Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (1956-1957; Everyman’s Library, 2001): Ch. 40 of Palace Walk: 271 – 294

I have a feeling I’m going to be making lots of associations between what I know about religious fundamentalism in the hands (to revise Jonathan Edwards just a little) of an angry father. And I don’t just mean a particular father. I mean in the control of heartless, power-hungry men.

Chapter 40 covers Aisha’s marriage to Khalil. For most people at the wedding (and all of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s children), festivities this indulgent of pleasure are sheer mysteries. And I just want to point out two particular scenes. The first is where Fahmy, the middle brother, learns his father is not a righteous man. And the second scene shows the youngest brother, Kamal, being punished for asking an innocent question.

Yasin, the older brother, tells Fahmy that their father is a philanderer. He’s been seen galavanting with other women. He’s been seen drinking and singing. In other words, the pious, severe, lord of the manor they thought they knew is a total sham. Fahmy repeats what he’s just been told, as if in a daze, and puzzles over what it could mean, the contradiction of it all, the seeming impossibility of it:

“My father goes to Zubayda’s house to drink, sing, and play tambourine. . . . My father allows Jalila to tease him and be affectionate with him. . . . My father gets drunk and commits adultery. How could all this be true? then he wouldn’t be the father he knew at home, a man of exemplary piety and resolve. Which was correct? I can almost hear him now reciting, ‘God is most great. . . . God is most great’. So how is he at reciting songs? A life of deception and hypocrisy? . . . But he’s sincere. Sincere when he raises his head in prayer. Sincere when he’s angry. Is my father depraved or is licentiousness a virtue?” (291).

He turns to Yasin, “I can’t imagine that anything you’ve said could have happened.” And Yasin:

“Why? . . . Laugh and enjoy the world. He sings. So what’s wrong about singing? He gets drunk, and believe me, drinking is even better than eating. He has affairs and so did the Muslim caliphs. Read about it in the ancient poems contained in Abu Tammam’s anthology Diwan al-Hamasa or see its marginal glosses. Our father isn’t doing anything sinful. Shout with me, ‘Long live al-Sayyid Ahmad And al-Jawad! Long live our father!’ I’ll leave you for a moment while I visit the bottle I hid under a chair for just such an occasion” (292).

Fahmy is bewildered. He’s got to wrestle his angels now. He has to confront the question: If this is a moral man, what is morality? Everything he’s been taught as true, just, and ordered as god has ordained is a lie, and not just a lie, but a lie designed to keep its manufacturer free of suspicion, blame, responsibility, and most importantly, consequences for the crimes he’s committed against those who depend on him most. It’s the start of an arduous psychological journal for Fahmy who is a long way from seeing the freedom that Yasin sees in this revelation.

Meanwhile, that lie is just now beginning to twist Kamal’s reality. Kamal, the youngest son, the true innocent, tells his mother he’s seen his sister, Aisha, kissing her fiancĂ© through a keyhole. She hits him. He says it again, astonished and confused by his mother’s reaction. She hits him harder! “He realized that he had certainly done something wrong without knowing it. He fell silent and was afraid” (294).

Heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. Mahfouz captures so cleanly and so precisely the origins, crises, and results of ideologies like the ones described in Palace Walk. Reading on . . .