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[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

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“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Mahfouz and Egypt

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I read Naguib Mahfouz out of curiosity for Egypt, the anicent civilization of Pharaohs, Sphinx and the pyramids. Indeed, for centuries most Westerners thought of the Middle East as a place of mystery, where writers like Sir Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence swaggered across sandy landscapes and returned with accounts of the exotic customs they had glimpsed there. More recently, the mystery has turned sinister; many of us have come to believe that the entire Islamic world is seething with inscrutable religious fanaticism that ferments violence and mayhem.

It was in the midst of all these stereotypes that Naguib Mahfouz, then unknown to the English-speaking world, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Until this year, his masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy, published in Arabic in 1956-57, has been unavailable in translation. Now, finally, readers can see for themselves why Mr. Mahfouz has long been considered the finest Arab writer of modern times.

Palace Walk, the first volume of the trilogy, centers on the life of a family living through the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the 1919 revolution against British rule, a time of dramatic change in Egypt. The family’s patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is a member of the colorful fraternity of Cairo merchants. At home, he is a tyrant who has forbidden his wife to go outside the walls of the house for 25 years. When he discovers that his adolescent son Fahmy has a crush on a neighbor’s daughter, al-Sayyid is enraged. Yet his wife and children revere him as much as they fear him. The father is a complex figure, whose life is “composed of a diversity of mutually contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity.” In his shop he is generous and gregarious, and on his nightly carousings with other middle-aged businessmen he is a connoisseur of fine wines and fleshly courtesans.

Then, as now, the issues in Egypt center on several key themes: the role of women in society, moderate versus radical Islam, democracy, and military repression. The recent revolution distinguished itself in that women fought alongside the men in Tahrir Square. Yet those same women were sidelined in the formation of the new government. And some of them were arrested by the military and issued humiliating “virginity tests.” The same old battles remain. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, promises to respect international treaties and even to choose a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. But he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, known for marginalizing women and Christians.

Mahfouz describes the first days of post-revolutionary Cairo as having a tenuous calm. At the same time, he describes Cairo as having “come back to life … The heart of the nation was throbbing. It was alive and in rebellion.” It’s a sentiment recently shared by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who tells of the same euphoria after the 2011 uprising, describing friends on antidepressants “who, over the 20 days of revolution, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian revolution.”

The series hardly seems to have aged in the nearly six decades since publication. The novels record the voice of a people coming to terms with their own power, facing the thrill—and fear—of taking their destiny in their own hands. There has perhaps never been a better time to read them.

Naguib Mahfouz

With Mubarak resigning as leader, a new age dawns in Egypt. What a coincidence that the American University in Cairo Press has published previously unreleased titles of Naguib Mahfouz’s works.

I haven’t read Mahfouz since The Cairo Trilogy and The Beginning and the End, so the new titles, In the Time of Love and The Final Hour will fulfill the purpose.