Cairo Trilogy, Chapter 2

When we left off last week, the patriarch of the family, al-Sayyid al-Ahmad Abd al-Jawwad was returning from his nightly excursion, while his wife Amina was waiting to serve him before he went to sleep.

Chapter 2 begins with al-Sayyid al-Ahmad Abd al-Jawwad meeting his wife in the entryway. He greets her, and then the narrator describes his physical appearance. He is a physically strong, imposing man, with “a massive body with a large, firm belly, covered smartly and comfortably by a cloak and a caftan that showed both his good taste and wealth…Taken as a whole, it revealed his strong personality and good looks” (12).

Amina serves him totally, helping the man to undress and wash. She does this with sincere devotion and pleasure, with “the same enthusiasm that spurred her on to undertake the other household chores from just before sunrise until sunset” (13).

Amina does not believe she deserves to sit next to her husband, only beneath him. She is totally subservient, only speaking to him when she has been spoken to first.


Al-Sayyid is drunk, though mostly in control of himself, for “he wished to protect his dignity and image at home” (13). Only Amina is ever allowed to see him after he comes home. Al-Sayyid thinks back over his time out on the town. Though preserving an image of sternness at home, he is jovial and funny with his friends. He is witty and clever, and his humor makes him everyone’s best friend. He loves music and singing and beautiful women.

It is here also mentioned that the war (WWI) is causing a disturbance in the life of al-Sayyid. He is a merchant and commodities are scarce. Worse yet, Australian soldiers are occupying the city, blocking him from the entertainment district, Ezbekiya.

Politics are also mentioned near the end of the chapter. Having occupied Egypt since the 1880s, the British Empire declared Egypt officially a protectorate in 1914, ending the technical, legal ownership of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the British deposed Khedive Abbas Hilmi II. This was the beginning of the Sultanate of Egypt (1914-1922)  In the novel, Sultan Husayn Kamal has just died, and his son, Prince Kamal al-Din Husayn has refused to ascend the throne so long as the British are in charge of Egypt. Instead, the dead Sultan’s brother, Ahmed Fuad takes the throne becoming Sultan Fuad I.

Two things about this historical reference are important. First, the many of the characters will hope for the return of the Khedive in the first years of the novel, as the Egyptian nationalist movement takes force.

Second, the ascension of the new sultan and his, or at least his British masters’, nearly absolute power mirrors the power al-Sayyid has over his family.  The Cairo Trilogy is creating a representation of a “traditional” social reality, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few and everyone else is meant to serve, while not even realizing that they should be unhappy with their position.

Perhaps the only thing to criticize here about Mahfouz’s work is the verity of this social reality, especially how the people, like Amina, do not realize they should want to be free. I can’t say for sure, but I think what is important to keep in mind is that this is merely a representation of reality, not reality itself.

It is a realist novel, but as in all realist art, the reality is always an illusion, never quite the real thing. The point of realist fiction isn’t just to capture reality exactly as if watching life through a video camera. It is to get across some kind of meaning using realism as a technique. In short, the meaning is more important than the exactness of the realist illusion.

Click here to return to chapter 1

Click here for a short biography of Naguib Mahfouz

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.


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