How I Met Mahfouz: Amira Nowaira on Growing Up with the Trilogy

Dr. Amira Nowaira was kind enough to share an excerpt from her book, Growing Up Feminist in a Muslim Land, to kick off our “How I Met Mahfouz” series, which will eventually settle into running on Mondays (Mahfouz Mondays) until the 100th anniversary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth.

Between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, when I joined the university, I was a relentless and obsessive reader, a true textual carnivore. I devoured anything and everything that fell by design or chance into my hands. Even the newspaper wrappings of items bought from grocery or greengrocer shops, as was the custom before plastic bags took us all by storm, I religiously pored over and consumed books as if they held the key to unraveling some great human or cosmic mystery and with the dedication of a person whose very life depended on it. Although I was not aware of it then, the time I spent reading was so excessive that it must have contained a strong addictive element. It was as if my brain were going at the speed of light while everything else around me moved at the speed of a tortoise.

Was it a form of escape from the reality of my world? It might have been, although there was nothing in particular that I consciously wished to escape from, if you discount my father’s harangues, my mother’s muted obedience, and my aunt’s tacit disapproval of everything I did, starting from my readings and ending with my clothes which were, according to her, scandalously short.

My parents were blissfully unaware of this frenzied intellectual activity, which I kept as a closely guarded secret. I think it would have certainly taken them by complete surprise if they had known. What is more, they did not have the faintest idea about the kind of books I was reading or the material I was interested in. They assumed that books were by definition good for you. So while they were engrossed in the business of life, trying to make ends meet and to look after the brood of five children, I was left to wander in the garden of knowledge with practically no adult scrutiny to censor or spoil the sheer excitement I felt whenever I came upon a new book.

My parents were happy I was doing exceptionally well at school, which for them was the be all and end all of everything. Anything else paled in comparison. In retrospect, it is difficult to see why reading became such an obsession. My reading frenzy started with some of the books that were found in our own house, all in Arabic. They mostly belonged to my aunt Badi’a who had just moved in with us. They were translations or adaptations into Arabic largely of romantic (fairly soppy) works turned in the Arabic version into full-blown melodramatic works. These included such works as Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and other romantic novels, as well as the translated version of Wuthering Heights which I read when I was ten or eleven. There were also other books by Egyptian writers such as Tawfik Al-Hakim, all of which I half understood, but persevered in reading nonetheless.

One day at around the age of eleven I was wrapped up in reading a well-known novel by Tawfik Al-Hakim called The Return of the Spirit. The novel is set in one of the popular districts of Cairo and its characters have the natural spontaneity characteristic of people who are lacking in social and intellectual pretensions. Al-Hakim, who had a marvelous ear for conversation and was renowned for his delightful use of colloquial Egyptian in dialogues, sometimes used words that would ordinarily be regarded as unacceptable or even shocking. Because I often came upon words I did not understand, I was in the habit of asking my mother, or whoever happened to be present, to explain their meanings to me. So on that particular day, I was quietly reading my novel, while in the next room sat a group of my aunts and uncles who were visiting. In a bid to imitate real conversation, Al-Hakim makes one character talking to another sarcastically drop the word karakhana (brothel). Having no idea what the word meant, I went into the room and quite confidently asked my mother in front of all present, “What’s a karakhana?” If I had declared the start of a world war, there would not have been more shock and disbelief. Everybody in the room stopped talking and turned to me, all their eyes wide open. A heavy moment of horrified and disgraced silence ensued. My father then flared up. “What in God’s name are you reading?” he asked me in shame-faced fury, hardly able to contain his anger. I ran back to my room, realizing I had put my big foot in it.

But I can trace back my obsessive reading to the time I happened through sheer coincidence to lay my hands on Naguib Mahfouz’s Trilogy and later a copy of Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamazov in Arabic. It felt as though some kind of intellectual Pandora’s Box containing all sorts of unexpected goodies was suddenly flung open before me, leading me to worlds I had no idea existed.

Desire and Double Lives

Mahfouz’s Trilogy was a treat I savored to the full, although I must have missed a great deal of the sexual innuendoes and insinuations it is replete with. This did not bother me one bit then. I was on board the train, and it did not matter very much if I went third class. A three-part novel (translated into English as Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street), the Trilogy is an Egyptian family saga set in early twentieth-century Cairo, covering the period from 1917 to 1944 and chronicling the lives of its members across three generations.

The head of the family, Ahmed Abdel Gawad, is a well-to-do shopkeeper. Though “officially” monogamous, he is a man who seeks his pleasure, quite unapologetically and without the least scruple, outside his home. His nightlife, described with obvious relish by Mahfouz, is spent with “awalem,” a word which refers to women who are in the strict sense of the professional belly dancers. The service they provide, however, often goes way beyond that. Their job is to welcome men and give them a “good time.” This may include dancing for them, drinking with them or just keeping them company and sometimes more. As Mahfouz presented them, they were not women who simply “sold” their bodies, but women who established strong human relationships with their customers and who were a lot of fun at a time when fun was in short supply. There is little doubt that Mahfouz writes about them with a great deal of sympathy.

Understandably enough, Abdel Gawad keeps his night adventures as a closely guarded secret. Inside his home, he is a religious man who observes his religious duties and enforces very strict discipline on his family. Outside his home, however, he is miraculously transformed into a true hedonist. What was particularly intriguing for me was the Jekyll and Hyde transformation, which he undergoes as he leaves his ultra-conservative middle-class self, turning each night into the ultra-amorous playboy of the shady Cairo suburbia. In the company of women who are themselves outcasts from respectable society, he is able to become a different man altogether, perhaps a more authentic man.

At home, though, Ahmed Abdel Gawad is the incarnation of an absolute ruler who cannot and will not be contradicted. He demands obedience and subservience not only of his womenfolk but also of the younger males. His children treat him with a mixture of fearful awe and adoration. I often wondered then if my father might be similarly leading a double life. I felt it would be far more glamorous and exciting if he were. The only problem was, he was stationed at home from the moment he came back from work at two in the afternoon, which made those nightly sallies virtually impossible. Moreover, although he had the highest voice in our household and the most easily agitated, breaking into a tantrum whenever one of us did anything, which he deemed inappropriate, he also seemed at times to be rather vulnerable and childishly dependent on our good opinion of him and our approval of what he did.

A LIFE Infinitely More Glamorous

But on the whole, and despite the anachronistic setting of the novel, the life it presented seemed infinitely more glamorous and picturesque than the life I was leading. The double life led by the patriarch of the family was more a matter of curiosity for me than of moral outrage. The man kept discipline in his family with an iron fist, his women folk being kept indoors all the time, while he went on his sallies at night, visiting the ill-reputed women who were more fun and livelier than the women at home were. He saw no contradiction there, for he was a man. As a man, he could do anything, and with impunity.

He also had his code of honor, one must admit. According to him, indulging in extramarital pleasures was legitimate as long as he made advances to unattached women and did not compromise the woman of a friend, a neighbor or a close acquaintance. “This caring spirit of faithful brotherhood,” writes Mahfouz describing him, “accompanied him even during times of pleasure. It was never said of him that he took the concubine of a friend or coveted the mistress of a friend, for he ranked friendship higher than whims.” Quite the honorable man I must say.

Although Ahmed Abdel Gawad has become in Egyptian collective thinking synonymous with dictatorial macho masculinity, he is not presented in the novel as pure evil. I rather liked the man. He seems to be laboring under the same constraints as many of the other oppressed characters. I felt he was not free either. When he wanted to go visit one of the women, he had to look furtively to the left and the right to make sure that nobody was looking. This is a man who is afraid. But what is he afraid of? Probably the condemning eyes of his community whose good opinion he tries to keep at any price. His secret life must have weighed down on him considerably. There is also his grief when his son Fahmy dies during one of the 1919 demonstrations against British colonial rule and in support of the national leader Saad Zaghloul who had been exiled by British authorities. Suffering humanizes him.

As for Amina, the illiterate submissive wife, who has become synonymous with Egyptian women’s subjection and appalling subservience, I felt distanced from her. I could not imagine myself in her shoes, or more accurately perhaps her slippers, because she had no need for shoes, being cooped up at home most of the time. I associated Amina with a past that was thankfully lost once and for all. She was nothing like my mother, or my aunt Badi’a, who were both career women. But as I later discovered it was not as lost as I had imagined it to be. The image of Amina, though assuming different shapes and forms, still persists in our lives.

Kamal, the youngest son of the family, was of course my favorite. When I was older, I thought, I would have to find a Kamal to marry. Not only was he a beautifully introverted intellectual (which I certainly felt was a huge plus), but he was also hopelessly romantic (which was even a greater plus). He fell in love with the sister of a friend, a young woman of a very different social class called Aida, a name probably designed to recall Verdi’s Aida and conjure the splendor of nineteenth-century Egypt under Khedive Ismail. With no hope of ever marrying her, or even declaring his love to her, he stays haplessly and hopelessly in love with her throughout his life. This was an image that I dearly cherished.

This is an extract from Growing Up Feminist in a Muslim Land.

Amira Nowaira is former chair of the Department of English at Egypt’s Alexandria University. She is co-editor of The Feminist Press’s Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region (Feminist Press 2009). She has translated various works, including Zeina by Nawal Saadawi (Saqi Books 2011), The Tobacco Keeper by Ali Bader (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, forthcoming) and the translation into Arabic of Susan Bassnett’s book Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction (Cairo 1999) and of Randa Abdel Fattah’s novel Where the Streets Had a Name (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing 2010). She is also a contributor to The Guardian and Al-Ahram Weekly.