Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Naguib Mafouz : Cairo Trilogy

"Each one took his package, and they left the store. The setting of the sun was washing the world with a sepia tint as side by side they walked back to the house" 

And so the two half-brothers stroll into the sunset as my 6-month journey through the streets of Cairo comes to an end.

I wish it could have kept going forever!

But how much can one author, or one reader, comprehend?

It's 1944, and with the two nephews, the Communist and the Islamic fundamentalist locked up in a detention center for political prisoners, the stage is set for the next act in the story of modern Egypt. The secular socialists will have their day, and now, 60 years later, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood will finally get a chance to create a fundamentalist autocracy, until people eventually have had enough of the home-grown repression required to sustain it.

There's plenty of political history in this novel, and since it's all unfamiliar to me, I may have to revisit it after reading more about it.

But mostly it's about love -- the love which the author has for the world into which he grew up - as expressed by his love for each and every character, without romanticizing any of them, which is quite an achievement, since, as shown in "1001 Nights", Arabic culture is very romantic, and love is always love at first sight.

The novel makes for a fine contrast with "Sing Song Girls of Shanghai", which also broke my heart when it came to an end.

We meet several sing-song girls in Cairo Trilogy as well, but to my great surprise, one of them actually gets married to one of her clients - an impossible dream for the courtesans of Shanghai. 

And the author has convinced me that the sing-song girls of Cairo were actually very good musicians, so I ordered an album by Umm Kultum, who is mentioned in the novel as a rising star who will replace the women who perform nightly for the family patriarch. My greatest disappointment in reading the novel was not being able to hear their music which seems  so important to that man's life. I also wish that his story could have begun earlier, so we might better understand the father's peculiar double life as a pious, super-strict disciplinarian by day and jovial, witty, charming whoremonger by night.  We're told that he was the only child of a prosperous merchant who sold off most of his assets in his quest to  marry women who might finally bear him a child.  (it's only my guess -- but probably  he was sterile, and someone else fathered the son that he eventually was given)

I also wish  I was more familiar with Islamic culture which gives such a pleasant fragrance to stories that are mostly sad and sometimes  repulsive.  I can't imagine the father severely beating his youngest son for the crime of standing up for  mom -- nor can I imagine the oldest son repeatedly raping various servant women - and never suffering any consequences more severe than being called an "ox".  He's a brutal,  alcoholic sex addict who is only redeemed by his sense of the divine -- and by the sing-song girl who marries and domesticates him.

Can Islam be anything more than a  habit of speech which, God willing,  decorates every human interaction?
The character who takes it really seriously seems destined for disaster, and oblivious to  its political and social reality. He asserts that Islam offers equality to women. But to his credit, he does stop short of blaming his teenage heart-throb for the lust he feels for her, and he breaks off the affair before she gets into trouble. And then there's the old shaykh, who is 75 when the story begins and 105 when it ends.  When we first meet him, he knows everyone in the family by name, and severely reprimands the father for his drinking, whoring, and consequent hypocrisy - i.e. his faith is in word not deed.. But when he appears in the final pages, he is blind,  forgetful, and stumbling along as he mumbles "which way to paradise?" (BTW - in his old age,  the author himself ran afoul of religious zealots who attacked and stabbed him in the throat)

What  the novel  seems to be missing are tests for character -- or, if characters are tested, they all fail - except, perhaps, for the sing-song girl who becomes a respectable matron by sheer will power - though we're not invited into her interior monologs as we are with so many other characters. The patriarch felt that he was tested when he resisted the self-destructive impulse to marry her himself, but I don't think he deserves much credit for it.

Those self-conversations are one of the things that makes this writing so fascinating - and it elevates the writer to a divine-like position of knowing the hearts of men even as he creates them and the situations they get  into.  I shudder to think how my interior conversations would sound if ever they were published for the world to read.

Many of the other conversations are fascinating as well --especially the dialogues of mutual seduction between the patriarch and his girl friends, where business must be conducted obliquely.  And the intellectual exchanges that the school teacher has with his friends  about politics and idealism.  The author shows him as suffering from chronic unhappiness - yet everything about his life as a bachelor scholar seems to have been self determined.

Among the other things that are memorable is the brief invitation into what would now be called "gay Cairo".
One of the characters, the oldest son of the rapist mentioned above, is disgusted by the bodies of women, likes to hang out with another guy as cute as he, and  ends up the protege of an aging,  powerful, government official who enjoys the company of younger gay men. To his father and cousins he a godsend - because he uses his influence to get them promotions in government service.  But to those who didn't get those promotions they think they deserved, he's disgusting. Sinner though he may be -- this novel is full of sinners, and his don't appear to be any worse than the others.  But we really don't get to see what kind of government official he is becoming, and indeed, throughout the novel, for all the talk of politics, we never see a character face a conflict between personal benefit and public good.  I suppose Cairo is just like Chicago -- where the political class believes there is no difference between the two.

And then there's the personal connection I feel to some of the characters. Like the family patriarch, I'm a small retailer, and the pain he felt upon closing his shop has encouraged me to keep mine open. Unlike him, I don't depend upon the daily underpaid services of a loyal employee, and I kind of envy his life. He has mastered everything in his life, including  business, family, and recreation. The only thing that defeats him is age -- and everyone is eventually defeated by that. Though, I do think his life would bore me if I had to do it very day and night for decades.

 I also feel close to his son the schoolteacher/philosopher. Like him, I write worthless commentary for a small journal.  I've never been either as romantic/crazy as he -- nor as conflicted about my  beliefs or lack of them.  I'm more like his friend, the fiction writer who seems less puzzled by life.  It's too bad the author keeps this character rather marginal -- but then, it's also too bad the book isn't ten million pages long so I could continue reading it forever.

One thing that I only realized in the final pages was the central importance of the family matriarch to this story.

When I was half way through the novel, I predicted that it would end with her husband's death - but indeed it continued on another hundred pages until she suddenly died, after happily spending her widowhood going to mosques every day to pray for her family.

She was, after all, the organizer of the daily family coffee hour that brought everyone, except the father, together.

And she was utterly unconcerned with politics - wondering, for example, why anyone else might be expected to do a better job of running the country than the British, and being surprised that  "communist" did not refer to  a member of a Shiite religious community.

I might also add that the ideal of feminine beauty, in this book as well as 1000 Nights, is BIG.

When one of the successful entertainers becomes a drug addict and goes to seed, she gets thin, not fat.

Looking for images of belly dancers on the internet, the girl shown above is the only one who would qualify as attractive to the men in the Cairo Trilogy.