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No longer preserved: A retrospective of Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Palace Walk’ (غير محفوظ: “بين القصرين”, كتاب نجيب محفوظ)

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Editor’s note: This article contains brief references to sexual violence that may be troubling to some readers.

I was lucky enough, just before the shelter-in-place hit the campus, to sneak into Green Library and check out a whole bunch of books that I wouldn’t mind being cooped up at home with too much. I can’t credit some divine foresight for leading me to grab these books with indefinite due dates (currently Green is asking for books backs sometime in June, but we’ll see), but I usually like to let something beyond the rational guide me through the third-floor stacks. Strolling through with my borrowed Trader Joe’s shopping bag, I perused the aisles, which unlike their grocery store counterparts, were fully stocked. I stalked the PS’s and PR’s as I always do, meal-prepping my future readings to avoid getting bored: first fiction, then maybe a memoir and some essays, but I could always go for more fiction, something yummy before something dense. But like your square meal, your reading list should include some diversity: some 18th mixed with 21st century, some male, more female, authors from around the world…

Divine providence struck with the gift of clear recollection. First-gen Egyptian-American that I am, I knew Egypt, and more broadly North Africa, had never been well-recognized by the global (read: Western) arts canon. I can’t name an Egyptian photographer, painter, sculptor or director. But we have a few singers, and one shining writer: 1988 Nobel Lit Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz. So far, my only exposure to Mahfouz had been reading “Miramar,” a politically driven novella that I borrowed from my grandmother a few years earlier, so I made the long trek to the PJ’s and found the first book in his lauded Cairo Trilogy. {spoilers ahead}

The trilogy spans the period between the Egyptian Revolution against the British and almost the end of World War II in 1944, touching on the lives of nearly three generations raised in Cairo. “Palace Walk,” the name of the first book and the street on which the central family lives, is a long introduction, with a rich but delicately composed prose, of the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. It is written in a precise, attentive style, sometimes feeling more biographical than fictional. And in a sense it is exactly that, an omniscient third-person recounting a biography of the al-Jawads and a histori-cultural map of Cairo. Though the Nobel was for a lifetime of accomplishment, the Cairo Trilogy and this book in particular are often cited in the West as some of his best work, with the Chicago Tribune calling it “a feast” and Newsweek comparing Mahfouz’s depiction of Cairo to Dickens’s London. But when I read the book I wasn’t sold, and I’d like to tell you why.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the patriarch, is tyrannical, revelry-loving, conservative Muslim and avowed alcoholic: in sum, a two-faced hypocrite. In the home, Ahmad is strict with his family, maintaining a severe persona in order, he thinks, to teach his wife, the docile Amina, and his five children what it means to be good middle-class Muslims. However, while not above corporal punishment and verbal abuse in the house, tongue lashing anyone who steps even a little out of line, Ahmad goes out every night without fail to get drunk and listen to music with his friends. His friends widely agree Ahmad is the life of the party, a pleasure without which a night of vice is incomplete. Among these vices wine, music and women are the most cherished. Ahmad engages in a seemingly interminable string of extra-marital affairs, choosing among musicians and women of high society almost without discernment. And this is where things get dicey for me.

Part of Mahfouz’s stunning talent as a writer is his ability to engage in the psychological, to plumb the interiority of his characters until it is absolutely clear to the audience why everyone does what they do. That is, provided they are men. Readers are often treated to page length descriptions of pure, gear-grinding thought, the kind that crystalizes the complexity of the characters. These are characters who deliberate endlessly, make a decision and then turn around in the next chapter and reverse it, the kinds of characters that are incredible to read because they are so human. It is the sincerity of emotion and reason behind each decision as well as the mercurial flip-flopping that Mahfouz imbues in his characters that make them feel so vivid. And I only wish that he would have given the same attention to the multitudes of women who are central to the plot. 

Nowadays, Egypt is a country with high rates among women of illiteracy, sex-based segregation, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation, technically illegal as of 2008, so it is an understatement to say that life for women is difficult in Egypt, particularly lower-class women who are disproportionately affected in all these stats. The book was written in the early fifties and published in ’56, a period which saw the expansion of the rights of women in Egypt, which would peak sometime in the ’70s before beginning a steep decline. While at first, I tried to excuse Mahfouz on the grounds of “different time, different place,” I found that wasn’t exactly the case. Yes, Mahfouz’s story is probably very much an attempt at accuracy to the historical period, one which certainly had clear roles and positions for women in society. But it isn’t enough to explain the writing itself, unless the argument is that the emaciated portraits of these women, who are either typically one-dimensional when central to the narrative, or otherwise props for plot development. 

Here I want to further complicate the history of the period by bringing in Doria Shafiq. Born December 14, 1908, in Tanta, a town in the Nile Delta (curiously, where my grandmother is from), Shafiq graduated at 16 with a French Baccalaureate (then the youngest Egyptian to do so) and at 19 got a scholarship from the Egyptian Government to do a PhD at the Sorbonne University in Paris. While in Paris, Shafiq wrote not one but TWO PhD theses: the first about a refutation of the utility of Ancient Egyptian Art and the second an argument that Islam provided women with ample equal rights. In the ’40s, Shafiq returns to Egypt to write for a Franco-Egyptian literary and cultural magazine and founds her own magazine for the education of women called Bint al Nil (Daughter of the Nile) which eventually becomes a fully government-sanctioned political party. She spearheaded the women’s liberation movement in the mid-’40s in Egypt, storming the parliament in ’51 and eventually securing the vote for women, as long as they were literate. It goes without saying that Doria Shafiq is kind of a badass and exactly the sort of powerful, intellectual woman who Naguib Mahfouz would have certainly known about, if not come into direct contact with, in the early ’50s, during his tenure as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Arts.

None of this is an attempt to invoke some kind of anecdotal tokenism, in the vein of, “oh, Mahfouz knew one woman so he should have known better.” Nor is it me trying to say that Mahfouz was regressive in his thinking about women, something which is likely impossible to know anyhow. What it is instead is a diasporic Egyptian reader trying to lead you through the process I underwent while reading this book. 

My mother, who reads fiction infrequently and mostly Nora Roberts or “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo, likes to ask me, during dinner, about whatever I’m reading, banter I enjoy. While I was maybe half-way through “Palace Walk,” we were having a tomato-pea-carrot stew that is a typical Egyptian dish, and I was trying to synthesize how I felt about the book, that action of putting into words something you weren’t really even thinking about while you’re reading. “The drama is juicy and the writing is good, though maybe a bit slow.” I pause, weighing the possibility of her disappointment. I proceed anyhow, “but honestly I don’t really like it. I don’t exactly know, it just feels … conservative.” But the answer doesn’t satisfy me, leaves me feeling like I’m missing the brilliance the Nobel Committee must have seen, so I call my older brother, my go-to for all art-related debate and confirmation. When I ask what he thought he responds, “Well, to be honest, I didn’t make it past halfway. The whole thing is just so conservative.” There it is, I think, confirmation. But he continues, “… like the way relationships are structured. All the women in the affairs are so flimsy and the rapes [of which there are two, committed by the middle son against two servant women] both go completely unaddressed, like, feel skipped over honestly.” This all resonates and I reply with my working thought, “Yeah, exactly. And meanwhile Kamal [the youngest son, about 10 years old] is busy embroiled in these long internal monologues about theology, which is absurd compared to the airtime Aisha’s and Khadija’s [the two daughters] thoughts get.” After more assenting and some discussions about life in quarantine, I hang up and go back to reading, but now I know what I’m looking for, at once a curse of confirmation bias as well as a boon in a critical reading sense.

And when I finish the book that is exactly my takeaway. The book is not in any sense bad; on the contrary, I flipped the last page hooked (thanks to a cliffhanger), thoroughly attached to Fahim [the elder son] and Kamal, and sympathetic to Amina. The writing is stunning as I imagine is true of the whole trilogy, and Al Gamaleyah (the district of Cairo where nearly everything takes place) is rendered vividly and beautifully, and that is even in the Hutchins and Kenny translation. But that fantastical rendering is interrupted every so often by exactly this conservatism, and I can’t help but feel disappointed. Thanks to having read “Miramar,” I think Mahfouz is absolutely worth reading, but I think I will probably be reading his later work from now on, work which feels more mature and is easier to read for its radical nationalism rather than its psychology. But if you’d rather not spend your time (and possibly money) on an author just because the elderly Swedish men gave him the thumbs up, but are still hoping to read a little bit of contemporary Egyptian Literature, I recommend these names (either available in translation or writing anyhow in English): Ahmed Naji, Iman Mersal, Mohamed Salmawy, Mansoura Ez-Eldin and Youssef Rakha. 

Contact Omar Rafik El-Sabrout at Omarel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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