If she had had even half the naivete and unflinching belief in her husband of her blissfully ignorant mother-in-law, she may have had the opportunity to endure a long marriage. Like many other women, Amina has to depend on the males around her as a source of information.
A deeply religious woman, she insists that when her youngest son Kamal returns from school in the afternoon, he report on the lessons taught to the class by the religious instructor. She is deeply disturbed by what Kamal tells her one day, that the earth does not rest on the head of an ox but rotates on its own axis in space.
The young man thought that he should be gentle with her and answer in language she would like. He told her that the earth is held up by the power and wisdom of God. His mother left content with this answer, which pleased her, and the large ox was not erased from her imagination. Being illiterate as well, she has no means of questioning these sources. She is permitted to pray at the mosque and visit her mother on occasion, although she takes no liberties despite her newfound freedom.
It is not simply their moral dilemma; instead it is a predicament in which I think Mahfouz must have found himself. In order to depict the lives of the average Egyptian middle classes, he had to be as faithful to actual circumstances as possible. This encompassed the reservation of judgement, regardless of the behaviour of the characters.
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The punishment meted out to them would have to be in line with reality. More than anything, God is forgiving and merciful.
His gender affords him special status: he will be forgiven for sexual misconduct but a visit to the mosque by his wife who was fully covered in the prescribed traditional apparel was unforgivable. In other words, there will be a natural tendency of bias towards certain characters in this particular case. Mahfouz has admitted that Kamal, the youngest of the Abd Al Jawad children, is an autobiographical character. I think that through the sensitive and introspective Kamal, the author voices his most direct criticism.
Even when Kamal is a child, he questions traditions such as marriage. How can anyone be happy when separated from his mother? She told me that one night in her bed. However, as the narrative progresses and Kamal becomes older, Mahfouz shows how society begins to corrupt his reasoning and he becomes a disillusioned adult. It is a recurrent idea; there is no such thing as individual freedom. The individual is always a product of the society in which they find themselves. Could this be why Nawal El Saadawi maintains that she has never read a male writer who has not transcended the age-old traditions of depicting women?
Mahfouz seems to accept a sense of social determinism, both for himself as author and for such a potentially liberated character as Kamal. She plays a vital role in the male regulation of female sexuality for the purposes of maintaining a hierarchical social order based on respectability. It is only fair, for example, that criticism of the division between the female characters in the Cairo Trilogy is accompanied by some sort of recommendation and Mondal does not provide any. In Egypt, the reality at the time was that so-called respectable women had particular traits and there were certain subjects with which they were never associated, such as desire or sexual pleasure.
The world was viewed from a black and white perspective: either a woman was good or she was bad. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled. As a male, Mahfouz would belong to the West, which automatically places him in a position of power. His perspective, no matter the insight and empathy, remains outside the realm of the actual female experience. As a well-read person who had delved into philosophy, he must have realised that as a man, he could not possibly do justice to the psyche of a woman.
The male characters also in a sense have a limited functionary status, for I suggest it is they whom Mahfouz really wishes to examine and expose. She believes that men everywhere are licentious, regardless of the geography. It is unfortunate, though, that all the women in the Cairo Trilogy are turned into victims as a result of the men in their lives. Besides the fact that their father, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, would never have permitted his daughters to attend school for fear that their honour would be tainted by being seen in public, education was only readily available to the upper classes in Egypt during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
This is the year which sees the end of all the drama in the Cairo Trilogy; the new dispensation is too late, though, for Aisha and Khadija as they are already mature mothers and members of yet another generation of ignorant women. I have no opinion of my own.
She sees no harm in visiting her father occasionally. The great tragedy, however, is that when Yasin returns to live with his father at the prescribed age, he grows to despise his mother. It appears as though he places the blame for the dissolution of the marriage on Haniya, the disobedient woman who refused to be physically abused. The most interesting and disturbing tale is the metamorphosis of Zanuba, the lute player. In Palace Walk , she is basically a sex worker and the object of desire for Yasin. Many would even consider her fortunate, as Arab men preferred marrying virgins.
So, it appears as if Yasin emancipates her from a life of depravity by making her a so-called respectable woman. The irony is that she is liberated from one category only to be confined to yet another. Yet, the only point in the narrative where she has a feature role is when Yasin returns home drunk one night and finds her sleeping in her usual place in the kitchen. Overtaken by lust, he falls on her, puts his hand over her mouth and begins caressing her. Go to your room. Ideas raged through his head.
I must get what I want even if I have to resort to force. The only reason why he is angry with Yasin is because Umm Hanafi is so unattractive and the solution is to marry his son off as quickly as possible to a respectable woman.
A Portrait of Egypt in Flux: Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk
The reader is given no indication of how Umm Hanafi feels after the incident. One can only assume that as a member of the Egyptian proletariat class, she has even fewer options than her middle class counterparts. She cannot possibly leave; she has been working in the Abd Al Jawad household for twenty-five years and as a divorced woman, she is at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
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The question that arises is what alternative she has. Firstly, Yasin is a very large man and she may have feared a violent beating. In addition to that, Nur is probably afraid of losing her job and with a similar history to Umm Hanafi, she does not have many options. After Zaynab finds them together, Nur disappears quietly and she is not mentioned again. Again, Mahfouz leaves only assumptions for the reader.
The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk / Palace of Desire / Sugar Street
It is quite possible that Nur fell pregnant and as an unmarried woman, she would be ostracized by society. Legal abortions only became available in and were strictly for married women. She is quite a radical character compared with the women in the Trilogy and she will be discussed in the following chapter. Umm Hamida is a marriage-broker and a bath-assistant who is involved in the lives of all the inhabitants of the Alley in one way or another.
She is eager to marry off her daughter, but Hamida is a stubborn character who delights in arguing with her mother about any- and everything. Perhaps the most commonly said thing about her Hamida was that she hated children and that this unnatural trait made her wild and totally lacking in the virtues of femininity. This is the very woman who once suckled an infant Hamida alongside her son, Hussain, and she is the mother of six children.
How could she possibly wish ill will upon a girl she suckled from her breast, a girl who has never done her any harm? Could this not be considered an unfeminine trait in itself?
I suspect that the thoughts attributed to Mrs Kirsha by Mahfouz were done so deliberately. Hamida has not borne children yet and her character is contrasted with Mrs Kirsha, mother of six with supposedly all her feminine virtues intact. However, Mahfouz shows that she Mrs Kirsha has malignant thoughts about a girl that was like her own child, whereas Hamida dislikes children she is not familiar with at all. This may serve as a reason why Hamida does not possess the relative quality of caregiving.
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However, the specific trait of nurturing children is an exclusive attribute of the female gender. The assumption is that this is the natural order of things, or that humans have been genetically programmed as such. She is an orphan and Umm Hamida does not seem to have any family either. As a result, she has no contact with children and has absolutely no experience in how to approach them. They certainly think so, and I would suggest that their opinion is meant to be a reflection of Egyptian attitudes of the time.
Mrs Afify is also extremely uncomfortable with the fact that she is visiting the home of someone of a lower social class. It is soon apparent that the widow is desperate for a husband, which is rather peculiar because we are told that she had been averse to the idea of marriage all this time. Her late husband, who was the owner of a perfume shop, had mistreated her and made a misery of her life. She genuinely disliked married life and was delighted when she regained her peace and freedom. Her prospects do not appear to be very good, as she is no longer of child -bearing age and would have been considered an old woman in Egyptian society at the time.
Once she no longer has any menstrual periods, her life is considered over, and she is said to have reached Sin El Ya -as the age of despair or of no hope.