How is the traditional system of values, as it is depicted in Palace Walk, different from the values of a modern person like the character Fahmi?
Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk provides an insight into 19th Century Egyptian society and the social, political and philosophical changes that take place during this dramatic period. Published in 1954, the book offers a highly detailed account of a society in the midst of transition from tradition to modernity and interweaves a family’s life story with the emergence of the Egyptian Nationalist Movement.
This essay aims to illustrate the existence of traditional values during this period and how the family members, especially Fahmy, the second oldest son copes with this dichotomy. The character of Fahmi is modern in his approach and is a university student with a budding political conscience. Fahmi is caught in between the family’s emphasis on following the traditional path adopted by his family and his personal aspirations of participating in the Revolution in which he eventually dies.
- The Plot : Traditional system of values depicted in Palace Walk
In Palace Walks, the first novel in the Cairo Trilogy, Mahfouz portrays the emergence of a middle class through the lives of the Abd-al Jawad family. Set in a traditional eastern Islamic country, the society during this time is grounded in religion as the basis of living daily life. Mahfouz gives us an insight of the importance of tradition in this society and how the characters in the novel interpret tradition. For example, the society is patriarchal and the character of Al- Sayyid Ahmad is the patriarch of his family and a very strict disciplinarian. A devout Muslim, Sayyid, expects from his family- his wife, three sons and two daughters, strict adherence to Islam and tradition. At home he is a tyrant who has forbidden his wife Amina and daughters to step outside the walls of the house without his permission or company, even if they are properly veiled.
Despite being a devout Muslim, Sayyid nevertheless enjoys reveling and demonstrates a dual identity of being a tyrant at home and indulging in late nights, alcohols and mistresses with his merchant friends. One of Sayyid’s mistresses’ comment on his dual nature, where she comments: “On the outside you are dignified and pious, but inside you're licentious and debauched."
Another theme that emerges in the novel is role of the matriarch which is represented by the character of Amina, wife of Sayyid. The character of Amina, is entirely subservient to her husband’s nature and spends her time with her family- two daughters, two sons, and a stepson. She is content with her position in the household and does not demand any sort of freedom. One can see her subservient nature when she responds to her husband in the novel “"My opinion is the same as yours, sir. I have no opinion of my own" (Mahfouz 26). Another instance in the novel, which reflects the status of women in society during that period is the event of Amina’s visit to the shrine of Al- Husayn. Amina allows herself to be convinced by her children to visit the shrine on her own and is banned from the household by her husband who views this as a formidable act of disobedience. This is a very strong theme of tradition and reflects how women were unable to make their own decisions. Women in Egyptian society during this time had very little independence and were mostly dependent on their husbands or male relatives to make decisions for them. A woman’s role was limited to household chores and raising children (Oersen 7).
Despite these themes of tradition system of values , Mahfouz artfully brings to the forefront in the plot the dichotomy some of the family members’ experience. On one hand they acknowledge the existence of tradition in their life, but also yearn for something new to experience. Mahfouz in an article describing his experience about growing up during that period writes, “The yearnings each of them feels to escape a tyranny they are bound to by religious law but a tyranny that they also love and respect” (Mahfouz 57).
According to Mahfouz, the First World War and the 1919 Egyptian revolution marked a dramatic change in the traditional Muslim family structure and religion influencing daily life. This can be observed in Fahmy’s character, who initially adjusts to the idea of a traditional family structure and does not oppose his father’s tyranny. Another instance in the novel is Fahmy’s fondness towards his neighbor, Maryam, but cannot bring himself to take any action.
Later in the novel, with the outbreak of the 1919 revolution, Fahmy openly violates his father’s authority and becomes an active member of the nationalist youth movement. This act can be seen as Fahmy’s turning point in openly accepting the ideas of modernity. Influenced by the ideas of modern education at law school, which included political and philosophical literature, he began to believe in the concept of self- identity and equality. Even his faith in religion was inspired by Islamic modernism, which promoted an intellectual rationalistic outlook, unlike his parents who believed in orthodox Islam.
Ahmad on the other hand, cannot accept the betrayal of his son and views this act as a threat to his personal authority. This conflict in family values and principles, was unheard of in traditional Islamic societies, as it was considered that both father and son would adhere to the same traditional values. As Ahmad's power diminishes, family relations are on their way towards modernity.
Fahmy’s resolution to be a part of the nationalist movement may be seen as how a society steeped in religion, disillusionment with its ruling class and traditional ideals can be open to philosophical investigations. Fahmy openly embraced modern European ideas of society, science and self-identity. The outcome of this transition from tradition to modernity was a mixture of Arabic tradition and European philosophy.
The other instance of transition highlighted in the novel is the active participation in Egyptian politics of members of society that had been sidelined. The 1919 revolution was the first revolution in the history of modern Egypt and introduced new social forces to the political arena.
In Palace Walks, one can see how the character of Fahmy ha struggled with the role of tradition in his family and his own personal aspirations of embracing something new. While he acknowledged the role his father played as the head of the household, he did struggle with convincing his family about the importance of education and his participation in the revolution. Concepts of secularism and rational Islamic thought through modern education, rise of the middle classes and impact of western culture, emancipation of women in the Arab world all became attractive to him. Piper in his review of the novel writes, Mahfouz therefore portrays the collapse of the "old traditions" and the "advent of the new modern ideas of tomorrow”. Fahmy recognized these concepts and stepped away from the religious authority determining his daily life by taking part in the Revolution.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. Trans. William Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny. Cairo: AUC Press, 1989. Print
Oersen, Sheridene Barbara. The Representation of Women in four of Naguib Mahfouz’s Realist Novels: Palace Walk, Palace Of Desire, Sugar Street and Midaq Alley. Diss. University of Western Cape, 2005. Print.
Pipes, Daniel, “Review of Palace Walks”. Washington Times, February 12, 1990. Web.