I suppose it is impossible to pick up a Mahfouz book without unrealistically high expectations: he won the Nobel Prize (and gave this beautiful acceptance speech), is commonly regarded as the creator and foremost practitioner of the contemporary Arab novel form, and to top it all, my translation’s blurb compares him to Flaubert, Balzac and Proust. Well, Palace Walk does not disappoint. It is the story of an Egyptian family, set in Cairo during the years 1917 – 1919, the time of the First Egyptian Revolution – and its signal achievement, in my opinion, is how it infuses into a simple narrative, different layers and levels of meaning, complex but never abstruse, intertwined but never dense. The trials and tribulations of the al-Jawad family come to stand for not only the turmoil in Egypt at that crucial historical moment, but also speak to more universal and timeless themes such as authority and power, the workings of ideology, the societally-imposed relations between the sexes, and so on. It is this, its broad horizon, as well as – simultaneously – its great depth – that makes Palace Walk a unique and fascinating work of literature.
Al-Sayid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad is a prosperous shopkeeper, living with his large family upon the Palace Walk street in Cairo. A philanderer, a drinker and a carouser out of doors, he nevertheless imposes upon his own household – his wife Amina, his four sons and his two daughters – an iron regime of discipline, sobriety and restraint, subject to his own ultimate authority. So successful is his imposition, that his family members obey him not only out of fear, but out of love, admiration and respect as well. In Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the old servant Firs has been so thoroughly indoctrinated, that he considers the emancipation of the serfs to be a disaster, and yearns for the “good old days” when people admired their lords and masters; al-Jawad’s family is a household of Firs, especially his wife Amina, who considers it entirely natural – and even right – that her husband carry on a series of illicit sexual affairs behind her back, while confining her for twenty years to the same house. As the events of the book unfold, al-Jawad’s actions towards his family grow progressively more tyrannical, arbitrary and egregious: he reject his son Fahmy’s request to marry a girl he is in love with; he rejects a proposal for his younger daughter Aisha from a man she is in love with, on the ground that until her elder sister, Khadija, is married, she will not be – but promptly gives her away when a new proposal comes from a family of prestige and honour; when his wife dares to travel out of the house to visit the nearby shrine while he is away on business, al-Jawad, on his return, throws her out of the house. At each stage, we feel that the breaking point has come at last – that this, this muse be the point of revolt, because surely nobody can bear this without their blood boiling over – but at each stage, the household submits, and not only out of fear and with resentment (which would be understandable), but with a sense of conviction, and with continuing and undiminished love and admiration for the patriarch. It is a chilling reminder – through everyday events of marriage, births, coffee evenings in the family living room – about how ideology can reduce human beings to becoming willing – and even joyous – participants in their own slavery and servitude, as long as they can be convinced that it is both right and for their own good, a good they could not achieve if they were to take the risk of thinking for themselves.
If most of al-Jawad’s family provides us with a poisonous draughts of the stifling, suffocating force of norms and tradition, then the youngest son, Kamal, all of ten years old, is our heady antidote. Whereas the rest of them – and especially Amina – impress upon us how ideology can turn the most contingent of human arrangements into immutable and unquestionable background truths about the very nature of existence, Kamal on the other hand, with his incessant questioning, reminds us that even our universals are never beyond challenge. For example, his intervention in a conversation about marriage, after Amina observes, as an aside, that marriage is the inevitable fate of all human beings:
Kamal had been following the conversation with interest, and at this point his shrill voice rang out, asking unexpectedly, “Mother, why is marriage the fate of every living creature?”
His mother ignored his question. The only response he received was a loud laugh from Yasin.
And later, in his own dreams of playing god, this is what he wishes “for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged” – a striking contrast to the repeated invocations of God’s mercy and forgiveness for all kinds of sins, real and imagined, that occur throughout the book. Kamal’s utter and willful failure to understand marriage, religion – and even, later on, the nationalist revolution, when he befriends the British officers besieging their street – has great comic effect, but also, more deeply and disturbingly, reminds us that for a mind free of ideological trappings, these institutions may appear arbitrary and absurd.
So, while at one level, the relationships between the members of al-Jawad’s family reflect those eternal themes of the human condition – power, dominance, ideology and human responses to all of these – at a more concrete level, it is a critique of societies that treat women like chattel; societies far removed enough from our own to seem like parodies or caricatures, and yet, not quite so alien as to be unrecognisable. Here again, Mahfouz paints subtle strokes, revealing so much through a single, striking image than by descriptions of events. This picture, for instance, of Amina turning back as she steels herself to venture out into the world (on the way to the shrine at the other end of the street) is unforgettable, and in its own way says more then all accounts of al-Jawad’s behaviour towards the female members of his household:
She stopped for a moment before plunging into the alley. She turned to look at her latticed balcony. She could make out the shadows of her two daughters behind one panel. Another panel was raised to reveal the smiling faces of Fahmy and Yasin.
As the book progresses, al-Jawad’s philandering lifestyle gradually unravels before his sons even as they grow to manhood – matching, in perhaps some way, the rise of the Egyptian nationalist revolutionary movement against British colonial rule. And when the British besiege Palace Walk, and the family is confined to the home, it is Yasin’s personal frustration that clearly comes to stand for the frustration of a nation that, as it labours under colonial yoke, modernity seems to be irrevocably passing by:
Today he felt depressed and humiliated, forcibly and tyrannically separated from the flow of time which was plunging ahead outside the house with its many pleasures. He was like a branch that turns into firewood when cut from the tree.
The last line could, with nothing more, refer as much to Egypt under the protectorate as it does to Yasin and his private sorrow.
Al-Jawad’s son, Fahmy, in the middle of his law studies, is caught up utterly in the revolution, putting him at odds with the rest of the family, who are both ignorant and either do not care or are openly hostile towards his participation in it – and it is from Fahmy’s perspective that the story is told. Mahfouz’s treatment of the revolution is interesting and complex. Like Milan Kundera, he is under no illusions about the nature of the attraction that revolution holds for youth:
A person forgets himself in a crowd of people. He rises above himself. What are my personal ambitions? Nothing. How my heart is pounding.
And, as Yasin astutle points out to Fahmy:
You seem to have been waiting all your life for a movement like this to throw your heart into it.
Yet neither is Mahfouz as cynical about revolution as Kundera is:
If the awesome upheaval had not occurred, Fahmy would have perished from grief and distress. He could not have stood for life to continue on in its calm, deliberate way, treading beneath it the destinies and hopes of men. The upheaval had been necessary in order to relieve the pressure in the nation’s breast and in his own.
And in his authorial voice, there is a sense of the oceanic feeling that revolution brings with it; muted, self-aware and critical, but present. So it is perhaps fitting that a successful revolution – but accompanied by personal tragedy – is what brings the curtain down upon this book. You feel that it could have been the only possible ending to this work, that effortlessly combines so much personal detail on the one hand, and world-historical events on the other, into one continuous canvas.