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The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street

by Naguib Mahfouz

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Cairo Trilogy (Omnibus 1-3)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
9731214,845 (4.36)1 / 165
Naguib Mahfouz's magnificent epic trilogy of colonial Egypt appears here in one volume for the first time. The Nobel Prize-winning writer's masterwork is the engrossing story of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain's occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century. The novels of The Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons - the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad's rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz's vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the ageing patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician. Throughout the trilogy, the family's trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two World Wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humour and remarkable insight, The Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.… (more)
  1. 20
    East of Eden by John Steinbeck (paulkid)
    paulkid: These books are fathers-and-sons family epics that are set around the turn of the (20th) century. They both have philosophical and coming-of-age themes as well.
  2. 00
    A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (chrisharpe)
  3. 00
    Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi (susanbooks)

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English (11)  French (1)  All languages (12)
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Egypt as it was in all its bizarre wonder...[in progress]
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
The Cairo trilogy covers decades of life in an exceptional nation through the story of one extended family, the Jawads. While the focus of these books is on personal life, the family is impinged by politics, war and foreign occupation - as well as traffic hazards, illness and the health and education systems. The trilogy opens during the Great War and English colonialism and closes at the end of WW2, as Egypt enters six decades of dictatorship.

Palace Walk

In an ultra-conservative society the Jawad family lives in its most conservative area, in the old quarter of town. Even here, however, they stand out as extreme.

The middle-aged patriarch is Ahmed Jawad (al-Sayyid Ahmed abd al-Jawad). Sombre or belligerent towards his family, he is easy and charming with customers in his shop, and the life of the party with his friends - and he parties often, at various venues, with male friends and female 'entertainers'. He gets home after midnight to a wife routinised into awakening herself to meet his various noctural needs.

He keeps his wife Amina housebound. She peers through the latticework of her enclosed front balcony. "There was nothing to attract the eye except the minarets of the ancient seminaries of Qala'un and Barquq which loomed like ghostly giants enjoying a night out by the light of the gleaming stars. It was a view that had grown on her over a quarter of a century. She never tired of it. Perhaps boredom was an irrelevant concept for a life as monotonous as hers." Her world is family life, piety, and the jinn that haunt dark corners of the house. His daughters Khadija and Aisha are also locked up, unseen and unmentioned. When an Islamic cleric known to the family uttered their names during a conversation with him - a modest enough form of public exposure - it "sounded odd to al-Sayyid Ahmad", and had "a strange and unpleasant impact on him". When a wedding eventuates, the gaity and licence that it allows to the Jawad women grates on him.

The 20 year old Khadija asserts herself with sarcasm, while acting emotionally as a second mother. She inspects her vast nose before the mirror, full of secret fear that she will not marry. ("We were talking about you", one of her brothers jests. "We were saying that if every woman looked like you, men would be spared all heartaches.") She comforts herself that at least she is beautifully fat. Aisha, her 16-year old younger sister, is mild, slim, blonde and blue-eyed, with a family role as "the useless personification of good looks and charm". Aisha allows a dashing young policeman to view at a momentarily-opened window: it fills her older sister with jealousy, but also with dread that their father might learn of it.

The sons play bigger roles. Yasin, the eldest, was the child of Ahmad's first wife, who'd left him, bridling at his tyranny. Yasin had a confused early life, with a distracted mother and a chain of her passing male friends. He later views this period through the lens of his father's austere religion, and was revulsed. Yasin lacks finer feeling: warm and easygoing, but cynical, mentally lazy. Above all he is led along by his lust.

The younger sons, children of Amina, have taken on her sensitivity. Fahmy is capable of a romantic desire for the sequestered girl next door, available for illicit chats across the roof as she hung out washing, but he is also drawn to the cause of national liberation from colonial rule. (When Amina exposes herself to ridicule by explaining the behaviour of the English rulers along the only model she knows, family life, Yasin smilingly urges her on for his entertainment, but Fahmy irritably puts a stop to it.)

The youngest, Kamal, cleaves most strongly to his mother, and sisters, perhaps because Ahmad is at his harshest towards the little boy, perhaps because his physical appearance is unappealing. He inhabits his mother's phantom world of spirits and Islamic piety, drawing deep inspiration and sustenance from the presence of the martyr al-Husayn at a nearby mosque.

Palace Walk traces the family and its fortunes up to the unsuccessful revolution of 1919, a mass movement that will surely evoke parallels with Egypt today.

Palace of Desire

Ahmed Jawab is facing his midlife crisis, and the main form of it is that his old female 'friends' no longer stir him, despite their best efforts. Instead his lust turns, idly at first, to one of their their support staff, the young flautist Zanuba. He is used to dictating terms to his women, crediting his success to charisma - so he's baffled when Zanuba remains cold. Pressure only makes her prickly and spiteful. He decides to move on from her but discovers, to his alarm, that he cannot. She is only available though money, and a great deal of it.

Yasin, meanwhile, gets married, for some good, regular, socially sanctioned sex. When monogamy loses its freshness, the search for sex hoiks up again. He bullocks his way through social protocols, class layers, delicate interfamily understandings and alliances - into all sorts of trouble, including a dalliance with a middle-aged woman whose personal disarray seems to parallel to that of Yasin's father. Indeed, Yasin's path intertwines with that of his father in remarkable ways.

Kamal takes his own road to folly. All his imagination and sensibilities fasten on the beauty and poise of Aida, older sister of one of his rich school friends. Her baby sister adores Kamal effusively, a counterpoint to the remoteness and reserve of Aida herself. For all it's intensity Kamal's love is courtly, immaterial. In his own way he is just as disconnected from the hearts and minds of women as the other men in his family - unaware that while the men's road through life may meander, the women must run on the rails of matrimony or whoredom.

Sugar Street

Sugar St concludes the story of Ahmed Jawad and his immediate family, while also introducing the third generation. I thought the characters of the grandchildren were not well developed. They appear more as symbols of wider social changes. Personal trajectories diverge as individual rise or sink on the social scale and illustrate what is happening to the country, while backstage, seedy politicians squabble, the king and the English manoeuvre, the pure hopes raised by the 1919 revolution sink into a quagmire. Sugar Street, it turns out, is a place of unrelieved bitterness. Each character's road becomes a blind alley, as Egypt turns from degraded semi-colony to a military prison, a maze with no exit. Until 2011. ( )
  Notesmusings | May 24, 2013 |
An earlier reviewer mentioned Dickens and the descriptions of Cairo and its people do have that flavor. Unfortunately, the characters are almost all so flawed or unpleasant that I couldn't care much what happened to them, which isn't much.
For example, the father is a chauvinist, demanding, insensitive, and a hypocrite. These flaws and more are well described, and you learn exactly who this man is. But after pages and pages of this man, I was repulsed and didn't want to read any more about him, no matter how well written. The author does a wonderful job of making this man come alive, but he isn't someone I want to spend any time with. After the first few hundred pages, I wanted to say, "Enough, I get it".
Maybe if I'd read only the first book, I wouldn't have gotten so fed up with these people. Or maybe I can't accept the idea of abuse as acceptable or the abused not rising up to take on the abuser, even in other times.
  fvg | Dec 13, 2009 |
this edition is nice to read, editing was excellent. I get so tired of bad editing and in this long volume it would have been painful.

All three books give a "Charles Dickens" side to life in Cairo from the turn of the century to WWII. At first it seems mundane, but there are twists to each section to keep the interest up. ( )
  bluesviola | Feb 15, 2009 |
I read all three books of the trilogy several years ago. I loved getting immersed in a (to me) strange and foreign culture. I was fascinated by it all. It made me want to visit Cairo and walk the streets described in these books, although I have not yet done so (and, knowing me, probably never will.) ( )
  BillPilgrim | Jan 2, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Naguib Mahfouzprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hafez, SabryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hutchins, William MaynardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kenny, Lorne M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kenny, Olive E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Samaan, Angele BotrosTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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