Family Saga Set in Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz

This is not the edition I am talking about in the text; I simply love the cover photo.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny (originally published in 1956)

This is the first in the so-called Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz and the first book I ever read of his, even though there was a flurry of translation activity after his Nobel Prize win in 1988. I actually ordered this volume for the #1956Club back in March 2020, but ran out of time to read it. Historical fiction for present-day readers, as the events described in this book took place more than 100 years ago. However, when Mahfouz first published this, it was recent history, and it is not at all coy about the relationship between Egyptians and their ‘protectors’, the English.

This particular edition (paperback of the 1990 translation Doubleday, reissued in 1994 by Black Swan) did have quite a few typos, repeated or missing prepositions and articles etc. Initially, these jarred terribly, but once I got wrapped up in the story, I ceased to notice them as much. I assume this must have been a problem with the reissue, as I would like to think that any work involving the editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be of a high standard.

The trilogy is at once the story of a family, and also that of a city and a country in transition, although in the first volume the social and political landscapes only become dominant towards the end of the book. The story opens with the First World War (in which Egypt held an uneasy position, having formerly been an Ottoman colony, and now under British protectorate) and continues with the 1919 attempt at revolution for Egyptian independence.

The Al Jawad family lives in one of the older inner city neighbourhoods of Cairo, with narrow streets and latticed balconies from which the secluded wives can take a peek at the outside world without being seen. The family consists of the patriarch, Ahmad, his wife and five children, some grown, from two marriages. Ahmad is a wealthy shopkeeper and devout Muslim – more in theory than in practice, for he drinks, frequents places of ill repute and has a string of mistresses. However, at home, he is quite the domestic tyrant, keeping his wife and daughters indoors more than even their neighbours accept as traditional. His family tremble for fear whenever they ask him for something, for they know he is inflexible, quick to anger, violent and able to punish them where it hurts most, by kicking them out of the house and leaving them penniless. Outside the house, however, he is considered amiable, humorous and charming. He seems completely unaware of the hypocrisy of this stance, and indeed revels in doing the exact opposite of what his family asks him to do, even if he himself agrees with them, for fear that he might lost his position of dominance.

The five ‘children’ in the household are: Yasin ‘with the body of a bull and the elegance of a peacock’, Ahmad’s son from his first marriage, a civil servant in his early twenties; nineteen-year-old law student Fahmy and the happy-go-lucky schoolboy Kamal, the only one who can move easily between the feminine and masculine worlds. The two daughters are sixteen-year-old Aisha, famed for her blonde hair and blue eyes (unusual in Egypt and therefore much prized), and sharp-tongued Khadija, who at the age of twenty already considers herself an old maid and is afraid she will never get married because of her big nose.

Their mother Amina is the most docile, obedient and caring person you can imagine – downtrodden, yes, but by no means a one-dimensional character. She is devoted to her children, but is also keen to better herself. Her learning is largely limited to the Koranic verses that her youngest child teaches her while she in turn passes on old legends and stories, but she also enjoys discussing national and international political issues with her sons, in a naïve way, admittedly, because her husband does not believe women should be well-informed. As she tends her roof garden, she repeats a little prayer which I think encapsulates perfectly her gentle nature, wanting to please everyone:

God, I ask you to watch over my husband and children, my mother and Yasin, and all the people: Muslims and Christians, even the English, my Lord, but drive them from our land as a favor to Fahmy, who does not like them.

We follow the daily schedule of the family, including their much loved afternoon coffee gathering with all the siblings teasing each other, but there is no shortage of larger events happening over the course of the two years or so covered by the story. People fall in and out of love and lust, get married and, in some cases, divorced, and reconnect with their past. Yasin makes some sort of peace with his mother, whom he despises for daring to disobey his father, moving away and then constantly remarrying and divorcing. Fahmy the idealist is forbidden from marrying the neighbour’s daughter, and gets involved in the pro-independence movement. And even gentle Amina ventures outside the house to visit a mosque but is promptly punished by her husband.

However, the family story mirrors the political situation, with the sons in particular expressing increasing rebellion towards their domestic tyrant. For example, Yasin discovers his father enjoys the dissolute lifestyle just as much as he does and consequently starts losing his respect for him. At first he argues with his father mostly in his head, while his mouth utters the words their father wants to hear. As the author says in a different part of the book, this is a family that has learnt to hide things all too well.

‘As you wish,’ Yasin thought, ‘Who has ever gone against your wishes. You marry me and divorce me. You give me life and take it away. I don’t really exist… We’re nothing. You’re everything. No, there’s a limit. I’m no longer a child. I’m just as much a man as you are. I’m the one who is going to decide my destiny.’

But what he actually says is merely: ‘Whatever you want, Father’.

Gradually, however, these small rebellions multiply and grow, until Fahmy joins the freedom fighters in secret, very much against his parents’ wishes. He does so because he knows his mother worries his life might be in danger, but his father has a rather hypocritical attitude toward Egyptian independence too – or perhaps an attitude that many of us will find familiar when it comes to giving money to charities:

… he had been content to limit his patriotism to an emotional and psychic participation, not taking any action that might have altered the life he enjoyed so much… He had never even taken the trouble to go to one of their rallies. Would that not have been a waste of his precious time? The nation did not need his time, and he was eager to have every minute of it to spend on his family, on his business, and especially on his amusements with his friends and chums. Thus his time was reserved for his own life, and the nation was welcome to a share of his heart and emotions. It was easier to part with money than time.

I won’t tell you anything more about the story, other than that Ahmad learns he cannot control everything quite as much as he wants. It reminded me very strongly of Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Rather pulpy looking Arabic edition, from 1988.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists. It introduced me to a part of the world, a culture and a historical period that I knew very little about. Although I keep saying that I am not that keen on family sagas, as with Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, I really enjoyed being immersed in that world and have promptly ordered the next two volumes in the trilogy, albeit in a different edition (even if it spoils the symmetry on my bookshelf).