What a wonderful surprise: an early Naguib Mahfouz novel, Cairo Modern, published in Arabic in 1945, and only now translated into English. Even better, the novel is a gem, the perfect introduction to Mahfouz’s work if you have never read any of his other novels.
The setting is during the monarchy in the mid-1930s, when Cairo already seems much more liberal than other Middle Eastern countries are today.
There’s the intermingling of young men and women, because the universities have recently admitted women. Students’ discussions are charged with Western ideas, hotly debated, implying a movement into modernity—the bold theme of Cairo Modern. Sadly, modernity doesn’t mean that all is well in the social fabric.
Mahgub Abd al-Da’im—the poorest of a group of four male friends—is, just like his pals, nearing the end of his baccalaureate. A few months prior to finishing his degree, he learns that his father, who has been sending him three pounds a month, has taken ill and has lost his modest job as a clerk in a creamery. That illness precipitates a downward spiral for Mahgub, because his father says that the most he can continue to send him is one pound.
Worse, after his father’s severance pay has run out, the son will be expected to begin supporting his parents. The assumption is that with a university degree, Mahgub will immediately get a good job. Unfortunately, he alone of all his friends majored in the humanities, which means that the most he can expect is a government position somewhere in the enormous bureaucracy.
Such a position, however, will be sufficient for him to support his family.
Enter the young women. Mahgub and his friends have already been exposed to co-eds at the university. He’s also visited a prostitute a number of times.
And because he has a cousin whose family is quite wealthy—and because he assumes he’s about to obtain a reliable position in the government—he sets his expectations a little higher than he might have: on his distant cousin. However, on the one occasion when he’s able to be alone with her, he flubs the encounter.
Suddenly, once he’s passed his exams, even his prospects for a government position look very bleak. How is he going to support his parents? The problem is nepotism, though Mahgub refers to the problem as “family”: “?Government’ implies rich folks and major families. The government is one big family. The ministers select deputies from their relatives. The deputies choose directors from a pool of relatives. Directors select department chiefs from relatives. Chiefs pick office workers from their relatives. Even janitors are chosen from among the servants in important homes. So the government is a single family or a single class of multiple families. And it’s a fact that this class sacrifices the people’s welfare whenever that conflicts with its own interests.”
Then, just as quickly as Mahgub realizes that he will gain no position in the government, everything changes. A friend informs Mahgub that he’ll be given a position in one of the ministries if—and this is a huge if—he will agree to a marriage with a young woman who will not even be identified until the day of the wedding ceremony. What’s a poor young man with no prospects to do? He accepts, fully understanding that the wedding is to save the woman’s honor because the woman’s virginity has been taken by an important official.
There might be the possibility of a decent marriage, even love, from such an arrangement. But here Mahfouz ratchets up the suspense and—once Mahgub agrees to the marriage—also the surprises. Ihsan, the young woman, is actually someone whom Mahgub already knows. She is another poor university student, extraordinarily beautiful, and also the woman one of his best friends has hoped to marry. Worse, the wedding isn’t simply to restore Ihsan’s honor but to facilitate an on-going relationship between Ihsan and her seducer. Mahgub will be expected to share his wife with the man. If he will agree to be continually cuckolded, he’ll not only gain a government position, but also an apartment, a cook, and even a lump sum of money. The elaborate events that subsequently transpire are best left for each reader to discover.
This early novel, superbly translated by William M. Hutchins, demonstrates that Naguib Mahfouz (recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988) was already a master of his craft. Granted, the form of Cairo Modern is more nineteenth than twentieth century, which means basically a leisurely narrative, totally linear, but told with great subtlety like Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or any number of novels by Charles Dickens. The social issues are always at center stage. Cairo may be modern as far as the young university students are concerned, but the rigidity of class and culture are stultifying. It should certainly be noted that for many years Mahfouz himself was governmental civil servant.
I have no idea how the critics responded to the novel when it was published in 1945, but I’m certain that a number of government officials were upset. Fortunately, that burning fire on the author’s part means that Cairo Modern is just as relevant today as the day it was published.
By Naguib Mahfouz
Translated by William M. Hutchins.
Anchor Books, 243 pp., $15.00
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.