Firdaus grows up in a poor family in a community of poor families, and she further recognizes the power of money when she moves to Cairo. As Firdaus tells it, she never really had money of her own until she started prostituting herself. Before this, she was at the mercy of her stingy father, uncle, husband, and Sharifa—because they had money and she did not. All of them recognized this fact, and they were careful not to give her any money of her own, lest she escape their grasp. When Firdaus first ventures out on her own—after leaving Sharifa’s house—and learns that her body has a monetary value to men, she also learns that she can command more money from them because she has something they want. To men, her body is a commodity, just as food and clothing are a commodity: the more difficult it is for them to obtain, the more money they will pay. In this way, Firdaus begins to amass money of her own. She despises her work, and she loathes the men who come to see her, but she greatly values her newfound power. She is not at the mercy of men anymore.
When she is slandered in public, Firdaus uses her “shameful” money to pay a lawyer to clear her name. At this point, money is everything to Firdaus. It even has the ability to cleanse her public image. But by the time Firdaus kills the pimp and demands $2,000 from the prince, money has come to mean something very different. It becomes just another symbol of the hypocrisy of her society. It gives power to the unworthy and makes the despicable seem respectable. It allows men to rule over women, and makes the prince think that he can buy Firdaus. When Firdaus tears up the $2,000, she demonstrates to the prince that his money has no power over her. Because of this demonstration, the prince declares that she must really be a princess—i.e., one outside the reach of money’s power. Because of Firdaus’s newfound understanding of the treachery of money, the prince is right. Firdaus is truly outside the reach of money’s power.
Firdaus’s uncle gives Firdaus her first taste of the power of books when he secretly teaches her how to read. Books become a symbol of the kindness of her uncle, who takes an interest in young Firdaus and tries to teach her. Through reading, Firdaus comes to realize that there is more in the world than her poor village and humble family. Even before her uncle teaches her to read, she views the books he brings with him from Cairo as a kind of passport to a life in which she, too, could be a scholar. When she moves to Cairo and goes to school, Firdaus spends the few happy years of her life immersed in books and learning. The time that they spend reading together is a time of bonding between Firdaus and her uncle.
When her uncle gives up the life of a scholar and marries his boss’s daughter, he sends Firdaus to boarding school. Essentially, her uncle gives up books in exchange for wealth and status. This feels like a betrayal to Firdaus, but boarding school proves more advantageous for her than living with her uncle and aunt. She soon develops a reputation as a bookworm, and often spends long evenings in the library. She becomes an excellent student and wins many academic prizes. Books become more important to Firdaus than people. Yet when Firdaus is married off to Sheikh Mahmoud, books virtually disappear from her life. Firdaus has to fit herself into the role of submissive wife, and there is no room for her to be a prize pupil or a reader. Books, which represented her uncle’s kindness and the potential for a better life, disappear.