BBC Radio 7, 14-16 July 2009
Set against the background of increasing rebellion against British rule
in Egypt during the twentieth century, The Cairo Trilogy focuses on the themes of family loyalty and identity. Two
aspects of identity - national and personal - are inextricably linked: what happens in the bosom of the family inevitably
has a bearing on the country's fate.
In Menon's adaptation, recorded in Cairo with an Egyptian cast led by Omar Sharif
and directed by John Dryden, the action focused on the contrasts between old and new, tradition and individuality. Looking
back on his life, the older Kemel (Sharif) concentrated in particular on his father Siseyid - a drunken misogynist who believed
it was his god-given right to behave as he wished, while expecting absolute loyalty from his family. If anyone raised any
objection, he meted out violent punishment. The same ethos also prevailed in early twentieth century Egypt; although the majority
of the people despised British rule, they accepted it without question. The rapidly-emerging movement for independence was
However this state of affairs could no longer continue, either in Egypt or in Siseyid's
family. As Kemel grew up, he learned to understand the extent to which his father was a victim of "his time, place and his
companions." If Siseyid did not enforce his authority, he would become a laughing-stock among his peers. Kemel rejected his
father's wishes and tried to become a writer; in a slick move, Dryden restructured the action so that it seemed that the
dramatic action was being controlled by Kemel to test his skills as a writer. Sometimes the narrative seemed hesitant,
punctuated by long pauses, as Kemel tried to make sense of past and present, focusing in particular on his struggles to break
free of family tradition.
As the action progressed, so we came to know more about his upbringing. While Siseyid
remained "susceptible to tyranny," as he asserted his authority, his wife suffered from "ignorant tenderness." Although
she believed it was her duty to bring her children up in the best possible way, she never questioned her husband's word. Consequently
she seldom thought for herself - a fault that Kemel believed was characteristic of all the Egyptian people, preventing them
from achieving independence.
As the story unfolded, so the tone became more and more reflective. While anti-British
feeling still ran high amongst the members of the independence movement, they gradually lost their radical edge. Kemel in
particular turned away from politics and focused instead on a love-affair that had never been fulfilled. Meanwhile Siseyid
left his wife and moved in with his mistress, who had taken over his shop and now eked out a comfortable existence as a brothel-keeper.
Time had the capacity.to equalize everyone: now father and son were both drunkards, looking sorrowfully back on their lives
of under-achievement and looking forward to the moment when "our time has come."
But just at the moment when the adaptation seemed to be moving towards a predictably
pessimistic conclusion, director Dryden sprung a surprise on the listeners, as he brought together the novel's personal and
political themes. A member of Kemel's family was arrested on suspicion of sedition; Kemel responded by whipping up resistance
to what he perceived as an unjustified infringement of personal liberty. Although we never knew what happened in the end,
Kemel's readiness to act was something admirable; it provided him with a justification both to resist the passage of time,
as well as challenge the colonizers. While his eventual death might be inevitable, he at least tried to leave his mark on
society by mounting active political resistance and taking up writing once again.
Dryden's memorable production told us a lot about twentieth century Egyptian history
as well as focusing on the relationship of individual families to that history.