The Egyptian Revolution through a Literary Lens

This winter, as protests against Hosni Mubarak escalated in Tahrir Square, commentators from across the political spectrum began to construct analogies between the situation in Egypt and earlier flashpoints in history.   From the left, the Pakistani critic Tariq Ali suggested that “we [were] witnessing…a wave of national-democratic uprisings…reminiscent…of the 1848 upheavals” in Europe, when popular street revolts across the continent shook the hegemony of the European bourgeoisie.[1] From the center, Barak Obama compared the Egyptian uprising to decolonization movements in sub-Saharan Africa.  Citing Martin Luther King’s remarks about Ghana’s quest for independence, Obama observed that, “there’s something in the soul that cries for freedom.”   From the right, commentators on Fox News compared the Egyptian Revolution of today to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.   According to this judgement, Obama was losing Egypt to Islamic extremism in much the same way that Jimmy Carter, another Democratic president, had lost Iran years earlier—a claim echoed by Aluf Benn, a columnist writing for Haaretz, the oldest daily newspaper in Israel.[2]

What seemed lost in these analogies was any sense of Egypt’s own internal development.  Commentators were anxious to compare the situation on the ground in Tahrir Square with historical precedents abroad, yet they never bothered to examine Egypt’s reckoning with its own past.   Many of the protesters in the square were too young to remember key moments in Egyptian development, much less a nation without Mubarak at the helm.  But judging from the sea of Egyptian flags and the boisterous singing of the national anthem during the height of the protests, there was no getting around the fact that the revolt was nationalist in character, and that it marked yet another chapter in the epic struggle for independence and freedom in the country.

To make sense of this national heritage, I began to read a novel called Palace Walk—the first part of so-called “Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.   The Cairo Trilogy chronicles the saga of a lower-middle-class family living in the Jamaliyya quarter of the old city during Egypt’s “golden age of national struggle,”[3] a period extending from 1919, when the nationalist leader Sa’d Zaghlul led a revolt against British imperial authorities, and 1944, as the idea of Arab socialism and a fully independent Arab republic began to take shape in the national psyche.   I was trying to figure out how the novel’s depiction of this golden age of national struggle spoke to images flashing across my computer screen today.

You might be asking yourself, why read a novel to understand history?   In other words, why engage a work of fiction to unravel the objective truth of the past?  As a student of literature, I have long been seduced by the idea of reading novels to understand nations.   The novel, as I see it, presents an interior view of the national psyche, a lived experience that often tells us more about the inner dynamics of the nation and its people than objective historical accounts.  Indeed, the rise of the novel often coincides with the rise of national consciousness.  For example, the appearance of novels like Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842) in Russia, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (1008) in Japan, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) in the United States not only coincide with the appearance of a mature national sensibility, but perhaps even catalyze it.  This link between novel and nation is equally evident in Egypt, in the work of Naguib Mahfouz.  As Sabry Hafez notes, the Cairo Trilogy, by providing an “intricate viewing of the nation from multiple narrative and ideological positions,” reveals both “a realistic representation of [Egyptian] society and…an allegorical rendering of Egypt’s quest for nationhood and modernity.”[4]

When I dove into the first volume of the trilogy, however, I was struck not so much by new expressions of national spirit but by the unyielding patterns of a 5000-year-old city.  Although, in the early chapters of Palace Walk, I discovered allusions to Australian soldiers–proxies of empire, foreign troops controlling key areas of Cairo under the British protectorate–such allusions only appear in passing and seem relatively insignificant to the rituals of the family at the center of the narrative.   In this narrative, the father, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, a shopkeeper, tries to engineer a delicate balance between his love of music and wine, on the one hand, and a traditional devotion to Islam, on the other.  Amina, his wife, who, were are told, “kn[ows] almost nothing” about the “outside world,” spends her days inside, as the “sovereign” of a wide courtyard, performing daily chores.[5] Khadija, one of her two daughters, a young woman anxious about finding a marriage partner, makes sarcastic remarks about the neighbors, describing an old friend of the family as “’machine gun,’ because [the woman’s] spittle flew when she talked.”[6] Among the sons, we are introduced to Yasin, the only child from the father’s first marriage; Fahmy, an aspiring law student; and Kamal, the youngest member of the family, a boy apparently modeled after Mahfouz himself.   While these characters struggle with modern issues like divorce, depression, and desire, the backdrop of the narrative, set in old Cairo, evokes something of the city’s ancient past.   Cries of cereal vendors and street hawkers punctuate the narrative.   Women baking ish baladi, the national bread, and men working in small, guild-like groups, are depicted throughout the tale.   Thus, at least in the early parts of Palace Walk, the modern consciousness of the characters appears embedded within—and perhaps even sheltered by–the seemingly medieval routines of “the hara”:  a term used to describe the ancient backstreets of Cairo, areas like Jamiliyya relatively untouched by global modernity and consumer capitalism.

Yet Mahfouz organizes the early part of Palace Walk in this way so that, in the novel’s final third, the entrance of ordinary Egyptians into the national struggle can be experienced as a radical rupture from the past.   When, under a state of martial law, British proxies set up a makeshift checkpoint just outside the family’s Jamiliyya home, the traditional pattern of life is radically upended.   Inspired by S’ad Zaghlul, the nationalist leader who aims to liberate Egyptians from the yoke of the British protectorate, Fahmy, the middle son, joins anti-colonial protests around the city, often to his parents’ chagrin.  In fact, as the novel indicates, the family of the nation begins to overshadow the smaller, close-knit unit of familial organization.  On a day of mass protests and a general strike against the British, we are told, “Egypt had come back to life.  It was a new country.  Its citizens rushed to crowd into the streets to prepare for battle with an anger that had been concealed for a long time.  Fahmy threw himself into the swarms of people with intoxicating happiness and enthusiasm, like a displaced person rediscovering his family after long separation.”[7]

Coming across this passage at night, after having been glued to the stream on Al Jazeera throughout the morning, I felt shaken.   Scenes on my computer screen, of Tahrir Square, seemed to match, almost shot-for-shot, the drama of Mahfouz’s narrative.   Just as Egyptians in the square raised their shoes in defiance of Mubarak, nationalists in the novel raised their “boots” in unison against spies for the English.[8] And just as the national revolution of today drew from all walks of Egyptian life, so did the revolution of 1919, described in the pages of Palace Walk.  Near the end of the novel, as Fahmy walks toward yet another protest, he begins to observe that “everyone was heading his way:  students, workers, civil servants, and ordinary folk, riding or walking…Egypt appeared to be one great demonstration…united in one person and a single chant.”[9] Killed by English bullets at the protest, Fahmy becomes a martyr, thus altering the dynamics of the family unit forever.

To conclude, then, it is important to understand that–even for the so-called “Facebook Generation,” for the young people who helped generate the protests in Tahrir Square—the revolution of today marks a moment of continuity with earlier revolutionary periods in Egypt.  There is no doubting Egypt’s strategic place in world affairs and in world history.  Yet to deny the meaning of the Egyptian Revolution on Egyptian terms, vis-à-vis Egyptian precedent, seems not only absurd but insulting, as well, to those who—like Fahmy, in the novel—shed their blood for a better Egypt.   As I have argued, it also seems important to understand the power of the novel as a symbolic repository of national becoming.   Naguib Mahfouz–who recalls watching “demonstrations of the 1919 revolution” from a small room on the roof of his house, observing “women taking part in the demonstrations on donkey-carts” and seeing “English soldiers firing at the demonstrators” from close range—organizes this historical material through a literary lens.[10] As a consequence, the Cairo Trilogy remains an essential testament to the Egyptian revolutionary spirit, a key to unlocking the thread of nationalist sentiment from past to present.

[1] Tariq Ali, “An Arab 1848:  Despots Totter and Fall.”  Counterpunch, February 2, 2011, (accessed February 23, 2011).

[2] Aluf Benn, “Obama will go down in history as the president who lost Egypt,” Haaretz, January 30, 2011, (accessed February 23, 2011).

[3] Rasheed El-Enany, Naguib Mahfouz:  His Life and Times (Cairo:  American U of Cairo Press, 2007), 3.

[4] Sabry Hafez, Introduction to Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy (New York:  Everyman’s Library, 2001:  vii-xxiii), xii.

[5] Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (New York:  Everyman’s Library, 2001), 17, 19.

[6] Ibid, 32.

[7] Ibid, 386.

[8] Ibid, 446.

[9] Ibid, 523, 525.

[10] Rasheed El-Enany, Naguib Mahfouz:  His Life and Times (Cairo:  American U of Cairo Press, 2007), 3.