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

January 26, 1992|Christopher Dickey | 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.

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