Sunday, November 2, 2014

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is my 2014 selection for Banned Books Week. Technically, that was back in late September, but I was delayed by a few factors. First, I got busy and let the event sneak up on me. Second, Palace Walk had to be ordered, and took a couple of weeks to come in. Finally, because the book is nearly 500 pages long, it took me a while to read it.

Just a reminder of my rules for book selection (which you can read about here):

I distinguish between banned books and challenged books. A banned book is one that is made illegal to publish or to possess by a government. A challenged book, in contrast, is one that either is sought to be kept out of a library or school, but is not illegal to publish, buy, or own. I believe there is a significant difference, although the reasons for banning and challenging are often the same.

Here are the reviews for previous Banned Books Weeks:

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf (2013)


Palace Walk is the first book in the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. Written in Arabic in the 1950s, it wasn’t translated into English until 1990, after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (He remains the only Arab to win it.) As an interesting tidbit, the translation was overseen by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, back when she was an editor for Doubleday.

Mahfouz grew up in Cairo in the 1910s and 20s, in a devout - and strict - Muslim family. To a degree, Palace Walk and the later books of the trilogy reflect facets of his life from childhood to middle age, although they are not autobiographical. He has admitted that the youngest son, Kamil, is based on himself, but the events (at least the non-historical ones) do not directly mirror his experiences.

Mahfouz was a prolific author, writing dozens of novels and plays, hundreds of short stories, and various other works over his 70 year career. His work didn’t really break through to the Western world, however, until relatively late in life, after he won the Nobel Prize.

This book was suggested to me by a frequent and well-read commenter on my blog. After doing a little research, I realized that Mahfouz was an ideal choice for Banned Books Week.

The Cairo Trilogy was banned throughout most of the Arabic world - except Lebanon - which makes it fit my criteria.

However, it is the personal life of Mahfouz that really seals the deal. Before Salman Rushdie made headlines by being the subject of a fatwah calling for his assasination, Mahfouz was on the Islamic Fundamentalist “death list.” After Rushdie fell afoul of the extremists for his novel, The Satanic Verses, Mahfouz defended him, which reminded the extremists that they already hated him. In 1994, despite police protection, the 82 year old Mahfouz was seriously injured in an assassination attempt outside his Cairo home. (Rushdie was apparently wise to have fled to England…) So, Mahfouz can truly be claimed as a hero in the fight for free speech - and received honorable wounds.

[Side note: I read The Satanic Verses a few years before I started my blog. I highly recommend it as an example of Magical Realism, and as a clear case of how fundamentalists cannot stand any questioning of their dogma. Great book.]

Mahfouz spoke one of the most insightful comments about how censorship reflects poorly on the censors.

“No blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer.”

Palace Walk is set in the Cairo of Mahfouz’s childhood, at the end of World War One through the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. The book follows the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the tyrannical and hypocritical father.

Ahmad has two sides to his personality. To his family, he is harsh, controlling, devout, and aloof. To his friends, he is jovial, personable, and free. He loves “wine, women, and song.”  (Let’s just say that “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” isn’t new by any stretch…) Although he confines his wife to the house at all times, and demands absolute, unquestioning obedience from his children; he himself stays out all hours of the night, drinking and singing, and having a series of affairs with courtesans.

His eldest son, from a prior marriage, is much like him - but without the discretion to stay out of obvious trouble. His second son is a serious and politically passionate student. The youngest (the stand-in for Mahfouz) is a young boy. The elder daughter is jealous of the younger for her beauty and desirability. The mother is in repressed denial about her husband’s dalliances, and submerges her own personality in her obedience and submission to his every whim.

While the political turmoil rages around them, the family itself experiences dramatic change. Both girls marry, which changes the dynamic of the family. The second son rebels - not out of a desire to cast of the yoke - but because of his idealism in support of Egyptian nationalism. The elder son, unable to control his sexual desires, attempts to rape a servant, so his father marries him off. This ends badly as the son becomes bored with what he has as a matter of property and seeks new thrills, causing embarrassment to his family. In a number of different ways, the author portrays the changing of society and the gradual erosion of the father’s absolute control of his family.

The turmoil in society is two-fold. First, there is the political upheaval as Egypt seeks independence from England. Mahfouz does an excellent job of creating in the reader sympathy for the Egyptians, while retaining the humanity of the British. There is no simple good/evil dichotomy here, but it is a change from the often jingoistic British perspective of colonialism. Mahfouz writes it well because he lived it. Even though he was only seven years old, he felt that the events had a profound effect on him, and he writes accordingly.

The second societal change is from a traditional, patriarchal society to one in which women are viewed as having some rights of their own. Education, for example - or even the right to walk the streets unaccompanied by a man. It is profoundly sad that this change, which started in Egypt 100 years ago, should have met such absolute reversals throughout the Arab world in the last several decades.

The portrayal of Ahmad is excellent. On the one hand, he is easy to hate, despicable in his lust and drunkenness, and unbearable in his hypocrisy. On the other, he is relatable in a weird way. He is able to justify his own lapses and retain his good opinion of himself. He (correctly) notes that the Koran appears to permit dalliances with courtesans and concubines (as does the Old Testament, incidentally), and he makes up for his abuse of alcohol (in his mind) by his strictness with his family. His efforts to raise them right mitigate his own lapses. It is in so many ways a familiar hypocrisy. Goodness in one area excuses lapses in another. From the Pharisees on down, this is an unfortunate human tendency. (It is perhaps most visible when religious leaders fail…)

And Ahmad is certainly a narcissist. The greater world revolves around him because of his scintillating personality. His family revolves around him because of his place of authority and power. And he must be the center. As he puts it, regarding the potential marriage of his daughter, “No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to” At one time, I might have blown this off as an exaggeration, but my experience with John Thompson [insert link] speaks otherwise, as he seemed to think that my family should consider it a great honor to be pursued by such a luminary as him.

Ahmad isn’t just a hypocrite, either. He is a product and a member of the society in which he lives. Many of the men cheat habitually. The Greek tavern is a regular haunt of Muslim men. There is an entire subculture of entitlement that is fed by the societal beliefs about women. Because men regain near absolute power over the women, they themselves are the only checks on their behavior. Thus, a truly moral man may avoid the culture of philandering, but there is no consequence for those who indulge. After all, the women must obey and shut up. After all, what are their options? Return to their parents’ home is about it.

Mahfouz is brutally honest about the attitudes toward women. The eldest son, Yasin, has nothing but contempt for his mother, who had multiple marriages and affairs after being divorced by his father. “Every woman is a filthy curse. A woman doesn’t know what virtue is, unless she’s denied all opportunities for adultery.” This from a young man who squanders his income on wine and prostitutes. Because the double standard is the standard in societies that denigrate the equality of women. He can sleep around at will, but she must remain pure.

It was quite painful to read the passages dealing with Amina, Ahmad’s wife. She was married to him at 14, and has buried her very self in her service of him. She knows he stumbles home drunk every night, and that he has had a string of affairs, but she refuses to acknowledge this to herself. Instead, she represses everything, never having an opinion or need of her own. As she says to him after he rather violently rejects her extremely subtle attempts to relate a marriage proposal regarding her younger daughter, “My opinion is the same as yours, sir. I have no opinion of my own.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as either an exaggeration or as something limited to extreme Islam. However, this is exactly what leaders of Christian Patriarchy like Bill Gothard taught should be the attitude of those “under authority.” Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to. It is the concept of absolute obedience to authority by those under it. Namely, women and children.

The problem with Ahmad isn’t strictly a religious one. Many of his friends are far less strict. Indeed, the society as a whole was transitioning toward one where women had freedom, and children were to be nurtured rather than controlled. Ahmad is an unusual specimen even in his time and culture. However, the culture also supports the structure that allows his abuse. His friends may question his strictness, but they cannot and will not question the hierarchy of power that enables it. He may not use his rights wisely, but they are certainly his right.

Thus, Ahmad is able to inflict his abuse on his family, and there is no real recourse for them. Palace Walk is thus a powerful story of how structural power imbalances enable and feed the abuse of narcissists like Ahmad.  

One final thought on this book. I was struck by some significant similarities between this book and The Cypresses Believe in God. [An outstanding book. Highly recommended.]  Both are set during times of civil unrest, both follow a close family, both have an eldest son tempted by sex and a second son idealistically following a vision, both chronicle the weakening of religious and political ties. The plots are in a number of ways parallel, although I cannot find evidence that they were aware of the others’ work. The differences are fascinating, however. In Cypresses, the parents are admirable, salt of the earth types. In Palace Walk, they are highly dysfunctional and of little help to their children. In Cypresses, the whole world goes crazy. (This is the most terrifying part of the book.) In Palace Walk, the revolution is logical and justified to a large extent. Neither the British nor the Egyptians are stark raving mad like the various parties to the Spanish Civil War. In Cypresses, religion and family ultimately draw toward moral, compassionate behavior, while in Palace Walk, both fail to offer truly moral guidance. Thus, in Cypresses, in a world gone mad, family and faith offer the refuge from the maelstrom. In Palace Walk, the insanity comes from within, and only escape from the tyranny of the family structure as excused by religious teaching can lead to a better way.

Perhaps, in the end, the contrast of the two books might best be seen in the characters of the two fathers. Matías Alvear is full of integrity in his public and private life, and full of genuine love and compassion for others. When all goes to hell, his family knows his heart, and responds accordingly. For Ahmad, once his power to abuse and control starts to slip, he has nothing left to his relationships with his children. They are free to disregard him and his directives, because there is no underlying relationship of love and mutual respect.

The book itself seems to anticipate a sequel, as it ends after a catastrophe, but without tying up the loose ends. However, I looked up some information on the sequels, and it appears that there is a significant time gap before the next book. Mahfouz appears to expect the reader to fill in the fallout of the final events. I shall have to find the other books in this series, as I am curious to see how it ends. In general, the writing is compelling. If anything, I found myself wishing the book was a little longer so that more information about certain events could be included. The characters are memorable and believable, and the psychological aspects of the relationships are compelling.

1 comment:

  1. I read Palace Walk back in the 1990s and loved it so much that I read Palace of Desire immediately afterwards. I have it on my list to reread the 1st 2 volumes and to read Sugar Street. There is a lot that I’ve forgotten about Palace Walk, but I certainly remember the suppressed Amina and the father’s control of the family. Before reading your review, I would have described it as a story of revolution, but you’ve reminded me that there is much more to the book than the political turmoil that’s the backdrop for the novel.

    I’ve read that the entire novel is written in modern standard Arabic, even the dialog. I wish I could read firsthand how Mahfouz evokes Cairo society using a formal language. There is so much lost in translation, even if Jackie O is the editor.

    By the way, I’ve been reading Nudge based on your recommendation and only have about 50 pages to go. It’s interesting, and I agree with most of their arguments for gentle nudges. I give the authors brownie points for a Bully For Brontosaurus quote in the first chapter. We had on the San Francisco ballot this week a proposition for a soda tax (it didn’t pass), and city residents have been paying 10 cents for a paper bag at SF stores for a couple of years now (plastic bags are long gone). I will probably finish it this weekend, and I’ll go back and reread your review once I’m done.