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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Cairo Modern

Naguib Mahfouz

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Cairo Modern

Title: Cairo Modern
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1945 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Cairo Modern - US
Cairo Modern - UK
Cairo Modern - Canada
Cairo Modern - India
  • Arabic title: القاهرة الجديدة
  • Translated by William M. Hutchins

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sprightly but also bleak portrait of 1930s Egypt

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 19/6/2008 Dinitia Smith
TLS . 23/1/2009 Robert Irwin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mahfouz’s portraits of Ihsan and other women are especially compassionate and complex. (...) Mahfouz’s brilliance lies in portraying the mixture of good and evil in human character. (...) Unfortunately this central story is book-ended by schematized philosophical discussions between the characters, who are made to represent different positions (.....) Mahfouz wrote in a classical Arabic, which is comparable to Shakespearean English and doesn’t lend itself easily to translation, especially in the dialogue. Yet the sometimes stilted, decorous language in Cairo Modern, punctuated by its moments of sensuality and vibrant description, takes on a kind of pleasing rhythm of its own." - Dinitia Smith, The New York Times

  • "The novel is no masterpiece and, apart from flaws in motivation and plotting, this is because of the poor quality of the writing. (...) The dialogue in Cairo Modern is stilted and didactic, the metaphors are flowery, and the aphorisms unimpressive" - Robert Irwin

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:

       Cairo Modern is set in the 1930s (and was first published in 1945) and begins with four friends who are completing their studies at university. They correspond to different paths Egypt can follow, from the one who believes Islam offers all the answers to one for whom August Comte is a saviour. And then there's Mahgub Abd al-Da'im, for whom "tuzz" -- described in the glossary as: "a contemptuous interjection" -- is "the ultimate principle".
       The book also begins on a Thursday night, the one night when the young men can turn their attention to women, with Mahfouz again describing a variety of relationships, from Ali Taha and his girlfriend to poor (and not good-looking) Mahgub Abd al-Da'im and the cheap whore he frequents. Rather than follow all four characters Cairo Modern then focusses in on Mahgub. Barely scraping by, things take a turn for the worse for him when his father suffers a stroke and can't work any more. The family asks Mahgub to become the provider for them, but he convinces them that since he's so close to finishing his studies it's more important to attend to that first, and that he would then have greater opportunities. The family can only afford to give him a pound a month to survive on, and it means a great deal of hardship, but Mahgub manages.
       A university degree turns out not to help much with the job search. This is not a country or system where qualifications count for much. As someone bluntly tells him:

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 ? Are you related to someone in a position of power ? Can you become engaged to the daughter of someone in the government ? If you say yes, then accept my congratulations in advance. If you say no, then direct your energies elsewhere.
       Mahgub has few connexions, and everyone he approaches is willing to help only if it serves their own interests. That is also how he does get an opportunity -- but the price is high: for the sake of appearances he is to become the husband of an official's mistress. He accepts, and plays his role. It has its benefits, including a cushy job and a beautiful apartment, but comes at a high cost, and Mahfouz nicely presents Mahgub's difficulty in handling the situation. Mahgub also doesn't take advantage of his new position to help his family (making for a nice confrontation when his father shows up at his door one day). With his position tied to the success of a single (albeit very prominent) official, Mahgub's fall comes as fast as his rise.
       From the first Mahgub recognises:
His marriage was a fraud. His life was a fraud. The whole world was a fraud.
       Mahgub is thrust suddenly from abject poverty into what amounts to upper-class comforts. The apartment he is given is far from anything he has ever known: it's the first time he has even seen many of the pieces of furniture that he finds there, and he has no idea what they are called. Yet despite similar scenes -- he does not know how to use the telephone when he starts work -- he isn't really a fish out of water. He adapts quickly and fairly easily -- including becoming the kind of boss all bosses seem to be like (which basically amounts to demanding respect). He and his wife are tempted by alcohol too, as one way of dealing with their situation, but Mahfouz doesn't make things too simple -- at least not until, arguably, the crash and burn denouement.
       Mahgub can justify (most of) his actions by reflecting that this is simply the way the system works. "Only the poor are handicapped by honor", he realises. And he really does not seem to have many options. Mahgub does compound his moral failings (he really could have spared a few piastres for the folks back home, among other things), but given this society and bureaucracy that is rotten to its very core it is not difficult to empathise with him.
       Mahfouz also handles the role of the women in these men's lives well, from the girl Mahgub tries to impress to the woman he marries (who also appears earlier in the story).
       What's also striking is how modern Cairo Modern feels -- or rather, how little has changed. There are some differences, but many of the basics -- from the relationships with the women to the government bureaucracy (and becoming part of that) -- remain much the same. Update some of the technology (and change the political background) and Cairo Modern could almost be a convincing contemporary tale.
       Mahfouz seems a bit undecided in how to let his story unfold, as Mahgub's three school-friends aren't ideally used as a counterpart to his story, and he ties things up a bit quickly in bringing the story to a close, but overall Cairo Modern is a solid and often gripping novel, well-conceived and with a good mix of the bleak and the (darkly) humorous. Worthwhile.

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Cairo Modern: 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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