Cairo, Revisited: How Naguib Mahfouz Predicted the Future of Egypt

The recently reissued ‘Cairo Trilogy’ by Naguib Mahfouz tells the tale of the 1919 revolt—but could just as well be describing the events of today, writes Joel Whitney.

07.22.12 8:45 AM ET

If you’re wondering what the future holds for Egypt, you might want to step back in time.

The country’s most celebrated novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, documented life after revolution in The Cairo Trilogy, published more than 55 years ago. The series, set against a backdrop of Egypt’s 1919 revolt against the British occupation, was recently reissued—and proves to be quite prescient, almost like a literary companion to the recent uprising.

The trilogy tells the story of postwar Cairo through the eyes of Al-Sayyid Ahmad, an upper-middle-class merchant who rules with authoritarian ease over his household. A staunch traditionalist at home, Ahmad is also a liberal in politics and a nighttime philanderer. Although he refuses to let his wife, Amina, or daughters be seen outside the house, he spends his evenings out on the town with friends, drinking copious amounts of wine and watching bawdy women sing popular songs in slinky costumes.

Then, as now, the issues in Egypt center on several key themes: the role of women in society, moderate versus radical Islam, democracy, and military repression. The recent revolution distinguished itself in that women fought alongside the men in Tahrir Square. Yet those same women were sidelined in the formation of the new government. And some of them were arrested by the military and issued humiliating “virginity tests.” The same old battles remain. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, promises to respect international treaties and even to choose a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. But he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, known for marginalizing women and Christians.

Mahfouz describes the first days of postrevolutionary Cairo as having a tenuous calm. “Here was the morning light, both splendid and shy,” he writes in Palace Walk, the first book of his trilogy. “Everything was proceeding as usual ... as though Egypt had not been turned upside down, as though bullets were not searching for chests and heads, as though innocent blood were not enriching the earth and walls.”

At the same time, he describes Cairo as having “come back to life ... The heart of the nation was throbbing. It was alive and in rebellion.” It’s a sentiment recently shared by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who tells of the same euphoria after the 2011 uprising, describing friends on antidepressants “who, over the 20 days of revolution, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian revolution.”

In The Cairo Trilogy, the euphoria doesn’t last. As Egypt convulses toward independence, the tapestry that is Ahmad’s life begins to fray. His wife runs afoul of his authority when, without his permission, she visits the mosque dedicated to her favorite saint; his eldest son shares his father’s boredom with marriage, risking his reputation to see his mistresses; the middle son fantasizes about dying for the nationalist cause. These changes at home initially make him redouble the repression of his family. Eventually, however, he begins to mellow when one of his sons is killed, his home is surrounded by soldiers, and he is conscripted into forced labor.

By the time of Sugar Street, the third book in the trilogy, decades on, a new revolution against Egypt’s paternalism has stalled. “Conveyed in one language or another, the message [from the leaders] for the Egyptian people has been: ‘You’re minors. We are your guardians,’” Mahfouz writes. The trilogy closes with a sense of betrayal. The country is free of British rule, but still ruled by oppression. In the final pages, students in revolt are being shot in the streets.

It remains to be seen how Egypt will handle its new democracy. While the uprising was successful, the recent election threatened the country’s tenuous peace when the military appeared reluctant to recognize the winner, leaving Egypt in an uncertain state, ready to unravel. The new leader, Morsi, hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, the wide group of Egyptian Islamists including the Salafis, who are skeptical of moderates like Mahfouz and have called his work degenerate, citing it for promoting vice.

Dubbed “Egypt’s Balzac” by The New York Times, Mahfouz was a fierce moderate and a critic of radical Islam who was stabbed in the neck by Islamists in 1994 for purported blasphemy. For much of his life he nonetheless maintained a cordial acquaintance with former classmate Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Having been threatened by Islamists for an allegorical novel that held science above religion, and reviled for supporting Anwar Sadat’s Camp David peace treaty with Israel, Mahfouz nonetheless offered only lukewarm support for Salman Rushdie during the fatwa crisis, telling The Paris Review in 1992: “I defend both the freedom of expression and society’s right to counter it.”

His Cairo Trilogy has come under fire for being sexist in its portrayal of women. But it has many defenders, including author Nadine Gordimer. “Mahfouz was relaying the oppression of Amina and her daughters as it existed,” she has said. “He was not its advocate.” In fact, Mahfouz could be considered a feminist. He once said, “In the early Islamic period, women were equal to men. The 1919 revolution infused Egyptian society with a progressive spirit that developed alongside powerful demands for the fulfillment of women’s aspirations.” He cites the work of Egyptian feminists like Huda Shaarawy as emerging in Egypt’s postwar “effervescence,” lasting through the 1930s.

Mahfouz would have been 100 years old in December. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 and remains the only Arab ever to receive that honor. He died in 2006 after having written more than 50 novels and 350 short stories. The first book in his Cairo Trilogy appeared in 1956, and the second two in 1957. The first English translation owes its publication to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who, as an editor at Doubleday, read it in French to consider it for publication.

The series hardly seems to have aged in the nearly six decades since publication. The novels record the voice of a people coming to terms with their own power, facing the thrill—and fear—of taking their destiny in their own hands. There has perhaps never been a better time to read them.