Category Archives: Egypt

Connections: Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and Yuri Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones

Both Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (set in Cairo in the 1940s) and Trifonov’s The Impatient Ones (set in Russia in the 1870s) are about revolutions and doomed youth. At some point, they both have their protagonists think this:

“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.” (Palace Walk)

“He thought to himself, and this nice young woman is hurrying us to kill, to blow things up, to give history a push. What is the reason for it – fashion? A deep inner need? Or just the immense, universal impossibility of going on in the old way?” (The Impatient Ones)


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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz, Russia, Trifonov

“… … the question remained unanswered, suspended between them in the emptiness.”: Latifa al-Zayyat’s ‘The Open Door’

“Everyone was in tune with everyone else, just as if we were members of a society and knew and agreed on its tiniest regulations, or the gears of a clock moving at exactly the same pace and in the same direction, all the time, one direction that everyone knows, clear, logical, in sequence.”

There is a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (reviewed here), that perhaps best illustrates his unique approach towards social realism through the novel. Encouraged by her children, the progatonist, Amina, has overcome a lifetime of conditioning in patriarchal households (first of her father, and then of her husband) to leave her home by herself, and venture out into the world – all the way to a sufi shrine at the other end of the street. Mahfouz describes the moment when she is poised at the threshold of a new world with its newly broken boundaries:

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.”

 The two daughters behind one, closed panel, only visible as shadows. The two sons behind the other, raised and open to the world, smiling. In this way, without saying anything, Mahfouz paints a powerful picture of the repressed and patriarchal society – more powerful than words.

But if Mahfouz’s approach is the scalpel, leaving its impact by subtle suggestion and lingering allusions, Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, set in Cairo during more or less the same period as Palace Walk (1946 – 1956, before and leading up to Nasser’s revolution and the nationalisation of the Canal), is a blunt hammer, driving home its point with repeated, unambiguous force.

Like Palace WalkThe Open Door is a book about a family, navigating their way through the tumultuous political backdrop in 1950s Egypt. It tells the story of Layla, a girl growing up in a middle-class Cairo household, along with a galaxy of sometimes recognisable characters: a conservative father, a softer (repressed) mother, a brother (Mahmud) who is a fiery political activist, a more circumspect cousin (Isam) who falls in love with her, and cousin (Gamila) with an ever-calculating mother determined to marry her upwards, and a pose of friends and relatives. As with Mahfouz’s novel, the family is faced with rapidly changing times, a world in which traditions are being questioned as never before, where iconoclasm is met with an even fiercer backlash, and where the clarion call – “Obey the fundamentals, and life will have no suffering” – can no longer hold the imagination as it once did.

But there the similarities end. Palace Walk is polyvocal, often detached account, relying upon detail in description, and sharp allusions for its impact. The Open Door, on the other hand, is like an autobiography in third person – an autobiography of the protagonist Layla, as she goes through school and university, falls in love and has her heart broken, rebels and capitulates, all the way up to the brink of a disastrous, imposed marriage – all the while in the backdrop of Egypt’s political turmoil – the anti-imperialist struggles against the British, the protest marches, Nasser’s revolution, and the three-pronged attack after the nationalisation of the Canal. I say “third-person autobiography” because of a substantial amount of interior dialogue: we see the world through Layla’s eyes – through the eyes of a women at the threshold of adulthood, whose view of the world is shaped before our eyes by events, whose understanding of injustice is felt rather than reasoned, whose anger is unconstrained by dissimulation, and above all, who is free with her thoughts.

The risk with such an approach to the novel is, of course, the risk of descending into political polemic, and/or caricaturing your characters. Indeed, there are moments when Layla’s judgements seem too pat, and the book’s political message too divorced from the story that it is telling. When, for instance, her brother, Mahmud, fails to replicate his political liberalism from the protest march in his conduct towards his own sister within the home, her thoughts flow:

“He knew what was wrong, what was right, she understood that – but he knew it on paper. Yes, on paper.”

One might think that this is unnecessary, and too intense a belabouring of a point already made. A couple of reviews that I read criticised The Open Door for being too blatantly allegorical, for writing Layla as if she is the embodiment and symbolisation of Egypt on the cusp of Revolution.

I think, though, that the criticisms are unfounded. There are two reasons why The Open Door is saved from the mediocrity of the kitsch “political art” that Milan Kundera ridicules in his novels. The first is al-Zayyat’s extraordinary sensitivity towards the uncertain glories and perilous uncertainties of youth. Layla’s longing for stability after a fiery relationship crashes and burns is described in the following, wonderful way:

“For that was a space where one lived in perpetual fever. You never knew exactly where you stood; you saw things not as they really were; you felt a strength you did not really possess, a beauty you could not really claim, and a happiness bigger than one person could acquire. For the threat that connected one to the sky was fragile; it might break suddenly, and you would tumble to earth and shatter.”

Layla’s falling in love, being broken, and healing, are portrayed with an empathy and an understanding that would resonate with every reader, and make it difficult not to be passionately rooting for her by the end of the story. Her revolt and her suffocation are perhaps dated, but never alien. Her dreams are the dreams we have all dreamt, and her disillusionment is painfully familiar. Along with all the other characters, but more than them, she feels alive.

The second is an equal sensitivity towards image and metaphor. Whenever the interior monologue runs the risk of becoming too overtly political or dreary, al-Zayyat punctuates it with delicate, almost gossamer imagery. She describes the first, hesitant sliver of feeling between Layla and Isam in this manner:

“The glimmer ran from her lips, from her face and body to Isam; it settled in the space between then, a gaze that remained incomplete, a touch that was not quite there, sentences that had no periods. The light cocooned them, a single image, apart form all around them.”

And the domineering nature of al-Ramzi, the University teacher who insidiously attempts to bend Layla to his will, paving the ground for a future engagement and a suffocating marriage:

“He was a sculptor playing his chisel, now delicately, now almost violently, and always with studied care. Here a light touch, here a deep furrow, here a chunk that must be dislodged entirely, and here a segment that required only refining and polishing. The lineaments of the statue emerged gradually, notch after notch, dent by dent, cut away by the artist’s will.” 

The Open Door has been called the first feminist Arab novel. It is an easy – and true – characterisation. The protagonist is a woman, the dominant theme is (as was said about Llosa) the “cartography of power, and the individual’s resistance” against patriarchy. But I think it is much more than that: it is a delightful exploration of the tragedy of being young in a society that is like a chrysalis: where an alternative future can be imagined, where it is on the cusp of coming into being, and yet is farther away than eternity.

The Open Door is available from the website of the publishers here.

And from Amazon, here.

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Filed under Egypt, Latifa al-Zayyat, Middle-Eastern Writing

“What matters besides happy endings?”: Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley

“Time satirises even the sublimest things.”

In synthesising the creation myths of the three great religions of the Book, with an added dash of modernity, into one allegorical tale about the history of a single Egyptian alley, Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley must surely rank as one of the most artistically ambitious – and perhaps, impudent – novels ever attempted. From the expulsion of Adam to the invention of dynamite, Mahfouz’s canvas covers every syllable of recorded time, but his minute brush-strokes, tell the grand, sweeping story by painting in minute details about the lives of individuals and families. Allegory nestles within allegory – circles within spirals – so as to reduce an infinitely complex story into its component parts. The effect is a madly bewildering – but ultimately, very gratifying – read.

The story starts with the mansion at the head of the alley, and its gardens of Eden. Adham – the youngest of the four sons of the patriarch Gabalawi – is responsible for the administration of the estate. Gabalawi’s decision to overlook his three elder sons infuriates his first-born, Idris, who – after refusing to abide by his orders – is exiled from the mansion. Years later, Idris has his revenge when he comes in supplication to Adham, and begs him to take a peek into Gabalawi’s book of “Ten Conditions”, to ascertain whether he has cut Idris out of his share of the inheritance. Upon the goading of his wife, Adham sneaks into Gabalawi’s chamber, is discovered by the patriarch, and exiled from the mansion. Out in the desert, strife and bloodshed dog the footsteps of Adham, Idris and their children.

With a few twists, the story is unmistakably that of the Exile and the Fall (with Idris doubling up as Cain and the serpent). Instead of the apple as being a representation of “knowledge”, here is the real thing – a Book, which deals directly with the futures of the inhabitants of the mansion – that is at stake, a knowledge that the patriarch guards with jealous fury. After the exile of Adham, the “Ten Conditions” – the commands of Gabalawi regarding the sharing of the estate – are never known, and it is left to the leaders of each generation to impose their will upon their fellow-inhabitants of the alley.

The casting of Gabalawi – a classic feudal overlord – as God strips away the obfuscating divinity from the story of Genesis, and reveals the arbitrariness and cruelty that is at the heart of the creation myth. Much like God, Gabalawi plays an ambiguous role throughout the story. The gates of his mansion – with the gardens within – are perpetually shut to the denizens of his “alley”, even as its denizens – the “children of Gabalawi” live a life of squalid want and poverty, and oppress and kill each other without compunction. Every succeeding generation, when things are strained to breaking point, Gabalawi makes a cursory “appearance” to a Chosen One – Gabal, Rifaa and Quassem (whose lives, deeds personalities reflect Moses, Jesus and Mohammad), who attempt reform in their own different ways, and leave behind divided legacies and neighbourhoods at war with each other, each under the thrall of its local gangster. “He acknowledged our relationship with him in the desert“, tell the newly-emancipated followers of Al-Gabal to other alley sufferers, who have come to them for aid. “Not yours!” is, of course, the underlying, unsaid subscript, a sharp jab at the exclusionary nature of the religions of the Book. And at all times, shorn of the God Exception, God (as Gabalawi), who could stop all the suffering with a deed and a gesture, but refuses to do so, and continues to shut out the alley’s inhabitants from his mansion, appears despotic and indefensible.

(Spoilers Alert)

The great twist comes in the last section, when Arafa, a “magician” (who vaguely represents the promise and the horror of science), determines to find out the content of the “Ten Conditions” by sneaking into the mansion by night. In his attempt to do so, he stumbles upon an old servant guarding the Book, in Gabalawi’s inner sanctum, and kills him. The death of the servant, it is reported next morning – shocks the aged Gabalawi into the grave. In true Nitzschean fasion, it is announced the next morning: “Gabalawi is dead.” But Arafa’s attempts to rid the alley of mob rule by selectively deploying the superior weapons given to him by his study of science end in tragedy, and the book finishes on a depressingly nihilistic note.

(Spoilers End)

In its “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, its inherent pessimism about human nature, and its thin – almost unsubtle – references to the lives of the Prophets, Children of the Alley – on a few occasions – totters on the cusp of mediocrity. A good example is the line delivered by one of his characters, in the generation after Rifaa-Jesus:

“This building is in Rifaa. Everyone who lives in it is of the Al Rifaa. They belong to Rifaa, and every night the poets remind us that he lived and died for love and happiness. And we have breakfast every morning listening to their screaming and fights.”

Indeed, more than once, I had a distinct sense that Mahfouz’s vaulting ambition had overreached itself, and was about to fall on the other side. But I think what definitively lifts this book above the realms of the pedestrian is Mahfouz’s inimitable prose style, and his knack for imagining and expressing things in a way that is both novel, and yet so right. “Beauty” is “insolent”, the heart is “scorched” with mysterious love, “heavy footfalls stir[red] misty memories”, and “tomorrow [was] wrapped in yesterday’s shroud.” As I found in Palace Walk and Miramar, Mahfouz’s touch is incredibly deft and light, but his words are haunting, and remains with you long after the last page has been turned. Like Darwish’s butterfly, his footprints leave no trace, and yet are not to be erased.

Apart from the beautiful writing, the novel is enriched by Mahfouz’s subtle political reflections, delivered incidentally, almost off the cuff, but brilliant in their forensic precision. “… for the women in the mansion,” he writes in the narrator’s voice, in a line that would also be right at home in the ultra-realistic Palace Walk, “were like the internal organs which a man knows of, and thanks to which he lives, but which he never sees.” Every tragedy, however great,” he tells us later, “eventually becomes a fact of life.” Musing upon how, after each generation of the reformers, the situation in the alley returns to its oppressive, unequal default position, one of his characters reflects: “people worship power – even its victims do!” And perhaps the best of all, eloquent in all that it says in the space of a sentence, and all that is left unsaid, worthy of being a Nietzschean aphorism: “Time satirises even the sublimest things.

As far as Mahfouz’s works go, I think that Miramar is the greater novel, with more sustained genius. But despite the occasional flaws in its execution, Children of the Alley is brilliantly conceived, and has enough moments of exaltation, to be – in the last analysis – a deeply enjoyable book.

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Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk: Book I of the Cairo Trilogy

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.


Filed under Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz, Uncategorized