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Palace Walk – Andy pays a visit to WWI-era Cairo

April 21, 2014

So here we go. Naguib Mahfouz is the first of three (in a row! Netty, did you think this through?) Nobel Prize winners that we will read for the blog this year – Seamus Heaney and Doris oh-dear-god-please-can-she-be-m0re-readable-than-Nadine-Gordimer Lessing being the other two. There was no design here; they are just writers (Mahfouz in my case; Heaney – with enthusiasm from me – and Lessing – with, ah, something other than enthusiasm from me – in Netty’s) that we wanted to read.

mahfouzBut anyway. Palace Walk. Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, and it’s presumably no coincidence that Palace Walk was published in English two years later, more than three decades after it was first published in Arabic  in 1956. It’s the first of what is known as The Cairo Trilogy, which apparently covers three generations of the al-Jawad family (I’m not great on Arabic naming conventions, but I’ll take a stab and assume that’s the family surname). Obviously I haven’t read the other two volumes, although there’s a very good chance I’ll get there one day (maybe when they’re available as e-books – currently the trilogy isn’t). As a sweeping family saga they don’t get much more  involving than this – the minutiae of Arabic family life set against the backdrop of World War I and the subsequent Egyptian push for independence from the United Kingdom.

Mahfouz makes his Cairo family atypical – the patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad (from now on known as Ahmad, cos it’s shorter), is a monster of a man, deliberately choosing to treat his family with brutally aggressive authoritarianism, showing them no love or affection, cloistering his wife and daughters while the women of his friends’ households are allowed far more freedom; meantime, of course, allowing himself the freedom of alcohol, mistresses and general carousing (don’t you just love that word?) – the sort of behaviour for which he would banish any other member of his family (and at one point, for a quite trifling offence, he does). So atypical within context, although many Western readers in the early 21st century will find their Islamophobia affirmed here. And to some extent that’s probably fair enough – while Ahmad is an extreme example of the head of a Cairo family at the time, the overarching culture is still deeply sexist and hypocritical (although not terribly “Islamist”, as Islamic fundamentalism has been styled over the past decade or so). It’s of absolutely no relevance, but I have to admit to being reminded of the rather horrid Captain Woolcot in Seven Little Australians, set 30 years earlier, while reading of Ahmad’s appalling treatment of his family. (Coincidentally, while different in almost every conceivable way, both stories have a rather similar conclusion. Call that a spoiler, if you will.)

I don’t think I was ever terribly keen to know what it might’ve been like living in Cairo as a Muslim in the early 20th century but, having read Palace Walk, I can comfortably say the glimpse I’ve had was rewarding and fascinating. And revolting, to some extent. Mahfouz is especially interested in the place of women in this society and his judgment is withering – although ironically, once Ahmad’s daughters are married, they almost completely disappear from the narrative. Even Amina, Ahmad’s wife and from whose perspective readers are introduced to this world, fades into the background as the story progresses. The carousing (!) is amusing – Islam forbids alcohol, among many other things, but Ahmad spends most of his nights shitfaced (and takes his share of other forbidden fruit as well). The novel contains plenty of references to specific passages of the Koran – I’d be curious to know (and probably would, if I’d done my research) if Mahfouz was a practising Muslim and included these references for the enlightenment of his readers, or if it’s for ironic effect, or if at the time in Egypt such references had to be included in texts, fiction or otherwise. I don’t own a copy of the Koran, incidentally, although Netty does.

There are a number of references to “the Australians” throughout the novel that brought back memories of the movie Gallipoli. The film presented Australian troops posted in Egypt during World War I as happy-go-lucky, cheeky larrikins who didn’t mind causing a bit of trouble now and then; Palace Walk’s depiction is much darker. The suggestion of racism, abuse, aggression and outright violence against Cairo’s residents is not remotely romantic, and not remotely in line with the sense of national pride Peter Weir and David Williamson were trying to build upon with their movie.

Finally, one of the things Netty and I expressly disagreed on: For me, while the first two-thirds were enjoyable, it was all really just a bit of a soap opera until the political and colonial elements – present and hinted at but in the background beforehand – came to the fore. That’s the point at which the novel’s ideas about change, and resistance to change, came together. And that’s probably the point at which I thought, Yeah, I reckon I want to read the other two.

I could write a bit more – maybe about Mahfouz’s slightly odd style, or at least the way it’s been rendered by his translators; the way he explicitly states his characters’ states of mind, rather than allowing that to filter through their words and actions. But no. I think I’ll leave it for now.

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