Set in the 1930s and published in 1945, Cairo Modern is, by turns, ironic, satirical, farcical, and, ultimately, cynical, as the author creates a morality tale in a time and place where life's guiding principles are still uncertain. World War II has kept the British in England as a foreign power, a weak Egyptian monarchy is under siege by reformers, and the army is growing. The plight of the poor is an urgent national problem. As the novel opens, four college students, all due to graduate that year, are arguing moral principles, one planning to live his life according to "the principles that God Almighty has decreed," while others argue in favor of science as the new religion, materialism, social liberation, and even love as guiding principles. None of the students have any respect for their government, which they see as "rich folks and major families."
Among the students, Mahgub Abd al-Da'im is the poorest, and he must literally starve himself in order to finish the school year, becoming more and emaciated as time passes. Finding a job upon graduation is a matter of his whole family's survival. When Mahgub contacts a former neighbor, Salim Al-Ikhshidi, for help, Al-Ikhshidi, in consultation with governmental higher-ups, presents a plan for Mahgub, who is in no position to be selective. If Mahgub will agree to marry the lover of a high-ranked government official and become part of a ménage a trois, all his expenses will be paid and a job will be guaranteed in the ministry where Al-Ikhshidi himself works. Desperate, Mahgub agrees, intending to "find satisfaction in a marriage that was a means, rather than an end." On his wedding day, he meets the bride--the former girlfriend of one of his closest friends, a girl his friend still loves.
Mahgub's marriage is filled with the expected complications as he tries to hide his poverty-stricken past and his betrayal of his college friend, at the same time that he is rising in the government, associating with wealthy and influential friends, and becoming arrogant, all sources of satire by Mahfouz. Mahgub and his wife become a perfect couple--"Each of us has sold himself in exchange for status and money." When the carefully created charade begins to unravel, the final scenes are worthy of the grandest of farces.
Ultimately, the Egyptian setting becomes less important than the universal themes and attitudes which the author is illustrating--the naivete of college students, the lure of wealth, the arrogance of power, the pretentions of the newly affluent, the willingness to sacrifice principle for expediency, and, ultimately, the ability of "the clique of most powerful criminals to destroy the weaker ones." As Mahgub's former friends gather to discuss the latest governmental scandal at the end of the novel, they hark back to their arguments at the novel's opening, wondering about the role of religion, the definition of evil, the mores of their society, and all the interactions among these. Life is busy for these young men, but tomorrow is another day. Mary Whipple