by Naguib Mahfouz
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I’m going to propose an amendment: That all unhappy relationships between fathers and sons are alike. They’re all variations of The Brothers Karamazov. Not that Dostoevsky is included on the usual list of influences for Naguib Mahfouz’s 1956 novel, Palace Walk. It didn’t have to be. Its influence is written in our human DNA, regardless of language or culture.
Consider the similarities between Dostoevsky’s masterpiece and Mahfouz’s, whose version of the boozing, womanizing, tyrannical father is al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, father of three sons, one a half-brother to the others, thanks to dad’s multiple marriages. The oldest son is Yasin, the image of al-Sayyid Ahmad in everything except strength of personality. The middle son is the intellectual Fahmy. The third is Kamal, gentle and religious, and still too young to comprehend why his beloved sisters sleep in the same beds as their husbands.
Because there are sisters in Mahfouz’s version of the dysfunctional family that’s a stand in for Egypt’s political unrest in the early twentieth century. And a mother, al-Sayyid Ahmad’s beautiful second wife, Amina, whose love provides the emotional glue holding this unhappy family together. The women in Mahfouz’s story add a gentler element, but their story is part of the history of their country that opens in Palace Walk during World War I.
The politics that form the story’s backdrop are as complicated as the al-Jawad family. Although occupied by British military since the late nineteenth century, Egypt was still nominally under the control of the Turkish Ottomans. When the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany in World War I, Great Britain formalized its control of Egypt and the strategically-important Suez Canal through puppet rulers. Al-Sayyid Ahmad feeds a scrap of information about the investiture of one such ruler to his illiterate wife, Amina, who is delighted by any news of the outside world, having been effectively imprisoned by her husband in her own house for the twenty-five years of their marriage.
Time-warped Amina also believes that long-dead Queen Victoria is still the ruler of England, and will receive a delegation asking for Egypt’s independence with “a woman’s heart.” Amina’s husband doesn’t disabuse her of this notion. After all, he’s force fed her a culture of lies for their entire married life. Does he stay out until past midnight and then come home drunk? He insists his nightly escapes are innocent fun, enforcing his protests with verbal and physical abuse. For all her sweetness of nature, Amina passes this insidious culture of lies to her children. They, in turn, lie freely to their father, whose temper becomes ever more violent as his addiction to alcohol takes hold.
What could be more natural then that Fahmy, although considered the reasonable one in the family, will lie to his father about his involvement in Egypt’s nationalist party? Or that al-Sayyid Ahmad will believe the lie, choosing to lie even to himself as he watches protestors, including women like those in the illustration for this post, pour into the city.
It’s a lie that rings prophetically years after Mahfouz’s death. “Al-Sayyid Ahmad looked around. The place was almost packed with people. . . There was blessed safety in numbers. ‘They won’t slaughter this swarm of people,’ he reflected. ‘They wouldn’t take the innocent along with the guilty.’”
Mahfouz took the story of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad’s family to the third generation in his Cairo Trilogy of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street. He would live to become disillusioned with Egypt’s twentieth century revolution, receive the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, and survive a 1994 assassination attempt, dying at age 94 in 2006.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a June of tales about Texas and the Southwest with Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.)