Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy [Palace Walk; Palace of Desire; Sugar Street]

Alyn Hine (The Orient-Institut Beirut)
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Regarded by many critics as his masterpiece, Naguib Mahfouz’ The Cairo Trilogy [al-Thulathiyya] chronicles the upheaval and change during the years 1917 to 1944 through the microscopic lens of a single family coming face to face with political events. Each of the three novels that comprise the trilogy was named after a street in Mahfouz’ home city: Palace Walk [Bayn al-Qasrayn], Palace of Desire [Qasr al-Shawq] and Sugar Street [al-Sukkariyya], their titles illustrative of the composition of the Jamaliyya quarter of Cairo where Mahfouz spent his childhood and where cramped, squalid blocks of flats neighboured spacious mansions. Although all three novels are centred on the al-Husayn quarter of Cairo and document the lives of the members of a middle-class mercantile Cairene family, they deal, as Sasson Somekh points out, with very different lengths of time in remarkably different amounts of pages, from the 579 pages that cover the period November 1917 to April 1919 in Palace Walk to the nine years that span the 395 pages of Sugar Street, a divergence in their internal narrative rhythms that Somekh describes as expressive of the major theme of “time-change” within. Regardless of the changing pace of narrative, the focus remains fixed throughout on the effect of time upon Ahmad ʿAbd al-Jawwad and his family, whom we first encounter in Palace Walk as a reasonably affluent and traditional family, but who by the end of Sugar Street have dealt with multiple deaths, incarcerations and disappointments.

Distilling the scope and achievement of Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy into a short essay is a difficult task. Although the immediate narrative outlook is narrow and restricted (the action takes place almost entirely within a small area of Cairo), the authorial viewpoint is panoramic and ambitious, encompassing ideas and perspectives on Egypt that engage with foreign, particularly British, views on the country, as well as developing an historical consciousness that reaches well back into the nineteenth century while giving a startlingly accurate premonition of the subjects that will predetermine the Egypt of the future. Unsurprisingly, The Cairo Trilogy has supplied a fruitful store of material and ideas for many academics who have written convincingly on a range of different subjects in relation to The Cairo Trilogy: the family, the “outsider”, Islam, politics, urbanism, British rule, western colonialism, the 1919 revolution and so forth. While there is an argument for concentrating on any number of these topics, the most pertinent issue from the first pages of Palace Walk to the very last scene of Sugar Street is how Egypt arrives at and copes with questions of modernity and self-identity as it struggles to find a place in the world of modern nation-states that will allow it to retain its history, tradition and individualism.

Mimetic in style, Mahfouz’ monumental work pursues a realist mode of representation that adheres to a consistent narrative style throughout all of its almost fifteen hundred pages. As a roman-fleuve and reminiscent of European works of similar bulk and vision, such as Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu and Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel series, it nevertheless eschews literary devices like the interpolation of different styles and genres, like the journalistic report and the political document that are common features of Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, and avoids the philosophising that disrupts the omniscient narrative voice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in favour of a polyphonic discourse that constantly draws the reader’s attention to the interests of the family members. The result is a literary work that delves deep into the personalities and concerns of the family siblings and spouses, using the device of the interior monologue to reveal how Mahfouz’ characters are both shaped by and help to form the social world around them primarily through language, examining their “structures of feelings”, to use Raymond Williams’ phrase, at a level that always keeps the broader social history of Egypt in its scope. Yet The Cairo Trilogy is also distinguished by its unrivalled attention to the details of quotidian life in Cairo. The first forty-seven chapters of Palace Walk are devoted to descriptions of the otherwise banal daily rituals and customs of the central household in the trilogy, building up a composite picture of urban life in early twentieth-century Cairo that is unrivalled, as Rasheed El-Enany points out, in any other source, literary or otherwise. Still, neither Palace Walk nor the rest of The Cairo Trilogy stops at the frontier of the domestic. The work is distinguished by its remarkable portrayal of the spectrum of gender and class relations in the city at the time.

Egypt, and there is no doubt at all throughout the course of Mahfouz’ novels that this is very much an Egyptian work, stood on the brink of achieving independence at the beginning of the twentieth century. No wonder, then, that the text of Palace Walk is saturated with the presence of Sa’d Zaghlul, the man considered to be the father of the modern Egyptian state. Sa’d Zaghlul’s intellectual history is worth considering in relation to the underlying sub-plot of Palace Walk, that of popular confrontation with the British in the hope of relinquishing their colonial hold on the country and asserting the Egyptian claims to sovereignty. Amongst the most important influences on Sa’d Zaghlul had been the tradition of Arab intellectualism that traced a path of liberal progression, marrying the distinct tradition of Islam with the most beneficial technical advances that the west had developed, and had produced thinkers such as Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, intellectuals who understood that western science and ideas were vital to the Arab world’s prosperity, but who were simultaneously unflinching in their defence of Arab and Islamic values. To a large extent, The Cairo Trilogy epitomises the trajectory of this intellectual current and embodies its progress in the characters who populate the al-Husayn quarter. The progression of this trajectory has a direct antagonist in Palace Walk in the form of the British state, visible in the everyday friction between British and Egyptians which propels the tension in the narrative. It is the 1919 revolution, the culmination of that friction, upon which the story ultimately hinges for, in the words of El-Enany, “From that moment the life of the family, like that of the whole nation, is never the same again.”

While The Cairo Trilogy is largely about Egypt’s path towards modernity, as we can see from the development of the characters it is far from a linear progression from conservative tradition to a more modern, more technological society. There are pitfalls, false starts and wrong turns all along the way from 1917 to 1944. Advancements towards modern identity, whether they are gradual and negotiated intellectual movements, such as greater freedom for women, or unavoidable technological arrivals, like the use of the radio, are often counterbalanced by a sudden lurch backwards into tradition and superstition. However, most of the trends and movements that define the advent of modernity in the twentieth century are present in the literary threads: nationalism and the quest for self-identity, women’s emancipation, accommodating Islamic tradition within a capitalist society, the individual’s role within society, education and socialism. Even matters such as arranged marriages and homosexuality are given some literary space thanks to the character direction undertaken by Ridwan, and the marriages that are organised between al-Jawwad’s daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and Khalil and Ibrahim Shawkat respectively. The alliance of al-Jawwad’s family with the Turkish family would traditionally have been seen as a means to ensure a climb up the social ladder for a mercantile family, such as al-Jawwad’s, in Cairo at the turn of the century. However, by the time of the novel it seems like a pointless anachronism, especially as we know that the Ottoman Empire will soon be dissolved. As Walter Armbrust points out in his article on the cinema adaptation of Palace Walk, the growing unimportance of the distinction between Turkish and Egyptian in Cairene society is not as apparent to al-Jawwad as it is to Mahfouz’ readership.

Egypt has a different western enemy holding back its ambition and potential: not merely Great Britain, but the concept of colonialism as a whole, taking over the entire Arab world and stifling its self-determination. In Palace Walk, Mahfouz captures the moment when, as described by al-Jawwad himself, the politics of colonialism and independence reaches the front door of the family home, an observation expressed in the context of the British army occupying the al-Husayn quarter and literally camping outside their house. Of course, politics had always been present in the family home regardless of whether the members noticed it or not, but the daily interaction with the soldiers (playful for the young schoolboy Kamal, flirtatious for Aisha, dangerously misconstrued for a nearly lynched Yasin) manifests the meeting of the domestic and political with an unprecedented harshness that reflects the immediacy of the times.

There is no single character around whom the whole of Palace Walk revolves, let alone The Cairo Trilogy in its entirety, but Fahmi is a central presence in the first book, without whom the narrative would not hold. Fahmi’s revolutionary activity is more than the wilful and eager convictions of a young university law student desperate to take part in the developing movement towards national self-assertion; it also represents a formidable challenge to the traditional dominance of his conservative, authoritative father. Where al-Jawwad has always been entirely uncompromising in his control over the family’s actions and opinions, Fahmi represents an attempt, like that of Egypt itself, to express his own self-authority in the new, changing world. It is a brave step, since al-Jawwad does not take disobedience lightly, as Amina finds out after she is expelled from the family home for going out with Kamal and without al-Jawwad’s permission to visit mosques and shrines that are normally off-limits to her. But even Fahmi’s progression is qualified and compromised. When al-Jawwad orders Fahmi to swear on the Quran that he will not attend another demonstration, the nagging relics of his respect for tradition will not allow him to commit a sacrilegious offence.

Fahmi’s death (ironically at a peaceful demonstration celebrating Sa’d Zaghlul’s return to Egypt from his exile in Malta) brings a dramatic conclusion to the first novel, but his legacy remains a focal feature for the rest of the trilogy, changing the behaviour of many related characters, most notably al-Jawwad himself. Al-Jawwad is one of Mahfouz’ most complex literary creations, in some ways providing a template for the patriarchal figure who was such a formidable presence in Children of the Alley. Often referred to as just al-Sayyid, his moniker emphasises the overtly dominating, patriarchal side of his character which has made him something of a symbol for such a tradition in Egyptian popular culture. Although he is a sincere believer in the mosque and a jovial character in his shop, al-Jawwad is revealed as a blatant hypocrite in matters concerning Islamic morality. While he forbids his wife to appear in public without him, al-Jawwad, on the other hand, spends his nights out drinking, dancing and cavorting with women, conducting extra-marital affairs (one of the women involved, Zanuba, is simultaneously having an affair with al-Jawwad’s eldest son from his first marriage, Yasin – who had divorced his first wife, Haniya) and otherwise acting in a manner that would appear un-Islamic. When we juxtapose al-Jawwad’s hypocrisy with the fervent mania of the crowd at the mosque, eager to execute Yasin, and the altogether unflattering portrait Mahfouz paints of the Muslim brother ʿAbd al-Munʿim in Sugar Street, a tendency can be seen in the narrative to use Muslim characters to criticise their moral inconsistency, their inflexibility and the backward trajectory they bring to the nation-state as a whole, as El-Enany indicates. Yet, in the case of al-Jawwad, to depict him as an entirely negative and obstinate influence in al-Husayn would be to dismiss the awkward, fascinating subtleties of his character that provide insightful comments into the intellectualism of Mahfouz and into the complex Egyptian national character.

Al-Jawwad does not exactly try to hide the licentious part of his nature, although it is understood from the commencement of the novel that his nocturnal world is kept entirely separate from his family life. The reason for this separation is not shame, but a personal interpretation of his rights in the world as a traditional Muslim patriarch: he is the father and therefore master of the household, and he is allowed to stay out all night if he chooses to do so. What is interesting about al-Jawwad is that he embraces strict Islamic piety with such fervour that he even employs a blind shaykh to come into his shop in order to read verses from the Quran to him, yet even when as devout a figure as the shaykh admonishes him on his errant and frankly un-Islamic behaviour, al-Jawwad replies by asking for God’s forgiveness if he has committed any sin, apparently unaware that his behaviour would be contrary to most people’s idea of a righteous Muslim. Al-Jawwad’s constant search for the right thing to do causes a conflict in his mind that is revealed by his interior monologues, especially in the case of having to expel his wife, Amina, from the house for having disobeyed him. Al-Jawwad does not shun Amina with any sense of joy, but rather with a nagging regret that his unwavering adherence to conventional principles does not permit him to show any leniency in matters of recalcitrance, even when the perpetrator is a woman of whom he admits that he is very fond.

Mahfouz, as quoted by Najjar, was not looking to make a satirical point in his depiction of al-Jawwad, but rather to stick to his realist portrait of Cairene life as he saw it: “these are the habits and traditions of the well-to-do; most businessmen are like that”. Still, al-Jawwad’s demise is dramatic. From the physically sturdy, handsome, near omnipotent giant at the start of Palace Walk, he becomes a physical wreck, a mere shadow of himself, who ironically becomes a victim of the western science he had feared when his heart finally collapses as he takes shelter from a bombing raid. Symbolically as a reversal of the generations, al-Jawwad has to be carried by Kamal back home. When he finally dies, al-Jawwad is so weak that Amina has to recite the Shahada for him. Thus, Amina’s character arc in the course of the trilogy sees her develop into a stronger counterpart in the marriage in opposition to al-Jawwad’s deterioration. This is in contrast to the traditional cinematic depiction of Amina as a weak, submissive character. Al-Jawwad’s death is symbolic: with him dies both the unquestioned patriarchal authority and conservative Islamic tradition of an age passed, but its vestiges can be seen reborn in the two brothers who mark the end of Sugar Street, Ahmad and ʿAbd al-Munʿim, who represent the differing paths of socialism and Muslim Brotherhood that the new Egypt could follow.

The Cairo Trilogy offers the reader another archetypal figure in the form of Kamal, the intellectual “outsider” in modern Egyptian society. As social expectations of individuals changed during the course of the early twentieth century in the Arab world, so certain persons found themselves left behind by the progress, caught in a limbo between the well-worn route of conventional conformity, on the one hand, and on the other the radical demands of revolutionary politics that was disappointed by the small amount of progress the new Egypt had made by the 1930s and 1940s. Kamal typifies this sense of alienation from his own community, an alienation that has been instigated by his disillusion with the fundamental religious foundations of his social milieu. When Kamal finds out that the local mosque does not actually hold the remains of the prophet’s grandson, his faith in the society around him is deeply shaken. Kamal’s intellectual and physical growth, which occupies the main part of Palace of Desire, is a process of peeling away the superficial layer of image and superstition that had covered the Cairo he knew as a child to reveal a city that is far more complex and contradictory than he could have imagined. In one of the most evocative scenes in the second novel, Kamal, dressed conservatively in a fez, and his European-leaning upper-class friends have a picnic at the foot of the Sphinx (could a setting be more typically Egyptian?), where the conversation naturally veers towards the European intellectualism that Kamal was trying to promote in his own country. Nevertheless, Kamal retains enough of his traditional upbringing to be horrified when he sees his compatriots eating pork and drinking beer.

Kamal represents someone at the fringes of modernity trying to accommodate a scientific, rational way of logically ordering the society around him into a nation-state fit to navigate the century without upsetting the religious and superstitious members of the family closest to him. Writing an article on Darwin that is published in a magazine is one way of drawing more public attention to scientific rationalism, but Kamal is not emotionally secure enough to defend the article in front of one member of the reading public, his father, and disowns it as merely a school exercise. Kamal’s outsider status is underlined by his unwillingness to marry and his physical removal from society by living alone at the top of a building. Significantly, in Sugar Street, Kamal devotes his professional life to philosophy (a reminder of Mahfouz’ first academic interest) and is unable to rouse his political interest in the Wafd party to more than attending the occasional meeting; his political failure emphasises the strong political threads that comprise Sugar Street and bring The Cairo Trilogy to a conclusion. Kamal’s ambivalence towards participating in social life, his reticence to marry and generally unfavourable view of relationships which some have likened to Mahfouz’ own position towards marriage at this time (he married at a comparably late age), paint a character who harbours a deep insecurity and disharmony within his own self.

In the period 1935 to 1944, the period covered by Sugar Street, we see what happened to the old revolutionary comrades of Fahmi, who are now ministers and government officials dealing with the banal stuff of politics rather than the romantic thrill of revolution. While Fahmi’s generation can be seen as having had their exciting glow extinguished by the drab reality of the nascent Egyptian nation-state, a new generation has replaced them in the form of Kamal’s nephews, Ahmad and ʿAbd al-Munʿim, devoted followers of socialism and political Islam respectively, and who are both incarcerated for their political activities. The Egypt that we see at the end of Sugar Street is very different to the one that began Palace Walk. Time and change have exercised a seismic effect not only on the state that finds itself on the cusp of modernity, but also upon the ʿAbd al-Jawwad family that has been devastated by the effects of their changing fortunes in society. The pitiful figure of ʿAisha, who has been pushed by the death of her husband and children into a zombie-like existence, a kind of living death, perhaps best epitomises the ruining effect of change. However, as with so many of Mahfouz’ works of this period, there is no firm conclusion as to which path Egypt will take: while Ahmad and ʿAbd al-Munʿim bond over their grandmother’s funeral, the future remains as open and ambiguous as ever.

Works cited:

Armbrust, Walter. “New Cinema, Commercial Cinema, and the Modernist Tradition in Egypt.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 15 (1995): 81–129.
El-Enany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning. London: Routledge, 1993.
—. “Religion in the Novels of Naguib Mahfouz.” Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 15 (1988): 21–27.
Moosa, Matti. “Naguib Mahfouz: Life in the Alley of Arab History.” The Georgia Review 49 (1995): 224–30.
Najjar, Fauzi M. “Islamic Fundamentalism and the Intellectuals: The Case of Naguib Mahfouz.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 25 (1998): 139–68.
Somekh, Sasson. The Changing Rhythm : A Study of Najīb Maḥfūẓ’s Novels. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973.

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Citation: Hine, Alyn. "The Cairo Trilogy [Palace Walk; Palace of Desire; Sugar Street]". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 29 September 2014 [, accessed 11 December 2023.]

35216 The Cairo Trilogy [Palace Walk; Palace of Desire; Sugar Street] 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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