1. The Cairo Souk
Last summer I was in Cairo, where my husband goes on business, and took the opportunity to investigate the Khan el-Khalili souk and the neighboring El-Gamaleyya district, a medieval Islamic section of the city celebrated in the work of the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. My second day in the city, I toured the Sultan Qala’un funerary complex with its polychrome mosaics and then on to the Naguib Mahfouz Café where Mahfouz had sat, the manager assured me, drinking tea, observing and writing. Now a plush restaurant operated by Oberoi hotels, the Café caters to the wealthy tourist and, as a result, has been emptied of the characters that would have appealed to Mahfouz.
2. Hotel: Poolside
Later, poolside at my hotel, I began to read Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, the first volume of the 1500-page Cairo Trilogy (1957-1959), the saga of three generations of the Abd Al-Jawad family. The section of Cairo where I’d just spent the day unfolded on the pages before me — its enigmatic views, shadowed arches, spindly minarets, latticed balconies.
The novel paints a claustrophobic picture of a middle-class Egyptian family set against the backdrop of World War I and the First Egyptian Revolution (1919), a time when Egypt was struggling to overthrow foreign (British) occupation. Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad, the forty-five-year-old despotic head of his family, demands blind obedience from his wife, Amina, and their five children. Inside his home, he enforces strict rules of Muslim piety; yet outside, he indulges all manner of indiscretion. Amina’s submission and her later clumsy attempt at emancipation from her philandering husband form the main plot line of the novel.
Hence, in the opening pages of Palace Walk, Mahfouz places thirty-nine-year-old Amina, married at fourteen and sequestered behind the walls of her house ever since, inside a latticework balcony. It’s midnight, Amina has just woken as she does every night to wait for her husband to return home from his evening out with friends, to help him out of his clothes, to wash his feet and otherwise serve him….
click here to read the rest of the essay and view the photographs at Numéro Cinq: