The three books that make up the Cairo trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, occupy a central place in the work of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and together represent the high water mark of the modern Arabic novel.
Written between 1956 and 1959, the trilogy chronicles the lives of three generations of a middle class merchant family between 1917 and 1944. Set against the background of Egypt’s struggle for independence from Britain and the turbulent politics of self rule, the books cast a light on early twentieth century Egyptian history and society, as well as examining many of the intellectual strands and political movements that are pertinent to an understanding of Egypt’s modern tussle for true liberation and democracy. It is a record of an era.
All human life is here. The action takes place in the alleyways of old Cairo, the mosques and shrines of the devout, the bustling bazaars and streets, in drinking dens and coffee shops, in alcohol sodden revelries in brothels and river boats on the Nile, servant’s quarters and the mansions of the rich and powerful, in the ferment of the freedom struggle. Punctuated with the drama of life, births, marriages and deaths, complete with grasping mistresses, a nymphomaniac mother-in-law, a moralizing Shaykh, a martyred son; in short, everything one could want in a novel of such breadth and life. It is a world of sublimated sexuality and illicit affairs, where a stolen glance carries immense erotic charge, and the high and the low move together, where respectability is a mirage and desire is repented at the Friday prayers.
In truth, in a piece like this, one can but hint at the treasures that the 1,200 pages of the trilogy hold, the drama, social, and psychological insight they provide. The true worth of a novel is found in how strongly the characters live in your mind after you have finished it. You remember the teeming life of the protagonists because they lived and breathed and were recognisable to you as humans. Because a work of literary art tries to resolve the mysteries and perils of the human, of being human. The greater the work of literature, the less they will fade from memory, because they stay with you, so real and alive they seem. The characters that inhabit the Cairo trilogy will keep you company for a long time after you have turned over the last page.