Sunday, 11 September 2011

Palace Walk

Palace Walk - Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk is considered by many to be Nobel Prize winner Mahfouz's masterpiece. It is the first part of a trilogy of novels which tell the saga of one family in Cairo, and through their stories the wider story of Egypt in the 20th Century.  It explores power and it uses and abuses in the domestic, social and political arenas.

At the heart of the book is the charming but despotic father Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. His family consists of his wife Amina, three sons ( Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal) and two daughters (Khadija and Aisha). His eldest son, Yashin, is from a previous marriage which is the first sign of a crack in his self image. The narrative voice is interesting, flexible enough to reflect the self image of the characters within an ostensibly omniscient voice. This allows for the deployment of weapons grade irony, especially in the descriptions of Al-Sayyid and Yashin.

The book this most reminded me of was John McGahern's masterpiece Amongst Women. Although approaching in Palace Walk rather than receding as in Amongst Women  the shadow of revolution against the British is central to both books and is reflected in the family's relationship with a narcissistic, bullying father. There is an irony implicit in the way that supporters of a war for independence should be tyrants themselves.

Right at the start we learn something of how domestic life works when we are introduced to Al-Sayid's wife Amina who was married to him at the age of fourteen and has since lived a life of almost complete isolation in the house on Palace Walk. "She had been terrified of the night when she first lived in this house. She knew far more of the world of the jinn than that of mankind ..." And she is often alone, as Sayyid enjoys a life of dissolute and licentious pleasure. He squares this with his conscience by thinking it outweighed by his good deeds.
Amina does not question her husband on his life outside the home. "It had occurred to her once, during the first year she lived with him, to venture a polite objection to his repeated nights out. His response had been to seize her by the ears and tell her peremptorily in a loud voice, "I'm a man. I'm the one who commands and forbids...""
"She learned from this, and from the other lessons that followed, to adapt to everything, even living with the jinn, in order to escape the glare of his wrathful eye. It was her duty to obey him without reservation or condition. ..... She became convinced that true manliness, tyranny, and staying out till after midnight were common characteristics of a single entity."

All the women have to remain hidden within the house and only leave in their husband/father's company. The  only escape (for the daughters) is if someone asks for their hand in marriage. And then they will change houses, perhaps gaining some freedom in the move. The younger daughter Aisha challenges the authority in the house by a secret rebellion - "her thirst for even more romance conquered her oppressive fear and she had taken an insane step. She had opened the two panels of the window and stood there..." A woman should not be seen by a man before marriage. It is a disgrace. What will her father do if he finds out that she has been so 'brazen' as to allow herself be seen? "The way love can disregard fears, however, is an age-old wonder." Marriage is the only way out for the daughters and this causes tension as Khadija is not so beautiful as her younger sister but, in her father's eyes, she should marry first and therefore Amina must wait, even if she receives a proposal.

Sayyid has a different side which he shows to the outside world - "The truth was that he was dreaded and feared only in his own family. With everyone else - friends, acquaintances, and customers - he was a different person. He received his share of respect and esteem but above all else he was loved." He is proud of his diplomacy and ability to live a life dedicated to the pleasures of wine, women and song but not ever overstep the mark and keep his home respectable and his business thriving. He is a man with a very high opinion of himself.

The fact that his first marriage ended in divorce still irks him though. "He always got angry when news of her private affairs reached him. It appeared to reawaken his sense of responsibility for what she did, since she had once been his wife. He also seemed, even after such a long time, to be hurt by the fact that she had escaped from his discipline and had disobeyed his will....It was hardly surprising that a man as sure of himself as he was should see in the mere wish to disobey him an inexcusable crime and crushing defeat."

Yasin sees the duplicitous behavious of his father as a license to behave however he wishes. He externalises his lust saying it is "like a jinni on his back, guiding him wherever it wished." When a daughter in law comes into the house as Yasin's wife, Sayyid tries to control her too. "She was satisfied that she had not done anything wrong or disgraceful. Her conscience told her this and more, but she was unable to speak a single word when faced by his eyes, which demanded obedience and respect, and his large nose, which when his head was tilted back looked like a revolver aimed at her."

Fahmy is 'the good son' and seems to be heading for a successful life but this is complicated when he becomes involved in the independence movement. Rebellion is quashed brutally and  protesters are shot dead in the street. Amina is shocked by the fact that he puts himself in danger - independence can have little meaning for someone who hardly ever leaves her home, and then only with permission. "In her eyes, the nation was not worth the clipping from his fingernail." And although Sayyid supports the movement with money he does not put himself in danger or approve of his family doing so.

Youngest son Kamal lets us see the whole edifice of family and religion for what it is, a construct. He enjoys his position as a man which puts him above his sisters - "He never forgot the advantages he possessed, which inspired him frequently to lord it over them and brag, even for no reason at all." However his love for his sister means that when faced with the fact that women leave their family home once married he "wondered who had established the custom." He is constantly pushing at the boundaries to see what he can get away with and feels no compunction about lying to cover his tracks. He is not alone in this, all the family either lie or keep things from Sayyid in order to avoid his temper faling on themselves or anyone else.

This is great storytelling, with three dimensional characters moving between the domestic and the wider political world. It is saturated with the way religion affects peoples lives and how they use and feel about it. On one occasion a sermon directs Sayyid's thoughts to his sinful life. However, we discover the preacher may be no better, or maybe worse. One of Fahmy's friends has told him "He believes in two things: God in heaven and adolescent boys on earth. He's such a sensitive type that when he's in al-Husyan, his eye twitches if a lad moans in the citadel."  The comparisons to the 'theocracy' that reigned in Ireland don't need to be forced. It is a book full of humour, tragedy, anger and for this reader at least, much information on customs and history. I look forward to finding the two further books in the trilogy, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street.

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