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!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link