Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz [A Review]

Palace Walk is the first novel of Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Considered to be his masterpiece, the trilogy follows the lives of members of the conservative al-Jawad family from the First World War to the Second. As Egypt struggles towards independence, so to do the younger members of the al-Jawad family struggle for greater personal freedom against oppression from tradition and religion.

Cover image of Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Every night, around midnight, Amina wakes herself; a habit formed over twenty-five years of marriage. She takes a spot on the latticed balcony overlooking their street – Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk – and awaits her husband’s return home from his nightly entertainments. This is Cairo, Egypt, in 1917.

Perhaps boredom was an irrelevant concept for a life as monotonous as hers. The view had been a companion for her in her solitude and a friend in her loneliness during a long period when she was deprived of friends and companions before her children were born, when for most of the day and night she had been the sole occupant of this large house with its two storeys of spacious rooms with high ceilings, its dusty courtyard and deep well.

Anxious and insecure when her husband is not home, she recites the Qur’an to allay her fears and ward off demons.

A carriage pulls up in front of the house and she can hear her husband’s voice. His tone is boisterous, affable, completely alien to any experience she and her family has with him within these walls. To his family, he is a tyrant with a short and violent temper and she and her children live in quiet obedience and submissive fear.

He is often still tipsy when he comes home. Amina has never been able to reconcile the extremely pious and strictly observant man she knows at home with the man who clearly commits the sin of consuming alcohol when outside. That being said, she is grateful that her husband is often at his most gentle and amenable when under its influence. He sometimes even shares news of the outside world, something Amina and her daughters would otherwise know little about.

Amina was married at the age of fourteen and early in the marriage had shown the temerity to question her husband’s nights out. Questioning to which he had reacted swiftly and violently. She naturally does not dare question him anymore. Even informing him of any departure from their monotonous domestic schedule can be an anxious and dangerous task. Though she has wondered if her husband has other women, she can’t give credit to such fears. After all she is his only wife, though his second. He could have kept his first wife or taken others if he had such appetites. She consoles herself by telling herself that her husband is a good God-fearing man, that she should be grateful for everything she receives from him and that it is her wifely and religious duty to serve and love him as she does God.

“No matter how fiery his temper, he’s your husband. The safest thing to do is to be careful to obey him, for your own peace of mind and for the happiness of your children. Isn’t that so?”

Her husband, Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is a tall, broad-shouldered and handsome man. The Al-Sayyid Ahmad known to his friends is completely different to the man his family knows. To his friends he is the life of their parties; a gifted story-teller who loves fine food, whiskey, women and a good joke. The pleasure he gives those in his company is matched by the respect they afford him as a successful merchant and a pious and deeply private man. Though they know he has affairs, his ability to keep such adventures so discreet they can only be suspected but never proven, only raises their esteem. And though he is far stricter with his family than they are with their own, far more so than is the norm in Egypt of the time, they respect his conservatism as well.

Each morning, Al-Sayyid Ahmad has breakfast with his three sons; Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal; who all sit with him in fearful silence while Amina kneels nearby ready to serve if required.

Yasin, a clerk, is the eldest son from his earlier marriage. Al-Sayyid Ahmad divorced Yasin’s mother as she would not bend to his will and Yasin spent his early childhood with his mother. Though she is a wealthy woman and does not want for income, she was lonely as a single-mother. But as a boy, Yasin could not abide by the freedom with which his mother fraternised with men. The presence of her male companions in their house left him feeling humiliated and hateful towards his mother and led to him leaving her home once he was old enough for his father to claim him.

Yasin is the son who most takes after his father, though he does not know it. He frequents an underground bar and lusts after a lute player in a musical troupe, almost to the point of stalking her. But, Yasin is completely unaware that his father pursues similar tastes in secret. Yasin also shares his father’s attitude towards women. The experiences of both his father’s and his mother’s households has convinced him that women are natural adulterers and need the dominance of a strong man to keep them in line.

“Since antiquity, houses have been for women and the outside world for men”… He proceeded to emphasise that men have an absolute right to do anything they want and women a duty to obey and abide by the rules.

Unlike his father, though, Yasin does not quite have the same self-control with drink or with women. Al-Sayyid Ahmad understands the delicacy of the duplicitous life he is trying to live and will never risk a scandal. Yasin, though has not learnt such restraint. The fact that he does not apply the same rules to his sisters and mother, who he thinks are treated unfairly by their father, speaks to his lack of introspection.

Fahmy is a law student and, though he would never admit it to Fahmy’s face, his father is somewhat proud that his son will complete higher education. Like his siblings though, Fahmy lives a life of quiet desperation. In the afternoons he quizzes his younger brother, Kamal, on his schoolwork on the rooftop terrace of their house. Sometimes on the adjoining roof, the neighbour’s daughter, Maryam, comes out to hang up laundry. She knows Fahmy can see her, yet she does not hide herself. If anyone was to see them all there – a young man and a young woman out in the open – it would be cause for a scandal. The fact that she does not hide away plays on Fahmy’s mind. Perhaps she is a modern woman and does not play by the old conservative rules. Perhaps she is of loose morals and he should stay clear of her. Perhaps she simply likes him back.

Kamal is the youngest of the three sons at ten years old. Though bright and attentive to his schoolwork, he is full of energy and mischief. Innocent and naïve, he is frequently confounded by the strict rules of his father and culture which go against his natural inclinations. He therefore finds himself being beaten by his father for wrongs he can’t fathom. His youth does mean that he does not need to conform to all rules and he frequently becomes the eyes and ears of the reader as he travels across these invisible social boundaries.

Once the male family members have left for work and school, the women can eat their breakfast.

Khadija is the eldest of Amina’s children. Though she has been denied higher education and is not expected to seek employment as her father can provide for her, she is clearly intelligent and exercises her sharp wit and acid tongue on her siblings. They know better than to cross her but often do so to enjoy the banter. She is not considered beautiful and, now in her early 20’s, is reaching an age where the lack of marriage offers may become a source of anxiety.

The mother, who is actually no less apprehensive than her daughter, replied, “Nothing comes early or late except as God grants”.

The same cannot be said for her younger sister, Aisha. At sixteen years old, with blonde hair and blue eyes, she is a rare beauty and has already attracted an offer of marriage, though her father refused.

“You’re just a woman, and no woman has a fully developed mind. And the topic of marriage in particular is enough to make you women lose your senses”… “No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls”… “No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a desire to be related to me… me… me… me.”

Quiet and modest, especially in the presence of her snarky sister, Aisha is not without her own repressed feelings. Once the men of the house have left, she takes a place near the latticed windows to search for a certain handsome young police officer who walks to work along Palace Walk. The officer knows he is being watched but dares not turn his head to the window in case he is spotted and creates a scandal. Instead he keeps his head facing forward but turns his eyes to the window in hope of a glimpse of the girl.

With two grown daughters Amina need not busy herself with household chores and could instead retire to a relaxing life. But she enjoys the work of maintaining the house. Called ‘the bee’ by her neighbours for her perseverance and energy, the monotonous work also distracts from a life that would be full of boredom within the strict confines of the house she is not permitted to leave; not even to visit her family or her beloved al-Husayn mosque. The daughter of a respected theologian, Amina is the most pious of the family. She makes no distinction between religion and superstition however, and so she not only frequently quotes the Qur’an and makes references to God, she also indulges various superstitions and is fearful of djinns. Like other members of her family, she is confused as to why God does not punish the impious nor spare the pious hardship.

She prays frequently and earnestly for the protection of her family and, lately, has also been praying for victory for Germany and her Ottoman ally in the Great War that is now in its fourth year; that such victory will remove the British from their country and with them those vile Australians who have spread through the city like locusts, destroying the land, plundering, abusing and insulting the people without restraint.

This is the al-Jawad family’s cloistered life under the rule of their domineering father, al-Sayyid Ahmad. But al-Sayyid Ahmad does not yet appreciate that change, both inevitable and unexpected, will mean he cannot continue to control his family as he has in the past. His ability to keep his public and private lives separate will become strained as his daughters attract suitors and his sons pursue marriages of their own. His power over his family, his ability to keep them safe, is threatened by the presence of the British soldiers who make camp on Palace Walk and by his inability to prevent his son from participating in the violent clashes between students and British soldiers that come with the end of the war and calls for Egyptian independence.

Palace Walk is the first novel of Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, which is considered to be his masterpiece (all three novels are names for actual streets in Cairo). Mahfouz is the only writer, writing predominantly in Arabic, to have won the Nobel Prize for literature. A prolific writer, if, like me, you can’t read Arabic, then the Cairo Trilogy is probably the best bet to read his work in English (interestingly this translation of the trilogy was among the books edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during her career as a book editor).

There is potentially a lot to discuss about this first novel of the trilogy but I going to keep some of my thoughts to myself until I review the final novel of the trilogy, Sugar Street, and can appreciate the trilogy as a whole.

Besides those, the dominant theme of Palace Walk for me was that the position of the father in his house, in a deeply religious and patriarchal society, is that of a God. Like a God, al-Sayyid Ahmad is a tyrant over his family; his will is to be accepted not questioned, reasoned with, understood, or appeased. He is only to be obeyed and loved. His inconsistencies, hypocrisies, injustices are indeed confusing to those who live under him, but are quickly dismissed and forgotten, with a reminder that he is a good person, that they all benefit from his good will and should be grateful. They take his abuse and call it love.

His hypocritical attitude towards, and mistreatment of, the women in his life is particularly emblematic. Some of the events that occur in this novel towards women are particularly shocking. The acceptance of them by the characters is also emblematic; of the time, the culture and of the horrors that occur under a religious moral system that can be enforced but never questioned or changed.

I think the comparison of al-Sayyid Ahmad with his son Yasin is an interesting study. They are clearly very similar men in their secret tastes and their behaviour towards women will leave some readers squeamish. Yet, Yasin, despite the abhorrence one feels at his conduct, is clearly a more sympathetic character than al-Sayyid Ahmad, in part because we know his past; his childhood experiences and of growing up in that house, with that father, and in that time and culture. In part too because we know his actions are instinctual and unconsidered. None of this excuses his behaviour of course, but the reader can understand without necessarily relating or condoning. Al-Sayyid, on the other hand, is very considered and is well aware of his hypocrisies. It is a problem and Mahfouz’s tries to explain al-Sayyid Ahmad, but I don’t think he succeeds. Better I think to avoid rationalising and leave him as he is; selfish, duplicitous, authoritarian, controlling.

Browsing a few other amateur reviews of this novel, it is common to find people saying they gave up on this book early. The common complaint is that the oppression of the al-Jawad family under al-Sayyid Ahmad is too upsetting, the characters too difficult to relate too, the setting too alien. This is disappointing to hear. The setting can indeed seem alien but I wonder if they would say the same about an accurate historical fiction novel set in Europe. The West has advanced so quickly it is already difficult to remember that it was not that long ago that we lived in a deeply patriarchal, religiously oppressive and, for some regions, even a foreign-controlled society. But we are not so far removed as we may think nor are we guaranteed to remain so.

While the events in the novel are disturbing, especially the treatment of women and how it is rationalised and dismissed by the characters, the author makes no judgement. He is simply making the characters and setting real and evocative while crafting his story. Any moral judgement, whether an endorsement of the culture and society or a critique, is entirely for the reader to decide. In fact, by providing for us the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, the author is able to give us a point of view that is neither repressed or contrary to the rules and confinements they live by and explodes any suggestion that the novel is itself reserved and conservative while avoiding the accusation that he may harbour these views himself.

Literature’s greatest achievement is to create empathy. Through reading we can travel through time and space, live through someone else’s experience and appreciate a different point of view. That is why it is disappointing to hear people say they would not even allow themselves the experience. That being said, life is short and people read for a variety of different reasons. If this novel could not convince you to experience a world different to your own, then perhaps it is fair enough that you put this one down. So I am not going to stand on a soapbox and say you should read this particular book, but hopefully you do read books like it. Books that are historical, exotic, troubling, provocative. Books that portray oppression and rebellion, submission and revolt, innocence and indoctrination, hypocrisy and integrity, impulse and control. Besides this, some of the writing is superb.

See me reviews of the other novels of the Cairo Trilogy, see here.


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