Between Two Palaces and Pre-Revolutionary Egypt: Egyptian society and political landscape through the family of Sayed Abdel Gawad

Through his famous trilogy which would later be adapted to film, Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz depicts the daily life of a middle class family in Cairo, from 1917 through 1944. Bayn al-Qasrayn, the first portion of the trilogy in film, directed by Hassan Al Imam, offers critical commentary on Egyptian society as a whole set against the backdrop of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation through its portrayal of the Abdel Gawad family unit. Mahfouz pays special attention to the patriarchal nature of Egyptian society as reflected in the subjugation of the female members of the family by the nearly divine dominance of Sayed. As a whole, the novel and film reflect a crucial point of transition in Egypt by way of the revolution, with the family of Abdel Gawad placed at the center.

Mahfouz goes to great lengths to describe the daily interactions between family members and to capture the patriarchal society in which they live. As a womanizer and drunkard, Sayed egregiously violates Muslim law himself but suppresses the freedoms of his two daughters, Khadija and Aisha, and his wife, Amina. By threat of fear and violence, the women remain silent and fear to object to Sayed’s immoral behavior and harsh conservatism. This strict patriarchal structure is reflected in Sayed’s insistence that his wife and daughter not leave their home. While girls have been educated in Egypt for decades, this was not the custom during the setting of the film, 1917-1919. As such, Amina and her daughters are portrayed as subservient and un-educated figures, unable to resist the objections of Sayed. After her husband leaves their home on business, Amina decides to pursue her life goal of visiting the shrine of al-Husayn, but the trip ends in disaster as she is hit by a car and expelled from her home by Sayed for violating the laws of the home. As Matti Moosa claims of the historical element of the patriarchy in The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt, “this contemptuous attitude toward women, widespread among Middle Eastern men even today, is apparent in a historic speech delivered by the Caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) after the Battle of the Camel (December 9, 656), which he fought against Aisha, a wife of the Prophet of Islam, and the two sons of al-Zubayr. Ali, evidently feeling that her place was not on the battlefield but at home in Mecca, gave a speech classifying women as inferior to men because they lack judgment, reasoning and religion” (Moosa 151).

While the women remain in the house after breakfast, Sayed and his sons each venture to their respective destinations- Sayed to his grocery store, Yasin to his job as a clerk at the local elementary school, Fahmy to law school, and Kamal to his elementary school (Moosa 146). While Mahfouz could have just as easily painted the picture of a conservative middle-class family all of similar political beliefs, he offers an interesting commentary on the revolution and society through the differing characteristics of Yassin, Fahmy and Kamal. While Yassin, the eldest son of Abdel Gawad and his first wife, is a dominating figure and womanizer much like his father, Fahmy is painted in a different light. In contrast to his brother who cannot craft his own identity and instead becomes dependent upon his father’s economic support, Fahmy stands in sharp contrast. As an intelligent law student, Fahmy joins the nationalist revolution, despite the strong objections of his father. After the release of Egyptian revolutionary Saad Zaghloul by the British in 1919, the values of Sayed become readily apparent as his son is in grave danger. Underestimating the effect of the revolution and the role of his son within it, the death of Fahmy comes as a great surprise to Sayed. At the time of Fahmy’s death, the youngest son, Kamal, is heard in the background singing a song with the lyrics “Visit me once a year. It would be a shame if you should forget me completely” (Moosa 190). This instance demonstrates Kamal’s sense of innocence and uncertainty as an elementary school student as to the politics of the revolution and the death of his brother. As opposed to Yassin who failed to craft his own identity, and Fahmy, whose departure from the family structure resulted in death, Kamal is left to fashion his own identity as the film concludes.

Through Mahfouz’s description of an imagined Egyptian family, he brings to bear how the revolution impacted Egyptian society, allowing for additional opportunities for women in the years that followed, such as increased access to education. Years after the revolution and including today, women were able to overcome the oppression imposed by a hypocritical patriarchy. Standing in opposition to the implication of Mahfouz on the introduction of feminism post-revolution are the Islamists who continue to call for a strict interpretation of Sharia law and a rolling back of the traditional values of Islamism, citing the encroachment of the West and modernity as their opposition. This theme is equally relevant today in the Middle East, with ISIS defending the kidnapping, rape, forced marriage and oppression of women based upon Sharia law. In fact, the Islamic State is using an all-women brigade as a form of “morality police” to “detect anti-ISIS fighters attempting to infiltrate Raqqa dressed as women” and to punish those who do not obey (Wofford). In writing of the deeply-rooted and far reaching patriarchy, the writing and commentary of Mahfouz is as relevant today as decades ago. The reactionary Islamism depicted by the actions of the ISIS militants and their brutal misogyny is representative of conservative Islamism in the most extreme sense, a sharp contrast to the message of Mahfouz.

Movie poster

Movie poster

Naguib Mahfouz, in his book and the resulting film adaptation, uses the family of Sayed Abdel Gawad as a tool by which to explore the oppressive patriarchal society of Egypt prior to the 1919 revolution and to explore the political landscape and its divisions. Though under the guise of a religious and moral veil, the family of Sayed Abdel Gawad in actuality is victim to the harsh patriarchal society which oppresses Khadija, Aisha, and Amina, and makes it difficult for the sons to disobey their father and depart from his beliefs. Defense of this familial structure and mistreatment of women, Sayed would claim, is in the Quran (4:34, the Sura of Women), “men have authority over women and are empowered to discipline them” (Moosa 148). Citing tradition, Middle Eastern men, such as ISIS militants, behave in a similar fashion, though far more extreme than the case of Sayed. In remarking on the effects of the revolution, Mahfouz leaves us with three sons each taking different paths, one siding with his father, the other a revolutionary, and the third still a child left to create his own path. As a work published in the revolutionary landscape of 1950’s Egypt, and adapted as a film in 1964 during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the work critically examines the family as a unit and the factions that may divide it, gender and politics among them.

Works Cited

Between Two Palaces [Bayn al-Qasrayn]. Dir. Hassan Al Imam. 1964.
Moosa, Matti. The Early Novels of Naguib Mahfouz: Images of Modern Egypt.
Gainesville, FL: U of Florida, 1994. Print.
Wofford, Taylor. “ISIS Is Using an All-Women Brigade to Enforce Sharia Law in Syria.”
Newsweek, 30 July 2014. Web. 03 Dec. 2014. .