The Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz is dominated by the robust personality of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, wealthy merchant, almighty husband and father, pious, stern and inflexible with his family by day, sensual and witty with his male friends and Cairo’s ladies of pleasure by night (Nicole Chardaire). He is the Egyptian patriarch par excellence whom “both men and women throughout the Arab world view … with melancholic nostalgia and admiration” (Sabry Hafez). Among other characters are his wife Amina, submitted to her husband though strong and the real emotional centre of the family, and the young son Kamal, who, unlike his brother Yasine, pleasure-seeking and superficial, is all absorbed in his ideals of poetry and wisdom.
Kamal falls in love with an inaccessible and beautiful young woman, Aïda, who lives in a splendid mansion – thence the name of the second novel of the Trilogy, Palace of Desire – and has spent some time of her life in Paris. The events are set in the first decades of the last century.
While Aïda is away, Kamal is sighing in her absence and remembering. Here are some of his love words (the French translation being in my view better, I add some of it for those who can read this language):
“Ta peau d’ange n’est pas faite pour la chaleur brûlante du Caire. (…) Your angelic complexion was not made to roast in the heat of Cairo (…) Let the sand enjoy the tread of your feet. Let the water and air rejoice in seeing you.”
“Le Caire est vide sans toi. Y coulent tristesse et solitude (…) Without you, Cairo’s is a wasteland exuding melancholy desolation (…) no place in Cairo offers me any solace, distraction or entertainment (…) so long as I remain under your wing, I feel fresh and safe, even if my hope is groundless. Of what use to a person eagerly searching the dark sky is his knowledge that the full moon is shining on earth somewhere else? None … Yet I desire life to its most profound and intoxicating degree, even if that hurts (…)”
“Today, tomorrow, or after a lifetime (…) my imagination will never lose sight of your dark black eyes, your eyebrows which join in the middle, your elegant straight nose, your face like a bronze moon, your long neck, and your slender figure. Your enchantment defies description but it is as intoxicating as the fragrance of a bouquet of jasmine blossoms. I will hold onto this image as long as I live. (…)”
“Don’t claim to have fathomed the essence of life unless you are in love. Hearing, seeing, tasting, and being serious, playful, affectionate, or victorious are trivial pleasures to a person whose heart is filled with love.”
“Ton cœur ne sait plus où jeter l’ancre, il va à la dérive, cherchant sa guérison à travers toutes les médecines de l’âme qu’il trouve tantôt dans la nature tantôt dans la science, dans l’art et … le plus souvent … dans l’adoration de Dieu …”
“Your heart [Kamal’s] could find no repose. It proceeded to search for relief from various spiritual opiates, finding them at different times in nature, science, and art, but most frequently in [religious] worship.”
“Seigneur Dieu, je ne suis plus moi-même (…) Mon cœur se cogne aux murs de sa prison. Les secrets de la magie dévoilent leur mystère. La raison vacille jusqu’à toucher la folie.”
“Oh Lord, I was no longer the same person. My heart collided with the walls of my chest as the secrets of the enchantment revealed themselves. My intellect raced so fast it courted insanity. The pleasure was so intense that it verged on pain. The strings of existence and of my soul vibrated with a hidden melody. My blood screamed out for help without knowing where assistance could be found.”
“Husayin, Isma’il, Hasan and I were busy discussing various issues – Kamal recalls – when there came to our ears a melodious voice saluting us. I turned around, totally astounded. Who could be approaching? How could a girl intrude on a gathering of young men to whom she was not related? But I quickly abandoned my questions and decided to set aside traditional mores. I found myself with a creature who could not possibly have originated on this earth. (…) At last you asked yourself whether there might not be special rules of etiquette for mansions. Perhaps it was a breath of perfumed air originating in Paris, where the beloved creature had grown up.”
Kamal keeps on remembering his first encounter with Aïda: “The charming look of her black eyes added to her fascinating beauty by revealing an agreeable candour – a daring that arose from self-confidence, not from licentiousness or wantonness – as well as an alarming arrogance, which seemed to attract and repel you at the same time.”
References. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of desire, English translation by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny and Olive E. Kenny, 1991, by the American University in Cairo Press, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf.
Naguib Mahfouz, Le Palais du désir, French translation by Philippe Vigreux, Jean-Claude Lattès, 1987, Livres de Poche.
Note on translation. As far as translation of novels and poetry, we usually prefer a beautiful and unfaithful translation to an ugly and faithful one, meaning by ‘unfaithfulness’ only “aesthetic respect of the new language we are translating into” (and possibly not distortion of the original meaning). One might guess that we consider the French version belonging to the former. Yes, we do, although its type of ‘unfaithfulness’ is hypothetical since Arabic is unknown to us.