Naguib Mahfouz; Translated by William M. Hutchins
Cairo Modern by the 1988 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Naguib Mahfouz tells the story of Mahgub, a young, proud, embittered, and poverty-stricken university student in 1930s Cairo. The translation is by William M. Hutchins.
The novel opens with Mahgub and his three friends discussing the current state of Egyptian politics, philosophy, religion, the changing role of women, and the best methodology for resolving the ills of society. Mahgub conceals his poverty from his friends while eyeing their economic circumstances with bitterness and jealousy. His financial situation deteriorates even further when his father suffers a stroke and can no longer work.
After graduating from university, Mahgub’s hope to find gainful employment is dashed. He quickly learns employment is unavailable to someone in his position since he lacks the necessary contacts. Faced with dire circumstances, he becomes desperate. So when opportunity knocks on his door, he seizes it even though it places him in a repellent position. He makes a Faustian pact with an unscrupulous man in exchange for future wealth and prosperity. But at what price? He learns too late the gains are short-lived. His deal with the devil unravels, exposing him and his wife to the censure of Egyptian society.
Through the plight of his central protagonist, Naguib Mahfouz offers a scathing indictment of Egyptian high society and the governing class. Both are riddled with hypocrisy and corruption. Nepotism is rampant. Without money or contacts, even those with education are left floundering on the margins of society. Mahgub struggles to retain his dignity while seething with anger at a society that denies him the opportunities afforded those with money and influence. He stifles his already shaky moral compass to penetrate the social barriers impeding his advancement.
The situation is even worse for poverty-stricken women since they are treated as commodities with few available options. If they are beautiful but poor, they are candidates for victimization by men with wealth and influence eager to exploit them and prey on their vulnerabilities. The pressure to avail themselves to lecherous men in exchange for financial security is overwhelming.
Mahfouz’s critique of the Egyptian elite and governing classes is unrelenting and persistent. He reveals their hypocrisy and corruption at every page and holds them accountable for fostering an environment where ethical and moral behavior are sacrificed for the sake of survival. In that sense, his theme transcends Cairo society of the 1930s. It is universally applicable to any culture which denies those without means or lucrative connections access to advancement.
Mahfouz ends the novel as it began by taking us full circle. Mahgub’s former friends debate the latest government scandal, the role of religion, changing mores, and rectifying the ills of society. One is left with the impression that it is all talk followed by more talk. Meanwhile, the wheels turn but nothing changes.