Monday, August 08, 2005


Well I am still on 1949, but I am getting close. Lots of reading getting done, but some of it is for reading groups. My eyeballs are not burning yet though, so I know I can do more, if only life would let me.

The Beginning and the End, by Naguib Mahfouz. He is Egyptian and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. This is a good thing because then his books got translated into English. I am a big proponent of reading fiction by writers from other countries. I think it is a perfectly plausible road to world peace. Fiction by foreign authors is always a surprise to me, sometimes difficult to read, has viewpoints that are refreshingly not American and Mafouz did not disappoint me. He is one of the first Egyptians to write novels and he began writing them in the 1930s.

In this story, a family falls into poverty after the father dies. They were only barely middle-class when he was alive. The mother stoically keeps the family going. The daughter must go out and earn money as a seamstress, a source of dishonor for a woman in 1930s Egypt. Two of the sons finish school and assume positions. A third son has always been a reprobate, but he finds income through unsavory connections with crime and drug dealing and is the one who puts up the money to get the other boys started in life.

All of the children have various love interests but it is the middle son, who sacrifices his own wants to help his younger brother yet finally finds a wife, while all the others' lives end in tragedy. The whole book is a study on the degrading effects of poverty on otherwise fairly normal people. Each one has a character trait that becomes emphasized all out of proportion by circumstance, which makes the novel universal rather than local.

The book was published in 1949 and marked Mafouz's change from writing historical fiction to contemporary stories. I started to wonder, after I read this book, about Egypt. I've read countless books about ancient Egypt and two books by Mafouz about 20th century Egypt. What happened in between? Does anyone know of a good book about Egyptian history? What I would love is a James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd type of book that traces the whole history of the place.

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