Friday, 7 September 2012

The Cairo Trilogy Part III: Sugar Street (Al Sukkariyyah)

In my opinion, the most compelling of the three novels, Sugar Street (Al-Sukkariyyah) is a fast-paced, narrative-rich story that brings to a close the dramas we have witnessed to date. Unlike the first two of the series, Sugar Street spans a far longer period of time, covering ten years in 330 pages. In these novels, Mahfouz indulges us in stories of love and of love lost, of missed opportunities and close encounters. Through the characters we experience birth, death, pleasure and torment. By the final instalment of the trilogy, we are at one with Mahfouz’s style and character presentation. I personally wished nothing more than to see Kamal Jawad, son of the novel’s patriarch, happy and in love. He comes so close to happiness, only to have this snatched away at the very last moment. In the second novel, Kamal’s character was defined by his love for Aida Shaddad. This love was not meant to be, and Aida married another, leaving his character broken. Kamal’s view of love becomes bitter, acidic even. He is destined to live out his days a lonely bachelor, until we see the return of Aida’s younger sister Budur. Reminding him of his love for her sister, Kamal’s feelings are reignited:

‘The dormant disease threatened to flare up again. Anyone who has had tuberculosis must be aware of catching a cold.’

Love as tuberculosis; what an analogy. Finally Kamal has a change of heart; ‘he now aspired to be happy.’ Mahfouz plants a seed of hope; we believe that Kamal’s fate will change as he begins once more to feel the joys of the world, of emotion, of his senses:

‘Love was like wine, but the enjoyment was profounder and the hangover less objectionable.’

And once again, it is all taken away. Kamal misses his opportunity to marry Budur and find happiness with her, only to be told that Aida is dead.  ‘As a result, he had ended up an unmarried teacher and an emotionally crippled recluse.’ Kamal resumes his state of misery and loneliness, restating his position on the subject of marriage, which he describes as ‘the ultimate surrender in life’s losing battle.’
Amidst the backdrop of the Second World War, the final novel brings to a conclusion the fates of the patriarch and matriarch of the trilogy. Mahfouz continues to mirror the characters and the architecture, demonstrating the personas they inhabit through the depiction of their physical surroundings. In so doing, we see the literal deterioration of the patriarch al Sayyid Ahmad Abd al Jawad, as he is forced to come down from the top of the house to the first floor. The walking stick, another important physical marker, adapts its role to al-Sayyid’s new lifestyle:

‘The stick, which had been his companion since he was a young man, when it had been a symbol of virility and of elegance, now helped support him as he plodded along slowly.’

The architectural space of the store was no longer his; this space that was central to his activities, ‘the meeting place for his friends and lovers, and the source of his renown and prestige’ is no more. It is the end of an era; his life no longer inhabits this temporal space, as it is forever changing with time, awaiting its new inhabitants to start the cycle once more. The trilogy depicts the story of life, the cyclical nature of life in which we witness and experience love, struggles, pleasure, and loss. ‘Time, which by the mere fact of its uninterrupted existence betrays man in the worst possible way.’

Gender roles are an intrinsic element to the discourse of the Trilogy: women and their placement within the dynamic of marriage are literally treated as commodities that can be traded off against one another. ‘Brides like tomatoes and meat – are expensive today.’ In spite of the stereotypes that befall her, the role of the woman remains strong. Asserting her role as matriarch until the bitter end, it is Amina’s voice that says the final prayers for her husband, as she lays his body to rest. There is a distinct change in narration as Mahfouz presents us with Amina’s personal soliloquy; we experience her internal monologue, her psychological manifestations, the thoughts and opinions that she was previously unable to express because of her role as a woman. He husband’s death, though tragic, is liberating as she gains a voice and is able to stage this as a discourse set apart from every other character in the novel.

 Ironically, the woman to outlive them all is Umm Hanafi, the maid of the Jawad home – ‘she is the mistress of our household,’ surpassing all in health and virtue, despite her status as a servant. With the eventual passing of Amina, the architecture too, reflects the family’s loss of a mother:

‘This very room would no longer be the same, and the characteristics of the whole house would change.’

If the stories of love, lust and loss were not enough, we are of course reminded of the power of politics in this world – in its past, present and future. One of my favourite quotes of the Trilogy epitomises the inward struggles of the characters and the selfishness of man in his quest for personal fulfilment:

‘Hopefully the war will polish off both the Nazi movement and colonialism. Then I can concentrate on love.’

It is the two brothers – Ahmad and Abd al Muni’m who draw the trilogy to a close. Grandchildren of the great Jawad household, they represent polar opposites, a theme of paradoxes that has run from beginning to end. Ahmad the Communist and Abd al Muni’m the Muslim Brother; the two exponents of the conflicting ideologies of progress and regression emerge from the same home on Sugar Street. At the end they are incarcerated in the same cell, as the Ministry of Interior acts on orders to detain them on account of their ‘subversive’ behaviour. We are left to admit that in spite of the harmonious relationships that form in both love and politics, there will simply be issues that will remain forever unresolved.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Cairo Trilogy Part II: Palace of Desire (Qasr el-Shoaq)

Palace Walk, the first part of The Cairo Trilogy, begins in 1917 during the First World War, ending in 1919 with the outbreak of the nationalist revolution. The second part – Palace of Desire, begins its story five years later in 1924, witness to the British negotiation with Sa’d Zaghlul of the Wafd Party. The novel ends with the leader’s death in 1927.

Palace of Desire presents a marked shift in time, attitudes and family dynamics. The novel opens with patriarch Ahmad abd al-Jawad ‘extracting from his caftan the gold watch.’ This immediate reference to time signals a change in pace in the discourse that Mahfouz adopts to represent the breakdown of the Jawad family structure. The shift of the coffee hour from the first floor to the ground floor, following the death of one of the Jawad sons – Fahmy, and the marriage of the two daughters, highlights a massive blow to the mother’s position in this important social event. We come to the point when Amina, the matriarch of the Jawad family and youngest son Kamal, are the only remaining patrons of the coffee hour.

This change in dynamics is highlighted by the paradoxical nature of the two families that construct this narrative: the Jawads and the Shaddads. The Shaddad mansion in Palace of Desire is firmly lodged in the new state, a reflection of Egypt at this point, in its bid to emphasise its link with European culture and a Western style of living. The counter-space of the Shaddad mansion serves as a further blow to the pre-existing harmony of the Jawad house, which unfolds with the progression of the narrative, to become a desolate and lonely space, once a place of vibrancy and family occasions.
The members of the Shaddad family present a far more Western mindset and lifestyle, reflected in their vales, opinions, and even down to their choice of food and drink – highly apparent in the picnic scene at the Pyramids. Where Kamal Jawad epitomises the traditional Egyptian, Husayn and Aida Shaddad represent modernity in the behaviours they bring to the table, so to speak. Husayn says:

Religion huh? A glass of beer doesn’t make you drunk, and ham is delicious and good for you.’

A devout Muslim, and upholder of Islamic traditions, Kamal is alien to the lifestyle and values of his Westernised friends, and their enjoyment of these forbidden foods. And yet he accepts their differences graciously, falling in love with Aida’s exoticism and international persona. Not only are Kamal’s emotions controlled by Aida, but his love for her begins to dictate his entire being, setting his character’s personal timeframe by the clock that controls his emotional state: ‘That happened before love, or B.L, and this took place after love A.L (p.686).’ Aida is glorified in such a manner, that she sets the pace of Kamal’s existence and growth as a man within the overall narrative. The elusive nature of Aida’s character is heightened by her familiarity with Western culture, marking the beginning of Kamal’s shift from Egyptian traditions and his exploration of his manhood:

Aida said something unintelligible in French...Using foreign words was a common practice for her, one that softened his extreme identification with the national tongue.’

This alteration in perception sees Kamal begin to indulge in the darker social scene, to which the other male members of his family have become notorieties: alcohol and women. Their indulgence in such social pleasures indicates a running trait in the Jawad men. Yasin Jawad, eldest son in the Jawad family, is just like his father; ‘he had two personalities. One was reserved for friends and lovers, the other presented to his family and the world.’

We see the transparency of the belief systems which so many claim to practice, to profess and to preach, yet they themselves transgress to the depravities of alcohol, brothels and prostitutes. This is mirrored in the political undercurrent of the novel, the transparency of words, the value of language, and how its power can be used both for the good and equally to the detriment of the Egyptian people:

                ‘Patriotism is nothing for Sa’d (Zaghlul) but a rhetorical device to seduce the masses.’

The propagandising of events, of words is a never ending theme in the discourse of the world to this day; the current political situation in Egypt is just one example of this. The appointment of Mohamed Morsi as president has divided the Egyptian people 50:50, with Morsi winning 51.7% of the votes, leaving the remaining 48.3% to be held by Ahmed Shafiq of the old Mubarak regime. Morsi has yet to appoint a parliament; the Egyptian people are held in an anxious state of anticipation and extreme hope for change and betterment for their country.

Nations survive and advance with brains and wise policies, and manpower – not through speeches and cheap populist agitations...I’m convinced that politics corrupts the mind and heart (Husayn Shaddad, p.699).’

The power of the masses – this is the reason Egypt has been so successful in its recent revolutionary activity. As separate entities we are merely a minor microcosm within the larger macrocosm of existence:

Where was Palace Walk and Kamal’s ancient home in all of that? Where was his mother, who would be putting out water for the chickens now, near the jasmine arbour.’

We are reminded of the trivialities of life and the impact of our individual existence as human beings; Fahmy Jawad reached an untimely death in the first novel as a political activist caught up in the revolutionary onslaught. His presence is soon forgotten as the daily rituals of life continue without him. This is exemplified by the outbreak of typhoid, the looming discourse of death and the control the characters cease to have over their mortality. We witness the rapid spread of the typhoid fever, killing so many in its wake, including the majority of Aisha’s family. Aisha is the Jawad daughter known for her grace, beauty and elegance. These qualities begin to fade as she becomes overcome by angst, grief and tragedy, as we watch her family slowly deteriorate in health and succumb to death, until ‘there is nothing left of Khalil but a shadow, and the children are the same.’

Tragedy brings to a close the second part of this powerful trilogy, as we are reminded of the value of human life versus the power of the cause at large – ‘The English or typhoid, it’s all the any other cause.’ This is juxtaposed by the creation of life taking part simultaneously within the narrative, as Yasin’s wife, Zanuba endures childbirth during this frantic period of life, death, hope and sadness.

Palace of Desire represents the end of an era: ‘Sa’d Zaghlul has died.’ Only time will tell how these families regenerate and progress, how they deal with their loss and embrace their futures.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Reviewing The Cairo Trilogy Part I: Palace Walk (Bayn al Qasrayn)

‘An Englishman – in other words, the kind of man he imagined to embody all the perfections of the human race.’ (p.43 Palace Walk).

A novel which lends itself beautifully to the complex history of Egypt, this is a masterpiece by writer and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. The story is set amongst the chaos of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, witness to the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan in the wake of the British-ordered exile of revolutionary leader Saad Zaghlul, and numerous other members of the Wafd Party. Naguib Mahfouz himself witnessed this revolution, the major events of which took place on the very street in which he resided. He is the first, and to date, the only Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. This man’s very influence saw the rise of national fiction, at a time in which novels were unknown in Arabic literature, having been shunned to the ranks of popular culture.

Mahfouz completed the Cairo trilogy in 1952, publishing the first Part – Palace Walk, in 1956, followed by the publication of the final two parts – Palace of Desire and Sugar Street in 1957, for which he obtained the State Literary Prize for the Novel. Mahfouz gained his literary education through the popular story-telling of the bard in the coffee-house next to his family home. This is a reminder of the very nature of the coffee-house at this period in time; it was a culture of its own: a place to exchange great ideas, to debate, to confront, and most importantly, to learn. Great minds would come together to inform and educate, to rebel and reflect. Mahfouz was a liberal Wafdist – the Wafd party holding the majority, and working to end the British occupation in the country.

Palace Walk (Bayn al Qasrayn) begins its story in 1917 during WWI, ending with the outbreak of the 1919 nationalist revolution. The year 1912 saw Egypt become a British protectorate. WWI saw a shift in mentalities; where political agitation had previously rested almost entirely with the educated elite, this tumultuous period saw nationalist fever spread to the masses as a result of Egypt’s increasing involvement in the war. By the end of WWI, Egypt was demanding the return of its independence. Led by Saad Zaglul of the Wafd Party, a mass movement for the full independence of Egypt and Sudan was underway. Fearing social unrest, the British took action and removed Zaghlul and the main Wafd leaders from the action, exiling them to Malta. Massive demonstrations ensued, bringing together men and women, Muslims and Christians, and people from all walks of life together under one banner, with the aim of creating an independent Egypt. Hundreds of Egyptians were killed in the uprisings, but not in vain, as this resulted finally in the declaration of independence for Egypt in 1922. A story that is remarkably current; this is a reflection of the strength of national identity streaming through Egypt at this very moment in time. The Arab Spring has laid witness to the coming together of the Egyptian peoples as a nation to overcome their oppression under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. This is a nation with a complex history and as of yet, a problematic present; but this is a country with promise and a great deal to offer.

 This cleverly written novel is about the structure of the family unit, the role of the patriarch and matriarch within that unit, and the political repercussions that ensue as barriers are broken and roles become reversed over time. This is a political allegory, adopting the Jawad family structure to mirror the political ramifications and urban culture of a life in twentieth century Egypt. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is the epitome of the Egyptian patriarch, a nostalgic and somewhat inspirational character, allegedly based on Mahfouz’s own father figure.
It is ironic that the most memorable patriarch in modern Arabic literature is the one who portrays the decline of patriarchy and its distribution and stature.’ (From the Introduction by Sabry Hafez)
We are constantly at odds with the gender balance in this story; the seeds for the downfall of the patriarch are planted early on, with Abd al Jawad’s own son Yasin catching him in his lewd, sexualised environment of alcohol, music and women. This subversion of patriarchal dominance continues with his second son, Fahmy who refuses to sever his links with the patriotic movement, leading ultimately to his untimely and tragic death at the end of the first Part. The youngest of the sons, Kamal continues in this disobedience to his father’s wishes when he opts to follow the path of an academic, a leader in education and enlightenment, when his father insists on him following the path of a lawyer, a reputable career path for his son. Contrastingly, the role of the mother, Amina grows in strength as the narrative develops. The loyalty held by the children for their mother is made unmistakably clear from the outset of the novel, in their plot to demand the return of Amina after she is banned from the household, for visiting the shrine of al-Husayn, a formidable act of disobedience to her husband.

Every member of the Jawad family plays an integral role in forming the subtle layers that make up and support the patriarchal narrative. This allegorical quality uses the novel to bring Egyptian traditions to the forefront of the subject matter, whilst alluding to an undertone of the national reality and the rise of national identity, in a tone that circumvents political authoritarian control, posing a challenge to the prevailing political establishment. The Cairo Trilogy is a book for anyone who wishes to learn about the richness of this country’s past and its potential for prosperity and wealth in the future.

Originally published in The Arab Review

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Cairo Trilogy - Quote

A quote I enjoyed from The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz:

In our conversations she was like the salt in food. Salt by itself doesn’t taste good, but what taste is there to food without it?’ (p. 48 Palace Walk. Pt I The Cairo Trilogy)

Friday, 15 June 2012

Parents choosing TV over bedtime stories

My daily dose of the Evening Standard keeps me informed on the progress of the Get London Reading campaign, and I am somewhat alarmed by the statistics relating to London's literacy rates:

'One in three children in London does not own a book...One in three 11-year-olds cannot read properly, and a million adult Londoners are functionally illiterate.' (Evening Standard)

I am totally saddened by the fact that so many parents make the conscious decision to replace a bedtime story with a television programme; rather than spend quality time with their children, so many parents choose the 'easier' option of the TV. I remember relishing the time I had with my parents reading me a story before I went to sleep, and perhaps this was a luxury that many parents cannot offer their children for numerous reasons, but I think there is always time to read a story. Especially if there is time for the TV. There is just so much mindless rubbish on TV; why subject children to this at such a young age? They will have many opportunities to regress to the dismal offerings of British television as they get older, and hopefully wiser, so why not instill something a little more creative and literary when they are young and easily influenced?

Maybe I'd think differently if I were a parent with a child grappling for my undivided attention at every waking moment, so I can't criticise too heavily, but it's not hard to get hold of a book and read it to a child every so often now is it?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Literary Festival

So it seems that the literary festival, as a concept, is really strengthening its presence within the London landscape, and England more generally, which is so fantastic to see. Previously dominated entirely by the music scene, the 'festival' has now taken on so many dimensions that it really becomes an arena for everyone to enjoy. And that's the idea - get everyone involved, whether their love is for music, food, art, or literature. If only the British weather would provide a slightly better setting in which to stage these festivals, but maybe that's asking a bit too much? British weather just retains that ever so precarious demeanor, almost like a sulky teenager, you just never know when it is going to snap out of the moody spell and brighten the fuck up.

Anyway, a hell of a lot going on this summer - the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, Hay Festival, and the Love Charing Cross Road festival. I was reading about this the other day, and I love the sheer determination and resolve to keep the Charing Cross area alive, to increase its vibrancy and create a literary buzz about the place, by staging its first literary festival. This is in direct response to disruption in the area, caused by Crossrail works.

'Shops in the Oxford Street end of the road have suffered a 10 per cent fall in business and expect the decline to continue because the works won't be completed for another three years (Evening Standard).'

But rather than admit defeat, companies in the street plan to launch a festival in celebration of this area's profound literary and musical heritage. Such a fantastic attitude, and totally inspiring. Of course this is only a temporary disruption, as Crossrail will in fact increase footfall to the area, but this will not happen until 2015, so in the meantime it is important to keep a buzz about the place and really set it up for the future.

Love Charing Cross Road aims to become an annual event, the inaugural event falling on Saturday 30th June. The festival will include live music as well as talks from authors, and my favourite part - Blackwell's staff will don white coats to become Book Doctors. They will 'consult' customers in helping them to find suitable books, and a diagnosis to their book ailments. Yes that was a horrible attempt at a medical analogy I know, but I couldn't help myself.

Anyway, this is clearly a brilliant event, and there are so many others out there this summer, so do get involved. I am volunteering with the Books for London campaign, which aims to roll out a book-swapping initiative across the London railway network and will be making the most of these literary events, so come and find out what we're all about, and enjoy the literary scene.

Monday, 9 April 2012

"a creeping re-Stalinisation"

So I am now working in the world of academic publishing, and it gives you a sense of the power that learning material can have over an audience of readers. The publisher can sometimes have the ability to steer the direction of a curriculum to focus on a particular set of material by making certain information readily available - of course this has to be bought into by the institutions it is selling this material to. And the librarians have to be on board, but it is amazing to see how academic material can shape a course structure when you are at the other end of the spectrum, from being the student at one end, to working on the publishing side of things and working out what a market of readers wants, and what a market of readers needs.

What do I need this week? Pens, pencils, notepad featuring tyrannical Russian dictator..

So when I came across an article in the Guardian about academic textbooks in Russian schools, I was interested to see the debate going on over the "creeping re-Stalinisation" currently being felt in the country. It seems that the Alt Publishing house refuses to withdraw a notebook for children, which features a picture of dictator Joseph Stalin on its front cover, a poignant debate within Russia's Public Chamber, where there is a high level of criticism over the cover and what it potentially stands for. Although it is necessary for schoolchildren to learn about their heritage and the history of their country, this book appears to glorify the dictator to an extent that could be unhealthy for young children to associate themselves with, equating power with fame, perhaps leaving out a few minor details of the mass purges that were carried out in between. Just a minor detail perhaps to remind people of. I don't think I'd been too keen if there were notebooks for schoolchildren in circulation featuring Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler on their front covers in the same sort of context. Or maybe there are. It just makes you wonder what is being taught in schools and how these figures are being perceived and their histories contextualised. As aforementioned, there is a great deal of power in the presentation of history and the propagandising of figures, particularly when this information is aimed at young children.