Honour and shame

The Beginning and the End

Naguib Mahfouz, 1950

The Beginning and the End, like most of the other novels that Naguib Mahfouz wrote in the late 1940s, is carefully dated. Like the other novels, the dating is mainly done by reference to political events.

There are allusions to student demonstrations. “God be merciful to the martyrs of the faculties of Arts, Agriculture, and Dar el-Uhm!”  [9.] There were student demonstrations in 1934. I have not been able to determine the significance of Dar el-Uhm.

It appears that Hussein and Hassanein, the brothers at the heart of The Beginning and the End, have participated in the demonstrations. They are teenagers. “Let’s revolt against fate… and shout, ‘Down with Fate’, just as we shouted ‘Down with Hor’.” [8.] I have not been able to establish who ‘Hor’ was.

Hussein, on the way to his new post in Tanta, has a political discussion with someone he meets on the train. His fellow-traveller refers quite explicitly to current events. ‘…the Effendi …waved the folded newspaper…. “Who would ever have imagined that Sidhi would agree to meet with Nahas? The Palace and the Wafdists at the same table!”’ [48.]

There are casual references to other events, such as the Anglo-Egyptian treaty. [68.] The treaty was signed in 1936. [Goldschmidt, 2004.] Egypt was just a step away from independence.

Hassanein can only think of entering the War College because of a political decision relaxing the entry requirements. “Your Excellency, the government’s decision to enlarge the army affords me a golden opportunity this year that has never presented itself before.” [59.]

Similarly his graduation can be dated. Hassanein learned that… the Minister of War had decided to graduate a group of officers after only one year…. [68.]

Mahfouz also does something he hasn’t done in the other novels of this period. He explicitly mentions the year in which it is set. It happens in a context in which to mention the year is perfectly natural.  ‘[Farid Effendi’s] income had amounted to twenty-eight pounds a month, which was considered very substantial in 1933.’ [14.]

Mentioning the year is also completely redundant. It adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Mahfouz wants to make it very clear that the events of the novel occur during a historically important period. He does not – as he is to do in the Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) – integrate the historical events with the action of the novel.

Mahfouz does something else he hasn’t done in the other novels of this period. He lets time pass. ‘Another year passed, and life continued in its usual course. The members of the family followed their normal routines of everyday life.’ [43.]

Time does not pass in melodrama. Time in melodrama is consumed in urgent action. The characters in melodrama do not follow normal routines. There is too much need to maintain the excitement.

Mahfouz has not embraced realism yet. He is however moving away, by very small steps, from the pure melodrama of some of his earlier novels.

The Beginning and the End (1950) – like Cairo Modern (1945), Khan al-Khalili (1945), Midaq Alley (1947) and, for some chapters, The Mirage (1948) – is about poverty. Poverty is a preoccupation to which Mahfouz will constantly return.

In the first chapter, Hussein and Hassanein, the second and third sons of the Kamel family, are informed by the headmaster of the family tragedy. “Your elder brother has informed me that your father is dead.” [The Beginning and the End, 1.]

Hussein is nineteen years old. Hassanein is two years younger. It would not have been unusual for a young man of nineteen, in Egypt at that date, to be still in secondary school.

Mahfouz did not personally experience bereavement and destitution in his youth. It is possibly significant that the opening chapter of the novel is set in secondary school. It may be that school friends of Mahfouz were affected in this way.

This is of course pure speculation. If my intuition is correct, the experience affected Mahfouz deeply.

Kamel Effendi Ali, Hussein and Hassanein’s father, was an employee in the Ministry of Education. ‘…since he had worked for the government for about thirty years at a salary of seventeen pounds a month, his heirs would receive a pension of five pounds per month.’ [7.]

Hassanein’s salary, when he starts his new job in the eighth grade, is less than his father’s. ‘”How much of a salary do you expect?” “Seven pounds.” [46.]

Kamel Effendi Ali is doing better than that. He isn’t doing that much better.

Kamel Effendi was respectable. He wasn’t rich. His family have always been poor. Now they are plunged into something not far from destitution.

Kamel Effendi hasn’t been able to save. ‘In the dead man’s wallet [Samira, Kamel Effendi’s widow] had found only two pounds and seventy piasters, and that was all the money she had until matters could be straightened out.’ [5.]

Hassan, the eldest son, is a ne’er-do-well. ‘He never left home, nor did he search seriously for a job.’ [6.]

Nefisa, Samira’s daughter, is ‘…a girl of twenty-three, without beauty, money, or father.’ [5] Mahfouz does not have to explain to his Egyptian readers that Nefisa is unmarriageable, or that – as an uneducated girl from a respectable family – she really has no legitimate options other than marriage.

Poverty brings shame in its wake. Samira has to sell the furniture. ‘“I will not pay one millieme more than three pounds,” said the furniture dealer….’ [12.]

The two younger boys need to stay at school and pass the baccalaureate to have a chance of employment in the government service, and to achieve the same social status as their father. If they leave school now, the sacrifice involved in keeping them in school has been wasted.

Later in the novel Hassan, their elder brother, has an acid comment on the value of formal education. ‘”I’ve come to tell you that I’ve been appointed a clerk at the secondary school in Tanta, and I’ll be starting my work on the first of October,” [Hussein] said. “Will you travel to Tanta? …What use, then, will it be to Mother if you live in Tanta? …This is really bad luck. This is the result of school education.”’ [46.]

Samira is in a tough position. The dominant fact of the novel is the family’s poverty. The action is dominated by their attempts to cope with it.

Poverty dominates in some of the other novels of the late 1940s. In Cairo Modern, ‘[Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s] father was a clerk in a Greek-owned creamery in al-Qanatir. He had worked there for twenty-five years and earned eight pounds.’ [Cairo Modern, 6.] He is poorer than Kamel Effendi Ali, and as a commercial employee has lower status.

That is difficult enough. Mahgub Abd al-Daim is poorer than his friends. ‘…unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night.’ [Cairo Modern, 5.] Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s father ‘…allocated three pounds to him every month during the academic year. This sum covered necessities like housing, food, and clothing, and the young man was grudgingly satisfied….’ [Cairo Modern, 6.]

It soon gets worse. ‘We are sad to inform you that your dear father is ill and bedridden.’ [Cairo Modern, 6.]

Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s father has had a stroke. It is too severe for him to return to work. ‘His father knew that his settlement would last them …five or six months…. “Could you live on one pound a month?”’ [Cairo Modern, 8.]

It is the experience of truly wretched poverty that makes Mahgub Abd al-Daim especially susceptible to being corrupted. Corruption is one of the major themes of Cairo Modern.

In exchange for a job in the civil service, Mahgub Abd al-Daim becomes a pimp. All he has to do is provide a veneer of respectability to the illicit affair of a dignitary by marrying the dignitary’s mistress. ‘“Let me tell you about your wife…. His Excellency himself [Qasim Bey Fahmi] is her friend.”’ [Cairo Modern, 6.] Mahgub Abd al-Daim has lost any claim he might have had to self-respect.

The portrayal of poverty in Khan al-Khalili is very similar to the portrayal in The Beginning and the End. Both families lose parental income. In both families, one of the sons – the more responsible one – has to abandon the hope of higher education and accept a low-paid government job.

The father of the family in Khan al-Khalili, Akif Effendi Ahmad, was a low-level bureaucrat. He ‘…had been pensioned off before he had even reached the age of forty. As a result of sheer negligence he had failed to perform his administrative obligations adequately; what made it worse was that he then adopted a supercilious attitude towards the civil service investigators who were examining his case.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

Ahmad Akif, the protagonist ‘…had been forced to abandon his studies and take a minor administrative post in order to provide for his shattered family and support his two younger brothers.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

The father in Khan al-Khalili has been forced into early retirement. He is not dead, like Kamel Effendi. The situation is, initially at least, less tragic. Economically, also, Ahmad Akif’s family is better off. As well as Akif Effendi Ahmad’s small pension, they have Ahmad Akif’s salary. Ahmad Akif, unlike Hussein in The Beginning and the End, works in Cairo and lives at home. Ahmad Akif does not have to maintain a separate establishment. He is able to contribute more to the expenses of the family.

The parallels nevertheless are striking. Petty-bourgeois respectability is precarious. Events – the death, the early retirement, or, as in Cairo Modern, the illness of the father of the family – can threaten destitution and force sacrifices.

The poverty of Ahmed Akif’s family is not absolute. It is relative. Ahmed even manages to save small sums. He is however worried about the impact of any special demands on his financial position. ‘He was sure that during Ramadan they would spend what little he usually saved each month. He might even have to withdraw an additional amount from his savings account.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 9.] The relative poverty of respectable people is a major concern in four out of five of Mahfouz’s novels from the second half of the 1940s. The exception is Midaq Alley.

Poverty in Midaq Alley is well-nigh universal. In some cases – Sheikh Darwish, the ex-teacher and former functionary, Umm Hamida, the bath attendant and marriage broker, and Zaita, the repulsive cripple-maker – the poverty is absolute or nearly so. Midaq Alley is a poor quarter.

A handful of the characters are not poor. The businessman, Salim Alwan, is rich. He has educated his sons for the professions. His sons find their father embarrassing. ‘His son… the judge, had suggested that he liquidate his company….’ [Midaq Alley, 8.]

The café owner, Kirsha, is better off than some of the other inhabitants of the alley. Whether this is because of his café business or his narcotics trade is not clear.

The rentier landlords, Mrs Saniya Afify and Radwan Hussainy, are also better off. Neither of them has to work.

Mrs Afify is greedy and mean. ‘She kept her new banknotes in a small ivory casket hidden in the depths of her clothes closet and arranged them in packages of fives and tens, delighting herself by looking at them, counting and rearranging them…. She had always inclined towards avarice and was one of the earliest contributors to the savings bank.’ [Midaq Alley, 2.] This is a caricature.

Hamida and Hussein Kirsha, the café owner’s son, are desperate to escape poverty. Hussein works for the British army. Hamida becomes a prostitute.

Between them they destroy Abbas, the barber. Abbas is Hussein’s friend and Hamida’s fiancé. Hussein persuades Abbas to work for the army. Abbas returns to the alley and discovers Hamida is a prostitute. He loses control and attacks her. He is kicked to death by British soldiers.

Mahfouz portrays some people as flourishing in the midst of poverty: the landlords, the drug dealers, the tooth-puller Dr Booshy. They make money off people poorer than themselves. This I think is realistic.

Poverty also occurs in The Mirage. It is however temporary.

Kamil’s grandfather dies. “May God grant you length of days. Your grandfather has died, son.” [The Mirage, 24.] The former colonel’s pension has been the family’s main income.

Kamil and his mother have to retrench. “Maybe we can find a small flat in the neighbourhood for just a hundred fifty piasters…. We’d have to let the servants go.” [The Mirage, 25.]

Kamil is grossly inhibited about women. Poverty makes it even more difficult for him to ask for the hand of his beloved. ‘What was standing between my beloved and me? Poverty.’ [The Mirage, 27.]

Kamil is a petty bureaucrat by occupation. Kamil’s family are from the decaying aristocracy. They do not rely entirely on earning salaries.

Kamil is rescued by another death, that of his father. ‘“Our father has died. Come to Hilmiya.”’  [The Mirage, 32.]

Kamil receives an inheritance. This completely changes his situation. In a real way, it changes his identity. ‘I was no longer the indigent, destitute person I had been….’ [The Mirage, 33.]

Kamil’s ability to marry the woman he wants is determined by poverty. The impact of poverty on the search for partners and for sexual satisfaction is a major theme of the novels of this period.

Mahfouz is very conscious of the precariousness of his social class of origin, the petty bourgeoisie. A family tragedy can easily plunge them into what they fear most, the destitution of the urban masses. In that miserable condition, they lose not only their social status but their respectability.

Mahgub Abd al-Daim in Cairo Modern, Hamida in Midaq Alley, and Hassan and Nefisa in The Beginning and the End will resort to any shift to survive. Mahgub Abd al-Daim becomes a pimp. Hassan becomes a thug and a drug pedlar, and lives in part at least from immoral earnings. Hamida and Nefisa become prostitutes. In Mahfouz’s world, that is the only way out for women.

In Mahfouz’s novels of the 1940s, the urban masses are described from the point of view of the urban lower-middle class. The masses are the fate that the petty-bourgeois fear.

The poverty of the masses and, as Mahfouz sees it, their immorality, are the consequence of lack of status. It is only in the later, allegorical novels – Children of the Alley (1959) and The Harafish (1977) – that the portrayal of the urban poor is more sympathetic.

Mahfouz sometimes alludes to the rural poverty of the majority of the Egyptian people. He never really portrays it.

Unlike the other novels of the late 1940s, there is a great deal of emphasis in The Beginning and the End on the impact of poverty on social status. Social status, as a fictional theme, is new.

The concern with status becomes obvious very early in the novel. Samira’s status is different from her sister’s. ‘Hassan… saw a man and a woman approaching in peasant clothes. The brothers recognised them as their aunt and her husband, Amm Farag Soliman.’ [3.]

Being a peasant, in this context, is not about culture. It is made very clear that it is about social status, and that the determinant of status is occupation: ‘…his aunt’s husband, not much more than a labourer….’ [3.]

Samira’s sister is very conscious of the difference in status. She is envious. She ‘…frequently enjoyed comparing their lives… [Samira] had married a government employee, whereas her own husband was just a labourer working in a ginning factory; …her sister lived in Cairo, whereas she was doomed to the confinement of the country; …her sister’s sons were schoolboys, whereas her own sons were destined for labourers’ lives; …her sister’s larder was always full, whereas she had plenty in hers only in feast times.’ [5.]

Only the comment about the fullness or otherwise of the larders refers to consumption. All the rest is about status. The determinants, in this context, are very clear. Being a white-collar worker, working for the government, residing in the capital and having education all have status. Manual work and living in the provinces do not.

Of all the family, it is Hassanein who feels status issues most acutely. This is not explained. It is part of his character, like his ambition and his selfishness. Even his ambition is status-driven. “Not only do I loathe poverty but I hate the mere mention of it.” [57.]

Hassanein’s status needs lead him to enrol at the War College, which leads in turn to the novel’s final catastrophe. Catastrophe following so quickly on apparent triumph is typical of melodrama.

Hassanein’s anxieties about status show clearly at his father’s funeral, which in one of the very early chapters. He is concerned about the status of the guests, and how this reflects on his father’s status, and hence that of the family. ‘[Hassanein] wished that all the people there could see the great inspector.’ [4.]

Mahfouz emphasises that the level of Hassanein’s concern is, to say the least, unusual. ‘…to Hassanein a degrading funeral seemed as much of a catastrophe as death itself.’ [4.]

Hassanein’s anxiety focuses in particular on his family’s lack of a tomb. ‘[Hassanein] did not want anyone to see the family’s humble burial place.’ [4.]

In Hassanein’s eyes, the unadorned plot betrays the family’s status. ‘…Kamel Effendi was buried in something not much more than a pauper’s grave….’ [4.]

This is surely about shame. The word itself is not used. Perhaps it does not have to be. The translator’s use of the term ‘degrading’, however, is surely significant.

One of the sources of shame, for Hassanein, is poverty. It implies the loss of the petty-bourgeois status in which the family’s self-respect is based.

Other family members try to reassure Hassanein: ‘“…your father left Damietta with his grandmother for Cairo when he was your age.”’ [5.] In other words, Hassanein’s father was a provincial, like his aunt’s husband. Like Hassanein is now, his father was an orphan at the same age.

Hassanein is not consoled. ‘The obscure grave in the open would always remain a symbol of his family’s being shamefully lost in the big city’. [5.]

It is Hassanein who is particularly concerned about Nefisa having to work outside the family. ‘[Nefisa] … had been a respectable girl but now she had become a dressmaker.’ [13.]

The employment of women outside the family is a threat to petty-bourgeois respectability. This is the intersection of occupational and sexual status.

Hassanein is not content to settle for the cautious respectability and the oppressive, relative poverty for which his brother Hussein has sacrificed his chance of higher education. ‘Most of all, [Hassanein] feared that his life would be as confined as that of his brother Hussein, and that, lacking any flowery prospect, he would spend the rest of his life striving for menial promotions form the eighth to the sixth grade.’ [59.]

Hassanein sets his eyes on a higher goal than that. “I have come to the conclusion that I should choose either the Police College or the War College.” [57.]

Once the subject of a military career has been raised, Mahfouz writes as if that had always been Hassanein’s ambition. It is described as: ‘…his life’s dream, to join the War College or perish.’ [59.]

There has been no previous mention of any such ambition. Mahfouz is fairly clearly making things up as he goes along.

It would not have taken much of an effort to go back and insert a sentence or two in an earlier chapter. Mahfouz did not bother. The novels of the late 1940s were not written to the same standard as some of the later work.

Entry to the War College does not allay Hassanein’s status anxieties in quite the naive way he thought. In fact, it creates an entirely new set of concerns.

Hassanein is cruelly teased when his comrades at the college see him with his fiancée Bahia. “Yesterday this hero was seen with a girl on his arm.” “The homely type.” “She had blue eyes …but she had a crudely native look.” “Too short and too plump.” “I hope she’s not your fiancée.” [65.]

Hassanein still desires Bahia. He has however become ashamed of her. ‘Blood boiled in his veins and a reckless desire surged up in his chest. But how could he possibly disregard the appalling fact that he must avoid appearing with her in public?’ [66.]

Hassanein is drawn to a family that represents what he aspires to. He is insecure: ‘…it was impossible that [Ahmad Bey Yousri and his wife and daughter] were unaware of his true social status.’ [67.]

As well as poverty, The Beginning and the End is about sexual awakening.  It deals with the effect of poverty and social status, in particular, on the young people’s search for sexual partners and sexual satisfaction.

Hassanein strongly desires Bahia. ‘His heart beat violently and he rose like a man obsessed.’ [17.]

Hassanein, by the standards prevailing in respectable, conservative families, is over-familiar with Bahia. ‘He pressed her fingers in a manner that could not be mistaken. Resentfully she withdrew her hand, and a frown darkened her face.’ [17.]

Bahia is a neighbour in the same building. Her family have long been friends of Samira’s family. Farid Effendi Mohammed is ‘…their good friend and neighbour.’ [4.]

Hassanein becomes engaged to Bahia. It is not clear that becoming engaged is what Hassanein originally intended to do.

‘”I shall keep chasing her until… Until she falls in love with me as I have with her.” “Then?” The young man replied, perplexed, “That’s enough.”’ [18.]

Bahia does not allow Hassanein any familiarity. “Don’t touch me,” she said with serious finality. [24.]

Hassanein responds by declaring his love. “I love you, truly and honestly.” [24.]

Bahia interprets that as meaning that Hassanein wants to marry her. Her response is that of a modest girl from a conservative, Muslim family. ‘“But this is not for me to decide.”’ [24.]

Hassanein understands exactly what she means. Hassanein’s family needs to speak to her father. It is typical of Hassanein’s egocentricity that he takes it on himself. ‘“I shall speak to Farid Effendi.”’ [24.]

Hassanein is still a schoolboy. Hassanein’s family has still not managed to stabilise after his father’s death. The announcement of the engagement has to be postponed. ‘“[Samira] …requested [Farid Effendi] to wait until our stumbling family could get back on its feet.”’ [25.]

Bahia has had a conservative upbringing. ‘At the age of twelve, [Bahia] had disappeared from the yard and for some time stopped going to school….’ [15.]

Bahia’s ideas on the relations between young people before marriage are thoroughly traditional. ‘Clearly hesitating, she proceeded to speak with candour and naiveté. “Don’t you read what Al Sabah magazine publishes about girls who are deserted because of their recklessness?”’ [28.]

Bahia believes that any familiarity between the sexes before marriage is the equivalent of prostitution. ‘“My mother told me that any girl who imitates lovers in films is a hopeless prostitute.”’ [28.]

This is a view that permeates the novel. There are good girls, like Bahia and Ahmad Bey Yousri’s daughter, with whom Hassanein also becomes infatuated. There are prostitutes, like Nefisa and Sana’a. There is nothing in between. There is no middle way.

Nothing changes between Hassanein and Bahia until, towards the end of the novel, Hassanein breaks off the engagement. Their relationship is about Hassanein demanding physical intimacy and Bahia refusing.

Hassanein continues to declare his passion. “I have a burning desire to press a kiss upon your lips and embrace you to my breast.” [38.] The detail, here, makes it clear that even Hassanein – with a respectable fiancée – does not expect sexual intercourse.

Bahia denies Hassanein the smallest degree of physical intimacy. ‘“Be a decent boy and stop all this nonsense. Real love knows no such frivolity.”’ [38.]

Hassanein accuses Bahia of coldness. ‘“Bahia… you speak with the cruelty of a person whose breast has never throbbed with love.”’ [38.]

Bahia does not listen. ‘“…I do not approve of the kind of love you want….”’ [38.]

Hassanein becomes frustrated. ‘He felt he was wasting his days in hopeless monotony. …he was overcome by a vindictive impulse, a desire to injure, if only by words.’ [38.]

Hassanein begins to doubt his feelings. ‘On the third morning after his visit to Hassan, he wondered, baffled, if he had stopped loving Bahia…. She was no longer his ideal girl.’ [72.]

When Hassanein has decided that he no longer wishes to marry Bahia, he forces himself on her. All he wants is a kiss. The language used suggests a rape. ‘Her hands resisted, but he embraced her, took her to his breast with brutal violence, and pressed a kiss on her lips.’ [72.]

Bahia responds strongly. “I’ll never forgive you,” she said. [72.]

We might expect Bahia to break off the engagement. In fact, she behaves in a way that is more forward than anything she has done so far. ‘As she shook hands with him, the girl slipped a folded paper into his hand…. “Meet me on the roof,” it said.’ [76.]

Until this point Hassanein has always been keen to spend time alone with Bahia. This time he doesn’t go. ‘…he would never sacrifice his career and happiness for the sake of an old, infantile passion or promise.’ [76.]

Hassanein’s family are shocked. ‘“What a scandal!” “…What a terrible offence to this most good-hearted family!”’ [79.] Hussein, driven by ambition and the fear of shame, has behaved dishonourably.

Hassanein’s behaviour towards Bahia is consistently aggressive. He is restrained only by her respectability. He treats Bahia in ways she does not want. Until he loses interest in marrying her, he does not push her beyond a certain point. He is not cynical.

While Mahfouz condemns Hassanein’s aggression and his defiance of convention, he sees a justification in terms of Hassanein’s strong feelings. Hassanein is of course a man. ‘[Hassanein’s] beloved was no less stubbornly adamant than his mother. She forced him to be content with an ascetic, platonic relationship that was unsuitable to his passionate nature.’ [43.]

Nefisa’s paramours are thoroughly cynical. They set out to take advantage. The difference between Nefisa’s situation and Bahia’s is that Bahia has a father, who is prosperous. The difference between their personalities is that Bahia is cold. It represents, I think, a somewhat fatalistic approach to sexual relations. Chastity is a luxury that only the bourgeoisie can afford.

Hussein, by contrast, is the good brother. It is Hussein who warns Hassanein about his behaviour towards Bahia. ‘“Take care. Don’t be insolent. This is a respectable house.”’ [16.]

It is also Hussein who is prepared to make sacrifices for the rest of the family. ‘Hussein, her meek son, had accepted the sacrifice of his career and the suffering of loneliness for the sake of his family, and for Hassanein in particular.’ [47.]

Samira is aware that Hussein is marriageable. Mahfouz doesn’t need to spell this out. The point would be obvious to an Egyptian reader. Samira is also aware that if Hussein marries it will be a disaster for the family. ‘…Samira wished to put Hussein on his guard against the snares of marriage.’ [47.]

 In Tanta, Hussein is lonely. He is bored. ‘[Hussein] was certain that his life, lonely as it was, would be devoid of entertainment, too.’ [49.]

In that situation, Hussein is very susceptible. ‘His heart seemed to be waiting to admit the first girl who would knock at its door.’ [52.]

His superior at work tries to marry him off to his daughter. Almost the first thing Hassan Effendi wants to know when they meet is whether Hussein is available. ‘“Are you married, Hussein Effendi?”’ [50.]

Hassan Effendi makes a series of attractive offers. He knows of better accommodation. ‘“There’s a two-room flat on the roof of the house where I live,” [Hassan Effendi] added. “The rent won’t be more than a pound.”’  [50.]

Hassan Effendi also offers his company. ‘“You seem to dislike coffeehouses, so you can use this balcony as a nightclub.”’ [51.]

Hussein knows what is going on. ‘From the very beginning, he was clearly aware of how critical his situation was.’ [52.]

Samira intuits what is happening. She intervenes. ‘“Mother, in Tanta! I can hardly believe my eyes!”’ [53.]

Samira, despite her embarrassment, now asks Hussein directly to make a sacrifice. ‘“If I suggested that you postpone any thoughts of marriage, wouldn’t you consider it unfair?”’ [54.]

Samira advises Hussein to remove himself from what has become a compromising situation. ‘“I advise you to leave this flat and go back to your room at the hotel.”’ [54.]

The Beginning and the End reprises, in some ways, the central relationship between the two brothers in Khan al-Khalili. Ahmad Akif, the older of the brothers in Khan al-Khalili, is a character that Mahfouz does not like. The portrait of Hussein in The Beginning and the End, by contrast – despite the similarity in their situations – is sympathetic. Mahfouz in a way is redeeming the cruelty of the portrayal in the earlier novel.

Ahmad Akif has to give up his hopes of higher education to support the other members of his family. Ahmad takes it hard. ‘The decision to abandon his studies had been a severe blow to his hopes. At first it sent him reeling, and he was overwhelmed by a violent, almost insane fury that completely destroyed his personality and filled him with a bitter sense of remorse.’ [Khan al-Khalili,2.]

When Hussein has to refuse the offer of Hassan Effendi’s daughter Ihsan in marriage, thereby severing relations with Hassan Effendi, he too becomes angry and bitter. ‘At this moment he hated not only himself but humanity at large.’ [56.]

It doesn’t last. Unlike Ahmad Akif, Hussein has a very strong sense of duty. ‘His sense of duty outweighed all his other emotions.’ [56.]

Ahmad Akif becomes embittered. He turns against women. ‘If his complete failure to achieve anything turned him into an enemy of the entire world, then his failure with women made him their enemy too.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 4.]

Ahmad is an unattractive personality. ‘However, a combination of despair and thriftiness, followed by a peculiar adaptation to look like an intellectual, had robbed him of any concern about either his person or his manner of dress.’ His ‘…teeth [are] yellowed by smoking.’ Ahmad is unattractive morally as well as physically. ‘His secret craving for sex gnawed at him….’ [Khan al-Khalili, 1.]

His brother Rushdi is the opposite. ‘Where love was concerned, he had limitless self-confidence, based on one success after another.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 17.]

One of the most extraordinary parallels between the two novels is that both Hassanein, in The Beginning and the End, and Rushdi, in Khan al-Khalili, accost their beloved on the roof. This probably reflects the reality of courtship in conservative communities, and life in Cairo apartment blocks.

Hassanein is alert to the slightest sign of femininity. ‘[Hassanein] raised his head to follow the rustle of a dress. He saw the hem as the wearer climbed the last flight of stairs leading to the roof of the house. Who was it?’ [21.]

Bahia has a legitimate reason for being there. ‘Then [Hassanein] heard a voice clucking to the chickens.’ [21.]

Hassanein accosts Bahia. Bahia responds with proper modesty. ‘“Let me pass, please,” she said.’ [21.]

Hassanein insists on a declaration of love. ‘“Say just one word! If you can’t, only give a nod.”’ [21.]

The meeting on the roof in Khan al-Khalili is very similar. ‘Now she could no longer play with the younger girls in the street, the roof had become her favourite spot.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 21.] Nawal’s family are conservative. Once she reaches puberty she is secluded.

Rushdi follows Nawal. ‘She was amazed to find him standing there, his tall frame filling up the doorway.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 21.]

Like Bahia, Nawal responds very properly. ‘”Don’t start dragging me into the conversation. Now stop blocking my way.”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 22.]

The courtship in each novel evolves in a broadly similar way. After a proper display of modesty, the suitor is accepted. The portrayal in The Beginning and the End is somewhat more subtle.

In Khan al-Khalili, Ahmad is a failure. He craves women but is unsuccessful in love. Rushdi is reckless. His reluctance to face the truth about his tuberculosis leads to suffering for everybody. When Nawal’s family find out, they forbid her to visit him. ‘”… from today you cannot visit our dear sick neighbour any more.”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 44.]

Nawal does not understand. She is a teenage girl. She is in love. ‘”How can you be so unkind?”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 44.]

In The Beginning and the End, Hussein sacrifices his own interests for the sake of his family. Hassanein’s ambition leads him to behave dishonourably, and break off his engagement to Bahia. There is a deliberate opposition in each novel. The contrast between altruism and selfishness seems to me somewhat more interesting than the contrast between failure and recklessness.

If The Beginning and the End is a reworking of Khan al-Khalili – which in some ways it quite clearly is – then Hassan and Nefisa are in a sense ‘additional’ characters. They show different responses to poverty, and different ways of finding sexual satisfaction. What Hassan and Nefisa show are the disreputable variants.

The outcomes for Nefisa- in circumstances identical that are identical to those of Hassanein – are very different. Hassanein becomes an officer. Nefisa becomes a prostitute.

Hassanein’s progress towards his commission is sketched in fairly lightly. Mahfouz is not really interested in the army. What is important is Hassanein’s relationship with his sponsor, Ahmed Bey Yousri.

Nefisa’s progress – if that is the right word – towards prostitution is by contrast described rather carefully. Mahfouz is concerned to be as realistic as possible.

Mahfouz describes three relationships that Nefisa has. These three relationships represent the course of what I can only describe as her career.

Hamida in Midaq Alley also has a career, and her career too unrolls over the course of three relationships. Hamida first becomes engaged to Abbas, the barber. He is poor but at least he is handsome. Hamida throws Abbas over for the rich merchant, Salim Alwan. This demonstrates that she is mercenary.

Salim Alwan then has to be disposed of so that Hamida can form a relationship with her pimp, Ibrahim Faraj. This will demonstrate that she is not only mercenary but immoral. Accordingly – since the plot will not wait for anything less dramatic – Mahfouz has Salim Alwan have a heart attack.

Nefisa’s first relationship is with the grocer’s son, Soliman Gaber Soliman. Nefisa is convinced that she and Soliman are going to get married. ‘[Nefisa] believed that he was her first and last lover. Hope and despair made her cling to him passionately….’ [26.]

Soliman reassures her of this. Soliman Gaber Soliman spoke. “Don’t have any doubts about it. We shall marry as I have told you. I make this promise before God.” [26.]

When Nefisa learns he has been lying to her she is desperately disappointed. ‘A deceiver, an impostor, and a liar. What would she do?…Only one hour before she had considered him her man, and herself his wife.’ [33.] Nefisa’s only offence, so far, against tradition and morality has been to anticipate her nuptials.

Nefisa puts herself in the wrong by assaulting Soliman. ‘…with all her might, [Nefisa] struck him twice in the face with her fist. She saw blood streaming from his nose.’ [33.]

Soliman seduces Nefisa by degrees. Nefisa finds his attentions flattering. ‘That he was interested in her made her think very highly of him…. Perhaps she was not as ugly as she thought.’ [23.]

Soliman asks Nefisa out. ‘“The shop is usually closed on Friday in the afternoon. Meet me then. We could go to Rod el-Farag.”’ [23.] Rod el-Farag was known at that time for its nightclubs. [Wikipedia.]

This is not something that a respectable unmarried young woman from a conservative family would do. Nefisa initially resists. ‘“Go together? I don’t like the idea. I’m not one of those girls.”’ [23.]

Soliman persists. ‘“Shall we meet then, next Friday?”’ He persuades her. ‘She hesitated a bit, then murmured, “By God’s will.”’ [23.]

Soliman has a powerful psychological hold. ‘He was the first man to restore her self-confidence.’ [26.]

Nefisa also initially resists when Soliman invites her home. ‘“Please, come in.” “Let’s go back.” “…You must honour our home.”’ [27.]

In the darkness Soliman seduces her. Mahfouz is discreet about details. ‘The surrounding darkness became thicker than ever.’ [27.]

Nefisa discovers that Soliman has abandoned her to marry another woman. Nefisa is so angry that she stages a confrontation with the bride. She loses a customer. ‘“How criminal!  How insolent! Go away before I call the servants to throw you out of the house!”’ [35.]

Soliman does not pay Nefisa for sex. Nefisa nevertheless has sexual relations with Soliman without being married. By the conventional standards of the time – standards which her brother’s fiancée, Bahia, clearly shares – Nefisa has defined herself as a prostitute.

Nefisa does not see her second relationship, with Mohammed al-Ful, as leading potentially to marriage. She sees it more as an affair.

Mohammed is exciting. He is not respectable. ‘[Mohammed] seemed to her strong and daring, but at the same time dishonourable and untrustworthy.’ [41.]

Mohammed, like a lover, persuades Nefisa to go for a drive with him. ‘“Look to my left and you will find a car owned by my humble person. Old though it is, it can carry us to any place you like.”’ [41.]

When they arrive, Mohammed is rough with Nefisa. ‘Stretching out his arm, he suddenly encircled her waist, pulling her toward him with unexpected violence.’ [41.]

Nefisa is worried about her family. Nefisa does not want to have sex a second time. Mohammed treats her with open contempt. ‘“Damn you! This trip wasn’t even worth the gasoline it took to get her!”’ [41.]

Nefisa is as shocked that Mohammed pays her as she is by the trivial sum. ‘But she saw him stretching out his hand, offering her a ten piaster piece. “This is enough for one time,” he said….’ [41.]

The payment is mean. The manner of the payment is openly contemptuous. ‘…he threw the silver coin at her feet and drove off….’ [41.]

Nefisa is shamed. ‘She was overwhelmed with a profound feeling of sorrow and degradation….’ [41.]

Nefisa’s need for money, and her family’s need for money, prompts her – or so we are allowed to assume – to accept what Mohammed so contemptuously offers. ‘Seeing no reason to leave [the coin] there, she picked it up.’  [41.]

The third relationship is the one in which Nefisa behaves as a prostitute in the narrow sense. The man is not particularly attractive. He seems respectable. ‘He was sixty, age lending to his body a sagging but dignified appearance…. he wore a woollen suit; he carried an elegant fly whisk with an ivory handle….’ [60.]

Nefisa’s motives in this case are purely financial. ‘…this time, out of pure greed, and feeling no desire at all, she surrendered to a passerby.’ [60.]

The gentleman, despite his social status, treats her with the same contempt as Mohammed al-Ful. ‘“…a twenty-piaster piece is too much for a person like you.”’ [60.]

The fourth relationship, the one that is her undoing, is not described at all. It is important only because of its impact on her brother Hassanein. The first we know of it is when it becomes a police matter. ‘“Master, a policeman wants to speak to you!”’ [88.]

The description of how Nefisa becomes a prostitute is more realistic than the account of the way Hamida finds her vocation in Midaq Alley. In The Beginning and the End, there is nothing like the nonsense of the school for prostitution. ‘“Your lover is the headmaster of a school, and you will learn everything when the time comes.”’ [Midaq Alley, 24.]

Nefisa’s chances of marriage, the only really acceptable outcome for a woman of her class, are very slight. For a start, Nefisa is not conventionally attractive. ‘Nefisa, [Samira’s] daughter …had the same thin oval face, short, coarse nose and pointed chin. She was pale, and a little hunchbacked’. [5.]

(I suspect that ‘hunchbacked’, here, is a mistranslation and that ‘round-shouldered’ would have been better. There are no other suggestions that Nefisa is disabled.)

Nefisa is of course an orphan. She does not have a male protector. Since her father’s death, in addition, she is even more poor.

Nefisa’s poverty results in a loss of respectability. ‘“Nefisa is good at sewing…. …she often makes dresses for our neighbours. I see no harm in her asking for some compensation.”’ [6.]

Nefisa’s brothers don’t like it. ‘The word “dressmaker” was very painful to [Hussein]….’ [8.] There is nothing they can do. The family needs the money.

Mahfouz is sympathetic about Nefisa’s poverty. Mahfouz is also sympathetic about her desperate need for marriage and love. This is what prompts her relationship with Soliman. ‘A burning desire for love overcame [Nefisa].’ [20.]

Despite the social and economic rationality of her choices, Nefisa is presented as driven to despair. ‘How complete was her degradation! And how dreadful her end!’ [60.]

There is no specific suggestion that these feelings are religious in origin. That is reasonable, since the prevailing attitudes to female sexuality are as much social as religious. What is important, I think, is that Nefisa internalises these judgements. She sees herself as others would do, if they knew what she was doing.

Nefisa’s feelings about her situation are extreme. ‘What hope did life hold out for her? She was doomed to self-destruction.’ [47.] This is melodramatic.

What is more problematic is the treatment of Nefisa’s sexual feelings. ‘However, in addition to the feeling of despair, an intense desire boiled in veins, clamouring for gratification; she felt helpless before it.’ [41.]

Sexual feelings in women are discreditable. Sexual feelings in men, as in the case of Nefisa’s brother Hassanein, are an explanation.

Something similar is true of the feminine pleasure that Nefisa takes, despite not being conventionally good-looking, in attention from men. ‘How delicious flirtation was, even if it was false!’ [41.] This is clearly being presented as a weakness.

The depths of despair to which Nefisa sinks anticipate her suicide. This happens, for example, when she learns of Soliman’s betrayal. ‘“The new bride is the daughter of Amm Gobran el-Tui, the grocer.” “…Who’s the bridegroom?” “…It is Soliman, the son of Amm Gaber Soliman, the grocer.” [32.]

It is the end of Nefisa’s dream. ‘…an overpowering feeling of death quickly overtook her.’ [32.] This is not the inevitability of tragedy. It is rather the fatalism of melodrama.

Mahfouz’s portrait of Nefisa is unsympathetic. She is ugly. She is a prostitute. She has strong sexual feelings. She has to work for her money.

This portrayal of a woman is thoroughly in keeping with the mores of the time and the place. That does not make it all right.

Mahfouz, in later novels, is to show himself a highly intelligent and remarkably insightful novelist. It is a shame he could not have portrayed Nefisa more as an individual. In doing so he would have challenged to some extent the notions about women and sexuality that were prevalent at the time.

There are some deliberate parallels between Nefisa’s sexual progress and Hassanein’s. These are not the coincidences which in earlier novels of this period drove the plot. They are coincidences in time, which underline formal parallels.

Hassanein’s mother agrees to his engagement to Bahia. ‘Mother told him she considered his approval of your proposal a great honour.’ [25.]

In the very next chapter, Soliman and Nefisa discuss the possibility of getting engaged, and the obstacles to it. ‘”It would be natural for me to tell my father and then we would go together to your mother to ask for your hand.”’ [26.] This is deliberate.

Hassanein asks Ahmed Bey Yousri to help him with his ambition of entering the War College. It is a key step in Hassanein’s career. ‘That afternoon, Hassanein paid a visit to Ahmed Bey Yousri’s villa in Taher Street.’ [59.]

In the very next chapter, Nefisa encounters the gentleman with the fly-whisk. That is a key step in Nefisa’s career. ‘At the same hour, Nefisa was in Station Square…. She observed a man standing a few arm’s lengths away, looking curiously at her.’ [60.]

Sexual relations and occupation are closely related. They are both, potentially, sources of honour. They both carry the risk of shame. Something similar is true of family.

While Nefisa keeps her sexual activity – her prostitution – secret, the shame is hers alone. If the secret gets out, it will involve her whole family. It will particularly involve Hassanein. His ambition has driven him to choose a profession in which the code of honour is paramount.

Nefisa is by no means the first prostitute in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. She will not be the last. Prostitution occurs in the strict sense in Khan al-Khalili and Midaq Alley, and in the wider, derogatory sense in Cairo Modern.

In Khan al-Khalili Ahmad makes one visit to the local hash den. It proves to be too much for him. The hash den is also where the neighbourhood prostitute works. [The woman] started staring hard at Ahmad with her flashing eyes, and he realised at once that she must be Aliyat al-Faiza, whom they all called “husband lover”.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 32.]

In Midaq Alley, the protagonist, Hamida – it is very rare, incidentally, for a novel of Naguib Mahfouz to have a female protagonist – becomes a career prostitute. ‘The truth was that without realising it she had chosen her path…. She asked herself what people would be saying about her on the street the next day…. “A whore!”’ [Midaq Alley, 24.]

In Cairo Modern, Ihsan Shihata becomes – with the same becoming hesitation that Hamida and Nefisa display – the mistress of a rich and influential man. ‘She tossed and turned all night, brooding. The afternoon of the following day, at the usual time, the automobile approached and its door opened. She hesitated a little. Then she climbed in.’ [Cairo Modern, 25.]

Ihsan’s situation is not unlike Hamida’s. ‘Ihsan Shihata was supremely conscious of two things: her beauty and her poverty.’ [Cairo Modern, 4.]

Ihsan does not have sex for cash with casual strangers. Nevertheless, according to the prevailing norms, she – a sexually active, unmarried woman – is a whore.

Prostitution is an important theme in the Cairo Trilogy. Nur, in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), is a prostitute. She is the most important female character.

Prostitution, in the prevailing culture, is shameful. It is incompatible with honour. The Beginning and the End is, very centrally, about honour and shame.

The family are shamed by their poverty. They are shamed by Nefisa becoming a dressmaker. Hassanein is particularly vulnerable to shame when he becomes an officer. ‘“I wasn’t an officer then,” Hassanein protested. “But now that I’ve become one, my reputation is in jeopardy.”’ [68.]

Nefisa’s small earnings were essential to the family economy. Now the shame of Nefisa working for her living has become acute. ‘“Mother, Nefisa must stop her shameful work at once. It doesn’t become an officer’s sister to work as a dressmaker.” [68.] Hassanein has no idea that Nefisa is also a prostitute.

Hassan’s money was the only way the brothers could start their careers. Hassan being a thug, a pimp and a drug dealer is now a threat.

Hassanein visits Hassan. He tries to persuade him to adopt a more respectable lifestyle. Hassan is offended. He counters by pointing out that Hassanein came to him for the money he needed to enrol at the War College. “So you’re indebted for your uniform to narcotics and this prostitute.” [71.]

Hassan’s occupation may be disreputable. It is however a career and has some of the characteristics of a career. In particular, like his respectable brothers, Hassan needs a sponsor.

Hassanein and Hussein apply to Ahmed Bey Yousri, supposedly their father’s friend. Hassan relies on Ali Sabri, a conceited and unsuccessful musician. ‘“The band will be working in this coffeehouse,” [Ali Sabri] said….’ [37.]

Ali Sabri needs Hassan. ‘“On every corner there is a thug…. And who is the right person to deal with them? You. There is also the important trade in narcotics…. And who’s the right person to deal with it? You again,” Ali Sabri said.’ [37.] Hassan was a failure as a wedding singer. He has now found his vocation.

The ups and downs of Hassan’s precarious existence have a direct effect on the family. When Hassan goes on the run, a search party arrives at the flat.

…the two young men encountered an officer, two policemen, and another man, apparently an informer…. The officer produced a search warrant…. “We’re searching …for a man by the name of Hassan Kamel, commonly known as Mr Head.”’ [75.]

The family are humiliated. ‘“The whole neighbourhood is witnessing our scandal. We’ve been exposed, and now we’re finished!”’ [75.]

They move to another quarter. ‘”We’ll go to Heliopolis.”’ [76.]

They cannot escape their past. Hassan turns up at their new address, badly wounded. ‘In the open doorway he saw two strangers supporting a third man, whose neck reclined on one of their shoulders…. …its pale white complexion was tinged with a blueness that suggested death.’ [86.]

Hassan’s fear of the police makes his family complicit. ‘“…don’t call the police or take him to the hospital…. a doctor will inform the police.”’ [86.]

Hassanein’s status obsessions lead him to jilt Bahia. ‘“I want a wife from a higher class, cultured and reasonably wealthy.”’ [79.] Jilting Bahia is dishonourable.

Hussein rescues Bahia’s honour and the reputation of the family. ‘“…I hope one day you’ll bless my honest desire to ask for your daughter Bahia’s hand.”’ [80.]

This is a powerful echo of Khan el-Khalili. In Khan el-Khalili, both brothers were interested in the same girl. Now the same pattern is being repeated in The Beginning and the End.

To make this more plausible, we are told that Hussein had been interested in Bahia. ‘Formerly, [Hussein] had been in love with Bahia.’ [81.]

This is the first we have heard of it. It is as careless as the assertion that Hassanein had always been interested in the War College.

Hassanein overreaches himself. He proposes for the daughter of Ahmed Bey Yousri. His brother officers find out the results of the enquiries that the family makes.

“I understood, from his conversation …that the family did not approve…. He said many things about one of your brothers…. He said [your sister] worked to earn her living…. I believe …you made a mistake in proposing to the daughter of such a fault-finding family.” [84.]

The fact that Nefisa is a prostitute is concealed from her family until the melodramatic denouement. This is an example of the fondness for irony that Mahfouz indulges in the novels of this period.

In the finale of the novel, the careers of Hassanein and Nefisa once again intersect. Hassanein is summoned to the police station. He does not know why.

“This… has to do with your sister…. She was arrested in a certain house in Al Sakakini.” [89.] Since we already know that Nefisa is a prostitute, we can guess what kind of house this is. Mahfouz does not specify whether it is a maison de rendezvous or a brothel. The details of Nefisa’s final fall are not apparently important.

The officer then appears to invite Hassanein to carry out an ‘honour killing.’ “I hope you’ll help me do my duty without making me regret the measures I’ve taken to protect your reputation.” [89.] I found this shocking. I imagine many Western readers – and many progressive, liberal readers in the Middle East and Egypt – will react in the same way.

The theme of murder has been anticipated. Hussein uses the idea of murder to illustrate an argument about means justifying ends.

“We had to defend ourselves,” [Hussein] said sharply. “And even murder is justified in self-defence.” [73.]

Hussein is talking about accepting money from Hassan, even though Hassan’s occupation is shameful. The idea of murder is not relevant. Mahfouz has taken the opportunity to introduce the concept into a discussion of shame for formal reasons.

When the police arrive at the flat with a search Hassanein is shown as reacting with murderous rage to his feelings of shame. ‘“I feel like murdering somebody… Nothing less than murder would get this out of my system!”’ [75.]

The idea of honour killing, when it is introduced at the end of the novel, is not an accident. It has been planned.

It becomes absolutely clear, when Nefisa and Hassanein leave the police station together, that it is in fact honour killing that is in question. ‘What to do with her was the main thing. He had thought of doing something as soon as they came out of the police station…. Should he strangle her, he wondered suddenly, or smash her head with his shoe?’ [90.]

Mahfouz does not challenge the dominant influence of masculine honour on female lives. He is however unwilling to endorse honour killing unequivocally.

Mahfouz makes Nefisa offer to commit suicide. ‘“Let me do the job myself so that no harm will come to you and nobody will know anything about it….”’ [90.]

Hassanein shows no compassion. ‘“Drown yourself in the Nile,” he said bluntly.’ [90.]

Mahfouz has anticipated Nefisa’s suicidal feelings. This is not careless. ‘Life was worthless; death would rescue her from its painful humiliation…. Now in her resignation, the death she hurried to meet became a soothing drug.’ [91.]

In the moment between leaving Nefisa and her death, Hassanein begins to question what he is doing. ‘He left her alone in front of the bridge and walked toward the pavement extending to the right along the bank of the Nile…. There might have been another solution, he thought.’ [91.]

Mahfouz does not leave Hassanein alone with his guilt. He also commits suicide. ‘Hassanein reached the same place on the bridge. He climbed the rail, looking down into the turbulent waters.’ [92.]

The double suicide with which the novel ends is melodramatic. It leaves Samira’s situation and Hussein’s relationship with Bahia both unresolved. In a realistic novel that would not happen.

The arrival of the police at the flat in Shubra Street is melodramatic, as is Hassan’s turning up wounded at the new flat in Heliopolis. Nefisa being arrested in a brothel is melodramatic. The timing of these events – just after Hassanein’s apparent success in being commissioned into the cavalry – is pure melodrama.

There are other elements of melodrama. Nefisa’s extreme feelings about becoming a prostitute are typical of melodrama. Hassan’s abortive attempt to work as a musician is fairly realistic. His becoming a thug is pure melodrama. It is nothing that Mahfouz has experienced or observed.

Mahfouz at one point gives the game away. ‘…a number of men stealthily streamed out of the room in succession…. Their features reminded [Hassanein] of the gangsters who appeared on the cinema screen.’ [58.] Mahfouz has based his description of Hassan’s milieu and his activities on what he has seen in the movies.

There is also a fatalism that is rather typical of melodrama. Sometimes the fatalism is expressed in a way that is common across cultures. ‘“Oh, God! Surely there’s some impurity in our blood!”’ [79.] At others it is more specific to Egypt and the Middle East. ‘“What is happening to us is the mischief of an evil eye.”’ [81.]

These elements of melodrama are important. They contribute to the tone of The Beginning and the End. It is however in the portrayal of honour and shame that the real melodrama lies. Honour and shame, in this novel, are in some way not real.

There is however greater realism. The description of family poverty and Samira’s struggles is realistic. The account of Nefisa’s relationships is more realistic than the portrayal of Hamida’s career in Midaq Alley. The attempt of Hussein’s superior in Tanta to entrap him into marrying his daughter comes across as realistic to a degree.

There is also more interest in politics. In Mahfouz’s later novels, in particular the Cairo Trilogy (1956-7), politics are very important. In The Beginning and the End, there is more discussion of politics, and more awareness of social and national issues, than in any of Mahfouz’s other novels of the late 1940s.

The boys have been involved in nationalist demonstrations. Hussein, as Mahfouz several times reminds us, has a strong faith. ‘Hussein’s strong faith …left him with no doubts about the hereafter.’ [3.]

Yet even Hussein’s faith does not quite enable him to remain stoical in the face of suffering. ‘It is true that God is the resort of all people. Yet how numerous on earth are the hungry and distressed!’ [8.]

On the train journey to take up his new post in Tanta, Hussein’s reflections about his own circumstances lead him to think about others. ‘There is no doubt about it. In our country fortune and respectable professions are hereditary in certain families. I am not spiteful, but sad; sad for myself and for millions of others like myself.’ [48.]

Hussein falls into a political conversation with a fellow-passenger. Hussein and his companion of the route both support the Wafd – the main nationalist party – as Mahfouz did when he was young. ‘”Nahas will remain in office forever,” the man said jubilantly. “The time for coups is over now. Are you a Wafdist?”’ [48.]

Alone in Tanta, Hussein muses about the condition of society. ‘Lonely and bored, [Hussein] found pleasure, he said, in dreams of social reform, imagining the emergence of a better society than the present one and improvement in living conditions.’ [73.]

Unlike the characters in the Cairo Trilogy, however – several of whom become involved and take action – Hussein’s reflections goes no further than that. There is a degree of recognition in The Beginning and the End that politics is important. Political beliefs do not affect the action.

The concern with social status in The Beginning and the End is new. The topic of honour and shame – which is related – is also new. An element of a traditional system, honour, is being portrayed in the context of a modernising urban environment. This contrast – or indeed conflict – between the traditional values and the modern world is a strong theme in the novels of Mahfouz. In The Beginning and the End, the melodramatic nature of the novel limits the portrayal. In later novels it will become more sophisticated.

The Beginning and the End, in itself, is a fairly limited novel. It is interesting because of its themes: poverty, social conditions, politics, sexual conflict, the tension between modernity and tradition. These are among the most important themes of the later novels.

It is also interesting because of its milieu. The petty bourgeoisie and the old districts of Cairo are Mahfouz’s spiritual home.

24/4/2018

Bibliographical note

Goldschmidt, Arthur Jr., Modern Egypt: the Formation of a Nation State, 2004

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

Melodrama and reality

Cairo Modern

 

 

 

 

 

Naguib Mahfouz, 1945

Cairo Modern  was the fourth novel that Naguib Mahfouz published. It was the first of his novels to have a contemporary theme.

The first three novels that Mahfouz wrote had been set in the Pharaonic past. They were not romances as such. They were however romantic in their treatment of their historical themes.

Mahfouz had apparently read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe at school. He wanted to write a sequence of forty novels – modelled on Walter Scott’s Waverly novels – describing the history of Egypt. Although he abandoned that particular project, he never lost interest completely in the Pharaonic past. I would guess, though I cannot be certain, that Mahfouz also never abandoned the goal of creating a complete description in fiction of Egyptian life.

Cairo Modern is the first of five novels with contemporary themes published between 1945 and 1950. They were followed between 1956 and 1957 by the Cairo Trilogy, as it is known in English.

The Cairo Trilogy is Mahfouz’s acknowledged masterwork. With the Trilogy, Mahfouz is said to have ‘established’ the novel in Arabic. He continued publishing fiction until 1988. He was never to write anything again on quite the same scale as the Trilogy.

The five early contemporary novels are sometimes described as realistic. I do not think that is quite accurate. I would be inclined to say they are a form of ‘social melodrama’.  While they are undeniably competent, and their themes are interesting, they are genre novels. They sacrifice the depiction of reality to the demands of plot. As fiction, these early novels do not reach the same aesthetic level as the realistic novels Mahfouz was to write between 1961 and 1967, after the brilliantly allegorical banned novel Children of the Alley (which was serialised in 1959).

I would describe Cairo Modern as social, like the other novels written at the same period, because of its themes. The themes that Cairo Modern deals with are corruption and poverty. Corruption and poverty were important social issues at the time Mahfouz wrote. Both corruption and poverty, sadly, remain important issues in Egypt today.

Egyptian poverty is above all rural. It is the fellahin scraping a living on the banks of the Nile. The poverty that Mahfouz describes in Cairo Modern, however, is urban. While Mahfouz himself grew up in a modestly prosperous petty-bourgeois environment, the family home was originally in the traditional Cairene quarter of Gamaliya. At that date, or so I understand, the streets and alleys of Old Cairo were socially very mixed. Mahfouz as a boy would have had an opportunity to observe poverty at close hand.

On joining the civil service after graduation Mahfouz worked briefly in what would now be called a micro-credit scheme. This, one imagines, would have given him the opportunity to gain a more mature understanding of poverty.

Mahfouz never lost his fascination with the area where he grew up. He returned to it repeatedly in fiction.

The corruption that Mahfouz describes in Cairo Modern was in the civil service. Mahfouz knew the civil service well. He was a career civil servant who never attempted to live on the income, such as it was, from writing. After graduation, Mahfouz worked for a while in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. ‘Religious endowments’, or waqf, are an important part of Muslim culture. Mahfouz later transferred to the Ministry of Culture, and was to rise to a senior position. For much of his career he had posts dealing with the film industry.

The civil service occurs frequently in Mahfouz’s novels. Mahfouz describes idleness, incompetence, bribery and the corruption surrounding entry to the civil service and promotion through the grades. Most of the time, Mahfouz got away with it. He enjoyed a relative immunity, and a degree of freedom to comment. This may have been due in part at least to the standing he gained in Egyptian cultural life, and to the national pride that international recognition of his work was to engender.

Corruption and poverty in Cairo Modern have a precise relationship. Cairo Modern is in fact among other things a roman à thèse. The proposition it advances is that an educated young man in extreme poverty will be forced to become corrupt in order to survive.

Cairo Modern does not belong, as far as I can tell, to a particular genre. It is however in some ways very much a genre novel. It is tightly plotted. The plot is often driven by coincidence. The action is fast-paced. It does not allow for relationships or reflection of much depth.

Cairo Modern is also a melodrama. It is a story of crime and illicit sex. The characters are larger than life. The main actors are villains, and the outcomes are disastrous. It meets the definition.

If there is a model for Cairo Modern, it is probably a loose one. Someone with knowledge of the popular Egyptian fiction of the time might be able to suggest what it was.

Cairo Modern describes a scandal in the civil service. The protagonist, towards the end of the novel at any rate, is shown to be aware of this. ‘For his life story to be made public would constitute a scandal.’ [37.]

When it was published there had apparently been a recent scandal concerning the civil service. Mahfouz was interviewed by the mufti of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. None of the available English-language sources give any detail of what was said. There do not, however, appear to have been consequences.

Cairo Modern opens with a description of four young men commenting on a group of women on the university grounds. ‘The presence of women at the university was still a novelty….’ These young men are ‘final year students who were almost twenty-four, and their faces shone with pride in their maturity and learning.’ [Chapter 1.] From this opening we learn that the novel will deal, among other things, with the changing relations between men and women in the educated classes of Egyptian society.

The young men are Ma’mun Radwan, Ali Taha, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im and Ahmad Badir.  Ma’mun Radwan is handsome, like the hero of melodrama or genre fiction. He is idealised in the same way. ‘…his good looks and nobility were evident. Had he wished to be a lothario like Umar ibn Abi Rabia, he could have succeeded, but he possessed unique blend of chastity, rectitude and purity.’ [3.] Unlike a hero, however, Ma’mun Radwan has very little to do with the action.

Ma’mun Radwan is not just religious but an Islamist. ‘”There is only one cause: the cause of Islam in general and of the Arabs in particular.”’ [3.] Ali Taha, by contrast, is a secularist. ‘He adopted a materialist explanation of life….’ He has taken his ethics from the writings of Auguste Comte. ‘He believed in human society and human science and held the conviction that the atheist – like the monotheist – has principles and ideals if he so chooses….’ [4.]

Ali Taha is also heroically good-looking. ‘He was a handsome young man with green eyes and blond hair that was almost golden and that suggested a distinguished pedigree.’ He looks, in other words, like a Circassian, an ethnic group – originally of Christians from the Caucasus – that had considerable prestige under the Ottoman Empire.

Ali Taha’s function in the plot is to have a romantically beautiful girlfriend who is also very poor. Ihsan Shihata ‘… was a girl of eighteen and her countenance was illuminated by ivory skin. Her black eyes’ clarity and her lashes had a special magic.’ [4.] Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is intrigued as to how Ali Taha met Ihsan. ‘“How did you meet her? On the street?” “Of course not! From the window!”’ [9.] Girls who stand at their windows are considered bold. Girls who meet boys on the street are even bolder.

Poverty, in the Cairo that Naguib Mahfouz describes, is not romantic. When his father become ill al-Da’im returns to Qanatir, where he grew up, and visits the house where he was born. ‘… The look of the place suggested not merely simplicity but squalor.’ [7.]

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is the protagonist. The premise of the story is that poverty is corrosive, and can erode all values. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is described as amoral [31] and a nihilist [7.] His friends call him an anarchist: ‘”You, more than anyone, deserve the title anarchist.”’ [10.]

‘Anarchist’ is not quite correct. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im entirely lacks a class analysis. He does however share the rejection of some ‘individual anarchists’, as they are known, of the idea of any moral restraint or obligation. Al-Da’im is also, though Mahgub does not use the term or an equivalent, anti-social. ‘His rejection of society and its values was dazzlingly complete.’ [40.]

Mahfouz returns to the anti-social personality as a subject in other novels. Said Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), for example, is a powerful treatment of the theme. Mahran is a criminal, a burglar who goes armed and eventually a killer. There is also a political dimension. It is a more complex novel.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is not heroically handsome. He is also poor. ‘Mahgub Abd al-Da’im … did not change his clothes, because unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night.’ He is aware of Ali Taha’s fiancée. ‘He saw Ihsan Shihata … as breast, butt and legs.’ Unlike Ali Taha and Ma’mun Radwan he is neither a secularist nor an Islamist. ‘His philosophy called for liberation form everything: from values, ideals, belief systems and principles, from social culture as a whole…. His objective in life was pleasure and power…. without any regard for morality, religion, or virtue.’ [5.]

Mahfouz has created a religious young man and an ethical materialist as foils for the amoral Abd al-Da’im. The didactic intention is clear.

The fourth of the group is Ahmad Badir, who is a journalist as well as a student. When he graduates he becomes a full-time journalist. His function in the plot is to supply Abd al-Da’im occasionally with information that Abd al-Da’im could not otherwise plausibly obtain.

When Abd al-Da’im goes to a charity event in search of a patron, Ahmad Badir is there. Ahmad Badir explains who is who.  ‘“Aziz Darim… was forced to resign on a morals charge…. His business is his elegant apartment, which contains a gaming table and superbly endowed young women.”’ Abd al-Da’im appreciates his help. ‘… it was vexing to plunge into a new world without a guide.’ [21.]

Cairo Modern is rather precisely dated. There are references to the 1923 Egyptian constitution [3] and to ‘… pamphlets opposing the new constitution….’ [6.] The ‘new constitution’ must be the constitution of 1930-35.

Towards the end of the novel there is a remark about ‘The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power….’ [41.] This would be a reference to Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933. The context makes clear this is a recent event. The action of the novel, spread over a few months, therefore takes place in 1932 and 1933.

There were at that date many issues in Egyptian politics. The over-riding issue was of course independence from the British. The British were in effect – though not in international law – the colonial power. Mahfouz reminds the reader that once independence was achieved the fault line in Egyptian politics would become the division between the secularist and Islamist groups represented by the two young friends. ‘”Do you suppose we’ll become sworn enemies in the future?”’ [46.] It remains a fundamental division in Egypt today.

A few months before he graduates, Al-Daim is plunged into extreme poverty. This is precipitated by his father’s illness. Al-Da’im’s father has a stroke. ‘He suddenly fell down and lost the ability to speak.’ [7.] The prognosis is clear. Abd al-Da’im’s father ‘“… won’t be able to return to work.”’ [8.]

Mahfouz describes Al-Daim’s new depths of poverty in some detail. Al-Daim now has to manage on one Egyptian pound a month, rather than three.

He finds a rooftop room. He pays forty piasters rent. That leaves him two piasters a day for food, kerosene and laundry. He eats stewed beans in pita-bread from a stall patronised by labourers. [11.]

He is desperate. ‘If only he knew how to pick pockets.’ [14.]

Like many Egyptians in similar circumstances, Al-Daim applies to a relative. In Al-Daim’s case it is Hamdis Bey, a relative of his mother’s who has done well. This is unsuccessful.

Al-Daim then applies to Salim al-Ikhshidi, someone he knows from Qanatir who is already established in the civil service. By one of the coincidences that drive the plot of Cairo Modern, Al-Daim bumped into Al-Ikhshidi at the station on his way to visit his sick father. ‘…he found himself face-to-face with a young man… who was casting a completely self-confident, vain and supercilious look at everyone around him.’ [6.] Al-Ikhshidi, even more than Al-Daim, is a caricature.

Al-Ikhshidi introduces Al-Daim to a newspaper editor. ‘Mahgub… met the editor of The Star and was commissioned to translate some pieces at the rate of fifty piasters a month.’ [18.] This is at least honest. Mahgub is using the English and French he has learned during the course of his studies.

Al-Ikhshidi is not honest. Before he graduated he had been distributing ‘… pamphlets opposing the new constitution….’ on campus. He then met the minister, dropped his protests and was appointed to the civil service. [6.] It is clearly implied that the civil service job is a quid quo pro for the cessation of political activity. That is Al-Ikhshidi’s form of corruption.

After graduation Al-Daim’s situation is if anything worse than before. His father ‘…was expecting his son’s support from that time forward.’ Al-Da’im ‘…was panic-stricken…. His sole concern was fending off death by starvation and that meant finding a job that paid a living wage.’ [18.]

A friendly librarian then explains to Al-Da’im facts about degrees and employment that most of Mahfouz’s readers would probably already know. ‘”Listen, son. Forget your qualifications. Don’t waste money on applying for a job. The question boils down to one thing: Do you have someone who will intercede for you?”’ [18.]

Presumably someone in Al-Da’im’s position would have known this before embarking on a prolonged course of education. To reveal this information now, however, has a more dramatic impact.

There now follows quite an odd episode. It violates the rule of genre that all incidents should advance the plot. Al-Da’im applies again to Al-Ikhshidi. ‘Al-Ikhshidi… despised the young man and scorned his poverty and need.’ Al-Ikhshidi explains to Al-Da’im the costs of finding someone to intercede. ‘[Abd al-Aziz Bey Radwan’s] cut from his nominees is a guarantee of half of the salary for a period of two years.’ [19.]

There is also Mrs Ikram Nayrus, a philanthropist with a charity. She ‘… doesn’t ask for money but is fond of fame and praise.’ Al-Ikhshidi suggests Al-Da’im should write something in the newspaper. ‘”Attend the [benefit next Sunday] and I’ll introduce you to her…. You’ll have to purchase a ticket for fifty piasters….”’ [19.]

The benefit is a picture of aristocratic decadence and un-Islamic practices. There is social dancing. There is ‘…a troupe of upper-class maidens in ravishing pharaonic costumes’. Mahfouz does not need to explain to his readers that ‘pharaonic costumes’ violate Islamic canons of modesty.

The guests speak French – ‘… those fallen Muslims!’ Mrs Ikram Nayrus cannot even speak Arabic properly. ‘She delivered her speech in Arabic, but there was scarcely a sentence that lacked a grammatical error, or an ill-chosen word.’ [21.]

Ahmad Badir is able to identify a number of the guests for Al-Da’im. They exemplify different forms of corruption. We never meet them again. They have no function in the plot.

To help him with his article Abd al-Da’im makes a list of points in two columns, headed ‘The Truth’ and ‘What I Should Write’. Only one point is the same on both lists: ‘Her guests are just like her.’ He is then summoned by Al-Ikhshidi, who has a new proposal for him. ‘”Drop that article and forget about Ikram Nayruz.”’ [22.]

An entire chapter has been given over to the description of a charity event which as it turns out does not advance the plot in the slightest. It does however support the roman à thèse. That is its function. It portrays a blatant, pervasive corruption in the Egyptian elite.

It is with Al-Ikhshidi’s new proposal that the novel descends into sheer melodrama. Al-Ikhshidi’s superior, Qasim Bey Fahmi, is besotted with Ihsan Shihata, Ali Taha’s former girlfriend. ‘Qasim Bey Fahmi… pursued her affections without regard to rank, family or children.’ [36.]

The Bey is married. The proposal is that Mahgub Abd al-Da’im will marry Ihsan. Qasim Bey Fahmi will pay the rent and expenses of a flat. [29.] Abd al-Da’im and Ihsan will live together. The bey will visit Ihsan when he pleases. In exchange Abd al-Da’im will get something he wants desperately: a job in the civil service.

There is nothing unusual about rich, powerful men keeping pretty young mistresses. Cases could probably be found of complaisant young husbands being rewarded in their careers. What is implausible is the rich, powerful man looking for a husband for his pretty young mistress in order to install her in a discreet love-nest.

The ceremony of signing the marriage contract, the Islamic marriage, is an embarrassment. Ihsan is described, in what appears to be the standard formula, as ‘…an adult virgin of sound mind….’ Sound in mind she would seem to be. She is not however a virgin. It is quite clear that Qasim Bey Fahmi has already had his way with her. ‘This constituted fraud in an official document. His marriage was a fraud. His life was a fraud.’ That is objective. ‘The whole world was a fraud.’ That is a rationalisation. [26.]

Egypt at that date was socially very conservative. A woman in an irregular sexual relationship was likely to be called a prostitute, even if she was not in fact a sex industry worker. Since Ihsan became the bey’s mistress for financial reasons, many readers would see her in this way. She is, in the eyes of conventional people, a whore.

Abd al-Da’im gains a beautiful wife, whom he would never attract under normal circumstances. When we meet Al-Da’im his ‘girlfriend’ makes a living from collecting cigarette butts and reselling the tobacco. She charges three piasters for sex. She smells. They have sex behind a tree. [5.] Now that Abd al-Da’im has married Ihsan, he has something to lose.

Abd al-Da’im benefits from his wife’s unchaste behaviour. That makes him a pimp.

Despite the irregular nature of the relationship, Abd al-Da’im seeks sexual satisfaction. ‘Could a pimp and a whore find happiness together?’ This is not love. ‘All he wanted was… a lust that mirrored his own.’ [29.] To achieve this he uses alcohol. ‘Only a little [booze] sufficed for both of them.’ [31.] Al-Da’im has corrupted Ihsan. ‘… she felt the emptiness and ennui of a young woman whose heart has been deprived of love.’ [36.]

This is perhaps a somewhat sentimental version of womanhood. The point, I think, is that in a socially conservative period Mahfouz does not unequivocally condemn a young woman whose conduct violates the restrictive social norms. It is a hint of the compassion he will often show for women in his novels later.

Al-Da’im intends to support his parents. ‘He fully intended to send his parents two pounds every month, in fact to increase that to three if he could.’ [27.] He doesn’t do it.

The plot moves on very rapidly. There is a political crisis. Quite oddly, it is announced before it happens. Ahmad Badir, the journalist, tells Al-Da’im about it. ‘”The prime minister has lost the palace’s confidence….” “How about the English?”’ [37.] Ahmad Badir has however anticipated events. ‘… this information was premature, for there was no echo if it in the newspapers.’ [38.]

The anticipation gives Al-Da’im an opportunity to reflect on the extreme precariousness of his situation, without however the development of the plot being affected in any way. ‘“If the bey is pensioned off, I’ll definitely be transferred to some obscure position – unless I’m banished to the most rural district… if I’m not fired outright.”’ [38.]

Al-Da’im’s sense of insecurity also prompts him to decide he cannot help his parents. ‘…his parents… were the first victims of the political crisis.’ [37.] This is a decision that contributes significantly to the eventual denouement.

Qasim Bey Fahmi turns the crisis to his advantage. ‘[Al-Da’im’s] telephone rang, and it was his wife, Ihsan. ”Do you know who the new minister is? … Qasim Bey Fahmi.”’

Al-Da’im exhibits his characteristic audacity and greed. ‘”I must join his office staff.”’ Ihsan, like a loyal wife, supports him. ‘”I don’t think he would refuse me my request.”’ [38.]

Al-Daim excites the jealousy of Al-Ikhshidi, to whom he owes his position in the first place. Al-Ikhshidi makes Al-Da’im an offer. ‘”If you take my position and let me have your new job, that will realise all our hopes.” Al-Da’im, not without some trepidation, refuses. ‘This was a man – just like him – who had no morals and no principles and who knew everything…. This time he was assailed by fear.’ [39.]

The young people go on a boat-trip down the Nile to Qanatir to celebrate. Al-Da’im is nervous. ‘Wasn’t it possible that his desire for vengeance would be so great that he would spill the secret in some manner to his parents?’ [40.] On the trip there are a couple of odd incidents.

In one of these, a louche young man in the party attempts to seduce Ihsan. ‘She realised her had tricked her into his own cabin.’ Ihsan refuses him. She ‘…shoved him away violently, and shouted at him in an angry voice, “Please leave me alone. Leave me!” [43.]

The point here is I think that while Ihsan is the mistress of a rich, powerful man and her marriage is arranged in the worst possible sense, she is behaving as Egyptian society would expect a wife to behave in the circumstances. Mahfouz is not making a wholly conventional judgement.

Mahfouz has emphasised of course that it is her parents who are responsible for her downfall. ‘… her parents had no moral scruples….[they]… were Satan’s wily allies plotting her downfall.’ [4.] The reference to ’Satan’ is, I think, a concession to religious views.

The young people, before the young man attempts to seduce Ihsan, have of course been engaging in social dancing and drinking alcohol. The prejudices of more religious readers are catered for by this Westernised dissipation. An attempt at seduction, if not worse, is just the outcome they would expect.

The other odd incident is that when the party go on shore Al-Da’im sees an old man who reminds him of his father. ‘His father, if he were able to leave his bed, would look just like this man, leaning on a stick at every step.’ [42.] This has the emotional impact on Al-Daim that meeting his father might have done. The plot, however, is allowed to unroll as intended. It works in the same way as the anticipation of the political crisis. It is a strategy that compensates for the over-rapid development of the melodramatic plot.

The next morning Al-Daim has a hangover. He is in a morbid mood. ‘He could find only one answer: suicide. That was how a devoted egoist would terminate his life.’ [43.]

The action of the denouement unrolls with a clockwork precision which is so melodramatic that it borders on farce. It is in fact quite visual. One wonders if it has a model in the popular cinema, or even the stage. In quick succession, Al-Da’im’s father, Qasim Bey Fahmi and the Bey’s wife all turn up.

Al-Da’im is not prepared to see his father. ‘He saw his father… standing at the threshold leaning on a stick, casting a fixed, sullen look at him.’ [44.] He is even less prepared for the Bey’s wife.  ‘”Come on, show me the room where my husband is secluded with your chaste wife.”’ [45.]

We assume that Al-Ikhshidi has betrayed Al-Daim. We are not told how he contrived to have everybody arrive at just the right time.

This is the end. ‘”It’s all over. No more job. No more salary. Let’s go beg together!”’ Ihsan, perhaps curiously in the circumstances, but consistently with the way Mahfouz has been portraying her, reacts like a real wife. ‘”What will become of us?”’ [45.]

There are a few loose ends to be tied up in a final chapter. The Bey resigns. His wife divorces him, but does not go to the newspapers.

Mahgub is posted to Aswan. This is a joke. The Aswan governorate is so remote that its southern border is on the Sudanese frontier. Al-Da’im’s prediction that he will be ‘…banished to the most rural district….’ has come true. [38.]

We do not learn what happens to Ihsan. Mahfouz has portrayed her with some indulgence. He is nevertheless writing in a society where women, and outcomes for women, are less important.

I have mentioned that I think that Cairo Modern is in form a genre novel, even if it is not possible to identify a particular genre. I have said that I think it is melodramatic. I have suggested that the portrayal of the four young men is didactic. Consistently with this, I think, Cairo Modern is moralistic.

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im violates all the social norms. He tastes success. He is punished. The cup is dashed from his lips. The besotted Bey falls from grace as well. This is pretty much what conventional readers would expect. Mahfouz is not aiming for an alternative, bohemian audience.

Meanwhile, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im’s friends pursue their chosen careers. They are rewarded. The final indulgence for Ihsan, perhaps, is that she is allowed to slip out of the end of the novel without being mentioned at all.

Cairo Modern is a limited novel. It has strengths. As a genre novel, it works well. The plotting is tight. The characterisation is no deeper than it needs be. The motivations, though sometimes crude, are adequate. Nothing is irrelevant.

Its subject matter, the poverty of the Egyptian people, the corruption of Egyptian public life and the often bewildering changes at that date in the relations between men and women, could hardly be more serious. Some of the incidents in the novel – the charity event, the marriage of Mahgub and Ihsan, the bedroom farce with which the novel ends – are exaggerated and even absurd. Nevertheless it is a novel which is founded on reality.

Reality, in later novels, is something that Mahfouz does very well.

14/12/2017

Photo by Ed Yourdon on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA