Wednesday, February 29, 2012

140. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Title: Palace Walk
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translators: William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
Original Language: Arabic
Genre: Fiction/Socio-political
Publishers: Anchor Books
Pages: 498
Year of First Publication: 1956
Country: Egypt

Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is the head of the al-Sayyid household on Palace Walk. Ahmad, as he is commonly referred to, is not a man like others. He believes in strict moral uprightness, unwavering respect and obedience and greatly abhors any attempt to challenge his position as the head of the household either from his sons, daughters, or wife. Consequently, he is strict, stern, firm and irascible. And even in a culture where nothing is held in highest esteem than self-preservation and morality of women, he is considered by his friends as extreme. But Ahmad is a man of dual personality: with his friends he is jovial and friendly. He laughs heartily and is known to be a great orator. And when he is with his concubine, the rest of the facade wears off like a rain-beaten make-up. With his family Ahmad is in control. He rules his household with all the strictness he could muster. Amina's relationship with Ahmad is a subservient one where she has to agree with whatever he says and has to think over dialogues several times before approaching him as Ahmad considers women's brain as not fully formed. And unless he is drunk he hardly holds conversation with Amina and suffers no man to mention his daughters' names on his lips (not even the old Shayk who comes once in a while to bless him) or see them before marriage proposals. 

Ahmad's strict behaviour is a cover-up for his weakness; he is afraid that submitting to this weakness would lead to the destruction of his household. For instance, it is due to his insecurity that made him forbid his wife and two girls - Aisha and Khadija - from going out so that after twenty-five years of marriage Amina has not left the confines of the house unless accompanied by him and only to visit her family; she looks at the minarets with awe and wonders how her neighbourhood and Cairo looks like. It is Ahmad's first wife's extramarital affair with a grocer, which led to divorce that occasioned his decision to 'incarcerate' Amina. However, since Haniya, his first wife, harboured great hatred towards Ahmad but never divulged it, it is uncertain if this 'point-of-view' reason is the whole truth. The boys - Yasin, son of Haniya; Fahmy, the law student; and seven-year old Kamal - are not left out of Ahmad's dreadfulness. In fact, so fearful are they of Ahmad, who wants them to be men like he is, that they would use their mother as the conduit to relay their requests to him.

Another sign of his weakness is that Ahmad hides behind anger and shouting to avoid showing his real emotion of love towards his children so that even when he has the best of intentions regarding a decision to deny something to someone he would not expose this reason to the person but would shout his decision with annoyance. Mahfouz writes
Ahmad did not forbid his son what he allowed himself merely out of egoism or authoritarianism, but because he was concerned about him. [284]
Ahmad's strictness and inflexibility was challenged when the widow of Mr. Shawkat, a long-standing family friend, approached him to inform him that she had already chosen Aisha, the youngest daughter, for her son to marry. This was after Ahmad had decreed that Aisha would not marry before Khadija did; and this decision, though harsh on Aisha, was made with the love of his first daughter in mind, of whom he was afraid that all suitors might not choose. For Khadija was not as beautiful as Aisha and every suitor the family had received had approached Aisha. Yet when Mrs Shawkat approached him with the demand and asked him to think about it, Ahmad relaxed and Aisha married. This is to be contrasted with a previous incident that had threatened to shatter the family when on his annual out-of-town business, Yasin had encouraged her (step)mother to visit the al-Husayn's shrine in a nearby mosque. On their way back - she had gone there with the youngest son, Kamal - Amina had been knocked down by a car, fracturing her shoulder. After recuperation, Ahmad had sent Amina out of his home, bringing her back only when almost everyone in the household silently revolted against him and Mrs Shawkat intervened.

The narrative style Mahfouz adopted to describe Ahmad and his behaviour highlighted the contradictions of his words and his deeds and the inequality that exists between the sexes. Amina's behaviour and thinking, perhaps affected by decades of domination, were puerile. She would quickly blame herself for everything than think evil of Ahmad. 

The first part of the story is about the social dynamics of the al-Sayyid family: the rejected engagement of a neighbour's daughter for Fahmy, Yasin's and Ahmad's nights out filled with drinking and sex, quarreling over household chores (before both daughters were married; Mrs Shawkat again married Khadija to his first son), poetry reading, Kamal's infantile conversations at coffee periods, Yasin's marriage and divorce and more. When Yasin, who was having an affair with a flute player Zanuba, saw his father singing and playing the tambourine with the musician Zubayda to whom Zanuba is a foster daughter, he was shocked. Yasin was so dumbstruck by this discovery that when he recovered he deemed himself a man and came to love and appreciate his father the more. It is ironical that upon Ahmad's philandering and his strict adherence to certain traditional principles, he would not take on another wife. This being the result of a bitter experience when his father lost a greater part of his wealth through divorce settlement and the remainder was shared among the remaining four wives upon his death, leaving him - Ahmad - with pittance. Thus, regardless of his generosity - which, together with his resolve to live in peace with his friends and neighbours appealed him to his friends - al-Sayyid was determined to protect his wealth for his children and to continue to provide the comfort that keeps his family together.

The family's bond remained intact until the arrival and camping of British soldiers at their doorstep, this marking the second part of the story. After about 300 pages the tone of the story changed from the domestic life of the al-Sayyids' household to the effects of the Egyptian demonstrations on the household in particular and on the life of Egyptians as a whole. The story was set during the period when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Egypt became a de facto British protectorate; specifically it is set around the period when the Saad Zaghlul was exiled in Malta in 1919 and students and activists started organising demonstrations on streets. It was during this period of occupation that Ahmad's power on his family was tested. For the first time in his life Ahmad stayed home on the day of the occupation with his family and held conversations with them during breakfast. It remained so until he was told that the soldiers were there to quell demonstrations not to interfere with his usual duties.

The second event occurred when after Fahmy - who had become a member of the organisers of the demonstrations - saved his family: father, Yasin, and Kamal, from a near-death situation at a Friday prayers in a mosque because Yasin had been pointed out by a Shayk as a traitor for consorting with the soldiers. There Fahmy's involvement, which until then was a secret to every member of his household, was revealed by another member who informed the mob that Yasin cannot be a traitor because he personally works with Fahmy on one of the committees. Incensed by this, Ahmad forced Fahmy to give up his involvement by swearing an oath with the Holy Koran, but Fahmy would not; this being the first time he has gone against his father's will. The third event was when, upon returning from one of his a nightly rendezvous with a neighbour's widow, Ahmad was approached by a soldier and led to a place where people who had been rounded up from their night-outs were carrying soil to fill a hole which had been dug by the revolutionists. There he accepted his weakness but was afraid to reveal it; as he thinks of the danger Fahmy has got himself into
Should I reveal my lack of power to her? Should I seek help from her weakness after my power has failed? Certainly not. ... Let her remain ignorant of the whole affair. [448/9]
Even little Kamal who had been warned not to play with the soldiers anymore - as the young boy had developed a liking for the soldiers, singing for them and all - refused to obey this directive from his siblings and mother. Fahmy also lost Maryam when her dignity and morality became questionable after Kamal saw and reported her for consorting with the British soldiers. Thus as the revolution progresses Ahmad's household also underwent its own mini revolutions.

The family of al-Sayyid Ahmad is or could be a metaphor for the pre-revolutionary Egypt where the people respect the government of the day only out of fear and the power it wielded so that when those fears were challenged the leadership began to crumble. Palace Walk is the rallying point for the Egyptian resistance and the British reaction to that resistance. Today, one might associate it with Tahrir Square. 

This book should be read in its cultural context because any move to supplant one's societal values, mores, and laws onto it would greatly diminish its enjoyment. In fact, it is in this mode of read that one would appreciate what Mahfouz is putting across. This is an enjoyable story but one that is difficult to review. Mahfouz did an excellent work and every piece of the story is a relish to read. He showed his understanding of human behaviour through keen observation expressed in precise metaphors and similes. However, whilst reading this story, I kept for a different translation.

Palace Walk, the first of the Cairo Trilogy, was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge, the Chunkster Challenge and the Africa Literature Reading Challenge.
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13 comments:

  1. Impressive review, as always, Nana. A must read for a better understanding of arab/muslim political issues, with particular reference to Egypt, in a historical context.

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  2. I loved this review! I have this book on my shelves, as well as the two others in the series. I now want to get to them as soon as possible due to your great review. Ahmad sounds like a man I would not want to live with!

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  3. "This book should be read in its cultural context because any move to supplant one's societal values, mores, and laws onto it would greatly diminish its enjoyment."

    I totally agree! The Cairo Trilogy provides valuable cultural/political insight and is definitely worth the investment of reading time. Your review is excellent. Do you plan to read the next two books?

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    1. Yes Joan, if I get them. Currently, I've not come across any of the two yet. But I'm searching.

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  4. First, I have the other two books which you are free to borrow. In fact, I have quite a few of Mahfouz's books.His works, taken as a whole, covers a lot of the cultural and political shifts in Egypt. His portrayal of the patriarch and the inter-generational changes and conflicts is really wonderful. Plus the decay and the decline that is yet to come... Thanks for the excellent review.

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    1. Thanks Kinna, I will. Mahfouz writing is superb and I wish I could read it in the original language. I heard a new translation was released to mark his centenary in December of 2011.

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  5. What a chunkster! I can't believe I've not yet read anything from Mahfouz. Great review.

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    1. You should. One of four Africans to have won the Nobel; he deserves a read.

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  6. Great review of this work. It really does highlight the culture of the time, doesn't it? That said, always interesting to examine in depth too. I haven't yet read the next two.

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    1. thanks Amy. I will be looking out for the next two. Kinna has them and I might borrow them from her.

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  7. Vinodkumar Edachery30 August 2012 at 14:30

    Glad to see this blog. I will be a regular visitor.

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