Sunday, August 9, 2009

Moral Complexity: Gender Relationships in Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy

A reader can often capture the essence of a culture in its quest for truth as we generally know, through the fiction of its authors. As with any quest dating as far back as medieval romances, “morality” is part of the chivalric code of conduct. But what about morality in the 20th century? How do we attach a universal definition to “morality” when the codes of conduct are so different from one continent to another? No matter how we try to define it, “morality” is a subjective term that originates with the religious, social, and political structures of a culture. Adding to this complication, oftentimes “morality” is redefined within a culture as a result of the changing demographics and philosophies, causing a conflict within the boundaries itself. Finally, it goes without saying that when we think of a culture’s code of morality, gender relationships automatically take a front seat.
The purpose of this paper then, is first, to present a political backdrop and time frame and then to illustrate the moral complexity in Naguib Mahfouz’s masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy which is due to varying cultural interpretations of gender roles. Let me begin by stating that Naguib Mahfouz is an Egyptian and the first Arab author to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. The Cairo Trilogy, written between 1946 and 1952, traces the radical changes undergone by three generations of a Cairene merchant family, dominated by the towering figure of its tyrannical patriarch, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad Al-Sayyed. Politically, it resurrects Cairo between 1917 and 1944, a crucial period in the history of Egypt which witnessed the rise of Egyptian and Arab nationalism under the leadership of Sa’d Zaghloul. It was a period in the transformation of a society passing brutally from a phase of relative innocence to disconcerting modernism with all its challenges and threats. Here, Mahfouz portrays the private agonies and pleasures of individual characters, paralleling the sociopolitical panorama of Egypt under British occupation. Rashed El-Enany points out that “[this] novel is invaluable for its perspective on the agony of the author’s generation oscillating between the medieval religious values of their society and those of the modern, scientific and godless world they have come to know about through their contact with European thought” (212).
Religious and academic institutions are no less decayed than political parties as is witnessed in the third volume of the trilogy. In Sugar Street, the narrator philosophizes:
Literature is certainly a means of liberation. But, it certainly could be a tool for
regression. From Al-Azhar and the academy, sick literatures have grown, which
have for ages ossified minds and killed spirits. . . science is, no doubt, the basis
of modern life.
The moral issues in The Cairo Trilogy become more complex as Mahfouz narrows down his scrutiny of society to family relationships which are at the basis of a patriarchal system in which oppression and coercion prevail. We readers are privileged spectators, observing at close quarters the after-hours debauchery of Al-Sayyed. Even Mona Mikhail in her book titled Studies in the Short Fiction of Mahfouz and Idris, highlights the fact that “this formidable patriarch, conscious of his role as custodian of stringent societal norms, is confident in his double standards” (12). Pious and sensuous, beloved of friends and women, feared and cherished at home, Al-Sayyed certainly embodies an ambiguous morality well described by his mistress the singer Zubayda, who tells him:
What a man you are! On the outside you are dignified and pious, but inside you are lecherous and debauched. Now I really believe what I was told about you. (Palace Walk).
Following her accusation is a description of Al-Sayyed’s lusty nature as he sits in Zubayda’s flat, intoxicated with her fragrance, getting ready for an amorous night. He certainly loves women and friends; he also delights in music, singing, and dancing. This man, however, does not allow himself any expression of emotion at home apart from being stern, strict, and even cruel. This tyrannical patriarch is definitely the ruler of his home while living a secret life of self-indulgence. As is often customary to a man of such authority, Al-Sayyed’s despicable morals are highlighted by the gentleness and purity of his wife, Amina. In the beginning of the trilogy, as a newly married woman, Amina objects to her husband’s night-time escapades. Since a male was considered the dominant being in Egyptian households, Al-Sayyed would not tolerate any objection from his subservient wife. He raises his voice and shouts:
I’m a man. I’m the one who commands and forbids. I will not accept any criticism of my behavior. All I ask of you is to obey me. Don’t force me to discipline you. (8)
These commands would cause an adrenalin rush in most western women of the 20th century, but even more so after hearing Al-Sayyed later tell his wife after she was afraid to voice her opinion about the choice of a husband for their daughter:
“You’re just a woman, and no woman has a fully developed mind”
Western ideals of equality immediately put into question the position of morality as it applies to gender relationships in Egyptian society during this time. These commands of Al-Sayyed set the tone for patriarchal dominion that was to instill fear in all of his family members, but oddly, he still remained the center of respect as that authority and caretaker of the family. Elizabeth Fernea, in her book titled Women and Gender in Islam shows Zaynab Ghazali in a 1981 interview as saying “a woman’s ‘first, holy and most important mission is to be a mother and wife” (241), which may contribute to the reason why Amina continued to accept her husband’s commands without question. It is especially disturbing to a western reader to know that Amina, completely isolated from society, has not been permitted to leave her home for over twenty-five years except on rare occasions when her husband accompanied her to her mother’s home. One must ask “Is this a moral decision on the part of Al-Sayyed – to keep his wife isolated from men like himself? Or is it simply, brutality?
In a pivotal event in the trilogy, Amina dares to disobey the powerful Al-Sayyed one day when he is away in Alexandria. All of her married life, she had functioned as a meek, obedient, loving wife and mother; however, on one fatal day her youngest son, Kamal, begs her to go out with him and visit al-Husayn’s Mosque, which had long been her dream. After going out with Kamal and terrorized by her daring act, Amina falls down in the street and breaks her shoulder. After her recuperation, and much to Amina’s chagrin, her husband evicts her from his home. This was an action to punish Amina for her moral indiscretion. Additionally, her absence from the home was a lesson to her daughters to obey the authority of the home. Rafaa Al Tahtawi reminds us that “strict upbringing creates good morality” and in Al-Sayyed’s house, the sons suffered as much as the cloistered daughters. He “demanded blind obedience from his sons,” however, the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual, Kamal, all try to move beyond the father’s domination as they seek their own moral identities.
In order to consider the complexity of the moral systems of early twentieth-century Egypt, we must revisit the definition of “morality”. The concept of morality is generally considered quite ambiguous; however, with the difference in culture between the East and the West, the discussion of morality is automatically a complex one because of the nature of values. The term “morality” covers a vast area of human conduct that examines our interaction with other human beings. Morality touches every aspect of our lives. It governs all our contacts with family members, with the public sphere, and with our religious life. Morality determines our attitude to politics, to war and peace, and to spiritual questions.
When the topic of “morality” presents itself in Western discussions, an interpretation and acceptance of certain behaviors is severely different than what would be acceptable in the Middle East under Islamic tradition. Two totally diverse vignettes are presented from West to East. For instance, in America premarital sex is now considered quite acceptable, normal, well within the bounds of morality. Dating begins at a very young age and most socially well-adjusted youngsters have dated all through high school. However, Leila Ahmad tells us directly that “dating is not a moral issue in Islam. Men and women simply do not date. As for sexual encounters, premarital sex is a punishable crime and adultery is a capital offense. No sex unless you are married to your partner!” Even a simple act of a female being seen with a male in public would be scorned and the morals of the female could be ruined for the rest of her life. Egyptian males tend to be chauvinistic in a society which acknowledges and rewards male domination. That patriarchal system requires the support and loyalty of all members of the family in return for security and protection. In the absence of a credible social welfare system, supporting the family always comes first in Egypt. Therefore, morality issues are quite diverse from the western culture that has gradually moved to the “ME” generation of self-satisfaction and gratification.
While female voices began to raise humanitarian efforts in this male-oriented culture, an “alternative voice to Western feminist was brewing,” claims Leila Ahmad, “ and it was wary, eventually opposing Western ideas, and searched a way to articulate female subjectivity and affirmation within a native, vernacular, Islamic discourse – typically in terms of a general social, cultural, and religious renovation” (174-75). The renovation was understood to be regenerative for the entire society, not just for women, hence the rights of women were not the sole nor even any longer the primary object of reform, but one among several. Part of the moral complexity develops out of imported Western doctrines like socialism and communism, whereas Matti Moosa asserts that “Mahfouz desired an egalitarian system which would benefit the majority while not offending Muslim believers, something between capitalism and communism” (1). The discussion of morality continues in both Western and Eastern cultures in the idealistic search for a truth that encompasses the needs and dignity of all people.
When Mahfouz takes the reader on this journey through the Cairene neighborhoods, he focuses on an ambiguous morality of people who struggle for identity. They do so in the midst of religious idealism in the brewing unrest in the struggle for power and in their personal struggles to find individual meaning to their lives. Mahfouz is most interested in a truth that can speak for all of his people, men and women alike. And in an article titled “The Arab Artist’s Role in Society,” Mona Amyuni explains that Mahfouz’s morality calls for “an absolute commitment to justice and truth” with “violent attacks on hypocrisy, cruelty, [and] corruption” (205). With excellent use of irony, Mahfouz denounces tyranny at home, in political parties, in leaders, and Amyuni quotes Mahfouz in saying it is “Egypt’s chronic disease.” Mahfouz is quoted again, this time by Jareer Abu-Haider as he wonders bitterly:
How long has this country of ours resigned itself to endure successive blows?
Today Tawfiq Nasim, and yesterday Ismail Sidqi, and the day before Muhammad
Mahmud. This sinister chain of tyrants which extends to prehistoric times. Every
son of a bitch, puffed up by his own power, claims that he is the chosen guardian
and that people are minors (incapable of managing their own affairs).
Therefore, the gender relationships provide a vital link between Mahfouz’s narrative and the cultural, socio-political and religious movements in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. As we view these events through the complex moral lens, interwoven with various voices in feminist theory, both Western and Islamic, it becomes obvious that Mahfouz is what Cole claims “the grand chronicler of Egyptian life” and even “a personification of Egypt itself” (1), as he provides a complex morality emerging from one generation and being modified in part to the various idealisms affecting Egypt. On Mahfouz’s mind is the idea that “we have fashioned [our life] ourselves . . . There is no credit for this to any god. . . solving our social and moral problems may alleviate our alienation, but it will not solve the original tragedy of death or isolation . . . We live by hope, which means by myth . . . and in the final analysis if we ask Mahfouz to which religion he belongs, he will probably say: ‘To a religion whose God is reason and whose prophet is freedom.’”

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