Egypt between Tradition and Modernity: Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire

Photo of Sarah Zakzouk
26 December 2016

Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy offers a definitive portrayal of the changes and schisms in Egyptian society during the early 20th century. In the second part of her review of the trilogy, Sarah Zakzouk of the Arab Review looks at Palace of Desire, which sees the traditional Islamic values of Egypt come into conflict with Western modernity with painful consequences.

Saad Zaghloul Square Street, Luxor | © Marc Ryckaert / Wikimedia Commons

Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, the first part of his Cairo Trilogy, begins in 1917 during the First World War, ending in 1919 with the outbreak of the nationalist revolution. The second part, Palace of Desire, begins its story five years later in 1924, witness to the British negotiation with Saad Zaghlul of the Wafd Party. The novel ends with the leader’s death in 1927.

Palace of Desire presents a marked shift in time, attitudes and family dynamics. The novel opens with patriarch Ahmad abd al-Jawad ‘extracting from his caftan the gold watch.’ This immediate reference to time signals a change in pace in Mahfouz’s representation of the breakdown of the Jawad family structure. The shift of the coffee hour from the first floor to the ground floor, following the death of Fahmy, one of the Jawad sons, and the marriage of the two daughters, highlights a massive blow to the mother’s position in this important social event. We come to the point when Amina, the matriarch of the Jawad family and youngest son Kamal, are the only remaining patrons of the coffee hour.

© Black Swan

This change in dynamics is highlighted by the paradoxical nature of the two families that construct this narrative: the Jawads and the Shaddads. The Shaddad mansion in Palace of Desire is firmly lodged in the new state, a reflection of Egypt at this point, in its bid to emphasise its link with European culture and a Western style of living. The counter-space of the Shaddad mansion serves as a further blow to the pre-existing harmony of the Jawad house, which unfolds with the progression of the narrative, to become a desolate and lonely space, although it was once a place of vibrancy and family occasions.

The members of the Shaddad family present a far more Western mindset and lifestyle, reflected in their vales, opinions, and even down to their choice of food and drink; highly apparent in the picnic scene at the Pyramids. Where Kamal Jawad epitomises the traditional Egyptian, Husayn and Aida Shaddad represent modernity in the behaviours they bring to the table, so to speak. Husayn says: ‘Religion huh? A glass of beer doesn’t make you drunk, and ham is delicious and good for you.’

A devout Muslim, and upholder of Islamic traditions, Kamal is alien to the lifestyle and values of his Westernised friends, and their enjoyment of these forbidden foods. And yet he accepts their differences graciously, falling in love with Aida’s exoticism and international persona. Not only are Kamal’s emotions controlled by Aida, but his love for her begins to dictate his entire being, setting his character’s personal timeframe by the clock that controls his emotional state: ‘That happened before love, or B.L, and this took place after love A.L.’ Aida is glorified in such a manner, that she sets the pace of Kamal’s existence and growth as a man within the overall narrative. The elusive nature of Aida’s character is heightened by her familiarity with Western culture, marking the beginning of Kamal’s shift from Egyptian traditions and his exploration of his manhood.

‘Aida said something unintelligible in French…Using foreign words was a common practice for her, one that softened his extreme identification with the national tongue.’-Palace of Desire

This alteration in perception sees Kamal begin to indulge in the darker social scene, to which the other male members of his family have become familiar: alcohol and women. Their indulgence in such social pleasures indicates a running trait in the Jawad men. Yasin Jawad, eldest son in the Jawad family, is just like his father; ‘he had two personalities. One was reserved for friends and lovers, the other presented to his family and the world.’

We see the transparency of the belief systems which so many claim to practice, to profess and to preach, yet they themselves transgress to the depravities of alcohol, brothels and prostitutes. This is mirrored in the political undercurrent of the novel, the transparency of words, the value of language, and how its power can be used both for the good and equally to the detriment of the Egyptian people:

‘Patriotism is nothing for Saad [Zaghlul] but a rhetorical device to seduce the masses.’

– Palace of Desire

Saad Zaghloul | Courtesy Bibliotheca Alexandrina / Wikimedia Commons

The propagandising of events or words is a never ending theme in the discourse of the world to this day; the current political situation in Egypt is just one example of this. The appointment of Mohamed Morsi as president has divided the Egyptian people, with Morsi winning 51.7% of the votes, leaving the remaining 48.3% to be held by Ahmed Shafiq of the old Mubarak regime. Morsi has yet to appoint a parliament; the Egyptian people are held in an anxious state of anticipation and extreme hope for change and betterment for their country.

‘Nations survive and advance with brains and wise policies, and manpower – not through speeches and cheap populist agitations…I’m convinced that politics corrupts the mind and heart [Husayn Shaddad]’ – Palace of Desire

The power of the masses: this is the reason Egypt has been so successful in its recent revolutionary activity. As separate entities we are merely a minor microcosm within the larger macrocosm of existence: ‘Where was Palace Walk and Kamal’s ancient home in all of that? Where was his mother, who would be putting out water for the chickens now, near the jasmine arbour.’

We are reminded of the trivialities of life and the impact of our individual existence as human beings; Fahmy Jawad reached an untimely death in the first novel as a political activist caught up in the revolutionary onslaught. His presence is soon forgotten as the daily rituals of life continue without him. This is exemplified by the outbreak of typhoid, the looming discourse of death and the control the characters cease to have over their mortality. We witness the rapid spread of the typhoid fever, killing so many in its wake, including the majority of Aisha’s family. Aisha is the Jawad daughter known for her grace, beauty and elegance. These qualities begin to fade as she becomes overcome by angst, grief and tragedy, as we watch her family slowly deteriorate in health and succumb to death, until ‘there is nothing left of Khalil but a shadow, and the children are the same.’

Tragedy brings to a close the second part of this powerful trilogy, as we are reminded of the value of human life versus the power of the cause at large – ‘The English or typhoid, it’s all the same…like any other cause.’ This is juxtaposed by the creation of life taking part simultaneously within the narrative, as Yasin’s wife, Zanuba endures childbirth during this frantic period of life, death, hope and sadness.

Palace of Desire represents the end of an era: Saad Zaghlul has died. Only time will tell how these families regenerate and progress, how they deal with their loss and embrace their futures.

By Sarah Zakzouk

Read the first Part of Sarah’s review here: A Portrait of Egypt in Flux: Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk

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