CAIRO MODERN by Naguib Mahfouz

Book Quote:

“The appointment of government officials is rigged, the award of contracts is rigged, and the elections themselves are rigged: so why shouldn’t the choice of a beauty queen also be rigged.”

Book Review:

Review by Mary Whipple (DEC 28, 2009)

Set in the 1930s and published in 1945, Cairo Modern is, by turns, ironic, satirical, farcical, and, ultimately, cynical, as the author creates a morality tale which takes place in a country where life’s most basic guiding principles are still uncertain. World War II has kept the British on the scene as a foreign power, a weak Egyptian monarchy is under siege by reformers, and the army is growing. As the novel opens, four college students, all due to graduate that year, are arguing moral principles, one planning to live his life according to “the principles that God Almighty has decreed,” while others argue in favor of science as the new religion, materialism, social liberation, and even love as guiding principles. None of the students have any respect for their government, which they see as “rich folks and major families.”

Among the students, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im is the poorest, living on a pittance, which is all his father and mother can provide him. His father’s sudden stroke, however, reduces Mahgub’s three pounds a month to only one pound, and he must literally starve himself in order to finish the school year, becoming more and emaciated as time passes. His father, unable to work, has only enough money to survive for one month after Mahgub graduates in May, so finding a job is truly a matter of the whole family’s survival for Mahgub. When Mahgub contacts a former neighbor, Salim Al-Ikhshidi, for help, Al-Ikhshidi lays out the facts of life regarding government jobs like his own—certain people will help him in exchange for a flat fee or a portion of his salary over several years—unless he can find a wife among the daughters of ministers, an impossibility considering Mahgub’s poverty.

Before long, however, Al-Ikhshidi, in consultation with higher-ups, has devised a plan for Mahgub, who is in no position to be selective. If Mahgub will agree to marry the lover of a high-ranked government official and become part of a ménage a trois, all his expenses will be paid and a job will be guaranteed in the ministry where Al-Ikhshidi himself works. Desperate, Mahgub agrees, intending to “find satisfaction in a marriage that was a means, rather than an end.” On his wedding day, he meets the bride—the former girlfriend of one of his closest friends, a young man who had been devastated by her unexplained breaking off of their relationship.

The marriage of Mahgub and Ihsan is filled with the expected complications as Mahgub tries to hide his poverty-stricken past and his betrayal of his college friend, at the same time that he is rising in the government, associating with wealthy and influential friends, and becoming arrogant, all sources of great humor and satire by Mahfouz. Elegant society parties attended by people who “surpassed [Mahgub] in his own cynical principles” reveal Mahfouz’s opinion of this level of society. Mahgub and Ihsan become a perfect couple—“Each of us has sold himself in exchange for status and money.”

As the carefully created charade begins to unwind, the final scenes are worthy of the grandest of farces, and it is easy to imagine this as a period film, with the complications turning Mahgub’s life into a disaster. The Egyptian setting, while important, ultimately becomes less important here than the universal themes and attitudes which the author is satirizing—the naivete of college students, the lure of wealth, the arrogance of power, the pretentions of the newly affluent, the willingness to sacrifice principle for expediency, and, ultimately, the ability of “the clique of most powerful criminals to destroy the weaker ones.” As Mahgub’s friends gather to discuss the latest governmental scandal at the end of the novel, they hark back to their arguments at the novel’s opening, wondering about the role of religion, the definition of evil, the mores of their society, and all the interactions among these. Life is busy for these young men, but tomorrow is another day.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor (December 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AMAZON PAGE: Cairo Modern
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Naguib Mahfouz
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Karnak Cafe

Morning and Evening Talk


* Part of the The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57)

** Three Novels of Ancient Egypt

December 28, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Classic, Egypt, Nobel Prize for Literature, Satire, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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