Naguib Mahfouz, Cairo Modern (The American University in Cairo Press, 2008)

While I would never claim to be an expert on the novels of the late Naguib Mahfouz or on modern Arabic novels as a genre, I've read and reviewed quite a lot of Mahfouz and of other contemporary authors from Egypt. This is in large part thanks to our excellent relationship with International Publishers Marketing, which distributes titles from The American University in Cairo Press in the U.S.

Cairo Modern was originally published in Arabic in 1945. This appears to be the first translation into English; it was done by William M. Hutchins, who was also one of the principal translators of The Cairo Trilogy, by far my favorite of the writings of Mahfouz that I have read to date. Like The Cairo Trilogy and Karnak Café, Cairo Modern is about people caught between traditional values and a modern, almost postmodern, sense of amorality, living in a society that is sharply divided into rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and ignorant, secular and devout. The main character is Mahgub Abd al-Da'im (yes, Arabic names take some getting used to!), a young man from the small village of al-Qanatir who came to Cairo to attend college. He's just a few months away from completing his studies when his father becomes too ill to work and must drastically reduce Mahgub's monthly living allowance. Mahgub copes the way any college student would-he gets a part-time job, moves into smaller, meaner living quarters, and starts eating on the cheap.  

Mahgub's new lifestyle makes him very, very unhappy and he soon looks around for ways out. At first he tries to prevail upon his wealthy uncle, Hamdis Bey, for support, but Hamdis Bey doesn't yield to Mahgub's persuasion -- and Mahgub makes a further mess of his relationship with that family by trying rather clumsily to seduce his cousin Tahiya. Even after he successfully completes his exams and receives his degree, Mahgub seems to be at a loss to find employment, until he decides to visit his former classmate Salim al-Ikhshidi, who helped him find his part-time job as a news reporter. Salim works for a high-ranking government official named Qasim Bey. The wily Salim makes Mahgub an offer he can't refuse-a good-paying job and a lovely wife-only it's one of those devil's bargains. All of this action takes place in the first half of the book, about 120 pages in. The rest of the plot concerns the inevitable downfall of Mahgub.

Honestly, it's hard to feel even a little sorry for Mahgub. Despite his humble origins, he's an arrogant prick. He doesn't value friendship or love or family ties, he's greedy and envious and cynical and resentful of everyone who has something that he wants. Although she made mistakes, I did feel sorry for his wife, Ihsan Shitaha Turki, but this is not really her story, nor is it the story of Mahgub's classmates Ali Taha, Ahmad Badir and Ma'mun Radwan, each of whom represents a different perspective on Egyptian life in the 1930s.

So what's to like about Cairo Modern? I found its portrayal of the corruption of Egyptian society chilling and in that sense fascinating. The few, very few, references to the political milieu, especially when someone at a party mentions Hitler's rise to power in Germany, are also of interest, particularly because they are clearly so remote from the daily lives of the characters. The contrasts between the opulent lifestyles of the wealthy Cairenes and the abject poverty of those at the bottom of the social ladder are probably the most memorable aspect of this short morality novel. Mahgub's first girlfriend (really a fuck buddy) makes a living, if you can call it that, collecting cigarette butts and reselling the tobacco she recovers from them. Oh, and there is one very, very funny scene in which Mahgub tries to act sophisticated in his new place of employment, but falls completely apart when he has to take a phone call for his boss because he has no clue how to use the phone.

[Donna Bird]