Click here to read reviewer Sandie Kirkland's take on Cairo Modern.
Egypt in the 1930s was a country in turmoil, built atop an unsteady foundation and headed for a future both unsure and guaranteed to displease a large portion of its people. In the midst of uncertainty, three college students and friends prepare to begin their lives outside scholarly pursuit.
Ma’mun Radwan is “a pure heart who enjoyed authentic religion, deep-rooted belief, and firm morals.” Ali Taha “adopted a materialist explanation of life and felt totally comfortable with the claims that existence is matter, that life and spirit are complex material processes…” Mahgub Abd al-Da’im has “borrowed his philosophy of life from various thinkers, according to his whims…. His philosophy called for liberation from everything.”
It would seem that Mahgub, with his insistence upon caring for nothing and freeing himself from all obligation, would enjoy an untroubled path through life. Sadly for Mahgub, he is the poor student among them. His family has neither money nor political power, and as wiser minds could have told him, it is never easy to live up to one’s philosophy.
When Mahgub’s father suffers a stroke, the son’s initial concern is how he will be able to complete his degree. The family has no savings, no valuable items to sell, no loyal family members to step in on Mahgub’s behalf, so the young man is forced to struggle through his final months in shabby accommodations and near starvation. As his friends suffer their own disappointments, Mahgub still resents and envies them, seeing their relative wealth and connections as alternately the very completion of his deepest desires or the definition of what he most despises.
In time, however, Mahgub takes the humiliating step of asking an old acquaintance for help in securing employment. The result is beyond any idea the poor student could have imagined: he is offered an immediate and profitable opportunity to marry a beautiful and intelligent woman. The catch is that the woman is mistress to a high-ranking political official, and the marriage is simply a cover that allows their relationship to continue. Nevertheless, it means fine living quarters, a hefty salary, and an influential position for Mahgub; he accepts. In theory, Mahgub has lived up to his philosophy – he has acted in the best interests of himself and procured financial security. In reality, he has tethered himself to the ever-changing climate of despair, and the novel digs deep from this point.
Naguib Mahfouz, author of Cairo Modern, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Known for his existentialist writings, his work is nevertheless an enjoyable look at the political effects upon the common man of the time and delivers a surprisingly readable tale. Politics and religion dance lightly upon the pages while Mahfouz focuses on the humanity of his characters and the inevitable consequences of a corrupt system. Cairo Modern rises above its theme by drawing the reader into a world where choosing the right path is impossible and forces each of us to consider carefully whether we would have acted differently in the same set of circumstances.