In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The West has a long-held obsession with the roles of women in Muslim societies. The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), captures the complexity from within. Mahfouz is the only Arab writer to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and these three works, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, published in the fifties, were the first modern books originally written in Arabic to be included in the Everyman’s Library. They trace the fate of an Egyptian family in World War I—when the country was still a member of the British Empire, awash with Australian soldiers, but covertly hoping for a German victory—through World War II, when the political situation started to repeat itself.
The people at the heart of the book are Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a Cairo shop owner who is “wealthy, strong and handsome,” a tyrant and a patriarch as befit the virtues of his time, and his wife, Amina, a woman who was married to him at fourteen and shut up in her house ever since. She embodies the feminine ideals of obedience, submission, serenity, and religious faith. Of her, Mahfouz writes, “Whenever she thought back over her life, only goodness and happiness came to mind. Fears and sorrows seemed meaningless ghosts to her, worth nothing more than a smile of pity.” Amina has “beautiful small eyes” and a “sweet, dreamy look” and does her housework with “pleasure and delight” and “incessant perseverance and energy.” The family’s downfall—and also Egypt’s, Mahfouz implies—is the structural weakness of these roles. Amina’s lack of education and judgment and Ahmad’s harshness and self-indulgence wreak tragic consequences for the next generation. Read More