Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 14, 2009

Naquib Mahfouz – The Cairo Trilogy


I have already reviewed the first book in this series – and you may remember that I was very much in two minds about it.  On the one hand I was intrigued by the story, by what was happening to the various members of the Al Jawad family.  On the other hand, I felt really annoyed, angry, irritated by the way women were portrayed and the very stifling character of Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the husband and father of this family, in fact by the relationships between the various members of the family.  I utterly disliked him, the husband, but at the same time felt irritated by the women, his wife and daughters, their subservience and their apparent lack of character.  Even the sons were totally under his autocratic rule. 

Having read the second and the third book in the series, I have not really changed my mind although I can see that what Mahfouz is trying to do is paint a realistic picture of what it was like to be either male or female in this family at the time of writing (1920s in the first book and going on to the thirties and forties in the second and third part of the trilogy), in Egypt, to be precise, in Cairo.  However, I can see that what is being evoked in these books is probably a great deal of reality, of how an imaginary family might have lived at that time and within the particular culture.  Nevertheless, the characters, one by one are utterly dislikeable, and that is I think, the root of the problem.  They are weak, with the men getting away with a most appalling disregard for anything female, assuming that as long as they don’t know everything is alright, and the women accepting their roles and even when the daughters marry much easier-going men, they either assume the role of a veritable nag or they are punished somehow with the author killing off their husband and two sons so that there is nothing very much to live for anymore.  Perhaps I’m giving away too much too soon! 

You do want to read these books, believe me, if only to be able to give vent to this irritation whilst at the same time having to acknowledge that the author is able to keep you going, because the style, however old-fashioned and seemingly out of date, nevertheless is just right for this kind of story – it is how you imagine the Arabic language would flow and how people would have expressed themselves at that time and within the culture.  I have little knowledge of the Egyptian novel as such, but I imagine there is an authenticity in this writing and that is probably where the comparison has been made (by others) with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy: the grand panoramic writing, that takes in the minutest detail of day to day living of a time and place that are now alien to us.

mahfouz-palace-of-desireIn Palace of Desire, the second book of the Trilogy, the utter depression and repression of the first book gives way to a somewhat milder regime by Al-Sayyid Ahmad, even if he carries on whoring and stipulating what his wife and offspring can and cannot do.  The killing of their son, Fahmy, at the end of the first book, by English soldiers, has shifted the autocratic behaviour somewhat; there is a kind of mellowing, as if the shock has been too much.  The children are growing up, and there is Yassin who has married, divorced, then marries again and divorces again, unable to stay at home and always out on the town searching for easy women.  The daughters marry and the mother is given a little bit more freedom: she is allowed to go out to mosques whereas before her place was well and truly in the home only, tidying away her husband’s clothes when he comes back in the middle of the night after his partying with his friends, visiting women, getting drunk.  Yet, during the day he is well-regarded business man, who is strict with his family.

mahfouz-sugar-streetThe third book, Sugar Street, focuses to a large extent also on the youngest son, Kamal and his soul searching about women and being a great writer, refusing to marry because of his never forgotten unrequited love.  Amina, his mother is now old, Aisha and her daughter Naima have moved back in with the parents after the death of her husband and two sons, and there is also the slow decline of Al Sayyid Ahmad. 

The books provide a vast and colourful panorama of what life is like for this family, their growing into adulthood and slow decline, the weddings and the funerals, the upheavals and the social and economic changes that are taking place, the international relationships that form a background to the growing away of the younger generation from the older one. 

Writing all this down I do think there is richness in these books that provide the gentle addiction, not being able to let go, even if you are utterly and truly aghast at the way the characters behave and develop.  Or perhaps, in the case of some of the women, just don’t seem to develop at all; they remain ornaments in a predominantly male world.


Mahfouz himself had a very strict Islamic upbringing and he probably painted a very well-known picture of what it was like to live in a family he depicts in the Cairo Trilogy.  He was born in 1911 and died when he was 94, in 2006.  He was a child during the time he depicts in the first book, the 1920s and so was probably already aware of what was going on around him, with the rebellion against the English in Cairo.  He received the Nobel Prize for the Cairo Trilogy and I think it is well worth reading up on his biography.  Here’s a Wikipedia link.  Yes, I know…. 








  1. thanks

  2. Interesting review. I do want to read these books but I have simliar misgivings to yours. But I think my curiosity will win out! Do you have any Iranian writing to compare it to? I wonder how the Egyptian and Iranian experiences of a strict Muslim upbringing would compare. But perhaps Mahfouz had much greater freedom as an Egyptian.

  3. Hi, tried to leave a comment earlier but got rejected as spam. I haven’t read Mahfouz yet but I like this nuanced review. Gives me a good reference point when I get to him.

  4. Hi Pete: I just ‘unspammed’ your first comment 🙂 I’ve read a few Iranian writers recently, but they tend to focus more on the revolution, pre and post-Khomeini. Freedom comes and goes in countries like Iran. I loved ‘The Septembers of Shiraz’ by Dalia Sofer, which might be a good starting point. Mahfouz is a very particular ‘Arabic’ writer: Iranians stem from quite a different culture, which is non-Arabic.

  5. Hey, new look! (see how long it’s been since I’ve enjoyed Blogworld?) and wonderful review on this gentleman writer. You open us up to books we might otherwise miss.

  6. Not around much either these days – sounds like you’re busy and pre-occupied?… So am I! I will get back into the swing of things one of these days.

  7. Fascinating reviews on your blog.

    I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never encountered this trilogy before, but read a more contemporary Egyptian writer – Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love, which I found similarly gloomy.

  8. […] 51 Stories recently read and reviewed the Cairo Trilogy as well. Her blogposts are here and here. […]

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