Kamal, son of a village postmaster, is reading economics at the University in Cairo, and living in a poverty-stricken suburb of the city. When some vital papers are wafted on an untimely breeze into a neighbouring convent garden, Kamal becomes fascinated by the spiritual power of mother Paula, the English Prioress, and strikes up an unusual relationship with her, much to the disgust and suspicion of his friend Hussein. Hussein, a wealthy fellow student, is a fierce nationalist and Muslim fundamentalist, and sees it as his task to politicise naive young Kamal, and to save him from his own lack of guile. Mother Paula is forced unwittingly to represent a Western culture that threatens yet beguiles their own. When Israeli guns on the Suez Canal destroy an oil refinery, the scene is set for an explosive confrontation in the teeming suburb.
Kamal is one of the most delightful innocents in contemporary fiction and Hussein is far from being an ordinary villain. Their friendship, and their involvement with the mysterious life of the convent, blossoms and flourishes against the brilliantly effective sights and sounds, bustle and tension of Sadat's Cairo.