Naguib Mahfouz, “Palace Walk” (1956) (translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive Kenny) – The first Arab winner of the Nobel prize in literature brings us to WWI-era Cairo in this, the beginning of the Cairo trilogy, which is the main work of his you can find in English. The al-Jawads, a respectable middle-class Shiite family (at least I assume Shiite by the way they constantly refer to the martyr Husayn), undergoes trials and tribulations.
At the center is Ahmad al-Jawad, family patriarch. He’s a man of contradictions, not to mention a hypocrite. Tyrannically traditional at home, glad handing with friends, and compulsively lascivious behind closed doors, Ahmad is set up for numerous falls in this book and probably more in the latter two. He has managed to cow his wife and five children but not truly shape them, except by accident, as various of his children inherit parts of his personality but inevitably take them in directions he dislikes. This ranges from lasciviousness with lower-class women to involvement in the Egyptian national struggle that heats up after the war ends. Moreover, he’s an emperor with no clothes to his family — sometimes almost literally — but as yet, they are in a stalemate between his hypocrisy and the terror he’s instilled in them through decades of harsh treatment.
Mahfouz has been compared to Dickens and I can see it, certainly Cairo is a living character for him the same way London was for Dickens. But it’s also a response-to-modernity novel of the kind you get from a lot of colonized places around this time. It’s interesting to watch the clash between Fahmy, the representative of 20th century style nationalism, and his parents Ahmad and Amina, both of whom want the British gone from Egypt… but the older generation regards any action towards that end as overly risky and vaguely impious, almost a non sequitur. Especially interesting in light of Mahfouz’s own relationship with Egyptian nationalism, as a latter day convert to Nasserism and a man stabbed almost to death for his support of Sadat and the Camp David accord. In general, a pretty good literary novel if you like that kind of thing. ****