First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Volume I of the masterful Cairo Trilogy. A national best-seller in both hardcover and paperback, it introduces the engrossing saga of a Muslim family in Cairo during Egypt’s occupation by British forces in the early 1900s. (Source: Goodreads)
And that’s a wrap everyone! Another work week in the books. Time to ditch those work clothes and dive into the weekends. I hope you were able to accomplish everything you set out to accomplish at the start of the week; I did not. I hope you ended the week on high. I hope everyone will have a great weekend ahead! If it went the other way around, I hope that you will utilize the weekend to rest, relax, and rejuvenate. I can’t believe today is already the last Friday of November. We will be greeting a new month – the last month of 2022! – in a couple of days. In a matter of weeks, we will be welcoming 2023. Time does fly fast. With the year drawing to a close, I hope that your prayers have been answered and all that you’ve worked hard for during the year got repaid. My wish for this Christmas is that everyone will stay healthy, in body, mind, and spirit, despite the challenges surrounding us.
To cap the week, I am posting a new First Impression Friday update, which has now become a weekly tradition for nearly three years. Doing this weekly update allowed me to have a checkpoint while allowing me to slow down and reflect on what I have read so far. For this week’s update, I am featuring Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, a book that is part of my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. As I have mentioned in the past bookish updates, I have been focusing on ticking off books from my active reading challenges. This is the fourteenth book on the said reading challenge. After this book, I will only have Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy to read before I can call the challenge a success. Seth’s gargantuan book is also the last book on my 2022 Top 22 Reading List. There is a reason I am reserving it for last. HAHA.
Anyway, Palace Walk is my third book by the Nobel Laureate in Literature, the first Arab writer to be awarded the prestigious prize. I do have an anecdote about him. It was back in 2015 when I first encountered Mahfouz. An online bookseller had some of his books for sale. I immediately snagged these two books despite being bereft of any idea of who he was. I just knew that he was the winner of the Nobel Prize; it said so on the cover of the book. This was a time when I had very little knowledge of the impact of the Nobel Prize, at least where literature is concerned. I would end up liking Miramar but the other book I acquired, Palace of Desire, I had to put on hold when I learned it was the second book in a trilogy. I will read only when I complete all three books in the trilogy. Thankfully, years after my initial purchase, I was able to complete all three books during the pandemic. It has become imperative for me to start the trilogy especially after learning it was Mahfouz’s magnum opus. That was how Palace Walk ended up being part of my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge.
Unlike the two Mahfouz novels that I have read – the other one being The Thief and the Dogs – Palace Walk is substantially lengthier. Originally published in Arabic in 1956 with the title Bayn al-qasrayn, the story commenced in 1917. Mahfouz made the readers enter the world of Cairo through the story of an Egyptian family. At the helm of the family was al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the patriarch. He owns a grocery store that sustains his family comprised of his wife, Amina, and their five children. The eldest was Yasin who was al-Sayyid Ahmad’s only child in his first marriage. Fahmy was Amina’s elder son while Khadija was the elder daughter. Aisha and Kamal were the younger children. They live in Cairo’s Gamaliya district, where the Beshtak Palace is also situated.
Each child has his or her own character that gave texture to the story. Yasin had their father’s good looks but he was also a spendthrift who had a taste for the expensive. He also shared his father’s love for the bottle and women. Fahmy, on the other hand, was the intellect of the family. He was taking law which introduced him to nationalistic ideals. From what I read so far, I believe that he will get entangled with Egypt’s struggle for independence from the British. He does remind me of one of the characters in Miramar. Khadija, meanwhile, had a sharp tongue which made her border on the cynical. Her younger sister, Aisha, was of a more timid demeanor. She had a wonderful voice and had their mother’s beauty. This was a point of contention between the two sisters. Kamal, the youngest, had a compunction for trouble.
Their individuality, however, has not obscured the novel’s biggest puzzle: their father. Around his family, al-Sayyid Ahmad was stern and strict. He was feared in his home and his word was final. He had ideas to which he adheres. While he had extramarital affairs, he can also be fair. For instance, he wanted his oldest daughter to marry first. His intentions were pure but his sternness would only create tension between his two daughters. He also wanted to teach his oldest son about independence but he indulged him too much. Outside of his home, al-Sayyid Ahmad was carefree and loved to sing, sides to himself that he never showed to his family. Amina, on the other hand, was a servile woman who believed that “houses have been for women and the outside world for men.” Amina was also superficial and was drowned by the voices of her husband and children.
So yes, the novel was largely about family dynamics. We also learn about their culture and ideals. In this family home, tradition collides with the changing times. The first half of the novel was preoccupied with painting the portrait of their home, with the major theme dealing with the complications of marriage life and the differences between men and women. However, a change in tone takes place in the second half; this was a little unexpected and caught me off guard a little bit. The focus sheds light on Egypt’s rising call for independence. It was a touchpoint in the period which I nearly forgot about in the first half. I guess this will be how the second part will develop. Fahmy, I am guessing will be involved. What I am looking forward to is how the call for independence impacts the family.
There is a lot I am looking forward to in the story. Another interesting thread concern the married life of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s children. I am also curious if Amina will develop a firm voice of her own. I wonder if she will finally have a prominent role in her family. Sure, her children love her but she is passive most of the time. This will be important as there are still two books in the trilogy. Cultural and historical touchpoints also make the story more compelling. I am hoping to finish the book over the weekend. How about you fellow reader? What book or books are you taking with you for the weekend? I hope you get to enjoy them. For now, happy weekend! And as always, happy reading and take care!