Thank goodness Mahfouz broke this novel into such short chapters. The complexity of the human relationship, distilled to so exquisite a portrait, could not possibly bear up to a lengthier page count.
In this chapter, the bond between a mother and her two daughters is put to the test. Aisha, the youngest, is now engaged. But in the traditions of muslim families at this time, the eldest (Khadija) is supposed to marry first. Jealousy, condescension, false hope, meaningless encouragement: all of these follow suit, and what reader couldn’t have predicted as much?
Khadija “hated her happiness. Most of all she hated Aisha’s attempt to hide her happiness. She hated her beauty, which to Khadija’s eyes appeared to be an instrument of torture and oppression” (256). I’m reminded of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1891) and the inexplicable death of a beautiful sailor. Or that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton’s character, after pounding Jared Leto’s face to bloody pulp, says, “I felt like destroying something beautiful.” Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Sunday Morning” famously wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty.” But Mahfouz and Melville and Chuck Palahniuk remind me of something more sinister: that Death may be the mother of beauty, but it’s the human being, out of some twisted fear of beauty, who makes of Death a proud mother.
To add insult to injury, Khadija is asked to sew the bride’s dress. On the one hand, the request flatters her skillfulness, which she knows very well exceeds her little sister’s. Of that much she can be proud. But when it comes to love and longing, what are a few threads neatly woven? It’s just not enough. “Why did she achieve such poor results with her religious devotion while Aisha was richly rewarded for being slack?” (258), asks the narrator.
Of course, this book gazes directly into the void of hopefulness. Whatever the religious context, it all goes back to Pandora, doesn’t it? You sometimes hear scholars ask what Hope was doing in a box supposedly full only of horrible and monstrous powers. Palace Walk, the first novel in this Cairo Trilogy, takes place in the aftermath of WWI. And after all the utopian nationalism of the late nineteenth century, wasn’t it the early twentieth century that taught us how dangerous hope can be? Okay, okay, settle down, Collier, you’re extrapolating an awful lot from poor Khadija’s situation. Let’s see where this goes . . .