Setting: Cairo, al-Gamaleya-a section of the old city, sometime just before 1919. The al-Jawad residence, a middle class home.
Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy begins with Amina waking at midnight. She wakes at this hour every night to serve her husband as he comes home from his nightly “entertainments.” This “habit” was something she “had learned along with the other rules of married life” (5). So Amina wakes up at midnight every night and serves her husband, al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad until he falls asleep every night.
We can see already the beginnings of the social order The Cairo Trilogy sets up to represent “traditional” or “pre-modern” Egyptian society. Al-Sayyid is at the top of the order, and everyone below serves him, like Amina does every night at midnight.
As Amina al-Jawad lights a lamp and moves through the dark house, the middle class trappings of the residence are revealed: “Shiraz carpet, large brass bed, massive armoire, and long sofa draped with a small rug in a patchwork design of different motifs and colors” (5).
Amina is describedas a woman in her 40s, but still attractive with chestnut brown hair, an oblong face and delicate features. She puts on her veil to go out onto the balcony and watch for her husband’s return.
The al-Jawad residence, we are told, is at the intersection of Palace Walk and Coppersmith Street. This location is important to the structure of the novel. Palace Walk (Bein al-Qasrein) is more accurately translated as between the two palaces. Thematically, what is going on in the narrative is that The Cairo Trilogy creates three different social orders to represent Egyptian society chronologically, with the middle social order-the one between the two palaces-representing the vast majority of the narrative time. Keep this is mind for later, but for now the narrative is still in this first social order. The text has to create this “pre-modern” social order to show how it changes with the coming of “modernity.”
Amina’s life is a monotonous one, but she knows nothing different. She married before she was fourteen and found herself spending most of her time alone in the big house while her husband was at his shop or out carousing. When her children arrive, they occupy most of her attention as she lavishes affection on them and hopes to protect them from harm with “Qur’an Suras, amulets, charms, and incantations” (8). Amina is an intensely religious character, invoking prayer and Qur’anic suras to ward of evil spirits.
The first glimpse we get of her husband is through one of Amina’s memories. Amina had once, when young and recently married, objected to her husbands late nights out. His response was “to seize her by the ears and tell her peremptorily in a loud voice, ‘I’m a man. I’m the one who commands and forbids. I will not accept any criticism of my behavior. All I ask of you is to obey me. Don’t force me to discipline you'” (8).
This narrative, it should be noted, creates this type of social order so that it can show the change from “pre-modern” to “modern.” It does not make criticism on specific cultural or religious grounds. It does not signify any “innate” sort of difference between Egyptian or European culture, but merely tries to show this change in society, presumably one that European societies went through as well.
Amina does not even know that she should be unhappy. “No matter what happened, she remained a loving, obedient, and docile wife. She had no regrets at all about reconciling herself to a type of security based on surrender” (8).
Amina even knows that it is likely that her husband has relations with women outside the marriage. She was jealous at first, but upon talking with her mother, who reminds her that her husband could marry up to three more women if he wanted to, Amina decides to not let his infidelity upset her happiness.
As chapter one ends, Amina hears al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad’s carriage pull up and his friends laughing at one of his jokes. His manner is completely different when he is with his friends. While at home he is a tyrant, with his friends he is jovial, generous and light-hearted. Amina leaves the balcony and prepares to serve her drunken husband as he prepares for bed.
Mahfouz, Naguib. The Cairo Trilogy. Trans. William Maynard Hutchins, Olive E. Kenny, Lorne M. Kenny and Angele Botros Samaan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.