Cairo's Ancient Alleys : SUGAR STREET, By Naguib Mahfouz, Translated by William M. Hutchins and Angele Botros Samaan (Doubleday: $22.50; 308 pp.)

Paris bureau chief of Newsweek, Dickey is the author, most recently, of "Expats: Travels in Arabia, From Tripoli to Teheran" (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Beggars groped for alms outside the al-Hussein mosque in Cairo. Their feet were bandaged, their skin mottled with dirt and disease. One gestured with the leprous stumps of his fingers. It was the eve of the Prophet's birthday, and behind the mendicants, visible through the wide, ancient doorways, were double lines of bearded men swaying, praying, dancing themselves into religious ecstasy. Even in the early afternoon the lights were on. The bare bulbs shined weakly, isolated and lost in the cavernous interior.

It was 1988, a few days after Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature, and as yet few tourists were making their way into his old Cairo neighborhood. Those who did venture beyond the Khan Khalili bazaar and the mosque discovered, here, a garbage dump, flies rising from it in clouds; there a police station, its 1950s architecture dingy with dirt as old as the pharaohs, its officers leaning idly on Cold War-era Kalashnikov rifles. And when a foreigner finally arrived among the ancient alleys for which Mahfouz named each volume of the trilogy that is his masterpiece--Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street--there seemed, at first, to be nothing but more delapidation and dust.

Mahfouz's neighborhood, like so much of the Middle East, so much of Islam, is alien, impenetrable, even frightening for those who were not brought up in it. The language of the people who live there is largely inaccessible. Their history seems a blurred record of war and fanaticism. Their customs are suspect, their smiles incomprehensible. Who are these men watching passively through the iron grates on their windows? What are the children shouting as they pass in the street? What is that woman thinking who is dressed all in black, only her hands and face visible to the world? A stranger has no way to see behind these walls.

Only Mahfouz and a handful of other modern Arabic writers can show you, and very little of their work is readily available in the United States. Only after Mahfouz won the Prize was serious work even begun on a widely distributed edition of his complete "Cairo Trilogy," and only this month is the last volume, "Sugar Street," available in the United States. But it arrives in the stores at a critical moment. Set in the 1930s and '40s, first published in Arabic in 1957, it could hardly be more timely today.

Mahfouz is best known for his ability to illuminate in Dickensian detail the everyday life of the street in Egypt, but it is the everyday life of the mind that interests him most in this book. This novel about faith in politics and the politics of faith is sometimes difficult going. But for anyone puzzled by the long, often furious confrontation between Islam and the ideas of the West--a clash that played a key role in Saddam Hussein's rise and his failure to fall; the driving force behind turmoil in Algeria, murder in the Occupied Territories, and unrest in the wide, dangerous expanse of what was once Soviet Central Asia--the stories Mahfouz spins out along Sugar Street are essential reading. The conflict that has swept back and forth across the Old World since the 7th Century is reduced in Mahfouz to conversations among brothers and cousins in a family we have come to know intimately through the two previous books, friends who take us behind the walls along the dusty alleys.

Here once again is the merchant Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, no longer able to impose his will or to hold his liquor the way he once did. Where the first volume concentrated on his relationship with his wife and his older children, and the second book told the tale of his youngest son, Kamal, the third is devoted to the stories of the grandchildren.

As always, Britain's occupation of Egypt and the struggle for independence are major forces in the background, but the political romanticism that drives characters in "Palace Walk" and "Palace of Desire" has now been replaced by fanaticism on the one hand, fatalistic cynicism on the other. Kamal no longer believes in anything, while his adolescent nephews have embraced radically different--indeed, schematically different--views of the world. One is a Communist. One, the most successful within the decadent status quo, is the homosexual lover of a major figure in the country's mainstream politics. And one is a Muslim Brother.

In cafes and in brothels, around the hearth, in prison, and at funerals, these characters explore the hopes and the hypocrisies associated with major political movements in the Arab world over the last century. This book, concluded in the years just after Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt and galvanized Arab nationalist sentiment, is full of the old pseudo-socialist and and crypto-fascist rhetoric of those days. But the central debate is about the role of God and Man in society.

Ironically--because Mahfouz is no fundamentalist--the crucible of time has left the Muslim Brothers with the best lines and the most enduring message. For most of his career, Mahfouz has been under attack by self-appointed and self-righteous leaders in the mosques. His matter-of-fact portrayal of sex, drinking and drugs in an Islamic society and the sharp depiction of hypocrisy as an integral part of this pervasive, invasive faith do not sit well with the preachers. Often his life has been threatened. But, like Milton giving Satan the most moving speeches in "Paradise Lost," Mahfouz gives his Sheik Ali al-Manufi the arguments that have sown seeds of war, revolution and conflict with the West for more than 1,000 years; the same high-tensile boilerplate that can be heard today in the souks of Amman, the Casbah of Algiers.

"Our religion consists of a creed, a code of law, and a political system," the sheik begins. "God is far too merciful to have left the most troublesome aspects of human affairs devoid of any regulation or guidance from Him." Later he will sharpen the edge of his statement: "Islam is a creed, a way of worship, a nation and a nationality, a religion, a state, a form of spirituality, a Holy Book, and a sword."

But why, one of his disciples wants to know, have the unbelieving English (or Europeans or Americans) become so powerful? "Anyone strong believes in something," the sheik responds. "They believe in their nation and in 'progress.' But faith in God is superior to any other kind of belief. It's only fitting that people who believe in God should be stronger than those believing in the physical world. . . . We need to revive Islam and make it as good as new. We call ourselves Muslims, but we must prove it by our deeds. God blessed us with His Book, but we have ignored it. This has brought down humiliation upon us. So let us return to the Book."

Neither Kamal nor the Communist, nor, much less, the ambitious catamite is given such clear and compelling language. Indeed, the danger of fundamentalism is that in the context of an Islamic society, few more compelling ideologies exist, and with each setback faced by the Arab world, the message has spread and intensified. Israel's cataclysmic defeat of Nasser's army in 1967 proved to many that God had turned against his faithless followers.

Nor is gradual change less vulnerable to the preachers' politics. In the name of socialism and progress, the post-colonial regimes of the Islamic world crushed and co-opted all moderate, secular opponents. But they could not and would not shut down the mosques, and when they tried to open their system up to elections, the only effective opposition to the government carried the Koran to the polls.

Now, with leftist ideologies discredited everywhere in the world and only a vague notion of democratic process offered by the West as an alternative, radical Islam has more momentum than ever before. The coup in Algiers, the political machinations of King Hussein in Jordan or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the ruthless repression of violent Islamic movements by Syria's Hafez Assad or Iraq's Saddam Hussein often look like desperate holding actions in a slow, ineluctable retreat.

As the confrontation spreads and grows, Western governments, more often than not, are in a quandary about whom to support. Given the choice between Saddam Hussein and the possibility of a fundamentalist regime in Iraq after Desert Storm, Washington opted to let Saddam survive. For their part, some Islamists puzzle over how to reconcile their movements with the modern world. Iran's mullahs are feeling their way toward a new relationship with the West. Even a few members of Hizballah claim to see some potential for reconciliation.

But "the fundamental question is whether an Islamic civilization can live alongside a Western civilization," said a spokesman for one of the most violent and powerful Iraqi Shiite organizations when I talked with him recently in London. Capitalism, human rights, even democracy may have their place in Islam, he noted, so there is not necessarily a conflict there, "but Islamic civilization is centered around God. Western civilization is centered around the human being."

The quandary has changed little in the last 200 years. Mahfouz was not able to resolve it in "Sugar Street," and hasn't since. But in the trilogy as a whole he does focus on the one force that transcends both God and Man in the Arab world: the Family. In his work, ties of blood, friendship and loyalty are more powerful than the abstract ideas of Marx, Mohammed or Bergson.

Perhaps this seems sentimental, even maudlin, in light of today's cold-blooded geopolitics, but only because we in the West, with our atomized families and facile faith in laws, have often been so naive. In the real Middle East, ideology rarely wins out over the demands of the family.

Until recently, analysts in Washington and Moscow often utterly failed to understand this, fretting instead about whether a regime was "leaning" left or right. But with the lifting of the Cold War's fog, the outlines of the system are coming clear. The rulers of the Arab world may claim authority by divine right, descent from Mohammed, or in the cause of Baathist ideals. But most of them still govern by and for the clan: the House of Saud in Arabia, the Sabahs in Kuwait, Hashemites in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Takritis in Iraq. In a new Arab world where ideology has waned, old notions of "progress" are suspect and Islam is on the move, anyone interested in the region will have to delve into the relations of fathers and sons, sisters and brothers, to begin to understand it.

If you have a chance to look behind the walls on "Sugar Street"--or the palaces of Baghdad and Riyadh--what you discover are families.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World