Cairo trilogy volume 3

Sugar St.  Naguib Mahfouz. New York : Doubleday, 1992.

Sugar St concludes the stories of the two older generations of the Jawad family, which now continues into its third generation. However the grandchildren’s characters are less developed, and function more as devices to illustrate social change.

As Ahmad enters decrepitude he is confined to the house, the fate to which he had formerly condemned his wife, Amina. She is now free to go where she will but her focus remains on religion and family. They have both become background figures.

Khadija and Aisha’s lives are defined by their roles as mothers. Aisha has been shattered by the deaths of her husband and sons, and now lives only for her daughter, the fair but dangerously frail Na’ima. The character of Khadija’s daughter, Karima, is least developed of the grandchildren, her sole role being to marry a cousin. Khadija’s sons, Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad the younger, get more attention. They are caught up in wider social currents. Muni’m joins the Muslim Brotherhood. The young Ahmad works as journalist on a radical leftwing newspaper, where he meets a female fellow-worker, the first female character who sees options other than wife or prostitute. Yasin’s son Ridwan, meanwhile, becomes the protege and darling of the gay politician Abd al-Rahim Pasha Isa.

Personal trajectories diverge: Fuad, son of Ahmed Jawad’s shop assistant, becomes a government attorney, gaining the sort of prestige that Kamal had disdained. The possibility of Fuad marrying Aisha’s daughter, Na’ima, is uncomfortable to the more highly placed Jawads; but they find that Fuad’s ambitions have risen higher than her for his nuptials. Elswhere, the entertainter/sex worker Zubayda sinks into destitution while her colleague Jalila flourishes. Yasin’s third wife Zanuba, having secured respectability through marriage into a good family, now plays this card for all it’s worth.

Zanuba is also streetwise enough to manage Yasin, constrain his compulsive flirtation, and generally make herself indispensible to him. In the workplace, meanwhile, the shiftless Yasin has his fortunes hoisted up for him. Thanks to the intervention of his son’s powerful patron, Yasin becomes a senior official, part of the layer of corrupt parasites installed as buffers between the people and the elite.

While Yasin is a more minor player in this volume, Kamal remains in focus. He has devoted himself to, or hidden himself away in, philosophical abstractions, writing dense articles that no-one reads. Difficult, fruitless, disconnected from the flow of events in Egyptian society, his theorising is a sterile playground of the mind. His sexual needs, instead of powering a drive toward deep personal bonds, are diverted onto prostitutes. He feels a pang as friends disappear into married life.

It is in this context that he discovers a tragedy affecting the family of his former muse, Aida: her father, destroyed by the Depression, has killed himself. Aida and her husband Hasan Salim live abroad, as does her brother, Kamal’s old friend Husayn. Left in Egypt, more or less destitute, are Aida’s mother and the youngest daughter, Budur, who had once adored Kamal, and would now, he realises, be entering marriageable age. His feelings stir to life, but come up against his inner paralysis. The religious and the fairytale spirits of his childhood have morphed into the abstruse writings of C18th and C19th philosophers: another inner world of phantoms that keeps a ghoulish grip on his heart.

Backstage, seedy politicians squabble, the king and the English manouvre, 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.

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