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The Cairo Trilogy

I just finished reading The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. I read all 1,313 pages in one day, starting at 10 AM, taking a break from 6 PM to 10 PM, then returning to complete it by 4 AM--so, 14 hours in toto, making it a fairly fast 93 pages an hour. I've impressed myself; perhaps I've set a new reading landspeed record for myself, though I am humbled by the reading achievements and abilities of others, who can read an astonishing 2.500 words a minute or more.

But vanity or humility aren't the topic of today's essay. The book, and everything it represents, is.


The book, written by an Egyptian man who was born in 1911 and starting writing when he was 17, follows the lives of a Muslim family through three generations in Egypt, from World War I on into the 1940s. The focus throughout is primarily on the first and second generation (the parents and their childen), with some smaller focus on the following generations born in that time span.

Although one might be tempted to compare the work with anything by James Michener in terms of size and scope, there really isn't a parallel. Though Michener also sweeps through generations, he gives a much wider historical perspective and follows the fortunes of more families, though perhaps with much less initimate detail. This book focuses more narrowly on the one family and on the small, everyday details of their lives and interactions, though Egyptian politics do come into it throughout.

Two Things About This Book

I will say up front two things about this book:

  1. Anyone who wishes to understand the Muslim and Middle Eastern cultures could learn a great deal by reading this book
  2. I found many aspects of this book repellent, both in the attitude of the writer toward his subject matter, and in many aspects of the Arab culture itself. I say that as someone who has studied many cultures of the world, and as someone who is in general positive, optimistic, open-minded, and generous-hearted toward other cultures.

This is not to say that everything is wrong about the Arab culture, for there is much to praise and admire. The Arabs carried the torch of learning and education when Europe was maliciously burning "witches" and their "familiars" (usually cats) at the stake, usually so that the Christian church or some man could obtain the so-called witch's property, while others ignorantly stood by or even rooted the perpetrators on. (Of course, they paid for it, because the "witches" had a lot of healing herbal knowlege that was lost, and cats kept the rodent population down, and we all know about the Black Death. Fools.)

And if it hadn't been for the Arabs, the works of Plato and other ancient Greeks would have been irretrievably lost, thanks to our savage, book-burning ancestors. It was the Arabs who admired and preserved works from the Greek culture while Europe went down in flames into the Dark Ages, and it was Arabs who made many mathematical advances. Many magnificent works or art and literature came out of the Arab culture as well, even though Western Europe tends to marginalize or trivialize those works.

Nonetheless, arts and sciences aside, this book starkly portrays an unlovely side to the Arab culture that needs serious scrutiny.

Portrait of an Abusive Man

First, a quick summary. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad completely dominates and terrorizes his wife and his five children, inflicting upon them high levels of physical, emotional, verbal, and mental abuse.

Al-sayyid Ahmad (Ahmad Abd al-Jawad) displays all the classic signs of the abusive/addictive personality. He gets angry far out of proportion to an incident, and inflicts punishment far beyond what is warranted or justified. He both plans his anger to initimidate and frighten, and also flies off the handle at the slightest cause, or no cause. His wife and children are terrified of him, and tiptoe around him, afraid to speak, act, or even look out of place, and even then they can't avoid his anger. He speaks abusively to them, calling them names and beating the bottoms of his children's feet until, in his own self-satisfied thoughts, "smoke pours from [them]." His wife is not immune either. After one incident early on in their marriage, in which he hurts her so that she is frightened for her life, his wife never again dares to do anything that would provoke him enough to raise his hands against her. He unexpectedly grants mercy now and then, just enough to keep them guessing--another classic abuser tactic.

His wife, Amina, is a prisoner for all intents and purposes, never allowed to leave the home except on a few very rare occasions when she is heavily guarded by her husband on trips to visit her mother. Armina long ago gave up speaking up to him or trying to express herself or her desires in any way, and has given herself entirely over to being his ultra-submissive slave, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The children are expected to never have any fun or to play or act as children. They still have some sense of themselves, yet stand in trembling fear of his displeasure even when adults. Despite their best efforts, and although several of the children are quite praiseworthy, none of them receive praise or a kind word, and instead all of them are frequently subjected to his abusive whims.

Yet away from home, al-sayyid Ahmad is a completely different man. The people who know him outside the home would not recognize him at home--at least, so the book says at first. He is jovial, convivial, persuasive, and witty. People love him and admire his restraint and diplomacy. He is also, unlike his stern Quran-spouting self at home, a habitual adulterer who drinks alcohol far beyond the point of inebriation every night, though in his own twisted sense of propriety, he does nothing to dishonor his neighbors, but instead maintains his affairs with musicians and the like.

Later, it is acknowledged in the book that at his daughter Aisha's wedding, al-sayyid Ahmad's cronies, who are well aware of his partying and womanizing, completely recognize that he is also abusive at home, and they admire him and support him in it as a man who is at worst seen as being "perhaps a bit too strict at times."

What is Most Repellant

In fact, this is the thing that was most repellant to me about this book. It is one thing to provide a portrait of abusiveness if one's goal is to show the horrible and long-lasting harm it inflicts as a way to, one hopes, educate people in an attempt to stop the abuse. It is entirely another thing to portray this kind of abusiveness and in the process to make it clear, as Mr. Mahfouz does repeatedly throughout the novel, that not only is the man performing these atrocities admired and even loved by the author, but we, the readers, are expected to admire and love him too.

And the Arab people do. I am not making this up. In the introduction to the edition I read, the writer of the introduction, Sabry Hafez, says of the father, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad,

"As a family saga, it succeeds in enshrining major social stereotypes of relationships, emotions, and role-playing to the extent that its hero, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, has become the Egyptian patriarch par excellence. Even today, when the Trilogy is serialized on television, both men and women throughout the Arab world view this archetypal and larger-than-life patriarch with melancholic nostalgia and admiration. This is so because the author portrayed him with similar sentiments, for he was based on Mahfouz's own father."

Notice how this abusive man is called a "hero" and how he is said to be admired throughout the Arab world. When I was first reading the book, I thought he was being portrayed as the villain, and I hoped that the family would be able to fight their way free of him or, failing that, that the author would show the irreparable damage that this man was doing to his family as a cautionary tale. To my surprise and growing dismay, it became clear to me that nothing could have been farther from the author's mind. Instead, this abusiveness is, apparently, mistaken by most Arabs for strength instead of being recognized for the unacceptable cowardice and weakness that it really is.

This abberrant love that the Arab world holds for the abusive man is shown in the novel as well. Starting toward the middle of the novel, and increasingly so all the way to the end, there is a shift from the family members being terrified of him to them loving him and feeling great affection for him despite their fear.

The Stockholm Syndrome

This love and affection on the part of the other characters for the father is presented as something that somehow justifies his abusiveness, deceitfulness, and hypocrisy, as though, if his virtual prisoners and the objects of his sadistic rage start exhibiting signs of the Stockholm syndrome, "admitting" to themselves their deep love and affection for their father, then it makes his abusiveness okay--in fact, it makes it so that it is not abusiveness after all. In fact, as his sons discover his hidden life and realize what a fraud he is, instead of recoiling or being angry at his deception and phonyness, they start to admire him and emulate him in his womanizing, adultery, and drinking. We are supposed to likewise revere him, for, after all, if his own abused family loves him, what is there to censure?


Relative Cultural Values and Basic Human Rights

It is correct to teach that cultural values are, on the whole, relative, and whether a culture does this or values that is not something that can normally be judged or given any value of right or wrong. If one culture finds red to be an ill-omened color, and another considers it the color of extreme good luck, so be it. No harm is done, and both cultures can be enriched by learning of the other.

But there are some things, things we call human rights, that are generally recognized by most civilized folks on this planet. And by "civilized," I make no reference to technology or lifestyle, but instead to a way of interacting with each other that affirms each other's humanity, and promotes peacefulness and love and a safe atmosphere in which each of us can grow to our full potential. Some of the most "primitive" cultures are the most civilized by that definition.

One short way to summarize one of the basic human rights rules is to say that "your right to swing your fist ends where my body begins." In other words, you are free to do anything you like, as long as you harm no one else. This right and its restriction are recognized world-wide in some form or another.

Yet what is most disturbing about The Cairo Trilogy is that it presents a culture that does not recognize the restriction part of this right, and instead has institutionalized massive abusiveness on the part of men toward the women and children in their lives and in their care. Furthermore, this culture is so arranged that those women and children have very little freedom, including the freedom to protest against or stop the abuse. If one is to believe the picture painted by this book (and there is no reason to doubt it, as the book is hailed as a "magnificent" portrait of Egyptian life), for the women and children in Arab cultures, there is no recourse but to submit or die. They are considered property, and as such have no rights. In the book, the phrase, "she belongs to her husband" is used repeatedly.

As anyone who understands the cycle of abuse will instantly recognize, men who are abused are very likely to grow up and become abusers in turn. There is little hope, then, for the Arab cultures to stop being institutionally abusive unless it becomes possible to perform some kind of massive intervention on the entire culture. Either that, or we need a massive miracle, which I am not totally discounting.

To be fair to both the book and the Arab culture, not all the men are portrayed as being as abusive as al-sayyid Ahmad, nor are all the husband-wife and father-child relationships portrayed as ones of sheer and unremitting terror. Some of the marriages are portrayed as being based in loving affection. And the book shows signs that the culturally condoned massive abusiveness is changing to some small extent as women are allowed more education and freedom. This change is portrayed in part by a slight lessening of the father's abusiveness toward the end, as he grows older and more decrepit.

Yet the fact remains that al-sayyid Ahmad is presented, not only in this book, but in adaptations of this book, as the most admirable of men, and his style of running his household and his life is thought of as something to be emulated, admired, and sighed over as "the good old days," when men, apparently, were "men" and wife and children were chattel. And still, to this day, men believe that they possess their wives and children, and as long as men anywhere believe that they own their women and children, and as long as there are men and women who were abused as children, there will be this kind of abusive interaction played out over and over again in each generation.

Further Reading

Links to the book itself and to books on abusive relationships.


An aside about the writing: Although something is always lost in translation, I would like to think that the unnatural stiffness of the writing and the otherwise poor writing style through bad word choices are merely the result of a competent, perhaps even an excellent, translator who is nonetheless definitely not a gifted writer and not skilled in the writing craft. (For example, he uses the word "yelled" repeatedly when yelling would not have been appropriate--perhaps "exclaimed" was meant, but we can't tell, since we are at the translator's mercy.)


I enjoy reading novels highly. Especially when the novel is a strikingly good one. if this is the case, as it is in Palace Walk, I tend to become a slave to the book, meaning, it becomes my obsession, my passion, my love. Perhaps I am being a bit intense...however, for the most part it is the honest truth. Being a female and 14 years old at that, this book hurts me emotionally and mentally, but it is real, it is culture, it is tradition, it is Egypt.

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