Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

They do things differently there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amina is the wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, married to him before she was fourteen. Now with her own children approaching adulthood, Amina prides herself on her docility and spends her life trying to be a perfect wife to Ahmad, a bullying husband and tyrannical father. This is the story of Amina and Ahmad and their five children, set to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt.

First published in 1956, it’s a historical novel, the first in Mahfouz’ Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, describing a way of life that was already changing then and now seems positively archaic in its attitudes regarding the place of women and paternalistic power over children, even for a region that still has a very different cultural approach to these things than the West. It’s written in the third person, but the perspective shifts between the various family members so that we come to understand the inner thoughts and feelings of each. It’s remarkably unjudgemental – I can’t remember another book where I felt such a complete lack of the author’s personal views coming through. Mahfouz tells and shows every aspect of the society the characters operate in – the middle-class of Cairo, educated, prosperous but not rich, strictly traditional; but he leaves all evaluation of the characters to the reader. It took me quite a while to get used to this – I wanted anger against Ahmad and sympathy for his wife and children, but gradually I came to appreciate Mahfouz’ neutrality; it’s as if he’s saying, this is how it was, I merely show it to you with no modern interpretation to obscure it.

This is a family saga, the story concentrating mostly on the development of the characters of the children as they approach adulthood and the all-important question of marriage. Ahmad is old-fashioned even in his own time, and exerts strict control not only over his daughters but his sons too, determined that they will marry as he directs, for the honour and enrichment of the family. Happiness is something Ahmad doesn’t consider – his daughters should be docile enough to be happy with any man he chooses for them, and if his sons don’t like their wives, they can simply follow his example and lead most of their lives pursuing one exotic mistress after another. If the wife objects, then the matter is simply solved by the husband’s unilateral declaration of divorce and returning the obstreperous wife to her unwilling family. In Ahmad’s mind, and his society appears largely to agree with him (even the women), women neither have nor deserve any rights. This is not to say he doesn’t love his wife and daughters – he does, so long as they fulfil their duty of obedience to him.

Amina has two daughters, and has brought them up to see the life she has led as the desired and only possible life for a respectable woman. Marriage is essential – an unmarried woman serves no purpose in life and is merely a financial drain on her relatives. It is the fathers who arrange the marriage, or occasionally a mother if she is a widow and financially independent. Girls are selected primarily for their family connections, but beauty and feminine talents like housework and singing are important too. Aisha is the younger and prettier daughter and doesn’t lack suitors, but Ahmad is determined that his older, rather unattractive-looking daughter, Khadija, should marry first. When one of them is finally chosen, we see the mix of pride and fear of a girl making a good match, but to a husband she has never met. She will be removed from a home where the only men she has been allowed to meet are her father and brothers, and where her father has controlled every aspect of her life, to the home of a husband who will now become effectively her owner. Mahfouz does a wonderful job of showing all this from the female perspective – I never had that feeling of wrongness that sometimes comes through when an author of one gender writes from the perspective of the other. Mahfouz also shows through the daughters’ marriages that things are beginning to change – both girls find a little more freedom in their new homes than their old.

The sons, while still under strict control of their father, go out into the world, first to school and university and then into jobs. The youngest son is still a schoolboy in this first book of the trilogy, so although he plays his part, it’s relatively minor. The oldest son, Yasin, from Ahmad’s first marriage, struggles with the shame he feels is brought on him by his mother’s failure to be submissive enough to keep her husband. He is a chip off the old block – a womaniser with a penchant for exotic mistresses, and no interest in much beyond his own pleasure. The middle boy, Fahmy, gets involved with the Nationalist movement at university, so it’s through him that we catch a glimpse of the political situation. It’s a fairly understated glimpse though – I think Mahfouz probably assumed his readership would know the history of Egypt’s struggle for independence, so he doesn’t go into it in any great detail, using it instead to show its impact on the people we’ve come to know, especially Fahmy.

Naguib Mahfouz

It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. Generational brainwashing, of course, but then aren’t we all subject to that? Mahfouz left me reflecting uneasily that we too are brainwashed – that we see our Western values as better simply because our mothers and our society teach us to, and most of us individually never question that nor dispute it for fear of being ostracised. I felt it was the power of Mahfouz’ neutrality that in the end made it impossible for me to judge this society as harshly as I was ready to do when I began. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade. I look forward to reading the other two volumes in the trilogy.

Apologies for the length of the review but, in my defence, it’s a long book!

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39 thoughts on “Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

  1. The one thing about your excellent review that really struck me, FictionFan, is the non-judgemental approach the author takes. It’s very difficult (trust me!) to keep one’s personal feelings out of what one writes. But it really adds to a story when the author shows a culture in such an unbiased way. And the story sounds like a very effective look at a way of life that most of us in the West don’t know very well. I am always interested in learning more about things I don’t know, so this appeals to me…

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    • It made me realise that in most historical fiction there’s a very strong sense of the author either approving or disapproving of how things used to be. By the end of this one, I couldn’t really have said whether Mahfouz was looking back with nostalgia or horror, and that gave me room to decide for myself, which was refreshing and probably made me think more deeply, in fact. Definitely one that’s worth the effort of reading, even though it is quite an effort at times…

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  2. This sounds interesting, but not when there’s already so much misery around me — maybe after things resolve themselves, huh?! I find it fascinating that the author doesn’t let his personal feelings and opinions in — that’s a real challenge, and most of us probably fail at it.

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    • I read this one before the world went into meltdown – I certainly wouldn’t have had the concentration for it now. I found it hard enough just writing a review of it! Yes, it was a strange experience that made me realise how strongly an author’s opinion usually comes through, especially in historical fiction…

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  3. As I was reading your review, I was initially thinking this isn’t the kind of thing you would normally go for, as the emphasis is on the domestic side of society rather than the overtly political. I’m glad it won you over in the end. As others have said, the neutrality of the author could potentially be the most striking aspect of this novel: quite refreshing in its own way. It definitely sounds worth a read, and I’m actually rather fond of the Family Saga if it has a point and clear historical setting.

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    • It’s one I chose purely because of the Around the World challenge, which has made me go for all kinds of books I wouldn’t normally be attracted to – with mixed results! But this was a surprise success – I was very apprehensive both because of the saga aspect and the sheer length of the book. But I found myself gradually being sucked in and coming to care about the characters, and, I’m sure because of Mahfouz’ neutrality, being able to suspend my own judgement on their behaviour. If you like the saga style, then I’m sure you’d find this well worth your time…

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    • I actually read it before the world went into meltdown, when I still had the ability to concentrate for more than ten minutes at a time! It really is excellent, although it did take me a while to accept Mahfouz’ slow and neutral style – made me realise how strongly an author’s own opinions usually come through. One that’s well worth the effort!

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    • I actually read it before the world collapsed – I definitely wouldn’t have the concentration for it right now either. But it’s certainly one I’m glad I’ve read and I’m looking forward to the other books in the trilogy… some time!

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  4. I have this book somewhere on my shelves and tried to read it many years ago. But I didn’t make it through. Although I noticed how Mahfouz kept a neutral authorial voice, I think he may have taken that stance for fear of appearing sympathetic to the plight of women in such an oppressive patriarchal society, because as you note, the lives of the daughters were slightly more free than their mother’s. But I’m also thinking that neutrality to oppression is a form of agreement.

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    • I know what you mean, but on the other hand I couldn’t help feeling that judgement is another form of oppression. We think we are free but in truth there are just as many things we are not allowed to do, say or even think without being condemned by our own society – it’s just that it’s different things. But try saying something controversial on Twitter and see if the great British and American public defend your right to freedom of thought and expression… 😉

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      • Ha! yes, I see what you mean. A Buddhist would most likely agree. Observation and “isn’t that interesting” kind of thing, yes? My question then becomes, how as a society do we decide what’s right and wrong, and how do we keep society functioning without anarchy. It seems like certain moral rules such as saying “no” to murder or harming others in ways both physical and psychological should be discouraged. And our method for discouraging this behavior tends to rely on a legal system of judging whether said behavior has occurred, and whether the victim has been harmed. Yes, our system is imperfect, because those who develop the system are imperfect, but we have to have some kind of system to make this thing called society work. That said, science is not subjective (at least for those of us who believe in science), but morals tend to be. Where do we draw those moral lines? I tend to draw them where my actions affect others. And, to me, oppression is an action that affects others in negative ways. That said, I haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning and need to get another cup before I blather on. Cheers!

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        • I’m not even convinced that we don’t manipulate science to suit our own social construct – if science suggests something that goes against the liberal agenda, then we defund the science and denigrate the scientists. I find more and more that our “free” society is incredibly restrictive – a kind of liberal stranglehold on freedom of thought that is as stifling as anything that came before. For example, I see blog after blog specialising in only women authors, or only books by POC, and each time I try to imagine the outcry if I started a blog with the aim of promoting books by exclusively white men. “Diversity” has actually come to mean “everyone except straight white men”. If I say something rude about being a gay man I’m homophobic – if I say something equally rude about being a straight white man I’m feminist. I guess it’s age related, but it makes me laugh when (white) people are out on the streets demanding the right for Muslim women to wear the hijab, since I remember a couple of decades ago when (white) women were out on the streets demanding the right for Muslim women to be freed from wearing it, on the grounds that they couldn’t possibly want to – it must be The Patriarchy at work! It was a long time till anyone listened to what Muslim women wanted, and I’m still not sure we care – we want them to follow our liberal feminist narrative, which has morphed from we shouldn’t wear restrictively conservative clothes to we should wear whatever we want, without a bump in the road! I don’t think there are any easy answers, but I wish it was permissible for us to at least be allowed to have discussions without being labelled and howled down by our “liberal” society. And I wish we’d stop thinking our social construct is so damn superior… the number of suicides, drug addicts and mass shootings tells me it’s not. Haha, sorry, I shall jump off my soapbox now!

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          • That’s a nice soapbox, you have there. 😉 Yes, I get what you’re saying. Personally, I would just like people to feel free to do whatever they’d like to do, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. But then we’d have to figure out what the definition of “hurt” is, LOL. I know that’s pretty simplistic, but it feels like it would work.

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  5. This sounds fascinating and I’ve definitely added it to the wishlist – even though I think it will take me a while to warm up to the neutral authorial style too. Probably one for the future though, as I mostly want books that are funny or escapist at the moment!

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    • It did take me a while to get into the flow and to accept that I was being given a portrait for me to study and decide for myself, which made me realise how used we are to authors telling us what we should think! I actually read it before the meltdown happened – I wouldn’t have had the necessary concentration for it at the moment either. But one well worth considering when the world starts spinning again! 😀

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    • I suspect you’d love this one, Karissa – it took me a while to get into the slow flow of it but I gradually became completely absorbed by these lives. I think it’s that the characters don’t seem so different from us but their lifestyles are completely alien – made me really think about how we are conditioned by the cultures we grow up in.

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  6. I read it during my University days and remember liking it a lot. Was very certain that I’d read the rest of the trilogy too but somehow that never materialized. After your excellent review, thinking of picking it up again….. once the libraries open.

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    • I get the impression that, as with a lot of trilogies, this first book is considered the best, but I really do want to know what happened to this little family and how their culture changed over the following years. I don’t think I have the concentration for the other two books at the moment – I read this one before the world collapsed – but I’ll certainly read them once we get back to normal, whenever that is!

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  7. What an excellent and thought provoking review. I think it’s wonderful that a book allows the reader freedom to explore their own perceptions and to be put into that position of understanding how much of the way we are, isn’t individual but influenced by the expectations of the culture and society around us.
    When we spend a lengthy period of time living in another culture we see it first and tend to judge, then we adapt and finally, often we can even become an advocate for some parts of that different way of life because we’ve undone some of our own conditioning. But then we return it’s hard to share the learning, because it has to have been experienced. I love the magic of books that goes some way towards bridging that gap. I certainly read around the world in part for that reason.

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    • Thank you! It really made me realise how much we are usually guided as to what we should think by the author’s voice – the neutrality here took a bit of getting used to, but in the end it made me think more deeply for myself, rather than just agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s viewpoint.
      I so agree – I’ve never lived for any length of time in a different culture but I know reading books by authors from other societies always leaves me thinking about the differences, and that makes me more aware of how conditioned and even restricted we are by our own cultures, even although we pride ourselves on our freedoms. Oppression takes many different forms, and I’m not convinced any culture has got it right yet…

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  8. I read this some years ago with one of my book groups and I was absolutely engrossed in it, although as you say it takes a little time to become that involved. I’ve always meant to go on and read the other novels, but as is so often the case, I’ve just not got round to it. I think if I were to do that now I would need to go back and read this one again; not that that would be any hardship. Thank you for reminding me about it. Now might be the time to go for the full quartet.

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    • It is a slow starter, but well worth the journey. I always have that problem with trilogies or quartets – by the time I get to book 2 I’ve forgotten book 1. I must make an effort not to leave this one for too long. I feel I can’t read the new Mantel without re-reading the earlier ones, and the same is happening with The Jewel in the Crown quartet – if I don’t read the second book soon it’ll be too late… oh, the trials of being a reader! 😉

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  9. I’d never heard of this book before but it sounds fascinating. I’m really interested in this idea of the author’s bias not showing…at first that sounds incredibly boring, but then, it really seems to work doesn’t it? Especially when dealing with such a divisive topic such as this, it’s incredible that he was so nonjudgmental!

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    • It felt very odd at first and took me a while to get tuned into, but I found it made me think for myself more than if he’d just told me what I should think! I wonder if he managed to sustain it through the whole trilogy.

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    • Thank you! I do recommend this one – I think you’d enjoy it. Just remember that it’s a slow starter – it takes quite a long time to begin to feel sympathy for any of them but it’s worth the early slog… 😀

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  10. Great review! I read this book years ago and I remember enjoying it, but for one reason or another I never got around to reading to the rest of the books in the trilogy. After reading your review, I’m realizing that I don’t remember anything about the book and so must re-read it before I attempt the others in the trilogy! I’m excited to try it again and get back into this story. I remember really liking it, but it took awhile for me to get into it.

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    • Thank you! It definitely took me a while to get into it – the lack of criticism of the way of life seemed so odd at first. But I hope I do actually read he other two books – I’m very bad for not following through, and then, like you, I find I’ve forgotten the first book and would have to re-read it. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment about the last book in the Wolf Hall trilogy – I’d need to read the first two again!

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      • Ha ha – yes, I’m in the same boat as you about The Mirror and the Light. I bought it, but haven’t had the energy to tackle it yet as I can’t remember the other books (other than the historical bits)… My problem with series is that I don’t usually like to read the same author or type of book back to back, so I get distracted in series unless something ends on a massive cliffhanger and I simply must continue on right then!

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