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Δευτέρα, 21 Μαΐου 2007


Palace Walk is set in Cairo, and covers the time between 1917 and the Egyptian revolution of 1919. Most of the book, however, is set inside a single house, both a haven and an isolated island. The outside world is held at bay here -- more, and then less effectively -- and one of the major themes of the novel is the constant (and ultimately futile) struggle to have time stand still. Change presses inexorably against tradition, and even the walls of the house can not keep it outside . The great changes going on outside eventually intrude even here.Palace Walk is the story of the Jawad family, and Mahfouz begins his novel not with the dominant head of the household but with the mother, Amina -- the one who is always at home. She is entirely subservient to her husband ("My opinion is the same as yours, sir. I have no opinion of my own", she dutifully tells him), having reconciled herself "to a type of security based on surrender". Surrounded by her family -- two daughters, two sons, and a stepson -- she is content with her lot, despite the fact that her strict husband forbids her to go out alone, which means she spends almost her entire life entirely within the confines of the house.The father, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, is a shopkeeper. A strict disciplinarian, his entire family respects him but also lives in considerable fear of him. His expectations are so high, and he so demanding, that a good deal is actually kept from him: white lies and evasiveness are the norm, meaning that he often isn't entirely aware of what is going on.Ostensibly a devout Muslim, he nevertheless enjoys revelling and carousing with his close friends, coming home drunk night after night, having enjoyed wine, women, and song. As a woman he is trying to seduce recognises: "On the outside you are dignified and pious, but inside you're licentious and debauched." From his own family he demands a much stricter adherence to Islam and tradition, and it is unthinkable, for example, that his wife or daughters might go out into the street without his permission or company, even if they are properly veiled. One of the major catastrophes in the book comes when Amina does allow herself to be convinced by her children to venture out and is hit by a car: al-Sayyid Ahmad sends her home to her mother in disgust at the dishonour she has brought upon him and his family by her actions.There are five children. The eldest son, Yasin, is not Amina's, but rather the son of a previous relationship al-Sayyid Ahmad had. Yasin lived with his real mother until he was nine, and then was "transferred to his father's custody". He is happy living in this household, and convinces himself that his stepmother "is all the mother I need", but his real mother resurfaces as an inescapable part of his life. Yasin, who is already working, takes after his father in his desire for personal gratification: drink and especially sex tempt him greatly. And while his brother Fahmy is shocked when he learns of their father's hard-drinking, womanising after-hours lifestyle Yasin is relieved and thrilled -- because that is exactly the life he'd like to lead.Fahmy is a university student: serious, devout, and with a budding political conscience, the one in the family who becomes most engaged in the national struggle for change. The youngest child is Kamal, still a schoolboy, and still able to get away with playing and acting childishly.The daughters are Khadija, already twenty when the book begins, and Aisha, who is sixteen. Aisha is the beauty, her only fault being that she is too skinny (plumpness is seen as being highly desirable, and there's a continuing effort to fatten the girls up throughout much of the book). One of the problems facing the family is that Khadija is not yet married, and that it's unseemly for the younger daughter to get married first; nevertheless, in a small break with tradition, Aisha is eventually married off first. The daughters live in complete isolation: they do not go to school and can not show their faces in public. Their parents' proudest achievement seems to be being able to say: "No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls." The girls' lives revolve entirely around the family household, where they help their mother, looking forward dreamily only to their one great ambition: to get married. Even within the house there is some segregation, as it is unthinkable that the women would eat at the same table as al-Sayyid Ahmad. This state of affairs is treated as entirely normal: they know no other lifestyle. Still, change is in the air. Other families do allow their women to go out in public. But it remains unthinkable in the Jawad household: Yasin, who eventually does get married (though that doesn't turn out quite the way he'd hoped), causes a major scandal when he takes his wife for an evening on the town, his father outraged that he would disgrace his family in this way.Yasin marries the daughter of one of al-Sayyid Ahmad's friends, but it is not a happy union. The irresponsible Yasin, still living at home, is quickly bored by married life. He's the type who, when praying:
He would not ask for repentance, since he secretly feared his prayer might be granted and he would be turned into an ascetic with no taste for the pleasures of life he loved and without which he thought life would be meaningless.His wife, Zaynab, used to greater liberties in her father's household finds that already after a month "her character had been infected with the virus of submission"so prevalent in the Jawad household, but she won't put up with absolutely everything.Yasin's behaviour becomes intolerable and the marriage collapses (despite her becoming pregnant). Aisha and then Khadija are also married, but they move away -- becoming peripheral to the story for the time being. Kamal, in particular, is disturbed by the change marriage brings with it: even though he can still visit his sisters, they seem entirely different, and the household -- now with only the three sons living at home -- becomes a different sort of place as well.Al-Sayyid Ahmad has great difficulty in dealing with the world at large, especially with regards to his family. He wants to be in complete control, and in his house he is assured of that, as everyone does exactly as he demands (and lives in great fear of him, while also loving and respecting him). To him fathering girls is "an evil against which we are defenseless"; he loves his daughters, but fears having to hand them over to others (as he has to when they marry), when he will no longer be able to protect them -- and control every aspect of their lives. His boys, too, can't escape his overprotective and hidebound ways:
His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history. he alone would set their course for them, not the revolution, the times, or the rest of humanity. The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household.Yasin is just a libertine (in his father's mould), and Kamal is still too young to get into real trouble, but Fahmy becomes politically active. Revolutionary fervour grips him: he finds himself "motivated by the most sublime and most hideous emotions: patriotism and a desire to kill and devastate". Eventually, "he reached far-flung horizons of lofty sentiment" (yes, there are translation-issues here ...), swept up in the excitement of the turbulent times and playing an ever-larger role in it. The foreigners -- the unruly Australians, as well as the English colonialists -- are always a presence. Eventually the English are literally at the door of the Jawad household, setting up camp to control the demonstrations that break out all over Cairo. Kamal becomes friendly with the soldiers, but the others fear them and are more ambivalent. Politics, in which even Amina is interested, is complicated, many facts unknown. The relationship with the English is complicated, as for example:
Yasin probably detested the English as all Egyptians did, but deep inside he respected and venerated them so much that he frequently imagined that they were made from a different stuff than the rest of mankind.Yasin is overwhelmed when an Englishman actually speaks to him -- and thanks him (for some matches). Later, this brief meeting will put him in considerable danger.The book closes with what seems the promise of success for the revolution and a peaceful transition to Egyptian independence, but it is not to be, at least for the Jawad family.Palace Walk is very much a family portrait. A few other figures play significant roles -- the girl next door, some of al-Sayyid Ahmad's close friends, the women father and son enjoy themselves with -- but the focus is very much on the Jawad household, and the house on Palace Walk (so much so that when the daughters move out they too become of secondary significance). Each family member is well-developed, and each serves a purpose -- Kamal, who sees things through a child's eyes, playboy Yasin, political Fahmy, beautiful Aisha, serious Khadija. There are small and big family crises, with the firm hand of the pater familias dominating all -- and yet the threat of a changing world is constantly at the door. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a completely dominating father-figure, but he is also loved and respected. The children want to be in his favour, and their transgressions cause them considerable pain, mainly because they don't want to disappoint their father. The odd family dynamics are disturbing, but fairly well-presented by Mahfouz, the figures only slightly too simply drawn (it's hard to imagine that all would be so entirely uncritically subservient to the old man). Mahfouz allows the story to unfold very slowly. In 71 short chapters he moves from person to person, incident to incident. From concerns about marriage and honour to the true dangers of the uprisings, there are a variety of occurrences: a great deal does happen. Some things are missing -- there's almost no sense of how the daughters manage the transition to married life -- but Mahfouz offers a broad, impressive canvas. It makes for a good, if only introductory, picture of a society in the midst of wrenching change.Palace Walk isn't a fast-paced, action-packed novel, but it is a rich, rewarding, and always entertaining read.

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