“In these uncertain times”: a phrase that has become almost a cliché in discourse surrounding the coronavirus; its aim to console having quite the opposite effect.

For the family of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy however, these very words echo their struggle in the turbulent era of 20th century Egypt, as the family navigate the challenges of modernity and the destructive impact of British colonial rule amidst the Egyptian struggle for independence. 

An extensive family saga spanning three generations over three novels – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street – the narrative centres around the daily life of the conservative Al-Jawad family, controlled by a tyrannical father. From the very beginning of the Trilogy, the double life of the patriarch is clear. Whilst he commands absolute power in the household, his nightly excursions of reckless entertainment are concealed from the family. Returning home intoxicated late into the night, it is his subservient wife, Amina, who dutifully awaits him – an integral part of her domestic routine. She does not know what happens beyond the four walls of her house: her knowledge of the outside world is constrained by the filtered gaze of her window grates. 

The Cairo Trilogy, written during Naguib Mahfouz’s era of social realism in the 1950s, provides a deep insight into the vibrant Egyptian culture and the rhythms of everyday life. He describes in minute detail the daily encounters of the characters, the exciting and the mundane, such as the family coffee-hour around the brazen coals; religious Islamic rituals juxtaposed with lust and longing for women. Intimate stories of the various family members encapsulate the contrasting contemporary ideologies and perspectives. The children of the al-Jawad household are comprised of the sheltered daughters: Khadija and Aisha, and the three sons: the hedonist Yasin, the nationalist Fahmy and the intellectual and introspective Kamal. A martyr during the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, Fahmy’s death at the end of Palace Walk begins the slow demise of the traditional patriarchal narrative, paving the way for the Western encroachment of power.

Indeed, the development of Mahfouz’s characters parallels the progression and transformation of traditional Egyptian society towards modernity. The second novel, Palace of Desire, opens with the deteriorating image of Al-Sayyid Ahmad as age begins to take its toll on him. No longer the mighty head of his day, the focus of the narrative shifts to the second generation, his children, who seek to subvert his authority; mirroring Egypt’s struggle for independence from the British. The presence of the British during the interwar period and their intervention in Egyptian politics leads to a change in how the characters seek to navigate social polarisation, conflicting ideologies and the disruption of family traditions, as Western knowledge and values permeate the conservative family. 

It is Kamal, the symbol of intellectualism and science, said to embody Mahfouz himself, who emerges as the hero of the final novel. His encounter with Western knowledge throws him into an existential and conflicting struggle in the search for his identity, mirroring Mahfouz’s own disillusionment with the political events of the time. His lengthy internal monologues highlight the immense personal and collective struggle experienced by Egyptians as they sought to navigate this era of modernisation.

Although the Trilogy opens with the patriarchal figure of Al-Sayyid Ahmad, Mahfouz subtly weaves female power throughout his narrative to challenge and ultimately subvert Al Sayyid Ahmad’s authority. As his figure slowly wanes, the family structure, symbolised by the organisation of the household, becomes increasingly more democratic and it is his wife, Amina, who reigns supreme until her death at the end of the final novel, Sugar Street. The ending of the Trilogy also coincides with the birth of her great-grandson, born of the Islamist: a poignant reminder of the trends that continue to run the Arab world today.

In a scramble to name-drop an Arabic novel in my personal statement, I first stumbled across The Cairo Trilogy in the ‘Middle Eastern Literature’ section of my local bookstore and saw that it was dominated by Naguib Mahfouz – a whole shelf was dedicated entirely to his works. For me, learning about Egyptian colonial history at school always seemed so distant from truly understanding the local sentiments of the time, especially of a culture so different from our own. The Trilogy brought my history lessons to life and reading it felt as though I was part of the Al-Jawad family myself.

Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy is a powerful narrative of Middle Eastern culture and explores Egypt through the lens of its nation. A historical allegory that mirrors political events through the livelihood of the Al-Jawad family, it is a seminal work of modern Arabic literature and is crucial to understanding Egypt’s modern history, society and culture. As the first novel of Arabic literature I ever read and as a student of Arabic myself, it remains a work close to my heart, and its brilliant English translation is accessible to all.