Friday, September 14, 2007

The Cairo Trilogy


I started this book on the first death anniversary of Naquib Mahfouz - August 30th. What date could be more appropriate than that to read one of the famous books of the famed Nobel laureate.. famous / notorious.. upto us to decide.. Once i began to read the book, i learned a lot more about him. His trysts with Islam fundamentalists because of his controversial writing came as a total surprise to me because in The Cairo Trilogy, religion was omni-present. His different views on religion was brought out beautifully in discussions and arguments between pious and atheist characters of the book. One interesting thing i read was the connection with Salman Rushdie. Ever since i enjoyed Midnight's Children, i have been partial towards Rushdie. It was interesting to note that Naguib Mahfouz defended Rushdie when the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death. It was not that he supported Rushdie's views. He criticized Rushdie's work about insulting Islam but he just felt that the book did not give the fundamentalists the right to take Rushdie's life. Intersting..

Well, coming to the book.. the Cairo Trilogy was unlike anything i have ever read before. Describing the book would not do justice to Naguib Mahfouz and his efforts (which were not little considering the book has 1315 pages.. yes! Front and Back!!)..
It is definitely a long book and at first sight i hoped i wouldn't be as disappointed with it as i was with "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth.. In many ways, A suitable boy was a stepping stone and i dont think would have this half as much had i not read that book before..

The reason why it is called a trilogy is that, initially, publishers were apprehensive about publishing such a monstrously large piece of work..so, he decided to break it up into three smaller books - Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. The three books were published and received immense acclaim.. and then publishers started putting the three together again. Though it is still a collection of three books, it is one continuous story.. the second book takes off from where the first book left and its like you've moved to a new chapter. there is no definite end to any of the books.. not even the last one. It is as though he has stopped with a chapter and will be continuing the story soon..


The story revolves around a magnificent personality - al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. It sarts with his life as a young man married to Amina, a submissive obedient lady. they have 3 sons and 2 daughters. From the first few chapters, which are detailed descriptions of their everyday lives, we become familiar with each character and his/her uniqueness. The book is set in the early 1900s in Cario, Egypt. An age where most people were still conservative and women had strict rules to abide by and live with. Not surprisingly, in the male dominated society, no rules bound the husbands to their marriages and homes as it did women!

Amina seems to be the personification of submisiveness and devotion. She has never stepped foot out of her house in the 25 years that she was married to al-Sayyid. as-Sayyid leads a double life. On one side, he is a tyrannical strict father whose strictness at home verges on the border of cruelty. No one dares to talk to him, let alone disobey any of his orders. What his family members have no clue about is his second life.. a life that begins after the sun sets. A life filled with drinking, music and women. Here we see a man respected and loved by his friends. No signs of his strictness. He becomes a very humorous man cracking jokes all the time, flirting with singers, etc..and the minute he enters home after midnight..his strictness comes back to him naturally, even in his drunken state. Amina bears his cruelty to her without an sign of discomfort, anger or complaints.

The story then moves forward slowly and without realizing it, you become a silent member of the al-Sayyid family. you share their joys during weddings, sorrows during deaths. You laugh with them when they joke and you cry with them when they are hurt. IN the most beautiful manner, Naguib Mahfouz covers ALL aspects of life in just this one book. birth, life, death, friendship, love, marriage, separation, divorce, affairs, obedience, revolt, religion, patriotism, fanaticism, communism, aging, senility, health issues, women's liberation, freedom, sibling rivalry, enmity, jealousy, passion, anger, joy, sorrow,..anything you can think of will be covered in this book.. and in the most amazing manner..
Naguib Mahfouz doesnt take a stand in any of his opinions. For every character's strong opinions regarding anything from religion to love to marriage to philosophy.. there would be the views of other characters contradicting this character.

All this is set among major political unrest in Egypt. What starts in the form of occasional news heard when al-sayyid talks to his friends slowly starts seeping into the family. His son Fahmy is killed during a demonstration and this is the first msjor set back for the family. But much to the surprise of everyone in the family, life doesnt end with a death. Though they thought about him frequently ands spoke about ihm.. Fahmy soon became a distant memory and every one moved on in their lives.. marriages happened and girls moved away. Soon the kids have lives of their own - their families to handle, their issues to deal with, their lives to live. al-Sayyid once a formidable character slowly mellows down with age. Seeing him age is as painful to us as it is to him.

Naguib Mahfouz's interest in philosophy surfaces in the middle of the book with the growth of little kamal as we see him when the book begins. Mahfouz explores philosophy through kamal - anything from darwin's theory to latest science and human nature and behavior.

When i started reading the book, i started making notes of things that i particularly enjoyed reading about in the book.. by the time i finished about 100 pages in the book, i realized that it was not going to work coz my notes would be a minor novel in itself!!

From this book, i have learnt so much about Egypt and its people - their religious beliefs, their customs and traditions, their political history and it has been an enriching experience. There are soo many similarities between India and Egypt. Their struggle for freedom from the british reminded me our struggles. The change in their cultures as western habits seeped in reminded me about how india changed due to western influence and is still gradually changing. Family values and so many traditions including fights between mother in law and daughter in law reminded me of india of those days.. the days i have heard about from my grandparents and read about. But of course, there are soo many differences too..too many to list and that was what made this such an interesting read. On the whole, i have had the best couple of weeks comparing and contrasting egypt and india.. it has been fun. I would definitely miss knowing what happened to their lives after the book ended.. i am already missing them..:)

If you notice my blog sidebar, you'll see a quote by Earnest Hemingway that descibes a good book.. This book is a perfect example. You become a part of the book and even when the book is over, it continues to be a part of you.

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