yasin, in his thirties and still getting so swept up in his sexual passions that he marries a woman with whom he knows he will soon be bored, but not until he has conducted a brief and passionate fling with her mother? Or the al-Jawad matriarch Amina, who, though she disconcerts the whole family by showing a modicum of backbone for the first time in living memory, stubbornly insists on imagining that a neighboring family is rejoicing in her son's death, and like a grumpy fourth-grader forbids any of her children from having any further association with them? And all this is not to mention Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself, whose pathetic late-life infatuation with a lute player is overcome only by his social snobbery. The extremism and perversity of the characters' sexual obsessions reminded me, as I mentioned, of In Search of Lost Time, but without Proust's humor and patient explication of mental processes I was often at a loss to interpret the author's own attitude toward his over-the-top characters.

Yet, at other times, it seems Mahfouz is doing something deliberate with all this epic drama. Kamal himself, toward the end of the novel, comes to a tentative realization that he has been conditioned by his father's authoritarianism to seek out oppressive relationships in the rest of his life (note that despite the quotation marks Kamal is not actually saying this aloud, but only thinking it to himself):

"Do you know what other consequences there were to loving you despite your tyranny? I loved another tyrant who was unfair to me for a long time, both to my face and behind my back. She oppressed me without ever loving me. In spite of all that, I worshipped her from the depths of my heart and still do. You're as responsible for my love and torment as anyone else. I wonder if there's any truth to this idea. I'm not satisfied with it or overly enthusiastic about it. [...] In any case, Father, you're the one who made it easy for me to accept oppression through your continual tyranny."

It's true that everyone in the al-Jawad household has been accustomed to the role of either a perpetual child, or a tyrant, or a tyrant-to-be. And it's understandable that this would have a warping effect on their ability to grow into rational, well-adjusted adults. Khadija, one of the al-Jawad daughters, suffers so from the lack of an authoritarian father figure in her married life, that she herself becomes a brat and a harpy, picking fights with her mother-in-law and screeching at her husband that he will never compare to her father. As for the eldest son Yasin, having only his father as a model means that he has never learned to walk a middle ground between total repression and complete bacchanalian self-indulgence. Amina, too, has learned no communication style other than extreme passive-aggression, and is unable to confront her neighbors or her philandering husband, or even her lingering grief over her son's death.

And indeed, Mahfouz's strange technique of presenting a character's silent thoughts in quotation marks as if the character were speaking aloud, followed by their actual speech, also in quotation marks, reinforces this unstable boundary between the inexpressible internal life and the external façade (a façade which, often as not, fools no one). The need for that barrier between the spoken and the silent worlds, and the lack of honest exchange among family members and others, would go some distance towards explaining the over-dramatic terms in which they narrate their own lives. (Not to mention their need for an external release valve, be it alcohol, whoring, or petty squabbling.)

So too, Mahfouz explores the brittleness, the fragility that results from Al-Sayyid Ahmad's authoritarianism. For the patriarch himself, the tremendous amount of effort needed to keep up both his public life of jovial debauchery and his private life of stern respectability, becomes too much to maintain as he gets older. For his son Kamal, who has taken his father's impossibly high religious and ethical standards to heart as Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself never did, it means a zealous religious faith that nonetheless crumbles at his first exposure to the world of science; a literalist conception of "truth" that leaves no margin for compromise or metaphor. And yet nothing in Kamal's mindset has really changed: he flees to science expecting it to provide him with the same kind of absolutist dictates that religion has failed to do; he is still hoping to find another tyrant he can agree both to love and respect.

I can think of no better way to sum up than with a double dactyl:


Flibberty gibbert the
Al-Jawad family's
Tyrannous father trains
Children and wives

Not to remark when his
Drunken compulsions wreck
all of their lives.


Palace of Desire was the second installment in the Cairo Trilogy Readalong; thanks to Richard for organizing!

Palace Walk


Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk was, for me, a slow burn. While I ended up drawn into the domestic turmoil of the al Jawad family, its relation to the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and the author's comments on power dynamics in early twentieth-century Egyptian society, both the subject matter and the writing style (or possibly the style of translation from the Arabic by Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny) made the first 200 pages in particular into an awkward and sometimes suffocating reading experience.

The first installment in Mahfouz's 1956 Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk introduces the reader to the middle-class, conservative Muslim al-Jawad family, whose patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad terrorizes his submissive wife and five children into absolute obedience through his cutting sarcasm and frequent temper tantrums, even while spending his time apart from his family indulging in wine and women. While Sarah provocatively compares Palace Walk to Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, the comparison that primarily leapt to my mind during the first half of this novel was of an Arabic-inflected, Proust-influenced Jane Austen. As in Austen, this half of the novel is profoundly domestic (most of the action takes place within the family's house on Palace Walk), and concerned with the highly ritualized interactions among family members and between members of the family and outsiders. This comparison struck home for me particularly during one scene in which the women of the household are thrown into frantic excitement at the announcement that two ladies unknown to them have arrived for a visit. Like Mrs. Bennet watching out the window for a carriage rolling up the drive, the al Jawad ladies know that visitors mean marriage prospects, and fly into a frenzy of beautification to greet these "marriage scouts," who are made necessary by the fact that no men outside the family are allowed to lay eyes on either of the daughters or the wife. As in Austen, then, the women sit together having what appears to be a pleasant conversation about trivialities, when in actuality they are cold-bloodedly sizing each other up as potential relatives by marriage—in other words, subservient house-mates, help-meets, and heir-producers.

In this scene as in others the extreme subtleties of conversation, and the ways in which a person seeming to say one thing is often expressing another, are key to the unfolding drama—another similarity with the barbed repartee of Austen characters. Late in the novel, one of al-Sayyid Ahmad's children has finally summoned up the courage to disobey him openly, earning his scorching wrath. When the son braves his father's rooms to apologize for his behavior, he is met at first with unremitting silence, after which they have the following exchange (this passage, by the way, is a good example of the slightly awkward, jerky quality of the writing, an aspect of Palace Walk which did not remind me of Jane Austen.)

       "I'm really sorry. I haven't had a moment's peace of mind since..." He found his words were leading him up to a reference to something he wanted with all his heart to skip over. So he stopped.
       Before he knew what was happening, his father asked him harshly and impatiently, "What do you want?"
       Fahmy was overjoyed that the man had abandoned his silence and sighed with relief as though he had not noticed the harsh tone. He entreated his father, "I want your approval."
       "Get out of my sight."
       Feeling the grip of despair loosening a little around his neck, Fahmy said, "When I have your approval."
       Becoming sarcastic suddenly, al-Sayyid Ahmad asked, "My approval! ... Why not? ... Have you, God forbid, done anything to make me angry?"
       Fahmy welcomed his father's sarcasm twice as much as his renunciation of silence. Sarcasm with his father was the first step toward forgiveness.

There are at least three levels to what is actually going on between father and son here: on one level, in other scenes, we see al-Sayyid Ahmad admit to himself that his son's disobedience is a mark of his approaching manhood. Despite being angry, he is also to some degree proud, but he believes that showing his pride in his son will "spoil" his son and undermine al-Sayyid Ahmad's own authority. So he exaggerates his real anger, allowing his harshness to reduce gradually over the course of the conversation so that his son will know they are back on good terms, while still stopping short of showing him actual kindness or respect. Fahmy is therefore kept in an oppressed, downtrodden state, while somehow still feeling grateful and loving toward his father for al-Sayyid Ahmad's supposed clemency in forgiving him.

Indeed, like such novels as Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, Palace Walk shows a strong preoccupation with the power dynamics of oppression, both in terms of gender and age, and in terms of the occupation of Egypt by the English. More than anything, though, it was the infantilization and disempowerment of women in the al-Jawad family that really got to me throughout Palace Walk. While Mahfouz makes it clear that the larger Egyptian society provides women with few safeguards against male tyranny, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is considered conservative even by his male peers: for example, he forbids his wife and daughters from ever setting foot outside the family home, the only extremely rare exceptions to this rule being the occasional veiled and chaperoned trip to visit his mother-in-law. (Just thinking about this, by the way, makes me start panicking. I love staying home, but to live in a city for one's whole life and never be able to wander its streets, seeing them change over time? Never to wander freely and gaze into the shop windows and the restaurant windows and the windows of the weird art installations and pie shops? Throughout my reading of Palace Walk I viewed my daily two-mile walk to work and back with a new joy and appreciation, and a new horror that anyone would be willing to deny that experience to half the population based on their own petty sexual jealousies.)

The atmosphere of the al-Jawad household is extremely repressive around all emotions, but particularly around sex and sexuality. One of the more heart-wrenching series of events takes place around the wedding of one of the family's daughters, at which al-Sayyid Ahmad segregates himself away from the rest of the family because he "did not care to observe at close hand their relaxed response to a festive occasion." While he doesn't discipline them for being happy at a wedding, neither can he bear to watch it. Meanwhile, the family's youngest son has so thoroughly imbibed the message that women are pure beings polluted by any contact with males, that he is deeply disturbed when he looks through a keyhole and sees his sister kissing her new husband. He interprets the sight as an assault on his sister's honor, and runs to tell his mother. Tragically, she herself is so uncomfortable and repressed around sex that she is incapable of explaining to her son that this behavior is ever acceptable, even in the context of marriage:

       She hit him hard on his shoulder to make him stop. She whispered in his ear, "Don't say shameful things. If your father heard you, he'd kill you."
       He persisted and told her, as though revealing something to her she could not possibly have imagined, "He was holding her chin in his hand and kissing her."
       She hit him again, harder than she ever had before. He realized that he had certainly done something wrong without knowing it. He fell silent and was afraid. When they were crossing the courtyard of their house, straggling behind the others except for Umm Hanafi, who had waited behind to bolt the door, lock it, and latch it, Kamal's anxiety and curiosity overcame his silence and fear. He asked pleadingly, "Why was he kissing her, Mother?"
       She told him firmly, "If you start that again, I'll tell your father."

What breaks my heart about this and other scenes, is the key role that women play in reinforcing each others' oppression: Amina accepts her husband's judgments and behavior without question, and similarly accepts that it would be improper for her to talk about kissing, or take a walk outside her house, or express an opinion different from that of her husband; in turn, she believes these behaviors to be improper for all women. Later in the novel, she becomes one of the harshest critics of a new female addition to their household who is accustomed to more lenient rules. Her own experience, far from allowing her to sympathize with her daughter-in-law, means that her whole world-view is wrapped up in reinforcing the strict rules that she herself has followed:

In Amina's opinion, Zaynab was arrogating to herself masculine prerogatives. She took exception to this conduct, precisely because she was a woman who had spent her life shut up inside her house [. . .] Her silent criticism was mixed with a feeling of bitterness and rage which she seemed to be rationalizing when she observed to herself, "Either that woman is punished or life has no meaning."

The power dynamics in the al-Jawad family are such that all its members tend to confound oppression with love and meaning in this way, unable to imagine one without the other. At the same time as this cycle is continued into the next generation, however, Palace Walk depicts a society in flux, experiencing changes that would have been unimaginable to the characters' parents and grandparents. Despite the sometimes-awkward prose and challenging politics, I look forward to following Mahfouz's trajectory with the next two books in this trilogy.


Thanks to Richard for hosting the Cairo Trilogy Readalong. Discussion of the next book, Palace of Desire, will take place around January 30-31.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography