Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz

Black Swan, 2013, 309 p. Translated from the Arabic Al-Sukkariyya by William Maynard Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan.

Sugar Street cover

Originally published in 1957, this third part of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy has al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad entering old age and so dwells more on the younger members of his family. His children reflect that their youngsters seem to know it all and do not listen to their words of wisdom. ’Twas ever thus. The book takes place in the run up to and during the Second World War so mirrors the First World War setting of Book 1, Palace Walk.

While political events of the times tend to happen in the background, it seems that in this respect Egypt doesn’t change much; indeed one character reflects that tyranny is the nation’s most deeply entrenched malady. Here, hope is raised when King Faruq takes over from his father Fuad, but disillusionment soon sets in. Politicians sell out their principles for power and inspire contempt. The group named herein as the Muslim Brethren (nowadays that “Brethren” is translated as Brotherhood) have become active in the political arena. According to them all answers are to be found in the Qu’ran. “We attempt to understand Islam as God intended it to be: a religion, a way of life, a code of law and a political system.” This is immediately subject to the rejoinder, “Is talk like this appropriate for the twentieth century?” – which is a good question; and more so in the twenty-first. There is also mention of girls in the family not being educated beyond the elementary certificate – not that that was a specifically Egyptian failing in those times.

To illustrate the darker undercurrents at play Mahfouz has a Copt say, “in spite of everything we’re living in our golden age. At one time Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Jawish suggested that Muslims should make shoes of our hides.”

al-Jawad’s grandson Abd al-Muni’m Ibrahim Shawkat is a firm believer while his brother Ahmad Ibrahim Shawkat is a communist. Towards the end both are detained for sedition. The first claims it is because he believes in God, the second asks what, then, his own offence could possibly be, as he doesn’t. Ahmad’s earlier declaration of affection for a female classmate founders on his relative lack of means. “It was amazing that in this country where people allowed emotion to guide their politics they approached love with the precision of accountants.”

Other perceptions include, “Politics is the most significant career open to a person in a society,” “When we’re in love we may resent it, but we certainly miss love once it’s gone,” and, “Life is full of prostitutes of various types. Some are cabinet ministers and others authors.”

Once again the USian translation was prominent, with piasters for piastres, “darn it” as an imprecation, soccer and diapers all intruding on my suspension of disbelief.

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