Nobel Prize–winning author Naguib Mahfouz would have celebrated his 100th birthday on December 11, 2011, and in honor of his centennial the Cairo Trilogy has been reissued with breathtakingly beautiful new covers. Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street trace three generations of a family ruled by a tyrannical patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, against the turbulent backdrop of colonial Egypt. Mahfouz, a native of Cairo, wrote in great detail about his city, prompting Newsweek to declare, “The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in Mahfouz’s work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens.” In this edition of the Armchair Adventurer, we’ll give you some background on colonial Egypt that will enhance your book club’s discussion of the trilogy. The dates after the titles indicate each book’s setting, but in order to give you full historical context, we’ll discuss events that occurred before, after, and between each volume.
Palace Walk: 1917-1919
In 1917, at the beginning of Palace Walk, World War I had been raging for three years and Egypt had been occupied by British forces for thirty-five years. Under colonial rule, Egyptian society was segregated. As Jason Thompson notes in A History of Egypt: “British administrators had almost no contact with Egyptians apart from the men they worked with at the ministries and the servants who cared for them in their homes. They were encouraged to maintain detachment from the Egyptian community; their wives did not network into Egyptian women’s society.” Once the war started, conditions worsened. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire—which at the time included most of Turkey and the modern day Middle East—had allied itself with Germany. The British, anxious to maintain their hold on Egypt’s Suez Canal, first declared martial law in Egypt then established a formal protectorate. The increased British presence in Egypt had a huge impact on the country, as Thompson explains:
“Hundreds of thousands of British and Allied soldiers and sailors were stationed in Egypt during the war at one time or another, turning the country into an enormous military base. . . . Egypt contributed heavily to that effort, often under extreme compulsion. Taxes were high during the war; the cost of living rose sharply. Supplies and buildings were requisitioned. . . . Large numbers of men were conscripted into auxiliary forces such as the Camel Corps and the Labour Corps. Beginning in 1916, desperate for soldiers, the British began drafting Egyptians into the army.”
When World War I ended in 1918, Egyptians anticipated that the protectorate would end, but the British, still concerned with the Suez, had other plans. Egyptian leaders, including nationalist Saad Zaghlul, petitioned the British for independence and were ignored. Zaghlul began organizing nationalist committees and in March of 1919 was arrested, resulting in widespread protests. Says Thompson, “Students went on strike, followed by government workers, judges, and lawyers, and then by many others all across society. . . . By the time the British rushed in troops and restored order. . . . more than a thousand Egyptians were dead from the violence, as were thirty-six British military personnel and four British civilians.” Zaghlul was released and attended the peace conference in Paris, but was dismayed when American president Woodrow Wilson chose to recognize the British protectorate over the Egyptian nationalists.
Palace of Desire: 1924-1927
In 1922, after several years of negotiations, the British terminated their protectorate and Egypt was declared an independent nation—with some limitations. The British maintained their control over the Suez Canal, and reserved the right to intervene in Egypt in order to protect against foreign interests. The new country was to be ruled by a King, Sultan Fuad I, in conjunction with a parliamentary government. Egypt ratified a new constitution in 1923, and in 1924, Zaghlul was appointed prime minister. His political party, the Wafd, held 90 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and public confidence in Zaghlul was high.
Unfortunately, Egypt proved a difficult nation to govern, as Zaghlul faced resistance both from the British government and from King Fuad. Secret terrorist societies that were born of the 1919 revolutions were still in operation, and in 1924 a member of one of these societies assassinated the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army. Members of Zaghlul’s party were implicated, and he resigned after less than a year. Although the Wafd again won the parliamentary elections in 1926, Thompson writes, “the British high commissioner refused to let Zaghlul take office,” going so far as to station “a gunboat. . . to emphasize [the] point.” Zaghlul died in 1927; in his obituary, Time called him the “very symbol of modern Egypt, the Father of a country that had not known freedom since Cleopatra was bitten by an asp.”
Sugar Street: 1935-1944
Mustafa al-Nahhs became the leader of the Wafd after Zaghlul’s death, and briefly held power as prime minister until King Fuad dissolved the Egyptian parliament in 1929. The country was left under palace rule until 1935, when Fuad responded to pressure from the British government and reinstated the 1923 constitution. In 1936, the Wafd again won a majority in parliament and Al-Nahhas was appointed prime minister. Fuad died in 1935 and was succeeded by his son, Farouk, who successfully drove Al-Nahhs out of government in 1937.
Farouk’s supporters now controlled parliament, further straining relations between Egypt and the British. When the British declared war on Germany in 1939, Egypt again found itself at the center of foreign conflict. Italian forces invaded and were driven out of the country in 1940; the Nazis followed in 1942 and were eventually defeated in a key victory for the Allies. For the remainder of the war, Egypt served as a base for Allied forces, and while Egyptian industries enjoyed increased business, the country’s internal situation worsened. “The Wafd party in general showed itself to be corrupt and inefficient,” says Thompson, “many Egyptians. . . became disgusted, not just with the Wafd, but with the entire system.” As a result, riots and demonstrations became “common occurrences.” As Egypt faced the latter half of the twentieth century, they did so underneath a splintered political system, a divided public opinion, and the ever-present ghost of colonial rule.
We hope this guide will help to inspire your reading group’s discussion of the Cairo Trilogy. Fans of Mahfouz may also be interested in the Everyman’s Library omnibus edition of the Cairo Trilogy, which includes an introduction from Sabry Hafez. For more on the more than 5,000-year history of Egypt, you and your group might also be interested in Jason Thompson’s A History of Egypt: From Earliest Times to The Present.