Time’s Betrayal: Concluding Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy
The most compelling of the three novels, Sugar Street (Al-Sukkariyyah) is a fast-paced, narrative-rich story that brings to a close the dramas we have witnessed to date. Unlike the first two of the series, Sugar Street spans a far longer period of time, covering ten years in 330 pages. In these novels, Mahfouz indulges us in stories of love and of love lost, of missed opportunities and close encounters. Through the characters we experience birth, death, pleasure and torment. By the final installment of the trilogy, we are at one with Mahfouz’s style and character presentation.
I personally wished nothing more than to see Kamal Jawad, son of the novel’s patriarch, happy and in love. He comes so close to happiness, only to have this snatched away at the very last moment. In the second novel, Kamal’s character was defined by his love for Aida Shaddad. This love was not meant to be, and Aida married another, leaving his character broken. Kamal’s view of love becomes bitter, acidic even. He is destined to live out his days a lonely bachelor, until we see the return of Aida’s younger sister Budur. Reminding him of his love for her sister, Kamal’s feelings are reignited: ‘The dormant disease threatened to flare up again. Anyone who has had tuberculosis must be aware of catching a cold’.
Love as tuberculosis: what an analogy. Finally Kamal has a change of heart; ‘he now aspired to be happy’. Mahfouz plants a seed of hope; we believe that Kamal’s fate will change as he begins once more to feel the joys of the world, of emotion, of his senses:
‘Love was like wine, but the enjoyment was profounder and the hangover less objectionable.’
And once again, it is all taken away. Kamal misses his opportunity to marry Budur and find happiness with her, only to be told that Aida is dead. ‘As a result, he had ended up an unmarried teacher and an emotionally crippled recluse’. Kamal resumes his state of misery and loneliness, restating his position on the subject of marriage, which he describes as ‘the ultimate surrender in life’s losing battle’.
Amidst the backdrop of the Second World War, the final novel brings to a conclusion the fates of the patriarch and matriarch of the trilogy. Mahfouz continues to mirror the characters and the architecture, demonstrating the personas they inhabit through the depiction of their physical surroundings. In so doing, we see the literal deterioration of the patriarch al Sayyid Ahmad Abd al Jawad, as he is forced to come down from the top of the house to the first floor. The walking stick, another important physical marker, adapts its role to al-Sayyid’s new lifestyle: ‘The stick, which had been his companion since he was a young man, when it had been a symbol of virility and of elegance, now helped support him as he plodded along slowly’.
The architectural space of the store was no longer his; this space that was central to his activities, ‘the meeting place for his friends and lovers, and the source of his renown and prestige’ is no more. It is the end of an era; his life no longer inhabits this temporal space, as it is forever changing with time, awaiting its new inhabitants to start the cycle once more. The trilogy depicts the story of life, the cyclical nature of life in which we witness and experience love, struggles, pleasure, and loss. ‘Time, which by the mere fact of its uninterrupted existence betrays man in the worst possible way’.
Gender roles are an intrinsic element to the Trilogy’s discourse: women and their placement within the dynamic of marriage are literally treated as commodities that can be traded off against one another. ‘Brides like tomatoes and meat – are expensive today’. In spite of the stereotypes that befall her, the role of the woman remains strong. Asserting her role as matriarch until the bitter end, it is Amina’s voice that says the final prayers for her husband, as she lays his body to rest. There is a distinct change in narration as Mahfouz presents us with Amina’s personal soliloquy; we experience her internal monologue, her psychological manifestations, the thoughts and opinions that she was previously unable to express because of her role as a woman. Her husband’s death, though tragic, is also liberating, as she gains a voice and is able to stage this as a discourse set apart from every other character in the novel.
Ironically, the woman to outlive them all is Umm Hanafi, the maid of the Jawad home – ‘she is the mistress of our household’, surpassing all in health and virtue, despite her status as a servant. With the eventual passing of Amina, the architecture too, reflects the family’s loss of a mother:
‘This very room would no longer be the same, and the characteristics of the whole house would change.’
– Time’s Betrayal
If the stories of love, lust and loss were not enough, we are of course reminded of the power of politics in this world – in its past, present and future. One of my favorite quotes of the Trilogy epitomizes the inward struggles of the characters and the selfishness of man in his quest for personal fulfillment:
‘Hopefully the war will polish off both the Nazi movement and colonialism. Then I can concentrate on love.’
– Time’s Betrayal
It is the two brothers – Ahmad and Abd al Muni’m who draw the trilogy to a close. Grandchildren of the great Jawad household, they represent polar opposites, a theme of paradoxes that has run from beginning to end. Ahmad the Communist and Abd al Muni’m the Muslim Brother; the two exponents of the conflicting ideologies of progress and regression emerge from the same home on Sugar Street. At the end they are incarcerated in the same cell, as the Ministry of Interior acts on orders to detain them on account of their ‘subversive’ behavior. We are left to admit that in spite of the harmonious relationships that form in both love and politics, there will always be issues that will remain forever unresolved.
By Sarah Zakzouk