The New York Times
Cairo Modernby Naguib Mahfouz
Cairo of the 1930s is a place of vast social and economic inequities. It is also a time of change, when the universities have just opened to women and heady new philosophies imported
In Naguib Mahfouz's suspenseful novel a bitter and ambitious nihilist, a beautiful and impoverished student, and a corrupt official engage in a doomed ménage à trois.
Cairo of the 1930s is a place of vast social and economic inequities. It is also a time of change, when the universities have just opened to women and heady new philosophies imported from Europe are stirring up debates among the young. Mahgub is a fiercely proud student who is determined to keep both his poverty and his lack of principles secret from his idealistic friends. When he finds that there are no jobs for those without connections, out of desperation he agrees to participate in an elaborate deception. But what begins as a mere strategy for survival soon becomes much more for both Mahgub and his partner in crime, an equally desperate young woman named Ihsan. As they make their way through Cairo's lavish high society their precarious charade begins to unravel and the terrible price of Mahgub's Faustian bargain becomes clear.
Translated by William M. Hutchins
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The sun had begun a slow descent from its heavenly apogee, and over the university's magnificent dome its disc appeared to be bursting into the sky or returning from its rounds. It flooded treetops, verdant earth, silver-walled buildings, and the great avenue running through the Orman Gardens with rays gentled by frigid January, which had tempered their flame and infused them with benign compassion. Standing at the head of two rows of lofty trees lining the avenue, the dome resembled a god before whom worshipful priests kneel for afternoon prayer. The sky was clear except for some thin, far-flung clouds at the horizon. A chill breeze shook the trees, and their leaves responded with moans and sighs.
Bewildered kites circled overhead and down below--engrossed in separate discussions--groups of students walked along, spilling from the university campus onto the avenue. Then, in the midst of these young men, appeared a group of no more than five female students who advanced diffidently, exchanging confidences. The presence of women at the university was still a novelty that evoked interest and curiosity, especially among the first-year students, who began to exchange glances as they whispered to each other, although their voices occasionally rose loud enough to reach their comrades' ears.
A student asked, "Doesn't even one of them have a face worth seeing?"
Another answered rather sarcastically, "They're ambassadors of learning, not of passion."
A third remarked with censorious zeal as he examined the appearance of the spindly young women, "But God created them to be ambassadors of passion!"
The first youth guffawed and--motivated by a spirit of mischievous defiance--observed, "Remember we're at the university, a place where you're not allowed to mention God or passion."
"It's very logical that God wouldn't be mentioned, but passion?"
One of them responded in a reportorial tone more professional than scholarly, "This university is God's enemy, not nature's."
"What you say is true and you derive no pleasure from their sickening appearance, but this is merely the first installment of the fair sex. They'll be followed by others. The university is a new trend that will soon catch on among females. If you keep your eyes on tomorrow, it won't be long in coming."
"Do you think young women will accept the university as readily as they have the cinema, for example?"
"More readily. You'll see young women here quite unlike this sorry lot."
"And they'll press against the young men mercilessly."
"Mercy in such circumstances would be reprehensible."
"They won't try to behave, because a strong person doesn't bother to be well behaved."
"Perhaps passions will flare up between the two sexes."
"How beautiful that would be!"
"Consider the trees and the thickets: love arises there as spontaneously as maggots in jars of mish cheese."
"My Lord! Will we live to see this happy age?"
"You'll be able to wait for it if you choose."
"We're just starting and the future is dazzling."
Having finished their general comments, they began to analyze the girls individually with bitter mockery and stinging sarcasm.
Four young men walked along together slowly. They were also conversing and had probably listened with interest to the prattle of the other students. These were final year students who were almost twenty-four, and their faces shone with pride in their maturity and learning. They were not blind to their importance--or put more precisely--they were inordinately conscious of it.
Ma'mun Radwan remarked critically, "All boys talk about is girls."
Ali Taha responded to his companion's critique, "What's wrong with that? We're two halves of a whole and have been seeking each other since eternity."
Mahgub Abd al-Da'im commented, "Don't hold it against them, Mr. Ma'mun. It's Thursday, and for male students Thursday is always a day to enjoy the ladies."
Ahmad Badir, who was both a student and a journalist, smiled gently and declared oratorically, "Brothers, I invite you to state your ideas about women in a few brief words. What do you say, Mr. Ma'mun Radwan?"
The young man was perplexed. Then he smiled and asked, "Are you trying to tempt me into the type of discussion I've criticized?"
"Don't try to squirm out of it. Come on. Just a few words. I'm a journalist, and a journalist never wearies of discussion."
Ma'mun Radwan realized that evading Ahmad Badir would be difficult and yielded. "I say what my Lord said. If you want to know my personal take on it: woman is man's solace in this world and a level path toward solace for the next."
Ahmad Badir turned to Ali Taha and with a nod of his head asked his friend to speak. The young man said, "A woman is a man's partner in life, so they say, but--in my opinion--it should be a partnership with identical rights and obligations."
Turning toward Mahgub Abd al-Da'im, Ahmad Badir asked jocularly, "And what does our dear devil think?"
Mahgub Abd al-Da'im replied theatrically, "Woman is . . . the safety valve on the boiler."
They all laughed as they normally did when they heard one of his notions. Then they asked Ahmad Badir, "And you, what do you think?"
The young man replied dismissively, "A journalist should listen and not speak, especially nowadays."
They turned at the avenue's first intersection and headed toward the governorate building. Ma'mun Radwan was the tallest, although Mahgub Abd al-Da'im was almost as tall. Ali Taha was of medium height and stocky, and Ahmad Badir was quite short with a very large head. Ma'mun Radwan wanted to conclude their day's pursuits in the best possible way before greeting the day of rest. So he said in his tremulous voice, which seemed to rise straight from his heart, "Talking about women has distracted us from the topic at hand. What's your final word on the debate we just attended?"
The debate had been about principles: whether they are necessary for mankind or should be dispensed with. Addressing Ma'mun Radwan, Ali Taha said, "We both agree that man needs principles. They're the compass guiding the ship."
Mahgub Abd al-Da'im said calmly and gravely, "Tuzz."
Ali Taha, however, ignored him and continued to address Ma'mun. "Although we differ about the nature of these principles. . . ."
Shrugging his shoulders, Ahmad Badir observed, "As always!"
Ma'mun, whose eyes glittered with a fleeting light when he was excited--as at present--remarked, "All we need are the principles that God Almighty decreed."
Mahgub Abd al-Da'im commented as if astonished, "I'm stunned that a man like you believes in legends."
Ali Taha continued, "I believe in society, in the living human hive. Let's respect society's principles--on condition that we don't sanctify them--because they ought to be renewed, from one generation to the next, by scholars and educators."
Then Ahmad Badir asked him, "What principles does our generation need?"
He responded enthusiastically, "Belief in science not a spirit world, in society not paradise, in socialism not competition."
Mahgub Abd al-Da'im's critique of this statement was, "Tuzz, tuzz, tuzz."
So Ahmad Badir asked him, "And you, Mr. Mahgub: What do you have to say about the debate?"
He replied calmly, "Tuzz."
"Are principles necessary?"
"Religion or science?"
"For which of them?"
"Don't you have some opinion?"
"Is this 'tuzz' an opinion?"
Mahgub replied with feigned calm, "It is the ultimate principle."
Ma'mun Radwan turned to Ali Taha and said, more to state his opinion than to influence anyone, "God in the heavens and Islam on the earth. These are my principles."
Ali Taha smiled and repeated Mahgub Abd al-Da'im's previous comment, "I'm stunned that a man like you believes in legends."
Mahgub chortled, "Tuzz."
Casting a swift look at the others as they walked along, he said, "Amazing! How can a single hostel house all of us? My head is full of hot air, Mr. Ma'mun's noggin is a flask with ancient legends sealed inside it, and Ali Taha is a display of contemporary myths."
The other two ignored his comment, because they never knew when he was serious or joking and because it was tedious to debate with him, since by clowning around he evaded their attempts to pin him down.
When they could see the student hostel at the corner of Rashad Pasha Street, Ahmad Badir said goodbye and set off for the newspaper where he worked in the evening. The other three continued to the hostel to prepare for their Thursday night excursions.
The hostel at the corner of Rashad Pasha Street was an imposing fortress with an extensive, circular courtyard at its heart. Each of the building's three stories was a circular series of suites of rooms that opened onto a narrow corridor overlooking the court. The three friends occupied adjoining rooms on the second floor. Ma'mun Radwan went to his cramped chamber and began to change clothes. His room was furnished with a small bed and a wardrobe on the opposite wall. Between these, beneath a little window, there was a medium-sized desk with books and reference works on it. The young man loved books passionately. Thus the moment his eyes fell on Lalande's dictionary of philosophy, his lips relaxed into a delicate smile that revealed his love and enthusiasm. All the same, he lost no time. He performed his ablutions and then the afternoon prayer. Next he donned his best clothes and left his room for the street. He carried his trim body in an attractive military fashion as he set forth. He was slender without being emaciated and so light-skinned that his complexion was shot with red. His best feature was his large black eyes, which shone with a luminosity that bespoke insight, beauty, and intelligence. He marched forward, his focus distracted by nothing, his feet pounding the pavement smartly and his eyes directed toward a single goal.
Today that goal was his fiancee's home in Heliopolis. Ma'mun approached affairs of the heart with the same integrity and propriety he observed in all his dealings. He had asked for the hand of the girl, the daughter of a relative who was a high-ranking army officer, after first consulting his father. An agreement had been reached for them to marry once he finished his studies. Then he began visiting her home every Thursday. He would sit with the entire family and spend a few hours in pleasant conversation. It never occurred to him to invite his girl to the movies or to devise some stratagem for being alone with her. He simply did not believe in such modern heresies--as he put it--and deprecated them. Thus his conduct was well viewed and highly esteemed by the girl's family, which was socially conservative in their embrace of time-honored tradition.
None of this prevented his heart from beating faster when he followed his customary route. So he reached the Giza road in a few minutes and boarded the tram. When he took his customary seat--his gaze untroubled, his posture erect--his good looks and nobility were evident. Had he wished to be a lothario like Umar ibn Abi Rabi'a, he could have succeeded, but he possessed a unique blend of chastity, rectitude, and purity. He had a clean conscience and his mind was at rest. He was a pure heart who enjoyed authentic religion, deep-rooted belief, and firm morals. He had grown up in Tanta, where his father--a man of religion and moral fiber--taught in a religious institute. So he was reared in an environment that was almost Bedouin in its simplicity, religious fervor, morals, and strength. When he was young, something happened that deeply influenced his later life. He became so ill he could not attend school until he was fourteen. Thus he tasted the bitterness of solitude, experienced pain, and was refined in the furnaces of a trying ordeal. He was, however, able to study religion with his father and thus became an Islamic jurisprudent while a boy. When he entered primary school, he was an adolescent with an enormous heart, vibrant spirit, and lively intelligence. Even so, he could be bigoted and rude. In fact, he suffered from episodes of wild cruelty. During these, his soul's generosity was drained, and he would shoot up like a tongue of flame that engulfed everything it encountered and devoured anything that resisted. Then he would redouble his effort if working and plunge deeper into his devotions if praying. If he was debating something, his comments would become mean-spirited; he would be overwhelmed by despair and depression if he were alone.
In his simple life, the boy's only outlet for self-fulfillment was his work. So he outstripped all his peers and was capable of worshiping for hours on end as his tongue praised God continually. During the last days of a school year he would study twenty hours a day. He earned top marks in the third year examinations and expected to take first place on the final-year exams. To beat out everyone else became one of his top priorities--along with Islam, Arab pride, and virtue. He would allow no one else to better his performance. This competitive streak, however, left no noxious residue in his breast thanks to his extraordinary strength, great self-confidence, and firmly rooted belief in God. He brought humanism to the highest degree, and for this reason did not allow his spirituality to degenerate into sterile asceticism or self-abnegation. He used to say, "Belief means being filled with divine power in order to implement God's ideals on earth."
He was a formidable young man, even if not universally liked, since his successes made him a target for the envious and his way of life was a silent rebuke to others. Moreover, he never outgrew his preference for solitude, which had been second nature for him since his illness. Additionally, his ignorance of the principles of sociability, his dislike for humor, and a passion for candor turned his comments at times into a painful whiplash. Thus his detractors occasionally called him "the university bumpkin" or "the unexpected mahdi." A student once said of him, "Mr. Ma'mun Radwan is Islam's imam for our age. In ancient times, Amr ibn al-'As introduced Islam to Egypt, through his brilliance. Tomorrow, Ma'mun Radwan will extinguish Islam in Egypt thanks to his insensitivity." The young man remained devoted to outshining others even though he frequently feared and hated this proclivity. Yes, he feared this sense of superiority and excellence and would ask God to protect him from this evil. All the same, he failed to overcome it. Therefore he could never truly admire an important personage. So when the king opened the university he candidly announced his disdain for the government officials who attended the ceremony. For this reason too he shrugged his shoulders dismissively whenever he heard students speak enthusiastically about men they referred to as leaders. He rejected all the political parties and refused affiliation with the "Egyptian cause." With customary zeal, he would say, "There is only one cause: the cause of Islam in general and of the Arabs in particular."
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy and an avid reader, his works range from reimaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Over a career that lasted more than five decades, he wrote 33 novels, 13 short story anthologies, numerous plays, and 30 screenplays. Of his many works, most famous is The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1952. In 1988, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first writer in Arabic to do so. He died in 2006.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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In Cairo Modern, Naguib Mahfouz follows the lives of a group of friends at the university in 1930's Egypt. Some are from prominent families, some are brilliant, some are handsome, some are none of these things. The book focuses on the life of Mahgub Abd al-Da'im, a desperately poor student determined to make his way in life. After much privation, Mahgub manages to get his degree, but much to his dismay, any jobs are given out only on a patronage basis. Mahgub has no one to serve as his patron. Desparately he contacts anyone he knows even slightly, hoping to find a job that will allow him to escape the poverty he has known his whole life. Finally, he is offered a job, but it comes with a price. He is offered a job by an influential rich man who needs someone to marry his mistress. Mahgub swallows his pride and marries the woman. This humiliating situation leads to his first job; a job where he receives respect and more money than he has ever had in his possession. The price he pays, a sundering of his ideals and cutting ties with his college friends, is one he regards as a viable solution. In fact, he determines that he will not be tied down by any ideals, not friendship or family ties or any kind of morality. The book follows the outcome of Mahgub's decision as it plays out in his life. After initial success, he is totally defeated when he is exposed as what he is, someone who will do anything and betray anyone. Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in 1988, and spent his prolific writing career portraying Egyptian life in all its aspects. Cairo Modern is an analogy for what happens to his beloved country as it veers from it's principles prior to World War II. This book is recommended for literature lovers, and those interested in the literature of other cultures.