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Looking Into “The Cairo Trilogy” Through a Half-Open Window

book rev“You should be serious about serious things and playful when you play. There’s an hour for your Lord and an hour for your heart.”

—said by Zanuba, the lute player

This is the 102nd birthday of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel-prize-winning author of The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library/Knopf $30). The book’s dominant character, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, is the stern, humorless, autocratic master of a household where his wife, two daughters, and three sons live in fear of his iron hand, the women confined to quarters while unbeknownst to his family Ahmad lives life to the limit, a luminary of the Cairo night who drinks and carouses and womanizes, loved by his friends for his stories, his wit, and his effervescent personality.

A Half-Open Window

Of Ahmad’s cloistered daughters, Aisha is “as beautiful as the moon” with “golden tresses and blue eyes” while Khadija is relatively plain, though she has a wicked tongue and a sense of humor about her big nose (a feature she shares with her father). The often combative interplay between the sisters is charming and true, and within a few pages, you feel you know them. One of the side-effects of this monastic home life is the romantic subterfuge practiced at the same hour every day by Aisha, who “peers out through the holes in the grille” of the balcony overlooking the street. As soon as the young police officer she’s looking for appears below, she heads for the window in the sitting room, turns the knob and opens “the two panels a crack,” her heart pounding as she waits for the officer with his “gold star and red stripe” to cautiously raise his eyes, his face shining “with the light of a hidden smile that was reflected on the girl’s face as a shy radiance.” For the man to have raised his head rather than his eyes was “not considered proper in such circumstances.”

After closing and nervously fastening the window, Aisha sinks into a chair, “roaming through the space of her infinite sensations, experiencing neither sheer happiness nor total fear.” It’s as if that brief moment by the window had encompassed an extravagantly sinful adventure. She stands where she does so that her clandestine Romeo has to strain his eyes to discern her because she loves to see him look up at the partially
closed window with “concern and longing.” She would then revel in the “light of joy” on his face as he begins to make out “her figure” through “the crack.” For her this exchange of looks is “a vision to enchant the mind and ravish the imagination.”

But when a marriage is suggested by the officer’s family, the offer is summarily rejected by Aisha’s by-the-book father, his excuse being that according to tradition, the elder sister, Khadiya, must be the first to marry.

A Half-Open Door

One of the great moments in Palace Walk, the Trilogy’s first volume, occurs when Ahmad’s grown son Yasin stumbles into the truth about his father’s nocturnal escapades after hearing of a man with his father’s name who plays the tambourine “better than a professional,” and “tells one gem of a joke after another until everyone with him is dying of laughter.” Yasin is thinking, “Who could this man be? His father? That stern, tyrannical, terrifying, God-fearing, reserved man who kills everyone around him with fright?”

As it so happens, his father is in the same house at that very moment carousing in a nearby room. Yasin begs the woman he’s been trying to seduce to leave the door partly open for a moment so he can see for himself. The image of the half-open door recalls the half-open window through which the young officer gazes in hopes of glimpsing Yasin’s beautiful sister.  During the moment the door is ajar, the son sees his father sitting next to the ample, voluptuous singer who is his mistress, his “wife,” in the night world: Ahmad has “removed his cloak and rolled up his sleeves,” he’s “shaking the tambourine” and gazing at the woman “with a face brimming with joy and happiness.” Yasin “had never seen him without his cloak … never seen him with his black hair sticking up … never seen his naked leg as it appeared at the edge of the divan …. Perhaps most of all he had never seen his face smile. It was glistening with such affection and goodwill that Yasin was stunned.”

“Stunned” doesn’t say it. “He awoke like a person emerging from a long, deep sleep to the convulsion of a violent earthquake.”

Pulling Out All the Stops

For the reader, this revelation is all the more powerful because we’ve already been permitted a full view of the father in action, having witnessed the headlong one-night courtship that led to the drunken mock marriage ceremony with Zubayda, the fleshy singer. We know the side of Ahmad that has been hidden from the family, and we’ve been wondering when and how the author is going to arrange this moment of astonished recognition. Although Mahfouz describes the two sides of Ahmad early on, he’s 14 chapters into the story before he shows the charismatic libertine in action, and when this happens, the author and the character nearly become one, so wild and free and mad with energy is the prose. In finally giving full range to Ahmad, Mafouz ratchets up the language and pulls out all the stops in a daring commingling of eroticism and religion, the tropes of faith and sex, so that when the singer opens the door to Ahmad upon his surprise arrival, she shouts, “In the name of God the compassionate, the Merciful! … You!” To which Ahmad says, “In the name of God. God’s will be done!” as he ogles her “prodigious body, its pronounced curves sensuously draped in a blue dress,” which inspires this deliriously Disneyesque image: “His eyes ran over her body as quickly and greedily as a mouse on a sack of rice looking for a place to get in.”

Later in the “festive hall” in Zubayda’s house, where the candelabras look “as lovely and intense as a beauty mark on a cheek,” Ahmad and his author are running on full throttle. A paragraph begins by claiming “He was not simply an animal” but was “endowed with a delicacy of feeling, a sensitivity of emotion, and ingrained love for song and music” and ends with Ahmad pursuing “all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull.” Later Zubayda asks, “Do you love being naughty this much?” to which Ahmad sighs and says, “May our Lord perpetuate our naughtiness.” When the music starts, “Echoes of many different melodies from a long era filled with nights of musical ecstasy burst into flame within him, as though small drops of gasoline had fallen on a hidden ember.” Ahmad grabs a tambourine and joins in, and as the woman sings “‘I’m an accomplice against myself/When my lover steals my heart,’” it’s again as if Mahfouz is as rapt as his character: “The inflection of her voice made the strings of his heart vibrate. His energy flared up and he beat the tambourine in a way no professional could match,” at which Mahfouz makes you hear the beating of the tambourine: “His intoxication became a burning, titillating, inspiring, raging drunkenness.” At this point Ahmad and the woman are so “agitated by desire they seemed trees dancing in the frenzy of a hurricane.” When the melodies vanish, it’s “like an airplane carrying a lover over the horizon.”

This is the sort of scene that sweeps everything aside, that has you thinking of Dmirti Karamazov dancing with the gypsies, of Natasha’s first ball in War and Peace, of Balzac in full orgiastic flight. Vanishing melodies in the form of an airplane? In Egypt in 1917? So be it! A great writer is soaring, drunk on his story, head over heels in love with his creation and its central character. It’s amusing to imagine the expression on the face of the translator attempting to do justice to this scene, not to mention the reaction of the elegant editor who made the English language edition possible.

A Very Special Editor 

After learning that Naguib Mahfouz had won the 1988 Novel Prize for Literature, a Doubleday editor with a face known round the world read The Cairo Trilogy in a French translation, talked the publisher into acquiring it, and then saw the book through to publication in 1990-1992. According to the primary translator William Hutchins, the three volumes were “edited in New York at Doubleday by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself, using a pencil on paper.” Hutchins considered her “an excellent, respectful editor and very thorough.”

Given the not so secret life of JFK, it would have been interesting to see Jackie O’s reaction to the account of Ahmad’s wild night, and to lines like this one: “Whenever desire called, he answered deliriously and enthusiastically.”

Tahrir Square

It’s worth noting here that the popular movement ousting President Hosni Mubarak began on the January of Mahfouz’s centenary and that one of those who helped ignite it was his 26-year-old namesake (if not blood kin) Aasma Mahfouz. When her four-and-a-half-minute Facebook video went viral, the four-person protest she was part of on January 18 became a prelude to the history-making mass demonstration of January 25. Among the events marking the Mahfouz centenary was the March 11 Emirates Festival of Literature and the announcement from Oxford University Press of plans for a 20-volume Centennial Library of his works.

Firsts

As Sabry Hafez points out in his introduction, Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Cairo Trilogy was the first modern Arabic literary work to appear in Everyman’s Library. The “grand narrative project took over six years (1946-1952) to accomplish, its completion coinciding “with the collapse of the old regime. Inspired by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks,” it was also “the first family saga in modern Arabic literature.”

 

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