Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"He alone would set their course for them, not the revolution, the times, or the rest of humanity."

She did not understand how her heart could answer this appeal, how her eyes could look beyond the limits of what was allowed, or how she could consider the adventure possible and even tempting, no - irresistible. . . Deep inside her, imprisoned currents yearning for release responded to this call in the same way that eager, aggressive instincts answer the call for a war proclaimed to be in defense of freedom and peace.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was an Egyptian writer and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Published as بين القصرين or Bayn al-Qasrayn in 1956, Palace Walk (translated from Arabic by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny) is the first volume of his seminal Cairo Trilogy that follows the lives and fortunes of three generations of the al-Jawad family from 1919 to 1944. The trilogy is set among the streets of Mahfouz's childhood and, like many of his works, is deeply concerned with the political and social history of Egypt in the twentieth century.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, an affluent merchant, is known to his friends as a generous and jovial womanizer with a large capacity for alcohol. At home, however, he rules his family as a stern patriarch in the most conservative Muslim tradition. His wife, timid Amina, accepts his authority without question, despite her literal imprisonment in the home even as al-Sayyid Ahmad spends night after night carousing on the town. Yasin, age twenty-two, is his son by a previous marriage that ended in divorce after Yasin's mother refused to submit to him. His four children by Amina are Khadija (20), plain-faced but sharp-tongued; Fahmy (19), a bright and serious law student; Aisha (16), a blond beauty; and Kamal (10), who is playful and mischievous. Much of the story is concerned with the family's day-to-day domestic doings, from the marriages of the daughters to Al-Sayyid Ahmad's active social life and many lovers. But as Egypt begins to increasingly agitate for independence from Great Britain and English soldiers appear in the streets, events start precipitously downhill to a final, disastrous climax.

Richard's post made an observance so obvious I nearly headdesked. I was thinking and thinking of how to link the family's private lives to the tumult of the outside world. I instinctively grasped the connection but Palace Walk is such a large book with so much going on that I wasn't sure where to begin. It turns out that the extreme male privilege that characterizes the al-Jawad household could also mirror the oppression of Egypt as a whole under British imperialism. To that I would add the weight of tradition, which also grants Al-Sayyid Ahmad almost complete control over the lives of his adult sons, including whether or not they marry or divorce or participate in the independence movement. The personalities of Amina and Al-Sayyid Ahmad, meanwhile, are warped to a pathological extent. Amina is the very definition of a doormat, even assuring her husband at one point that, "My opinion is the same as yours, sir. I have no opinion of my own." And the two sides of Al-Sayyid Ahmad are so divergent it's a wonder they co-exist in the same individual.

Both the sons and daughters strain under their father's repressive rule, yet it's the women who stand out more because their situation is so over-the-top. When Fahmy asks his father about marrying a neighboring girl, and when a friend of his asks for Aisha, Al-Sayyid Ahmad's immediate reaction in both cases in OMG HAS HE ACTUALLY SEEN HER OMG OUR HONOR! It's Handmaid's Tale-level patriarchy, only not made up. Holy Taliban.

The general impression is that these women have never known anything different. But there is something subtle lurking, in contrast to an otherwise exposition-heavy book. There is a scene with Amina on her rooftop garden at the very beginning that stayed with me throughout the rest of the story.
The roof, with its inhabitants of chickens and pigeons and its arbor garden, was her beautiful, beloved world and her favorite place for relaxation out of the whole universe, about which she knew nothing. As usual at this hour, she set about caring for it. . . Then for a long time, with smiling lips and dreamy eyes, she enjoyed the scene surrounding her. She went to the end of the garden and stood behind the interwoven, coiling vines, to gaze out through the openings at the limitless space around her.

She was awed by the minarets which shot up, making a profound impression on her. Some were near enough for her to see their lamps and crescent distinctly, like those of Qala'un and Barquq. Others appeared to her as complete wholes, lacking details, like the minarets of the mosques of al-Husayn, al-Ghuri, and al-Azhar. Still other minarets were at the far horizon and seemed phantoms, like those of the Citadel and Rifa'i mosques. She turned her face toward them with devotion, fascination, thanksgiving, and hope. Her spirit soared over their tops, as close as possible to the heavens. Then her eyes would fix on the minaret of the mosque al-Husayn, the dearest one to her because of her love for its namesake. She looked at it affectionately, and her yearnings mingled with the sorrow that pervaded her every time she remembered she was not allowed to visit the son of the Prophet of God's daughter, even though she lived only minutes from his shrine.

She sighed audibly and broke the spell. She began to amuse herself by looking at the roofs and streets. The yearnings would not leave her. She turned her back to the wall. Looking at the unknown had overwhelmed her: both what is unknown to most people, the invisible spirit world, and the unknown with respect to her in particular, Cairo, even the adjacent neighborhood, from which voices reached her. What could this world of which she saw nothing but the roofs and minarets be like? A quarter of a century had passed while she was confined to this house, leaving it only on infrequent occasions to visit her mother in al-Khurunfush. Her husband escorted her on each visit in a carriage, because he could not bear for anyone to see his wife, either alone or accompanied by him.
Note that her moment of imaginative freedom begins in the context of her religion (a safe place) and moves gradually from spiritual to living transcendence (from safety to the outright forbidden). Nor is her name mentioned for the rest of the chapter, as though Amina now stands for a universal Egyptian "she" looking out through the screens and walls of suffocating custom and, just for a moment, stretching her mind (the only part of anyone that's ever truly free) to encompass something more. I was reminded very strongly of a similar, famous scene in Jane Eyre:
Anybody may blame me who likes, when I add further, that, now and then, when I took a walk by myself on the grounds, when I went down to the gates and looked through them along the road; or when . . . I climbed the three staircases, raised the trap-door of the attic, and having reached the leads, looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line: that I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit, which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs Fairfax, and what was good in Adèle; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold. . .

It is vain to say human beings out to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action: and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel: they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, sees this passage, with its sudden break to the crazed laugh of Grace Poole, as indicative of a defect in women writers of the time arising from society's refusal to allow them the full range of human experience. "[Charlotte Brontë] will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot." Amina's passage likewise cuts off abruptly with the reassurance that she is "neither resentful or discontented, quite the opposite." Much as I disagree with Woolf's characterization of Brontë's "deformed and twisted" writing (I think she was overreaching to prove her own point), you can also make an analogous observation of Amina's character, which seems increasingly Stepford Smiler-ish as Palace Walk progresses. Emily's post makes frequent comparisons to the domestic dynamics of Jane Austen (whom I've never read) and discusses how women contribute to their own oppression. Amina later becomes the harshest critic of Yasin's poor wife, Zaynab, who was only married to him after he was caught trying to rape Umm Hanafi the black maid and his father decided it was time he got some legitimate release.

(Umm Hanafi is basically, in American terms, a mammy: a middle-aged black woman with no family of her own who spends her entire life raising and caring for the light-skinned ruling class. When Yasin later tries to rape Nur, another black maid who waits on Zaynab, it's hard not to picture the white plantation son forcing himself on one of his African-American slaves. Now granted, Umm Hanafi is actually, you known, allowed to leave the house, but this also signifies that she is not afforded the "protection" given to wealthy Arab women. Author Kola Boof, who is of Egyptian Arab and black Sudanese descent, writes about race relations today in Africa and the Middle East here and here.)

I saw the women's situation as only one aspect of a society on the brink of some major upheaval. Even the male-dominated push for Egyptian independence involves head-on confrontation with traditional figures, right down to Fahmy's defiance of his father. There are some real undercurrents here and it will be interesting to see how they play out in Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is already conservative even by the standards of his day. The encroachment of modernity on his pious household should be interesting, to say the least.

In terms of its prose, Palace Walk differs quite a bit from 1967's Miramar in its more formal tone and emphasis on exposition. Mahfouz both shows and tells to an equal extent. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly - both narrative voice and dialogue have a sort of stiff, timeless quality to them that lacks any distinct voice or realist spontaneity. Almost awkward at times despite a few wonderful passages. Reading the first half would have been a chore if I wasn't fascinated (and repelled) by the portrayal of a foreign culture. The last part is carried entirely by the mounting intensity of the political climate but for 498 pages overall, I can definitely see some readers giving up or skipping ahead (there were some areas where I just skimmed). I have to admit that a thousand more pages of the al-Jawad family is pretty daunting, but I'm all for it.

The Cairo Trilogy read-along is being hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos. Our schedule is:

December 26-27, 2010: Palace Walk
January 30-31, 2011: Palace of Desire
February 27-28, 2011: Sugar Street


Emily said...

One thing that really struck me as that both the gender and occupation plotlines involve a characteristic conflation of love/admiration with fear and oppression. Like, the family members all "love" ("revere" might be a better word) the father, but that feeling is all tied up with their fear of him. Similarly Kamal feels the English are the epitome of manhood and civilization even as they're beating up his brothers and father. It's this mindset like "If they have the power to abuse me, they must be worthy of respect." Very disturbing!

Anyway, I agree that the overall feeling at the end of this book is of impending/in-progress upheaval, so am curious to tackle the next two in the trilogy.

Amy said...

What a great and thorough review. I had the same feeling as you that the first part was fairly dry but that the second half was more interesting and engaging because there was more happening. I'm not rushing out to purchase the next books, but am certainly planning on reading them at some point!

JoAnn said...

Your post reminded me how much I LOVED this trilogy! It really opens your eyes to a different world...
There is some progress for the women in the next two books. I'll look forward to reading your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, that cat pic is awesome! I couldn't help feeling that al-Sayyid Ahmad's reaction to so many things was completely ridiculous, even given the time and place. His whole double personality was such a complex creation - kudos to Mahfouz for making him believable even though he boggles the mind...! You mentioned being both fascinated and repelled by the the portrayal of the culture, and that's what impressed me the most about Mahfouz's work - the fact that he kept me engaged even while so many details of the story infuriated me. Good stuff.

Eileen said...

Emily: Yes! And don't forget Yasin secretly admiring the English as the epitome of manhood and civilization.

Amy: Yeah, having to read the next book so soon doesn't thrill me either but I still am interested in seeing what happens now that someone's died. I also need to see some women's lib here.

JoAnn: You've read the whole thing? Glad to hear things get better for the women!

Sarah: The cat pic is a popular oldie from I Can Has Cheezburger. Google the phrase "what has been seen cannot be unseen" and you'll get options with other animals.

Valerie said...

I just put up my thoughts on "Palace Walk" yesterday and I have to admit you have articulated a lot better than me :-)!

I would think that since this trilogy continues to take place for several years after, Al-Sayyid Ahmad will probably die eventually (I think he is one we all love to hate) but am curious whether Yassin (or even possibly one of his other sons) will just replace him as the "bad guy".

I'm starting book two today, and looking forward to finding out whether things evolve at all for the females.

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