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Naguib Mahfouz: السكرية (Sugar Street)
The final book in the Cairo Trilogy, while something of summing-up, leaves a few issues outstanding. The life of a community usually does not have a neat ending. The same issues as in the previous books are to the fore – the life of the family, politics and love (or its substitute), with death playing somewhat of a greater role. There are three key deaths in this book. The patriarch, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, has been slowed down by ill health. When his assistant retires, he too retires, selling the shop, which is replaced by a fez shop. His life of dissipation catches up with him and eventually he dies. Though his wife, Amina, is still alive at the end of the book, she has just had a stroke and been given three days to live by her doctor.
The focus is on Kamal, Ahmad’s younger son, Ridwan, the son of Yasin, from Yasin’s first marriage (Yasin is Ahmad’s son from his first marriage) and Ahmad and Abd al-Muni’m, the sons of Khadija, Ahmad Sr’s eldest daughter. Ridwan allies himself with a pasha who has political influence and he is able to help his relatives, including his father, in their careers. Ahmad and Abd al-Muni’m are also both involved in politics. Ahmad joins the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose aim is have to all activity regulated by Islamic law. One of its tenets is that members should be married so, while still relatively young, Ahmad asks his parents to find him a bride and he is married to his cousin, the even younger and very frail Na’ima, daughter of Aisha. Like her mother, she is beautiful but has been warned about a weak heart and she dies in childbirth, which leaves Aisha totally devastated. Abd al-Muni’m takes a socialist view and works for a left-wing magazine where he meets and falls in love with Sawsan, the daughter of a printer. When he decides to marry her, the family objects as she is clearly not of a suitable family but changing mores in Egypt means that she is eventually accepted.
Kamal is still the focus of attention as he remains a philosopher, writing for an obscure magazine, and working as a teacher. He remains unmarried though, despite his ascetic life, he does visit prostitutes. In the previous book he been in love with Aïda but she had married someone else and gone off to Europe. While in Aïda’s home (Kamal was good friends with her brother), he had also met Aïda’s young sister, Budur who, at that age had been very fond of him. He now meets her as a grown woman and falls for her but he is too old for her and she marries someone nearer her own age. Near the end of the book, he learns of Aïda’s fate – divorce, remarriage and death.
Politics seems to play a greater role in this book. In part it is because of World War II, as the novel is set during the period leading up to the war and then throughout the war, with its effect on Cairo. There is much discussion as to who is worse, the occupying British or the Germans. Internal politics are also to the fore, with issues surrounding Kings Fuad and Farouk, the Wafd Party and the rise of the Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which involved Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad Jr.
Mahfouz’ major work is clearly what led him to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and it is not difficult to see why. It is an incredibly rich portrait of a community, a city and an era, with a host of well realised characters, changing customs and behaviour and a lively political background. It makes for great reading.
First published in 1957 by Maktabat Misr
First English translation in 1992 by Doubleday
Translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan