October 2009

Jacob Silverman


Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz

Franz Kafka famously diagnosed the horrors of the modern governmental bureaucracy -- its capacity to reduce individuals to mindless cogs, preyed-upon automatons lost in a great machine shrouded in malevolence and dehumanizing mystery. Naguib Mahfouz, in his novel Cairo Modern, approaches the subject differently, considering the costs of aspiring to a prized post in a terribly corrupt government, but the results are similar.

Cairo Modern's protagonist is Mahgub Abd al-Da'im, a young man from al-Qanatir, a provincial community down the Nile from Cairo. In the early 1930s, Mahgub is in his last year of study at a university in the capital when he's summoned home for an urgent matter. His father has suffered a stroke and lost his job. His family's prospects are bleak: with dad unable to work, the family's money will run out within a few months, and it's up to Mahgub to save them. Mahgub begs his parents to allow him to finish school -- his final exams will just about coincide with the end of his parents' funds -- and they consent but are forced to cut his already low allowance. Mahgub returns to Cairo, moves into a cheaper room, and prepares to live an ascetic life while he finishes university. Out of vanity and pride, he hides his difficulties from his friends and subsists on one or two meals a day.

Before his father's calamity, Mahgub was an unruly pleasure-seeker -- his girlfriend is a prostitute -- and a crass freethinker. He's willing to consider any personal philosophy, but rejects all of them in favor of one principle, embodied in the single word: "tuzz." The novel's helpful glossary defines tuzz as a "contemptuous interjection," and Mahgub often uses it as such, dismissing his friends' well-considered arguments on society, government, work, and science versus religion.

These friends are fellow university students, devout Muslims, secular humanists, socialists, or nascent journalists and reformists. One of Mahfouz's talents is portraying this group of friends -- among whom Mahgub is a self-defined outsider, owing to his rejectionist tuzz philosophy -- as made up of distinct, thriving individuals. They are young men searching for themselves and for viable futures in a society defined by profound corruption, economic disparities, nepotism, and a decadent elite. Although Egypt was nominally an independent country after 1922, the British still lurked behind the scenes, exerting influence through their proxy, King Fuad I.

But while Mahgub is an introspective type, questioning his beliefs and desires and often succumbing to self-loathing (if not outright misanthropy), tuzz is his guiding principle. It is, in his words, "the ultimate principle," and it later becomes his justification for putting power, wealth, and status above friendship and family. Yet tuzz is, while amorphous, not quite nihilistic: its essence is defined by smarmy self-importance, egoism, and a splash of existential insecurity that boost Mahgub's fortunes as much as they undermine them: "he feared for his life, for his person, which he loved more than the whole world or which he loved even without loving the world."

After a period of near starvation, which Mahfouz depicts with great psychological acuity, Mahgub is offered a devil's bargain. Salim al-Ikshidi, a former neighbor and classmate, has a coveted position in a government ministry. He is a fifth level bureaucrat, secretary to a powerful minister, and he's willing to be Mahgub's sponsor, which would allow him to obtain a government job, in exchange for marrying a woman. Mahgub, under pressure from his suffering family and the promises of al-Ikshidi, quickly agrees. The identity of the woman is kept secret until the shotgun wedding, when Mahgub learns that it is Ihsan, his friend Ali Taha's ravishing former girlfriend. Ihsan had been seduced by al-Ikshidi's boss and now must marry to keep the affair secret and to preserve the honor of all involved.

Within days, Mahgub embarks upon his governmental career. He and his wife move into a lavish apartment in a Cairo district occupied by foreigners; the apartment is paid for by the minister, Qasim Bey Fahmi, who as part of the deal has the right to visit Ihsan.

Despite some discomfort and wrenching bouts of jealousy, Mahgub is enchanted with his new life. But he soon becomes a victim of the decadence to which he aspired. Once he and his wife enter the opulent social scene of Cairo's upper class, their new income, which had seemed impossibly vast, quickly becomes strained. And it is also, one can see, inevitable that Mahgub's unnatural bargain and his tuzz-inspired defiance eventually will harm him, whether at the hands of al-Ikshidi or another scheming party. Even so, Mahfouz deserves credit for offering a multifaceted portrait of Mahgub and Ihsan. They aren't simply an unhappy pair thrown together; rather, they develop a complex relationship, in which Ihsan's own personal difficulties are given voice, and the two emerge as something like partners, young, desperate social climbers, fully drawn and neither wholly depraved nor virtuous.

Originally published in Arabic in 1945, this novel is not among Mahfouz's more lauded, transcendent work. The language, for example, is occasionally purple ("a delicious moment of delectable magic flitted past"), and the book is better appreciated as a still life of a rather bleak society. Mahgub, while occasionally unlikable, is engaging, yet his university friends -- such as Ali Taha, the heartbroken lad who eventually gives up a librarian position (a job that made him a nominal bureaucrat) to start a reformist news journal -- are often more appealing. They are energetic characters, prone to moralizing speech but also caught up in the twisted fabric of their not quite post-colonial nation.

In the end, Cairo Modern is a story of a social order whose stratification presages a period of severe upheaval. There are references to the liberal, nationalist Wafd party, as well as to the burgeoning Muslim Brotherhood and Young Egypt, a pro-Fascist party established in 1933. In 2009, Egyptians still depend on favors dispensed from its rambling bureaucracy, which, despite efforts at economic liberalization, employs a great chunk of Egyptian workers and runs on bribes. One study found that basic transactions, like obtaining a birth certificate or construction permit, can take nine hours and more than three visits.

And so while Mahgub's fellow students may be among the partisans ready to fight for a changed society, whether Islamist or liberal democratic, it is the young bureaucrat who actually stands as an emblem for what will endure. Consequently, when the dissimulated story of Mahgub and Ihsan's happy marriage appears on the verge of unraveling; when he may soon be sent to a backwater town away from the leveraged glories of Cairo's nightlife, both he and the reader wonder whether Mahgub might be better off -- if, while there is no sumptuous glory in such a life, at least there may be a chance at a quiet, moral dignity.


Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz
ISBN: 0307473538
256 Pages

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