Cairo Modern, Naguib Mahfouz (translated by William M. Hutchins), American University in Cairo Press
Cairo Modern, the fifth novel of a thirty-plus novel and Nobel-prizing winning career, was written in 1945 after the end of the Second World War, which is important to keep in mind when reading the English translation now released sixty-three years later. Over the years, the novel (particularly in English) has greatly changed embracing influences from Russia, South Asia, and Africa as well as evolving to subsume the constantly mutating lexicon of technological advancement. This is not to say that Naguib Mahfouz’s novel is in any way diminished, neither is his well-known bent for exploring existentialism compromised, but it does reflect the more subdued language of its times.
As the title suggests, the novel is set in Cairo exploring the trials, opportunities, and trends of the city in the 1930s. Specifically, the novel focuses upon the lives of four friends in King Fuad University (what is now Cairo University) who come from different backgrounds and have varying philosophies in life. Ahmad Badir is a journalist who never truly reveals his position on issues, Ma’mun Radwan is a young man who believes in “God in the heavens and Islam on the earth,” Ali Taha is an idealist interested in a society that functions perfectly and remains relevant through constant renewal, while Mahgub Abd al-Da’im eschews principles altogether with the constant refrain of “Tuzz.”
All four live in a modern Cairo that is awash with ambiguity: patrons of society can barely speak Arabic, government jobs have a system of progression rarely honoured, and family ties are compromised by the company they need to keep. As the novel progresses three of the friends, whose lives are fairly stable due to their respectable finances and family connections, fade into the background leaving Maghub, poor and barely supported by his clerk father. Intensely ambitious and dissatisfied by his inability to keep up with his friends in leisure or love, Maghub’s life becomes even more difficult when his father becomes paralysed and is laid off leaving the entire family to survive on his meagre compensation. With a few months left before Maghub’s graduation, two choices emerge—to quit and support his family or to bargain with his family to sacrifice on his behalf with the promise of becoming the main breadwinner as soon as he graduates.
Within this maze of choices and consequences, all that Maghub has to guide him are his patchwork of principles or non-principles (depending on your point of view). This is where Naguib Mafouz’s semi-detached, third-person narrative shows its merits as it unravels the story without judgement allowing the reader to tumble into the story outraged or sympathetic in equal measure. After abortive attempts to get help from a rich relative Maghub turns to a former neighbour to help him enter the world of Cairo’s rich and powerful. Mahfouz hints early at the party that Maghub has to borrow money to attend so he can be introduced to a ‘patron’ just how deceptive this world can be:
He saw chests that almost touched breasts and arms that encircled waists. He was amazed that these people could control their impulses. He wished he were dancing. Scrutinizing faces with anxious bulging eyes, he whispered to himself, ‘Wealth. Wealth equals sovereignty and power. It’s everything in the world.’ His eyes happened upon a swelling bosom that almost made him dream it would poke through the diaphanous white gown. His lust aroused, he raised his eyes to discover his sweetheart’s face. What he found was an ugly crone, even if she was a coquette.
Therein ultimately are Maghub’s challenges in Cairo Modern: Can he tell the difference between what is real and imagined progress? Can he control his impulses? And will he be able to live with the consequences of the actions he takes, even if he has convinced himself that morals and judgement mean nothing to him? This juxtaposition of real problems and one man’s abstractions of philosophical positions lays the foundation of an entertaining drama, which is shot through with Naguib Mahfouz’s dry humour. Cairo Modern may be a tad didactic for modern tastes, but for its time it is actually a very liberal book and remains over sixty years after it was written a compelling read.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer of poetry, prose and articles, and author of the poetry chapbooks: eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999) and M is for Madrigal (2004), a selection of seven jazz poems. He is also the Senior Editor at flipped eye publishing where he has overseen the production of four award-winning titles and a contributing editor to The Liberal. Nii is the current International Writing Fellow at the University of Southampton and his debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, will be released in June 2009 by Jonathan Cape .