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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750

Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is a middle-class merchant who hypocritically makes his family adhere to the strictest interpretations of the Qur՚n, keeping his wife and two daughters cloistered and his sons harshly disciplined. For his own delight, he partakes of the sexual, musical, and culinary pleasures of Cairo—singing, dancing, drinking, and cavorting with his friends until late at night.

Ahmad’s son Yasin, from an embarrassing previous marriage, is physically and morally a replica of his father, a youth who had discovered his father’s licentious behavior through a courtesan he visits. A younger son, Fahmy, is attracted to the neighbor’s daughter, Maryam, whom he glimpses from their closely placed rooftops. At the same time, however, Fahmy is repulsed at the idea that she might be purposely and immodestly showing herself to him. In the meantime, Ahmad has been avidly courting Maryam’s mother as she shops in his store.

Ahmad’s wife, Amina, lives a life of solitude and austerity. She is representative of Muslim wives in Egypt in 1917, shut in behind household walls. Still, she manages to find some pleasure in her daily life: the morning baking of bread, the coffee-hour conversations with her children, the childish conflicts among the siblings as they joke and tease and share experiences, the unspoken but shared fears of Ahmad and his crushing righteousness, the boys’ desire to escape outside the home, and the girls’ longing for marriage.

Amina is a good wife and a good mother, yet her religious piety creates trouble in her life. One day, she leaves the house, convinced by her children to do so, after Ahmad travels on business to Port Said. She leaves the house without permission so that she can pray at the Sayyidna al-Husayn mosque, a holy place she has longed to see. Overcome by the experience and by fear, she faints in the heat and is hit by a car, fracturing her collarbone; she requires a doctor, so she cannot hide from Ahmad’s wrath. His anger grows as he holds it in until her collarbone heals. Then, to the shock of the entire family, he sends her home to her mother, where she remains in limbo for weeks. She is told to come back to her family so that she can assist with the wedding of daughter Aisha.

Through the latticework of her home, Aisha had noticed the men passing in the street and dared to take a special interest in a young officer who had broken the rules by looking up at the women’s quarter. Aisha received a marriage proposal from the young man, but her father had refused it because he had not chosen the prospective suitor himself. Later, however, a worthy suitor respectful of her father follows the rules and an engagement is arranged.

Amina’s return home for the wedding heals the feuding between the quarrelsome sisters, embarrasses the hedonistic Ahmad because all the men know that the hired singer, Jalila, is a former lover of his (as she made publicly clear), and opens the innocent and idealistic Fahmy’s eyes to the hypocrisy of his father. The same night, a lustful and drunk Yasin tries to rape the sleeping household servant, Umm Hanafi, whose screams alert an angry Ahmad. He expels her, not Yasin, from his home. Yasin is quickly married off to Zaynab, the pampered daughter of an old friend of Ahmad.

Once Yasin’s lust has been sated, he begins to follow the ways of his father. Zaynab, accustomed to more freedom and more attention than Amina could ever imagine, leaves Yasin for good. Yasin has made contact with his mother, who is living with a lover. Kamal, the youngest of the family, upsets them all by becoming fascinated by Australian soldiers who set up camp along Palace Walk. The soldiers make it more and more difficult for the men of the neighborhood to spend as much time away from home as they are accustomed to. The women in the family, however, gain the approval of their husbands to visit each other, which means trips outside the home.

Fahmy, in contrast to Kamal, finds the occupation insulting, especially when the armistice ending World War I fails to end the British occupation. He participates in peaceful dissent by distributing anti-British pamphlets and marches in a rally that ends in violent action by the military. He is killed in the violence and becomes a martyr in the cause of nationalism and political independence.

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