23. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
The first book in a trilogy of stories about several generations of a Cairene family, Palace Walk is set at the end of both World War I and the British occupation of Egypt (and Sudan) between 1917 and 1919. This was a huge period of change for Egyptian society and this overall sense of turmoil is reflected in the life of each character. This first part of The Cairo Trilogy saga tells the story of the Jawad family which is dominated by its patriarch, Ahmad Abd al Jawad, who is an extremely harsh and controlling man. He has forbidden his wife Amina from leaving the family’s home for the past twenty five years and shows just as much control in his treatment of his two daughters and three sons. Ahmad fears that his children and wife will get into trouble if he does not control them so tightly, and although his fears are somewhat justified, his hypocrisy in this strict control and the manner in which he treats his family was one of the hardest things for me to read about.
Al Sayyid Ahmad (in Arabic, al Sayyid means Sir, and is a title/means of address that connotes respect) is a respected businessman in the community, and is well known for being fun-loving; a connoisseur of wine, women, and music. He stays out late every night with his friends, drinking, having affairs with many different women, and listening and playing to music. Amongst his friends, he is boisterous, tells raunchy jokes, and is always ready for a good party. However, Ahmad presents a completely different persona to his family. He is domineering, and commands equally large amounts of respect and fear from his family members. In front of him, his talkative children are often reduced to quivering messes, and his wife has been figuratively beaten into total submission. This control over his family is not presented in a positive light, but Mahfouz does attempt to soften the image of Ahmad in demonstrating the ways in which his family’s defiance of his rules only serves to destroy the reputation Ahmad has worked to build.
Unfortunately, this ‘softening’ of Ahmad’s character did not sit well with me. I was never able to warm to Ahmad, no matter how many stupid things his children did in defiance of his will. The ways in which Ahmad tries to control his family reflect some of the stereotypes and gender oppressing behaviors that I find most bothersome about Arab culture. While most of Ahmad’s behavior was out of the ordinary, even for the time, the isolation of his female family members (and the ridiculous double standards he holds his children to) as well as the two personas he presents (public and private) illustrate some of the depressing gender standards that still remain in Arab culture. Nonetheless, my dislike for Ahmad did not sour me on this phenomenal novel.
If you can get past any potential distaste you might develop for al Sayyid Ahmad, the other characters are extremely well written and interesting. Each family member undergoes some sort of large life marker – one son becomes extremely politically involved in the Egyptian attempts to overthrow the British occupation, another can’t seem to keep his hands off of their servants and must be quickly married off, the youngest son develops a strange friendship with some of the occupying British soldiers that his brother is rebelling against. Even Ahmad’s wife Amina stages her own rebellion, defying her husband’s rules and going outside of the house.
Naguib Mahfouz is truly a great writer – I absolutely see why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature – and most of his writing is infused with social and political commentary on Egyptian society. Although his stories (particularly this one) can be enjoyed on a more superficial level, I think the significance of his work is greatly diminished without a deeper understanding of the context in which it was written. Reading a brief Wikipedia summary of the Egyptian struggle for independence would be illuminating. I do know that the family structure is meant to mirror the political situation of the time, an allegory for the changes happening in Egyptian society in the early 20th century, but even knowing a moderate amount about Egyptian history, I’m quite sure that many intricacies of the novel went over my head.
Palace Walk is truly a fantastic book. In all honesty, I bought this book in 2008 and have been trying to read it ever since. I consider it a fantastic accomplishment that I finally finished reading it, but I completely understand why it took me so long. The way in which it is written is absolutely in line with the way a saga is constructed. Mahfouz sets the scene for so many momentous events to happen, most of which will not take place in this first book. He spends a good portion of the novel setting the tone, helping the reader to understand the place and time in which the story begins and drawing us into the characters. While this portion of the novel is extremely well written, it’s not necessarily the most compelling or quickly paced bit. However, the payoff is rich, and once I passed around the 200 page marker, I was rewarded with exciting storylines and lots of jam packed plot development. I absolutely intend to seek out the next two novels in the trilogy, and I can only hope that it won’t take me quite as long to read them.