Ezzat al-Kamhawi’s House of the Wolf (trans. Nancy Roberts), winner of the 2012 Naguib Mahfouz Medal, is a multi-generational epic in the tradition of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. But unlike the trilogy, which centers on a Cairo patriarch, al-Kamhawi’s book begins and ends with a village outcast, a female orphan who’s married off as a second wife to a much older man:
Like the Trilogy, House of the Wolf is set in a patriarchal world, and it is the men who make life-changing decisions. Yet it is daily life — particularly the lives of women — that provides the book’s rich emotional tapestry. The frisson of the book comes not from the way things change over a hundred years and more. Instead, it’s provided by lost opportunities, often missed chances at love.
The book is set in the Egyptian village of al-Ish (the Nest), and follows the Al-Deeb (Wolf) family from Napoleon’s invasion to the present. Large historical events do appear (Napolean’s failed invasion, wars, the Free Officers Movement, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the US Occupation of Iraq), but they are not plot-drivers. Nor do they change anything essential about our central characters. Mubaraka does change, yet these changes aren’t pegged to new ideas, but instead to the ways she adapts to social and cultural constraints.
The novel begins with its central missed chance: Mubaraka and Muntasir, two young orphans, are in love and want to get married. They’re smart, attractive, and it seems their future should be easy enough to secure. But when Muntasir’s guardian asks for Mubaraka’s hand, Mubaraka’s father misunderstands — he thinks the old man wants Mubaraka for a second wife. Muntasir’s guardian, who now sees Mubaraka’s beauty, goes along with it. The two are married.
Muntasir thus becomes first to leave The Nest for a tumultous life of exile, both in Egypt and abroad. But the story doesn’t follow Muntasir, and we hear only snippets about his life. Instead the novel is interested in the more “ordinary” life of the who stays, Mubaraka. Back in al-Ish, her strong will earns her dominion over a much older husband, a man “whose cough at the end of the street had once been sufficient to send all the children scurrying for cover in some dark corner of the big farmhouse” but who “was now a mere puppet in the hands of this teenage girl.”
If Mubaraka’s older husband was once similar to the character at the center of Mahfouz’s Trilogy, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, he changed utterly when Mubaraka entered his life.
Al-Kamhawi’s book, published in 2010, shares ground with another book published that same year: Radwa Ashour’s multigenerational epic, The Woman from Tantoura, also published that same year. Like al-Kamhawi’s, Ashour’s book takes as its opening move a moment of teenage lust and a missed opportunity for love. Ashour’s book also centers on a woman who doesn’t love her husband and has a large family. But Ashour’s epic, like Mahfouz’s, is interested in the great events that change her characters’ lives. For The Woman from Tantoura, it is the 1948 Nakba, the Lebanese Civil War, the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and the power shift toward the Emirates.
In al-Kamhawi’s book, meanwhile, fortunes rise and fall, but these changes are cyclical. Sure, the family’s fortunes decline somewhat after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s redistribution of farmland, but their fortunes rise (and fall) again. Muntasir’s grandson ends up in Iraq in 2003, and flees the war, but it might have been anywhere. We don’t see how the invasion changed him, but instead that he was driven back to Egypt, and to al-Ish.
Al-Kamhawi’s book is also different from Ashour’s in that, while Mubaraka is a strong-willed female character, she never defies the culture of male decision-making. The same can be said of all the female characters in The House of the Wolf.
Thus, although women form the core of the work, they don’t take on positions of social influence, even in the later years. Young Zayna is on track to become a doctor, but elopes with a carpenter who imprisons her in two small rooms above the apartment he shares with his first wife. After she flees, Zayna goes back to study in the faculty of commerce. But the degree hardly matters in her quotidian life: “When she graduated, she hadn’t needed her university degree as anything but a souvenir. She made her way up the ranks in the private company and married an accountant who worked there.”
Yet even though women don’t make life’s big decisions, it’s the male characters who are secondary. This is, after all, a novel about daily life in “the Nest,” and daily life here is the domain of women. The novel begins and ends in the same place, and with the appearance of a grandson who looks eerily like Muntasir.
Not everyone in the novel celebrates the eternal return. Seven years after he leaves home, Muntasir “felt no regret over what Mugahid had done to him, since he would otherwise have lived and died in al-Ish without realizing how vast the world was, or that a person can move from place to place and create his destiny rather than surrender to a life of stagnation, bound by a strand from a spider’s web.”
But this is not Muntasir’s book, it is Mubaraka’s. The novel is crowded with characters — the family tree in the frontispiece confuses matters, if anything. But it is like an overcrowded village farmhouse, bursting with people from different generations, telling their individual stories about love, death, social expectations, and missed opportunities for happiness.
The pleasure in reading the book in English is not in its language. Nancy Roberts’ translation reads just fine, although it shares many similarities with her translation of Ibrahim Nasrallah’s multigenerational epic, The Time of White Horses. The pleasure is in rooting for people’s ability to find happiness despite social constraints and expectations.