Jul 22, 11
Read from July 07 to 22, 2011
“Men have the right to anything they want and women have a duty to obey” is the philosophy upon which this cast of characters operates, and it sets the stage for moral outrage on the part of western readers, and self destruction on the part of some characters as their world is torn asunder with change.
Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a successful shopkeeper living in the Cairo neighbourhood of Palace Walk, is literally the king of his domain, ruling his family with a fundamentalist fist, while living a profligate life outside of it by engaging in wine, women and song. He is out every evening boozing, partying and womanizing. Yet his wife, Amina, is only allowed to leave the house to visit her sick mother. His two grown-up daughters do not go to school and have to live in the same confined quarters with their mother. His three sons have greater freedom of movement (they get to go to school or to work) but dare not challenge their father on any issue, least of all on his choice of their future wives.
Understandably, this repression leads to combustion. Yasin the eldest son, takes on his father’s taste for sexual intrigue but can only get it on with women of the lower classes; the middle son Fahmy joins the revolutionary movement sweeping Egypt at the culmination of WWI when the country wants to be free of being a British protectorate, and Kamal, the youngest, whom I thought could have been an semi-autobiographical clone of the writer, is the free spirit who roams about pouting indiscriminate and naive statements that get his older siblings into trouble with their father. The daughters, the unattractive and caustic Khadija, and the beautiful but vain Aisha, are solely pre-occupied with getting married to someone of their social class who can liberate them from their father’s clutches even if to render them prisoners once more within their future husband’s family. The interesting fact is that both the men and the women of the al-Jawad household are stable within this role-based life and no one is seen to be doing anything wrong, least of all Ahmad in the eyes of his women-folk.
In this insulated household, how does Amina conceal an accident that causes her injury when visiting a mosque she was forbidden to visit, how does Yasin deal with being caught sleeping with his wife’s maid, how does Fahmy disguise ‘handing out pamphlets’ from his father, and how does Ahmad himself explain to the British military why he is out late at night during a curfew? The answer is to lie. Concealment becomes second nature within this family.
And then life intervenes into Ahmad’s perfect world. Ahmad who is willing to support nationalism from a distance as long as it does not interfere with his lifestyle or family, is gradually drawn into the changes that are sweeping across his country and pays a huge price; and so does his family. The book leaves him suffering but enlightened and not yet out for the count (there are two more books in this trilogy) and one is curious to see where Ahmad and his way of life will end up as the country matures and goes through yet another world war and more upheaval in the Middle East. Not very far I would conclude, even after nearly a hundred years, considering that Egypt went through another convulsion to expel a dictatorial regime this year, and has launched a website called Harass Net to combat the sexual harassment of women.
I found the writing sensitively rendered but laboured. The omniscient narrator plumbs deep into the minds, hearts and motives of each of the principle characters, leaving little to the reader’s imagination. There is dialogue followed by explanation of the dialogue, then more dialogue and more explanation and I wondered whether the English translation suffers due to the original text being in classical Arabic. And yet some scenes are diabolic (Ahmad expelling his injured wife from his house) and others hilarious (Ahmad seducing the actress Zubayda with a delicate mixture of poetry, innuendo and fawning).
Nevertheless, I continued through this very long book, engaged with this family, dysfunctional though it may appear by western standards, whose members, including our anti-hero Ahmad, have endearing sides to them. Ahmad emerges from the pages as a truly unforgettable literary character, warts and all. After all, how can you fault a benign sociopath who believes that he is doing the right thing?
Perhaps, in consenting to this English translation, Naguib Mahfouz was trying to caution westerners to beware of trying to bridge cultures with political interference, wars, education or trade. Perhaps each culture needs its own route to evolution and should be judged on its own merits.