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Islamic Culture - as displayed in Palace Walk
When Naguib Mahfouz wrote Palace Walk in 1956, he probably did not suspect that it would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. The novel has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the modern era. It has also become a cornerstone in the curriculum of many literature courses throughout universities worldwide. Mahfouz’s work details everyday life of an upper middle-class family in early twentieth-century Egypt. This makes it a powerful tool that helps to explain the Islamic culture through examples. This happens in part because Mahfouz is a practicing Moslem, and also because the novel shows how a typical Islamic family lives and works on a daily basis. There are important elements that undermine the basis of the religion, including the role of women, the role of the patriarch, dating and marriage customs, and also how the Egyptian people attempt to free their country from British rule. I would like to analyze these elements, so that the reader may understand more the culture that is being displayed not only in this brilliant novel, but in the world around us.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
Women play a much different role in Moslem cultures than they do in traditional Christianity. In Palace Walk, one of the most important characters is Amina, wife of al-Jawad. She is displayed as a traditional Islamic woman; she is obedient, deeply religious, and very protective of her family.
As a housewife, she is the first to rise every morning, and the last one to bed at night. She prepares breakfast, sees the children off to school and al-Jawad off to work, and cleans the house along with the help of the housekeeper. She takes care of everyone but herself, even though she is the true center of the household, as evidenced when she is sent away by al-Jawad. Even though she is confined to the house by al-Jawad, as the novel progresses she becomes more bold, until her injury on the visit to the Mosque. Her meekness returns, and she confesses to al-Jawad. This is a trait that is expected of Islamic women; they are to be obedient of their husbands, and are to yield to them with utmost respect. In fact, if a woman’s husband dies, she will have trouble remarrying. Widows are not desirable in Moslem culture.
Amina’s devotion to her faith is unquestionable. In the early pages of the novel, she struggles with her fear of the jinn, and eventually calms herself by telling them, “Have you no respect for those who worship God the Merciful? He will protect us from you, so do use the favor of going away” (4). This is a common reaction for Amina, and also for many Moslem women (as well as men). When in doubt, you are taught to place your faith in God, and He will deliver you.
A typical Moslem woman would be expected to carry these traits, although in recent years, there have been many reformists who have defied the role of a traditional woman yet still retained their respectability.
THE ROLE OF THE PATRIARCH
Al-Jawad, as head of the family, demands allegiance to tradition, which is expected of most Moslems. Where al-Jawad seemingly oversteps his bounds is the way in which he enforces these demands (key word: seemingly). He behaves as a tyrant, and gives his orders without question. However, if we take a close look at Islam, we learn that this is actually not a radical stance for a man to take in a household. The patriarch of the family should have the final say in all matters, and should be treated with only the highest level of obedience.
A man should always lead by example, in faith and in dignity. He should be caring, moral, and devoted to God. Al-Jawad is indeed devoted to God, but he lags behind in the other two categories. The only reason he spares Amina his anger after she tells him about the trip to the Mosque is because he is worried what others may think of him if he treats his injured wife badly. While he does the right thing, he does the right thing for the wrong reasons. We learn that he falls short of the moral standard by drinking, lying, and cheating. It would be impossible for a man to lead by example if he is not moral. Morality is a large issue in Islam, particularly for the head of the household. As Chaucer said, “If gold rusts, what then shall iron do?”
How do we know that al-Jawad does not live up to standard? By analyzing the conversation between al-Jawad and Shaykh Mutawalli, we learn that al-Jawad is fond of women, and carries on many affairs behind his family’s back (40). Al-Jawad also lies (although half-jokingly) to Mutawalli, claiming that he has never had illicit relationships, regardless of the fact that he chases women. The reaction of Mutawalli shows that al-Jawad’s behavior is substandard for an Islamic man.
DATING AND MARRIAGE CUSTOMS
There are several important cultural dating customs displayed in Palace Walk. Two young people are not to see each other before they are wed; the marriages are arranged by the families. When Aisha goes to marry, we learn that the families suspect they have seen each other because the marriage invitation comes literally out of nowhere. It would have be highly unacceptable for two teenagers to see each other, let alone carry out a relationship before they are wed.
A marriage itself in Islam is a grand affair. At many times, it appears more like a large party than a wedding ceremony. There are singers and dancers, festive decorations, and large wedding processions (252-253). Aisha’s wedding is displayed prominently in the novel, but it is highly discouraged that a younger sibling be married before an older one. Khadija is the oldest daughter, and therefore al-Jawad wants her to marry first, though he eventually gives in (228).
RESISTANCE TO OUTSIDE RULE
Britain held Egypt as a protectorate through the course of Palace Walk, but Egypt found its own ways to revolt, without employing warfare. Fahmy becomes involved in a protest organization, and becomes well-known. The protests are largely peaceful, though the British do fire upon the protestors toward the end of the novel, leading to Fahmy’s death.
Contrary to popular belief, Moslems are a peace-loving people. They would rather gain their freedom through non-violent means (such as protesting). I understand that this fact has become diluted in recent times, ala Al-Qaeda and September 11th. But if you read deeply into the characters, especially Fahmy, you can see that they value peace above war. In fact, his last conversation before his death involves trying to assure everyone the demonstration is peaceful (492).
The Qur’an teaches Moslems on several occasions that they should resist domination, but not with aggression. It claims that God does not love aggressors, and therefore, God’s followers should not be aggressors. Many Moslems agree whole-heartedly with this, including a close friend of mine. Islamic extremists (such as Al-Qaeda or Al-Aqsa) use anti-domination sentiments to attempt to provoke Moslems into attacking and killing civilians in order to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. This is clearly not the tactics that we see Moslems portrayed as using in Palace Walk, nor in the Qur’an (See: Commentary).
The examples of culture shown in Palace Walk are true-to-life. Moslems have a very simple yet rich culture, which is likely why it has become the fastest-growing religion. It was once said that it was also the fastest growing religion in the United States, as well. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz opens up the Islamic culture to unfamiliar readers with this classic work, and does a very fine job of working the traditions, customs, and beliefs into the plot so flawlessly. Hopefully, by reading Palace Walk and noting the areas where the characters are provoked or influenced by a notion of custom or duty, one should be able to tell volumes about the culture of the Middle East.
Note to Reader: The majority of this lengthy commentary is to let the reader know where I stand on the issue of Islam vs. Christianity, and to provide background information on the religion that the reader may not be otherwise aware of.
September 11th, 2001, was a day that none of us will soon forget. Attacks perpetuated by Islamic extremists left thousands of innocent Americans dead, the World Trade Center destroyed, and a nation in mourning. The grief soon turned to outrage, and Americans began wrongfully turning their anger toward Arab-Americans and other ethnic groups of Middle-Eastern descent. Despite numerous attempts by the United States government and certain activist groups to end the hostilities, Americans continued to practice their persecution. Racial profiling ran amouk, and among those that came increasingly under fire were practicing Moslems.
The Islamic faith that is promoted by terror organizations such as al-Qaida and al-Aqsa is not the religion that is practiced by more than one-fifth of the Earth’s inhabitants. Islam follows a simple doctrine, which is why it has become so very popular in the last several decades. There are five basic pillars of Islam that every Moslem should follow. They include: praying five times a day (before sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening), giving alms to the poor, reciting the Creed of Islam, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and (if you are able) completing a pilgrimage to Mecca. I would like to point out that nowhere in the above text is it mentioned that it is mandatory for Moslems to hate America.
The radical groups responsible for September 11th would like each of us to believe that every Moslem’s duty is to kill an American. Not only is this a deliberate lie used to manifest evil intentions, it contradicts the full basis of the religion. The notion of jihad (holy war), does exist, but only in the context of defending one’s own country and/or religious heritage. In fact, the Qur’an is very clear about its instructions, stating: “Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors” (Qur’an 2:190-192).
Given this evidence, why do Americans still choose to believe that Moslems are a violent group with deep anti-U.S. sentiments? The answer is less than difficult to grasp. Many Americans simply do not care to learn about Islam, rather, they prefer to remain ignorant in their ways, clinging to the idea of defense. Do we honestly want to be portrayed as ignorant? Think of all the terms you hear that define the United States. Terms such as: beacon of freedom, cultural mixing pot, democracy in action, equal rights, etc. How can we justify the bearing of any of these terms if we are nothing more than a nation of undecucated bigots? A deeper understanding of Islamic cultures must be called for, so that we may understand that ordinary Moslems are not our enemy.
The Koran. New York: Crescent, 1974.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. Eds. William Maynard Hutchins et al. New York: Doubleday, 1956.