Palace Walk is the first novel in the Cairo Trilogy by the winner of 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, from Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz.
First published in 1956, the novel started in 1917 in the midst of WWI. Egypt was occupied by the British, and after the war was over, talks of independence were rampant.
We see Egypt through the viewpoint of a single family: the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his submissive wife Amina, and their five children: 3 boys and 2 girls. Yasin is the oldest son of Ahmad from his first, divorced wife, while the other 4 children are Ahmad and Amina’s. Fahmy the second son, is a studious and thoughtful high school student. The two daughters are Khadija and Aisha. The older Khadija is plump and sharp-tongue as a defense to her lack of beauty and jealousy of Aisha who is the more beautiful of the two, and therefore more marriageable. The youngest of them all is Kamal, around 10 years old, and is often the only character who is free to roam around, bridging the men and the women.
The book is nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like one. It was a nice surprise to find that it was very readable. I read it in just a little over 2 weeks. The prose is quite verbose, so the book could be shorter, but the translation probably just follows the original quite closely. Lots of the sentences that the characters say for example are probably not long when said in Arabic, but becoming very verbose when translated into English.
I like how we follow a rather ordinary Egyptian family. Yes Ahmad is a hypocrite and quite oppressive towards his family, and in turn Amina’s obedience and passivity is hard to take for modern eyes. But I felt the drama isn’t sensationalized. There’s no domestic violence, no rape and no polygamy, which seem like ripe topics for books set in Middle Eastern or Islamic culture. I like that the oppression shown is more subtle. I would actually believe that this is what average family in Egypt at the turn of 20th century was like. Some variations of it is shown by the neighbors and friends of the family, for example Amina isn’t allowed to go out at all by her husband, while the neighbor’s wife is free to go out shopping by herself.
Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is probably the character that readers would have most problem with. While he demands all his family members to be straight, obedient, and all around good Muslims, and has the same strict and faithful front himself, unbeknownst to his family he spends every night drinking, partying, and visiting women of pleasures. Despicable in a glance, and there is no excuse for it, but I feel like the double life he’s living isn’t so far away from our modern time. Who isn’t familiar with the story of a straight looking person who has a big crack behind the facade?
I think it’s a bit unfair to simply judge the flaws of the culture because it doesn’t conform to our modern sensibilities. Keep in mind that this is set a century ago, and to think that around the same time women in Britain over the age of 30 have just won the right to vote (1918).
I think Palace Walk is exactly the kind of fiction that you’d read to learn about another culture and another way of thinking. I found the banter between the characters to be one of the most interesting aspects. Possibly the flirting in particular. You probably wonder how a society that is so divided between male and female, so rigid in the meaning of honor and shame, would mingle at all. Mahfouz exposes this skilfully in the verbal and non-verbal interactions between the characters. There’s meaning in every word and gesture – slightly different perhaps with our time and culture – but the same concept for the same game.
Based on this reading, I do plan to read the second and the third book in the trilogy. My GR book club is reading all three books together, but I don’t like reading multiple books by the same author successively, so I will schedule the second book to read next year. This is the first work by Naguib Mahfouz that I read.
Mee’s rating: 4.5/5
A great article of the author following the steps of Palace Walk around Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk, and Old Cairo: Natalia Sarkissian