Eccentric Family, Exotic Culture

`PALACE WALK'' is Naguib Mahfouz's first novel to be published in the United States since he was named the 1988 Nobel Laureate for Literature. This book is perhaps most responsible for winning him the prize, and it now stands to broaden his Western audience as the first in a series of new translations of his work. Ironically, it was the same novel some 30 years earlier that firmly established Mahfouz's reputation in his native Egypt and throughout the Arab world.

Only a handful of his nearly 30 novels and short story collections have been translated and, unfortunately, the poor quality of most of these translations has badly served the author's reputation in the West. The Nobel committee reportedly relied on a French translation of ``Palace Walk'' in order to outweigh the mixed impressions of reading what was then available in English. With this said, it is a pleasure to report that the translation under review here is a finely crafted one, properly reflecting Mahfouz's formal and precise Arabic.

This novel is the first volume in his 1,500-page trilogy, a narrative history of a middle-class Cairene family between the world wars. In this period of political unrest and social upheaval, Egypt sought to free itself from English imperialism and at the same time to define itself as a modern nation, midway between East and West. This course led to identity crises both for society as a whole and for individual Egyptians unable to find their way forward.

The novel's plot is evenly balanced between the signs pointing to the future and to the past, represented at one extreme by the student demonstrations and generational revolt that threaten to destroy the traditional Egyptian family, and at the other by the sibling loyalties and intense mother-to-child bonds that sustain it. The book ends abruptly and violently when these forces finally collide, leaving the reader in suspense until the trilogy's second volume appears next year.

Although the novel contains many closely observed portraits of family relations within a tradition-bound household, it would be a mistake to regard the father as an Egyptian Everyman. By the admission of even his best friend, Muhammad, and his blindly reverential wife, Amina, Ahmad's obsessive family control sets both he and his children apart from their neighbors. Ahmad's is an admittedly eccentric family within a decidedly exotic culture.

Mahfouz describes the claustrophobia of sexually segregated life in Cairo's medieval quarter with masterly skill. The house is the sole domain of Amina, whose first foray outside in 25 years is the occasion for a major family contretemps. Just to leave the house she must borrow a servant's street shawl, never before having need for one of her own. While even her youngest son, Kamal, has his father's permission to walk himself to school, Amina and her two grown daughters remain closely guarded at home, only peeking at the world through their permanently shuttered windows.

But this is not to say that the women are deprived of all contact with the outside. Standing beside her window, one daughter solicits a marriage offer from a policeman who notices her on his daily rounds. And when British soldiers bivouac at her doorstep during nationalist street demonstrations, Amina monitors their movements and conveys this information to her politically active son Fahmy.

IN contrast to the cramped, home-bound routine of his women, Ahmad spends his days in his grocery store and his evenings in the company of drinking companions and dancing girls. In a recurrent scene epitomizing the separate male and female worlds that he harshly defines for his family, each night Amina lies awake listening for his drunken knock on the outside door so she can help him upstairs to his private bedroom.

Ahmad is portrayed as a complicated figure who combines a moralistic sense of his family's public honor with his own shameless debaucheries in private. Contrary to Mahfouz's apparent intentions, however, he seems more the case of an artificially split personality than that of a tragic fool unable to admit to his own hypocrisies. He is painted in a patchwork of black and white rather than in the more human hues of gray.

The children display more individual nuances, especially his homely daughter Khadija and the studious Fahmy, both of whom suffer the heartache of having their engagements blocked by Ahmad's stubborn pride. He refuses to permit Khadija to marry until he is convinced that her suitor's primary motive is to gain him as a father-in-law. When Fahmy asks to choose his own wife in a love marriage, his father remains adamant about his right to select spouses for all the children so that his financial interests will be served.

Even if not about the typical Cairene family, the novel does teach the lesson of Egypt's difficult cultural evolution in the modern era. The vestiges of a harem society still imprisoning Ahmad's daughters contrast sharply with his sons' newfound freedoms. Once the students have taken to the streets, however, marches for the emancipation of women are not far behind.

Most poignant of all is watching the parents use their religion, either in sincerity or by rote, in an attempt to keep modernity at bay. Helplessly, they recite from the Koran in order to protect the family from the liberalizing changes that engulfed Egypt early in this century. Writing at the cusp of these changes, Mahfouz brilliantly dramatizes the depth to which they shook the bedrock of his society.

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