A Literary Epic

Since time immemorial, Arabic literature has gifted the world with some of the most renowned, memorable, and enduring stories and literary characters. From epic stories to tragic romances to adventure stories, Arabic literature has an entire spectrum of literary works, from full-length prose to epic poems to short stories to satire, to offer to the rest of the world. We all have heard about the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an but who has also not heard of the One Thousand and One Nights, also referred to as the Arabian Nights? It is easily the most recognized work of Arabic Literature. Who has not heard of the heroics of Sinbad the Sailor? Who has not encountered Scheherazade, a name and character who also often appears in contemporary works of literature? For their skills in writing and commanding the reader’s and the audience’s attention, Arabic writers are indeed natural Scheherazade. Influences of Arabic literature can also be found in the works of popular non-Arab writers.

For sure, the influences of Arabic literature transcend time, language, and borders. This long tradition of producing high-caliber writers and literary works continues to reverberate in the contemporary. Among those who kept the flames of Arabic literature shining in the contemporary are Saud Alsanousi, Alaa Al Aswany, Khaled Khalifa, and Nawal El Saadawi. Another prominent and influential name in the sacrosanct halls of Arabic literature is Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. He had a long and prolific career that spanned seven decades which started with a slew of short stories. From short stories, he would pivot his focus toward full prose but his oeuvre spanned a vast array of genres, including screenplays, novels, and plays. His evocative literary portraits of Cairo and Egypt, their diverse people, colorful culture, and history would earn Mahfouz the distinction of being the first Arabic writer to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.

In its citation, the Swedish Academy lauded Mahfouz, “who, through works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous – has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.” Mahfouz’s highly-acclaimed brand of prose was exhibited and captured in Palace Walk. Palace Walk was also the first book in Mahfouz’s immensely popular trilogy, The Cairo Trilogy; the trilogy is often cited as among the hallmarks of his prolific career. The novel was originally published in Arabic in 1956 as بين القصرين (Bayn al-qasrayn). The book’s original title literally translates into between two palaces, hence, the adopted English title. However, it was only after Mahfouz’s Nobel win that the book was translated into English; this underscores how some of the world’s most seminal and powerful works are largely unexplored by the anglophone world. Over three decades after its original release, Palace Walk, translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny, was released in 1990.

“In a crisis a person will concentrate his thoughts on saving himself. Once he is safe, his conscience will start to give him trouble. Similarly, when a member of the body is ill, the body drains vital energies from other areas to try to heal it. When the diseased member recovers, these energies must be redistributed equally to other, neglected parts of the body.” 

~ Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk
Family Dynamics

The novel was set in Cairo and spanned two years, bookended by two major historical events that had impacts on both global and local scales. The story commenced in 1917 when the First World War was raging in other parts of the world although it was slowly approaching its conclusion. While Cairo itself was a bustling metropolis, the heart of a once powerful empire, most of the story took place in the household of the Abd al-Jawad family. They are a middle-class Egyptian family living in Cairo’s Gamaliya district, with their house located on the titular Palace Walk. Nevertheless, it was through the story of the members of the Abd al-Jawad family that Mahfouz captured the seminal shifts in political and cultural climates in Cairo and Egypt, as a whole, during the period.

At the helm of the Abd al-Jawad family was al-Sayyid Ahmad, the patriarch. Outside of the family home, he was the owner of a shop, the profits derived from which helped sustain his and his family’s indulgences. Mahfouz painted two starkly contrasting pictures of the patriarch. In his shop, he was gregarious and can be generous. He was also drawn to a sybaritic lifestyle which was unbeknownst to his family. After the shop closes for the day, the revelry-seeking side of his persona manifests as he douses himself in fine wine, music, and even women. This pleasure-seeking side of him was a stark dichotomy to the tyrannical and stern father and husband he was once he enters the family home. He runs a tight ship at home, a domineering man heavily steeped in tradition. He expected nothing but complete obedience from his wife and children who called him sir. With his contrasting personas within and without the ambit of his home which reeked of double standards, Ahmd comes off as hypocritical.

Amina, the matriarch, was Ahmad’s second wife; he married her when she was still fourteen years old: “You’re just a woman, and no woman has a fully developed mind.” While she also had her own indulgences and whims, Amina was largely servile to the command of her husband. She was tasked to look after her husband and their children but she was also barred from leaving the family home without the explicit consent of her husband. With her beauty and her servile attitude, Amina was the quintessence of the perfect wife, a role she tried to play perfectly. Crowding the family home were five children. Yasin was the eldest son and Ahmad’s only child in his previous marriage. He used to live with his biological mother until he was “transferred to his father’s custody”. Yasin was the only child who was working. He had two younger brothers: Fahmy, the oldest son of Ahmad and Amina and a law student; and Kamal, the youngest of the five children. Ahmad and Amina also had two daughters: Khadija and Aisha. Unlike their brothers and like their mother, Khadija and Aisha were barred from leaving their house and were not allowed to attend school. Rather, they spent their days assisting their mother in carrying out her domestic tasks.

For all the paradoxes in his personality and how he run his household, Ahmad was a larger-than-life character; his complexity can elicit character studies. His facade projected that of a tyrant: “I’m a man, I’m the one who commands and forbids. I will not accept any criticism of my behavior. All I ask of you is to obey me. Don’t force me to discipline you.” At the onset, he was an enigma but as the story moved forward, we see the profile of a father who, deep inside, cared about his children’s welfare and future. He was barred from explicitly showing tenderness because of his own internal image of how a father – influenced by his traditionalist views – was supposed to act in front of his children. Through his internal musings, Mahfouz was able to purvey Ahmad’s deepest fears and anxieties. For instance, he was worried about how Aisha marrying ahead of her older daughter will adversely impact Khadifa’s self-esteem. Although his oldest son kept on pushing the wrong buttons, Ahmad wanted to instill grains of wisdom in Yasin. His ways may not always seem logical to the spectator but it cannot be denied that Ahmad loved his children equally although he was sterner with his sons.

“But how can my mind be at rest when I know that I will carry them to a stranger one day. However attractive he may seem on the ouside, only God knows what’s inside him. What can a weak girl do when she’s faced by a strange man far from the supervision of her father? What will her fate be if her husband divorces her one day, after her father has died? She must take refuge in her brother’s house to endure a life of neglect.” 

~ Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk
Dichotomies and Marriages

But despite looming above the narrative, it was the contrasting personalities of his children that gave the novel different textures. Of Ahmad’s children, Yasin was the one who inherited his father’s proclivity for merriment and pleasure. He also shared his father’s taste for the expensive, for women, alcohol, and music but he was bereft of Ahmad’s wisdom. Fahmy, meanwhile, was his antithesis. Fahmy was the intellect in the family. He was also more idealistic, a key element in his involvement in activism and nationalist demonstrations. The dichotomies between the brothers were more palpable in how they responded to the knowledge of their father’s carousing and womanizing. Yasin was proud because it was the lifestyle he yearned for. Meanwhile, Fahmy was nothing short of disappointed. The youngest Kamal, meanwhile, was far from the concerns of the adults but he was drawn to childish adventures and curiosities that, at times, result in troubles.

The same sea of dichotomies palpable among the brothers also extended to the two daughters. Khadija, who was twenty when the story commenced, was witty and her sharp tongue does not compromise when she was stating her opinions. This made up for her plainness. She was also bitter and palpably jealous of her younger sister. Aisha, four years her sister’s junior, was endowed with their mother’s beauty. As such, Aisha was considered the more marriageable of the sisters. Unlike her older sister, Aisha was timider and appeasing. Aisha tried to maintain peace and her only fault was her skinniness. Unlike Western beauty standards, plumpness was seen as one of the standards of beauty during that period; there was also a conscious effort to fatten up the sisters in order to make them more desirable, hence, marriageable.

One of the novel’s central concerns was the arrangement of Khadija and Aisha’s marriages; the marriages of his children, not only his daughters, were among Ahmad’s concerns. Marriage and marital woes were among the novel’s leitmotifs. Arranged marriages were prevalent during the period and Ahmad, a member of the conservative  Muslim Hanbali sect, was a stickler for traditions. But even traditions are not safe from the shifting tides of time. Traditions are constantly challenged, hence, are subject to change. Rigidly patriarchal structures, for instance, can be undone. In the case of Khadija and Aisha, they found bliss in their marital life because they found themselves in a less strict household. Meanwhile, Yasin continued to cause headaches for his father. His arranged marriage was meant to coral him back to morality but his father’s conservative views and hypocrisy got in the way.

Mahfouz was resplendent in capturing the spirit of the time, particularly on the realities that women face. He captured how society has placed unfair pressures on their shoulders. The dichotomies of how women and men were treated in a traditionalist household and conservative society were recurring themes in the story. The double standards and the gender roles were appalling and to think that some of these stringent expectations persist in some culture today make it even more so. However, the women of the story did not let these disparities bring their spirits down. In the most simple of pleasures, such as their inclusion in “male-centric” discourses, they managed to find joy. Despite the repetitiveness of the life designed for them, they managed to stay optimistic.

“This feeling engendered sincere love and affection. Her former sorrows were obscured by this new one, just as feelings of animosity may be obliterated by generosity. Similarly, a person who both loves and hates someone may find that the sorrow of parting obscures the hatred, leaving only the love.”

~ Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk
A State on the Cusp of Independence

While the first half of the novel captured the domestic life of the Abd al-Jawad family, there was a marked change in tone in the second half as the story went beyond the Abd al-Jawad household. As drama and tension unfolded within the Jawad household, social, political, and cultural changes were also taking place all over Egypt. Following Egypt’s declaration of war in 1914, and eventually, independence from the Ottoman Empire, it was declared a protectorate by the United Kingdom. However, it did not take long for nationalist sentiments to seize the denizens of Egypt. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, an Egyptian delegation known as the Wafd Delegation demanded the independence of Egypt. Their demand, however, was met with heavy opposition, resulting in the members of the delegation being deported to Malta.

While the British were trying to impose their will on the Egyptians, they failed to see the growing sense of nationalism that was seizing the citizenry. Activism has become prevalent as Egyptians took to the streets to raise their concern. Among these throngs of people was Fahmy. His activism was greatly opposed by his father although Ahmad was also in favor of the calls for independence. Fahmy, however, was equally adamant as his father and refused to heed his father’s call, assuaging his father’s concerns by downplaying his role in the rising tide of nationalism. All of these will come to a head after the arrest and deportation of the Wafd Delegation. The British underestimated their actions as the arrest carried far more implications. The call for independence inevitably turned into unrest. In retaliation, the British sent soldiers to man every crucial district in Cairo; they had one in front of the Abd al-Jawad household. At the story’s conclusion in 1919, the Egyptian revolution was starting to gather steam.

The Modern Egyptian Novel

The novel’s different elements were woven together by Mahfouz’s skillful writing and storytelling. His writing managed to capture the atmosphere and the shifting political, social, and cultural climates. Palace Walk contained the fine prints of what makes his prose soar. His brand of literary realism, displayed in the novel, was integral in giving Egyptian prose a different definition. His works deconstructed the norms of Egyptian, and by extension, Arabic literature so much so that some of his works were considered heretical. His writing complimented the character-centric story. He reeled the readers into the intricacies of an Egyptian household, regaling them with the character’s individual characters. Mahfouz did not spare any details in capturing what made the characters tick, their tendencies, and even their aspirations.

In its depiction of the period and the painting of its atmosphere, Palace Walk was both insightful and evocative. It vividly captured the landscape of a household and what held it together. It captured the complexities of domestic life and concerns, including marriage arrangements, family structures, and marital woes. The story of the Abd al-Jawad family was juxtaposed with changes seminal in Egypt’s contemporary history. Changes were pouring in from all fronts, from social to political to cultural. The First World War was just coming to an end but new trouble was brewing over the horizon as the rising spirit of nationalism was gathering steam. There was death and even depictions of domestic violence but the story was sprinkled with humor, optimism, and even hope. It was lush with cultural touchstones and historical context. Parts-family saga, parts-historical fiction, Palace Walk is, without a doubt, a modern classic, a hallmark of contemporary Arabic literature.

“Since antiquity, houses have been for women and the outside world for men. Men are all like this. A sincere husband is as faithful to his wife when he’s away from her as when he’s with her. Moreover, the refreshment and delight I derive from my outings will make our life together thoroughly enjoyable.” 

~ Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk
Rating

94%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
26%
Writing (25%) – 
25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

It was over seven years ago that I first encountered Naguib Mahfouz through an online bookseller. I didn’t have any iota about who he was but a quick search yielded that he is a Nobel Laureate in Literature. The Nobel didn’t mean much to me back then – I was too much out of the woods – but this did not stop me from acquiring two of his works: Miramar and Palace of Desire. I ended up liking Miramar despite it being short. However, I had to hold back on reading Palace of Desire after I learned that it was the second book in Mahfouz’s renowned Cairo Trilogy. Instead, I resolved to obtain all three books and in 2020, I was finally able to acquire all three books. However, it would again take me some time before I finally got to start reading the trilogy. As it is imperative for me to start reading the trilogy, I included Palace Walk, the first book in the trilogy, in my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. Palace Walk is also my third novel by the first Arabic winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is also the heftiest of the three. Going into the story, I had quite lofty expectations and I am glad the book did not disappoint. Mahfouz masterfully captured the image of Egypt in transition through the story of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family. The lush cultural touchstones and the historical context made me learn more about Egypt, its people, and its contemporary history. I can’t wait to read the succeeding books in the trilogy.

Book Specs

Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translators (from Arabic): William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: January 1991
Number of Pages: 498
Genre: Family Saga, Historical

Synopsis

“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)

About the Author

To learn more about the Nobel Laureate in Literature, click here.