Komorebi Post– There is something fascinating and thrilling, maybe even scary, about reading novels to describe a life you feel like you know, even though the words are actually about a distant world and people so very different from you. The outstanding Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz included three different volumes; Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and finally Sugar Street.
The series earned its writer, a Noble Prize and presented the world a stunning piece of literature, right up there with names like War and Peace and the numerous works of Dickens. What is outstanding about this book is how it boils down so many different topics into the perspective of a single family and their overall pretense at normalcy and honor. It accurately depicts a tyrant patriarch; the books follow three generations of a family by portraying problems in twentieth-century British-occupied Egyptian society. The first book focuses on the oppressed wife Amina, his over protected girls; Aisha and Khadija and his three sons.
Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is an honorable man- to a suffocating degree. He prays five times a day, does not think it’s decent to laugh with his family or have an intimate conversation with his wife (something a little too much, perhaps). He would kill if a man happened to see his one of his daughters, and wants his sons, to follow his footsteps to turn on the envy of his friends. Yet he can consume bottles of fine wine at a regular singer’s house when his family isn’t watching, hold a tune in a voice as pure as rain, and spend a night of rampant debauchery and adultery without a single thought about propriety. And he does all this believing it to be his right as a man of the world.
Why do I say these novels are still relevant today?
In modern Pakistani society, such a rampant patriarchal belief of being a ‘man of the world’ is still prevalent. It might not manifest itself in the same way as Abd al-Jawad showed his, but in a society where the name and legacy of a family is always expected to be carried forth by men. In a society where only 25% of women, as compared to 49% of men, have completed primary education, and where people still think it reasonable to point fingers at little Zainab’s family for not protecting her instead of calling her rapist out for the crime he committed—in such a place, we still have a problem and here the relevance of these novels becomes apparent. Because, in three books, Mahfouz paints the picture of a struggling Cairo that, if not in every aspect then certainly in some, correlates with the rural streets of Pakistan.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel still. As with the Abd al-Jawad family, the wheel of time keeps on turning. It waits for no-one. It might be slow in some regions of the world, but total stillness is impossible.