Philosophical Autobiography in Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy
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Throughout the novels of Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy, the most noticeable element is the progression of time. In tracing the lives of three generations of the Abd al-Jawad family, Mahfouz manages to structure a chronicle of Egypt during his lifetime that describes not only the lives of the family but the social, political and philosophical change of the entire nation. While it is dangerous to read only for social analysis in Mahfouz' essentially artistic work, the changes in Egypt during the novel make its characters' relationships to a shifting Egypt clear. The character of Kamal is a very intriguing part of this depiction because of his similarity to Mahfouz and the consequent illustration of the changes which seem to have impacted Mahfouz most personally. Kamal can be seen as an essentially autobiographical character as well as a type representing Egyptian philosophical involvement and change between the two World Wars.
Kamal is certainly an autobiographical character, though to exactly what degree is not clear. The most obvious similarity is his age: Mahfouz was born in 1911, and Kamal would have had to be born near then as well for him to be 36 by the end of Sugar Street (232). The details surrounding his childhood are undeniably similar as well: Mahfouz was haunted by an infatuation with one of his neighbors for many years, he experienced disillusionment with religion when he found the tomb of al-Husayn to be empty, and he then began to study Darwinism and declared a philosophy major in college. Also like Kamal, Mahfouz did not marry until late in life. In 1946 he started writing this trilogy, in almost exactly the situation of Kamal at the end of Sugar Street, and his mental state may have been similar to...
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...an especially valuable character because he offers us a less exaggerated social type than the rest of his family, one who is simultaneously intensely personal to the author and a representative of the whole of Egyptian society. He allows us to see Egypt more clearly by seeing through the eyes of its most notable author.
Abu Ahmed, Hamed. "A Nobelist's Inspiration." World Press Review 36.1 (1989): 61.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace of Desire. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
-----. Sugar Street. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Massuh, Victor. "Interview with Naguib Mahfouz." UNESCO Courier Dec. 1989: 4-6.
Moosa, Matti. The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz. Gainsville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1994. [+] These quotes are taken from an uncited handout given to me by Richard Sutliff that I believe to be from Moosa's book.
[+]+ hereafter SS.