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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cairo Trilogy

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase The Cairo Trilogy

Title: The Cairo Trilogy
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1957 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 1325 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Cairo Trilogy - US
The Cairo Trilogy - UK
The Cairo Trilogy - Canada
La trilogie - France
  • Translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Olive E. Kenny, Lorne M. Kenny, and Angele Botros Samaan
  • With an Introduction by Sabry Hafez
  • The Cairo Trilogy consists of:

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive family saga, if ultimately possibly too sweeping

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hudson Review . Fall/1991 George Kearns
The NY Rev. of Books . 2/2/1989 Anton Shammas
The Times . 9/9/2006 Margaret Reynolds

  From the Reviews:
  • "The trilogy recounts, with Tolstoyan assurance, the lives, marriages and disruptive extramarital passions of a Muslim family of the middling merchant class.(...) For the American reader, Mahfouz's writing produces a simultaneous double-reading. One gets caught up in this Muslim family's concerns. Scandals produced by the sexual obsessions of father and sons (...) threaten the private stability of the patriarchal household, the public respectability all-important to its perilous social standing, indeed the stability of traditional Muslim structures themselves. Mahfouz is so absorbed in each scene, so effortlessly able to assume with the great story-tellers that the tale he is telling is the only tale worth hearing at the moment, that the reader, as it were, must become a member of the family." - George Kearns, The Hudson Review

  • "Even now, thirty years later, the Trilogy is seen by young Arab writers as a wall of China that stands in their way. Most of what has been translated from Mahfouz (except for the novel Midaq Alley perhaps) are works limited to the figure: it takes a great deal of charity on the part of the reader to enjoy these superb, albeit unaccompanied, melodies in their English translation. In the Trilogy, however, the ground bass also is abundantly present. Three generations of a Cairene family come to life through 1,500 pages" - Anton Shammas, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Cairo Trilogy is a three-part family saga, centred around al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family -- his wife, his children (three sons and two daughters), and eventually his grandchildren. It covers the period from 1917 to 1944, and, though originally apparently conceived as a single novel, the tri-partite division is a logical one, as Mahfouz presents the story in distinct chunks, rather than one continuous whole: Palace Walk covers the period from 1917 to 1919, Palace of Desire jumps ahead and covers the period from 1924 to 1927, and Sugar Street covers the period 1935 to 1944.
       The family is fairly old-fashioned, even for those times, but while they are devout they are not fanatical believers. The father-figure is very strict, but outside the house leads a much freer life, enjoying wine, women, and song. Eventually, however, the old guard is supplanted by the younger generations, and The Cairo Trilogy effectively describes all the bumpy domestic and national transitions. Held together by one strong hand -- al-Sayyid Ahmad's -- it is a grip that ultimately loosens, and by the end the family is, if not scattered, certainly fragmented, containing all the elements of modernity tugging Egypt in all different directions.
       In the third volume, one grandchild, Ahmad complains: "I bet our family's four centuries behind the times". It's never quite that bad, but certainly they are a bit slower than most in adapting to the changing world. (The exception is the eldest son, Fahmy -- who promptly gets himself killed for his troubles.) Part of the pleasure of the book is in watching the family adapt to the changes going on. Some, especially the limited role of women outside the household, they have great difficulties with, but each generation advances with the times. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a shopkeeper, but by the end he simply gives up the business, unable to pass it down to anyone. Sons Kamal and Yasin are essentially bureaucrats; Kamal is a teacher, but he is a government employee for whom the dreams of writing are fulfilled only as a hobby. The succeeding generation, however, tries to take the next steps: Khadija's sons Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad become politically active, one by joining the Muslim Brethren, the other by working as a journalist for a left-wing periodical. Yasin's opportunistic son Ridwan finds a whole different route to success, currying favour in an age-old (if still surprising) way.
       The parents, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his wife, Amina, are dominating figures, especially for their children. The two daughters are very different types, but each acquiesces to her role, which includes no education beyond primary school and sees marriage and devotion to family as a woman's only duties. The sons also are very different from one another, but they share their respect and love for their parents (though it is only Yasin who is truly pleased when they discovers that their father indulges in entirely unbecoming pleasures), onerous though these can be. Kamal complains (though not aloud) about his mother:

Ignorance is your crime, ignorance ... ignorance ... ignorance. My father's the manifestation of ignorant harshness and you of ignorant tenderness. As long as I live, I'll remain the victim of the two opposites.
       The family, of course, closely mirrors Egypt, controlled also by strong hand and by blind religious belief. The struggle for independence and the attempt to chart a future for the nation mirrors the children's struggles in the Jawad households, complete with many failed attempts and missteps.
       Confrontations with change tend to be unpleasant: Amina does no more than venture out on the street without her husband's permission and she's almost immediately hit by a car. The family home at Palace Walk is a fortress of sorts against the outside world, but this threatening world can not be kept entirely at bay: early on the English set up camp outside it, at the end the house is searched by the police. And even in the relative safety and isolation of the house it is clear that the world is not standing still. Amina observes:
     Night after night she had stood on the balcony observing the street through the wooden grille. What she could see of the street had not altered, but change had crept through her.
       Even the street undergoes some changes, as the neighbour's house is torn down and the local drinks vendor builds a four-story building in its place. Meanwhile, it is Fuad, the son of his shop assistant whom al-Sayyid Ahmad helped to educate, who enjoys the greatest professional success in this new world.

       The Cairo Trilogy begins at a very leisurely pace, with Mahfouz focussing on simple family routine and a seemingly unchanging everyday life. As the sons (and, to a much lesser extent, the daughters) go their separate ways the routine and life is shaken, growing less and less steady. The saga does not quite become frenetic, but the pace increases steadily. The centre can not quite hold, and the many pieces whirl apart, characters drawn always back to that original hold but unable to find stability there any longer.
       Mahfouz is excellent on many of the details, particularly the complex inter-personal relationships. Mahfouz offers an impressive picture of everything from the staggeringly backwards treatment of the girls and women, and the amazing ease in which marriages are entered into, to the more complex relationships as class and sexual barriers are lowered.
       The trilogy is very heavy on dialogue, as well as resorting to a considerable amount of interior dialogue (so that one learns what the characters are really thinking, but wouldn't ever dare say). Many exchanges follow strict formulas and expectations: it's astonishing how little candid communication there is between many of the characters, and how much outright dissimulation and even lying. A false front must be preserved -- though, of course, it generally crumbles. (Among the minor annoyances: the many scenes of flirtation (and seduction), often taking this say-one-thing-but-mean-another (with the wink of the eye implied) to all extremes, can be a bit wearying, a playfulness that outlives its usefulness.)
       Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a strange central figure -- tyrannical at home (before mellowing in his old age), but quite the libertine outside it. Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the novel is his children's unquestioning adoration of their father: Mahfouz allows practically no doubt, despite the fact that a man like that must be very difficult to always love and respect. The next generations are more realistically described, though Yasin (and Ibrahim Shawkat, Khadija's husband) is something of a caricature.
       The women tend to be background figures: Khadija briefly comes to the fore in her battles with her mother-in-law, and Kamal's love-interest and Ahmad's wife are interesting figures (as are some of the pleasure-women), but for the most part Mahfouz isn't nearly as comfortable with them.
       The Cairo Trilogy is a very broad tapestry, and it does fray at the edges: characters and stories get lost for extended periods of time, aspects of these lives are ignored (Yasin and Kamal are never described actually working at their jobs, for example -- and in Yasin's case it is almost unimaginable that he is capable of holding a job). Nevertheless, the stories Mahfouz does focus on are almost always engaging, and a colourful, broad picture does emerge. This is a long saga, but there are almost no lulls -- almost always one wants to know more, rather than to move on.
       Readers should note that there are translation issues to consider here. Some of the language (in the dialogue, in particular) is stilted, and several critics have noted that much of Mahfouz's Arabic expression has not been adequately reproduced (a tall order, presumably, but something to be aware of). Nevertheless, the English version of The Cairo Trilogy is always readable.

       Sabry Hafez's brief introduction (to the Everyman's Library edition), and a chronology are of some help, but additional annotation regarding especially the Egyptian political events likely would have been helpful. As is, much of the political debate will like remain fairly mystifying to readers -- but, again, it's not a fatal flaw.

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The Cairo Trilogy: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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