Law and Conversation

February 4, 2011

Egypt: Politics and Literature

With the unrest in Egypt as the major world news story, it seems like a good time to talk about Egyptian literature.

I love reading literature from other parts of the world.  It’s a good way of experiencing areas to which you’re unlikely to travel any time soon.  Or, if you’ve already been to a place where a book is set, your memories of it can charge your reading experience with extra resonance.

So I was really looking forward to immersing myself in the paperback English translations of the “Cairo Trilogy” by Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, which have dreamy, atmospheric photographs of Egyptian scenes on their covers that enticed me to settle down for a long, satisfying read.

Mahfouz’s story, which unfolds over a number of years from the early to the mid-20th century and depicts Egypt’s political history during that turbulent time, held my interest.  Disappointingly, though, I didn’t much enjoy it.  

It took me a while to figure out why; for a while I blamed my own shortcomings as a reader, and I also considered whether the translation might be a factor.  But now I think I’ve identified the problem:  I didn’t find the trilogy’s central character, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, persuasive. 

Mahfouz portrays al-Sayyid Ahmad as a selfish, sanctimonious hypocrite and petty despot at home who insists on the highest standards of behavior for his family members and absolute servility toward him while displaying zero affection for them.  Out and about in Cairo, tippling with his friends and mistress, al-Sayyid is a genial bon vivant, loquacious and generous. 

The narrative gave me no understanding of why al-Sayyid Ahmad’s wife and daughters—or even his sons—possessed so much love for him.  Real people, and convincing fictional characters, are complex and sometimes contradictory.  Al-Sayyid seemed not one complex and three-dimensional character, but actually two two-dimensional characters:  an absolute Dr. Jekyll outside his home, and an absolute Mr. Hyde within his home, with the twain neither meeting nor mixing.  His wife, Amina, seemed likewise flat to me.  Mahfouz makes her a saint and enabler who, inexplicably, never, ever appears to resent or feel any conflict about her husband’s treatment of her and their daughters as slaves.  Two-dimensional characters are neither convincing nor compelling.  I’d expected better from a Nobel prizewinner.

Two other Egyptian authors whose books are worth a look are Nawal el Saadawi and Lucette Lagnado.  Saadawi is a medical doctor, feminist author and delightful speaker, and has been an outspoken critic of the Egyptian government.  Lagnado’s family left Egypt as part of the Jewish exodus after Nasser came to power and settled in the US.  She now writes for The Wall Street Journal and published a memoir focusing on her father, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.”  Though on her publisher’s author page she gracefully declines to discuss works in progress, I’m hoping that, as her Wikipedia page says, another memoir in which she turns her focus to her mother will come out later this year.

If you’ve read Mahfouz’s work, did you have the same reaction I did, or do you think I’m missing something?  Are any of his other books better than the “Cairo Trilogy?”  Any other Egyptian writers you’d recommend?  As I write this post, Andre Aciman comes to mind, and, though Lawrence Durrell was British, so does his “Alexandria Quartet.”  M. Lynx Qualey, a writer and reader who lives in Egypt, has a nice list of Egyptian writers on her very cool blog, Arabic Literature (in English).  I see that The Ruth Group also has a post with convenient links and suggestions for Egyptian, Tunisian, and other Arab literature.

In the meantime, let’s hope that the rule of law and reason will soon provide a peaceful resolution of Egypt’s disquiet.

UPDATES:  Alexander Star in The New York Times has A Reading List for the Egypt Crisis up that includes Mahfouz and others.  (Hat Tip: Eric and Laura at Pimp My Novel.)   And Nina Sankovitch of Read All Day clearly wouldn’t agree with my views on The Cairo Trilogy.

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