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• Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Naguib Mahfouz was born in 1911 in Gamaliya, a popular commercial quarter of Cairo. He was named after Naguib Pasha Mahfouz, the physician that delivered him. Later the family moved to Al-Abassiya a middle class quarter of Cairo. These are the two districts that provided the backdrop for Mahfouz’s famous Cairo Trilogy.

Mahfouz graduated from Cairo University in 1934 with a BA degree in philosophy and followed his father’s footsteps by working as a civil servant until he retired in 1972. He was working as a civil servant while writing on the side, even after his novels became successful. He began writing at the age of seventeen, but his first novel was not published until 1939.

In his lifetime Mahfouz wrote about forty novels, over a hundred short stories, and more than two hundred articles. Many of his novels have been made into films. The publication of The Cairo Trilogy in 1957 made him well known in the Arab world. Thirty one years later, in 1988, when Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, Jacqueline Onassis registered the rights for Doubleday on 14 of his books and arranged for the first translation into English of The Cairo Trilogy and some of his other books.Since then Mahfouz has often been referred to in the western world as the Balzac of Egypt or the Egyptian Tolstoi.

The Cairo Trilogy, named after three streets in the heart of the old part of Cairo, “Palace Walk”, “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street”, is a very gripping story. It’s a saga of three generations of a Muslim family, the Sayed Ahmed Abdel Gawad family, living in a thousand- year- old district of Cairo, during the British occupation. After world war one Egypt was in turmoil with its people fighting in every way to achieve their country’s independence. The story unfolds during these bleak years, between the two world wars, from 1917 until 1944.

The two main characters are Sayed Ahmed Abdel Gawad, the prosperous middle- aged merchant grocer, who is the tyrannical family patriarch, and his submissive wife Amina who genuinely finds peace and serenity in her servitude.

In “Palace Walk”, the story evolves around the rhythms of the household of Sayed Ahmed Abdel Gawad, in Palace Walk. Mahfouz describes in detail the every day life of the family: Amina who awaits every night for her husband’s early morning return from his parties with his friends and mistresses. In fact Sayed Ahmed has two personalities, he is joyful, witty and charming with his customers, friends and mistresses, and unpleasant, domineering and tyrannical with his own family at home. A life of double standards.

Also described are the daily rituals: the early morning baking of the bread, the family evening gathering round the glowing brazier of the coffee hour, the siblings bickering…
Yasin is portrayed as a chip off the old block; he likes to enjoy life and especially women. Fahmy is the studious patriotic son. He is full of ideals and devotion to his country, and dies at the end of the first book by a British bullet during a street demonstration.
Kamal is an easy going child fond of each member of his family, and in return they all like him.Khadiga is the ugly sharp-tongued realistic daughter.
As for Aisha she is the beautiful soft romantic and dreamy daughter.
“Palace Walk” ends with Fahmy’s tragic death, especially that he was the most promising son of Sayed Ahmed’s family.

“Palace of Desire” the second book of the trilogy, continues where “Palace Walk” ends. But some years have passed and things are changing in traditions, in the country as well as in the Sayed Ahmed’s family. The father becomes more understanding and less oppressive after his son Fahmy’s death. Kamal the youngest son of Sayed Ahmed is the major character in this book , he is now a young man about to undergo his university studies. He is passionately and platonically in love with an upper class girl, Aida the sister of his best friend Husayn Shaddad. It’s a love without hope but he seems to be content with it. He disappoints his father by wanting to join the Teacher Training college rather than joining the Medicine or Law faculties at university as his father had wished for him.

Yasin moves out to his late mother’s house in Palace of Desire street in order to feel free to marry as his heart desires. Aisha and Khadiga now have children of their own and live with their husbands, the two brothers, in the Shawkat household in Sugar street.

“Palace of Desire” ends with Sayed Ahmed’s health failing with age. A typhoid epidemic killing Aicha’s husband and two sons. And the passing away of the great nationalistic Egyptian leader, Saad Zaglul.

The third book “Sugar Street” evolves mainly around the second and third generation of Sayed Ahmed’s family saga. Sayed Ahmed and his wife Amina are old, their children middle aged and their grand children entering their twenties.

Yasin is settled with his wife Zanuba and his daughter Karima but still pursues his hedonistic life. Aisha becomes a prematurely aged widow after the death of her husband and two sons from typhoid, and her daughter’s death during labour, after marrying her cousin Abdel Moneim, Khadiga’s son.

Khadiga has problems with her two sons. Abdel Moneim is a devout muslim, a great believer and follower of The Muslim Brotherhood underground political party. And Ahmed the devoted, hard-core communist, even marries beneath him to prove that he doesn’t care about classes to the annoyance of his mother. Both end up in prison. Abdel Moneim whispered softly into his brother Ahmed’s year “Am I cast into this hole merely because I worship God? Ahmed whispered merrily in his brother’s ear, what could my offense be then, since I don’t?”

Radwan, Yasin’s son who contrary to his father dislikes women, meets success thanks to his relationship with the homosexual Issa Pasha. He climbs the ladder very fast and ends up with a very well paid civil service job. He also arranges for his family to benefit from the highly influential Issa Pasha.

The book ends soon after the death, of the two main characters, Sayed Ahmed, who dominates the book, and his timid, faithful wife Amina, due to old age.

Naguib Mahfouz’s famous Trilogy is autobiographical in nature. The setting is a very familiar one to Mahfouz, the crowded neighbourhood, the narrow walks and the many centuries old mosques in the Gamaliya quarter where he was born and afterwards Al Abassiya where he moved and where the Cairo Trilogy is set.

Like Kamal he is the youngest son of a middle class family, and like him was also a patriot and a free, liberal thinker, and wrote philosophical articles in intellectual magazines. And like Kamal he also went through periods of doubts and disbelief.

All the characters in the Trilogy are very real, very human and deeply moving. Mahfouz goes to great length to provide detailed descriptions of his complex characters. One gets the impression that not much is happening and yet there is a lot going on in the rich psychological depth and description of culture.

His style is unique, full of humour at times, talking about the two brothers Abdel Moneim and Ahmed who ended up in prison for their different belief. Mahfouz wrote through one of his characters saying : “The one who worships God and the one who doesn’t…You must worship the government first and foremost if you wish your life to be free of problems”. Another amusing quotation by Yasin : “After a few months as tasty as olive oil, your bride turns into a dose of castor oil”. Mahfouz also writes sad, important and upsetting happenings Mahfouz’s words are chosen with great care and subtlety. His style is elegant without ostentation, he adopts the classical style for which he is famous. His novels convey his big love of Egypt.

The Associated Press interviewed him on his 94th birthday. Mahfouz said: “I wrote ‘The Seventh Heaven’ because I want to believe something good will happen to me after death. Spirituality, for me, is of high importance and continuously provides inspiration for me.”

Naguib Mahfouz died in August 2006 at the age of 95 leaving a widow and two unmarried daughters.

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