What a pleasure this book was to read. Many thanks to Emily for giving me a copy for my birthday!
Palace Walk by Naguib Mafouz is a long, sprawling saga about a family in Cairo who finds itself caught up in political turmoil at the end of World War I. The earlier sections of the novel are devoted to describing the family — a father and mother with five children — and its dynamics. As I’ve described before, the father, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, has an extremely tight hold over the rest of the family; he dictates what everyone does and where they go.
This is particularly hard on the women, as Al-Sayyid Ahmad insists they follow extremely strict traditional rules of modesty — the mother, Amina, is not allowed out on the streets at all, except for a very occasional visit to her mother. In one incident when Al-Sayyid Ahmad is away from home for a day, Amina breaks this rule and visits a local temple. It is an act of devotion, but it only lands her in trouble: out on the streets she gets hit by a car and when Al-Sayyid Ahmad discovers her injuries and finds out where she has been, he banishes her from the house. Only after his children and friends beg him to take her back does he allow her to return.
The novel describes the struggles each of the children have with this patriarchal authority; one son wants to marry, but Al-Sayyid Ahmad believes he is not ready and refuses to give permission. A daughter receives a marriage proposal she would gladly accept but the father is angry when he finds out the suitor has caught a glimpse of his daughter’s face through the window.
What the children don’t know, however, is that Al-Sayyid Ahmad spends his nights getting drunk, carousing with friends, and having love affairs. Amina sees his drunkenness every night, but even she doesn’t really know how he spends his time. Al-Sayyid Ahmad believes he is talented enough a person and strong enough a father to keep this double standard going; he is a model father as far as he is concerned, and he sees no need for consistency in his behavior.
As you can probably guess from this set-up, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is in for a world of frustration as his children find ways of doing what they want, in spite of their fear of him. The novel charts the increasing difficulty the father has in controlling them, a difficulty made much worse by increasing political unrest. The later sections of the novel become more political in nature, and tell the story of Egyptian demonstrations against the English occupiers. Violence takes over the city, putting the family and its traditional ways at risk.
The novel is slow-moving in the very best sense — it’s never dull or plodding, but rather rich and detailed about the lives and emotions of its characters. With his omniscient point of view, Mahfouz does a good job giving the reader a glimpse into the minds and emotions of many characters, and he can make us understand and even sympathize with the most unlikeable people. I like the way Mahfouz blends the personal, family story with the political one; I didn’t feel that the family story was told in the service of the political one or vice versa, but that Mahfouz wove the two together, showing how national dramas affect people’s intimate lives, and how the private world reaches out into and shapes the public one.
Fortunately for me, this is the first novel in a trilogy, so I have the pleasure of reading further in the lives of this family.