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A World Being Turned Upside Down

Kamran Shahbaz

Kamran Shahbaz is an intended economics and political science dual major. Fairview High School alum from Boulder, Colorado, Shahbaz enjoys editing writing, eating Chipotle, rewatching old movies, listening to dance music, and celebrating Stephen Curry. His main interests include traveling the world, increasing cultural awareness, and starting a nonprofit for education in Afghanistan. Shahbaz wrote his essay for Dr. Jonathan Berkey’s first semester Islamic history class: The Middle East, 1453-Present (Islam in the Modern World).

In his novel Palace Walk Naguib Mahfouz draws his audience to the riveting interactions between the idiosyncratic members of the Abd al-Jawad family. A representative sample of traditional Egyptian society during the latter stages of World War I, the Abd al-Jawads abhor and reject Western ideals of gender equality and secular education that have percolated into Egypt. Winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mahfouz illustrates not only the tension pervasive within the Abd al-Jawad family but also the daunting challenge of Egypt’s modernization.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the oppressive “military commander”[1] of the Abd al-Jawads, not only exercises complete control over the women in his family but also degrades them. After the patriarch’s wife, Amina, expresses an opinion that differs from that of her husband, Ahmad shouts, “You’re just a woman, and no woman has a fully developed mind.”[2] Yasin, his son, develops a similar disdain for women. When incensed that his blood-mother executed a right he believed not to be hers by separating from Ahmad, Yasin claims that “every woman is a filthy curse”[3] and “another kind of domestic animal.”[4] Mahfouz uses Ahmad and Yasin’s negative views of women to emphasize that such prejudices contributed to the hostile treatment of women and gender inequality.

Traditional Egyptian society contemptibly regarded the issue of women having the right to initiate divorce. For example, after Yasin’s wife, Zaynab, requests a divorce, Ahmad feels “that the world had been turned upside down”[5] because it is inconceivable to him “a request for divorce would come from the wife.”[6] Yasin, too, is flabbergasted at the circumstance, questioning, “Which of egypt image 2them was the man and which the woman?”[7] However, it is not only men like Ahmad and Yasin who express contempt for gender equality regarding divorce; Amina, who submits to the men in her household “as a religion and creed,”[8] also objects to women initiating divorce. After Zaynab requests for divorce, Amina asks, “How can she claim rights for herself that no woman has ever claimed?”[9] Illustrating the Abd al-Jawads’ opinions regarding women declaring divorce, Mahfouz foreshadows the problem Egypt will encounter in addressing gender inequality necessary for modernization.

Egyptian law scholar Qasim Amin expounds upon the cause of gender inequality in the Middle East of the early 1900s. Referring to Islam, Amin contends that “unacceptable customs, traditions, and superstitions […] have been allowed to permeate this beautiful religion.”[10] In Palace Walk Yasin epitomizes the traditional Egyptian male who rationalizes his sexist actions with these practices Amin criticizes; as justification that Zaynab not leave the house, Yasin asserts that “since antiquity, houses have been for women and the outside world for men.”[11] Considered the “first Egyptian and Arab feminist,”[12] Amin proposes that the solution to gender inequality is to emancipate “women from the bondage of ignorance and hijab[13] or isolation in which women are oblivious to the outside world. However, as the Abd al-Jawads demonstrate, this task is formidable; many Egyptians find it difficult to follow the Prophet Muhammad’s hadith that “women are an equal part of men.”[14]

Besides portraying the challenge perpetuation of gender inequality poses to Egypt’s modernization, Mahfouz also depicts traditional Egyptian society’s resistance to the “increasingly inclusive and interdependent nexus”[15] of multiple, secular disciplines—a characteristic Islamic studies scholar Marshall Hodgson deems essential to modernity. A founder of Islamic Modernism, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani maintains that for centuries the “Arab world remain[ed] buried in profound darkness”[16]; it was unable to “free itself from the tutelage of religion”[17] and allow Occidental education such as philosophy and modern sciences to flourish. The effects of Egypt’s “profound darkness”[18] are evident in Palace Walk when the Abd al-Jawads refuse modern education encompassing secular disciplines.

Besides portraying the challenge perpetuation of gender inequality poses to Egypt’s modernization, Mahfouz also depicts traditional Egyptian society’s resistance to the “increasingly inclusive and interdependent nexus”[15] of multiple, secular disciplines—a characteristic Islamic studies scholar Marshall Hodgson deems essential to modernity.

Mahfouz highlights that the conflict within the microcosmic Abd al-Jawad family regarding modern science reflects that within the macrocosmic, educationally bifurcated Egyptian society. One afternoon Amina and Kamal, her son, argue “whether the earth rotates on its own axis in space or stands on the head of an ox.”[19] Although innocent and miniscule, this dispute accentuates the friction between traditional beliefs and contemporary educational concepts. Amina further demonstrates her antagonistic attitude toward modern science by refusing to use medicine after egypt image 1breaking her collarbone, for “she did not believe in modern medicine and associated it with major catastrophes and serious events.”[20] Similarly, the stickler Ahmad is averse to reaping the benefits of modern science even when a physician’s assistance is needed after Aisha, his daughter, nearly dies in child labor; after Khalil, Ahmad’s son-in-law, calls a doctor, Ahmad reflects, the “fool called a doctor to look at his wife for no reason, no reason at all.”[21] In displaying the hardships the Abd al-Jawads experience due to their hostility to modern science, Mahfouz implies that traditional Egyptians’ repudiation of secular education threatens Egypt’s modernization.

However, Fahmy, Ahmad’s middle son, wholeheartedly receives modern education, especially the principles he learns in law school. Fahmy vehemently opposes Lord Cromer’s belief that the Englishmen “devoted their energies to the work of Egyptian regeneration,”[22] for the British Army forcefully requires that his father dig ditches with Egyptian Labour Corps workers. Along with his fellow freedom fighters, the patriotic Fahmy reveres Egyptian nationalists Sa’d Zaghloul Pasha and Colonel Urabi, leaders of the Wafd Party and the Urabi Revolt of 1879, respectively. Fahmy is unlike Ahmad, who despises the British but is “content to limit his patriotism to an emotional”[23] participation to preserve the “life he enjoyed.”[24] Rather, Fahmy believes one’s moral obligation is to act out against injustice and oppression that undermine national sovereignty. Fahmy’s “spirit soar[s] off into the heavens with boundless hope”[25] as he endorses the ideal of sacrificing one’s life for the liberation and “love of fatherland.”[26] Fahmy’s participation in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 implies that there is hope in the younger, idealistic generation that may treat gender equality and secular education more liberally. While Fahmy is one of the few protagonists who welcomes modernity, Mahfouz suggests it will be a formidable but not impossible challenge for Egypt to modernize and “adapt itself to the social and political revolutions going on around it.”[27]

 

[1] Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 398.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 363.

[5] Ibid., 433.

[6] Ibid., 433.

[7] Ibid., 438.

[8] Ibid., 359.

[9] Ibid., 420.

[10] Qasim Amin, The Emancipation of Woman and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism, ed. Charles Kurzman (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000), 8.

[11] Mahfouz, 358.

[12] Nadje Al-Ali, “Contextualizing the Egyptian Women’s Movement” in Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women’s Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 56.

[13] Amin, 204.

[14] Ahmed Zaki Yamani, “The Political Competence of Women in Islamic Law” in Islam in Transition, by John Donohue and John Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 171.

[15] Marshall Hodgson, “The Impact of the Great Western Transmutation: The Generation of 1789” in The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume III: The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 185.

[16] Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, “Answer of Jamal ad-Din to Renan, Journal des Débats, 18 May 1883” in An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din “al-Afghani”, by Nikki Keddie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 88.

[17] Ibid., 183.

[18] Ibid., 88.

[19] Mahfouz, 70.

[20] Ibid., 188.

[21] Ibid., 511.

[22] Evelyn Baring, “Chapter LXI” in Modern Egypt (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), 557.

[23] Mahfouz, 354.

[24] Ibid., 354.

[25] Ibid., 385.

[26] Ahmad Lutfi , “Egyptianness,” in Islam in Transition, by John Donohue and John Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 71.

[27] Chiragh Ali, “Islam and Change,” in Islam in Transition, by John Donohue and John Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 44.

 

Bibliography

Ad-Din al-Afghani, Jamal. “Answer of Jamal ad-Din to Renan, Journal des Débats, 18 May 1883.” In An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din “al-Afghani” by Nikki Keddie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Print.

Al-Ali, Nadje. “Contextualizing the Egyptian Women’s Movement.” In Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women’s Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Ali, Chiragh. “Islam and Change.” In Islam in Transition, by John Donohue and John Esposito.New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Amin, Qasim. The Emancipation of Woman and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism. Edited by Charles Kurzman. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000. Print.

Baring, Evelyn. “Chapter LXI.” In Modern Egypt. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916. Print.

Hodgson, Marshall. “The Impact of the Great Western Transmutation: The Generation of 1789.” In The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume III: The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. Print.

Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Lutfi , Ahmad. “Egyptianness.” In Islam in Transition, by John Donohue and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Zaki Yamani, Ahmed. “The Political Competence of Women in Islamic Law.” In Islam in Transition, by John Donohue and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

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