Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (1956). This book is about a family in Cairo, Egypt  in the early 20 century during WW1.  This book captures the culture  of an ultraconservative family, and at the same time provides us with a good understanding of the thoughts, feelings and the sorrows  of each member of the family. This book is a travel to their minds and hearts. 

Ahmad and Amina  have  three sons —Yasin, Fahmay, Kamal and two daughters — Khadija and Aisha.  Ahmad is a wealthy store-owner who is a very strict man that appears to be also a hedonist and a tyrant in his house, keeping a strong grip on his family while he indulges in a life of pleasures and party. 

Amina —his (second) wife— is a passive and submissive woman who lives a sad life of confinement. Except for some special occasions, she has not gone out of her house for over twenty years  One day, encouraged by her sons and during the absence of Ahmad, she goes to the mosque to pray and in her way back home a car hits her and as a result of the accident, she has to stay in bed for several weeks to heal a broken bone.

After her recovery, Ahmad expels Amina from their home, prompting her to seek refuge with her mother. Eventually, a female acquaintance of the family mediates, persuading Ahmad to welcome Amina back on the condition that their youngest daughter marries the acquaintance’s son. With this arrangement, Amina returns home, and Alisha marries a man unknown to her until the wedding takes place. After the wedding, Aisha goes from living in captivity in her father’s house to now live in a  similar state of captivity but now in her husband’s house. 

Yasin, the eldest son seems to be a young version of his father, not only physically, but also he  appears to have a very strict  personality, just as his father. He challenges his mother when Yasin learns that she is going to get married for the third time and g0es to her to angrily  express his opposition.  Just to clarify, Yasin challenges his real mother, not Amina, because Amina is his stepmother.

The book is fantastically well written and explains  the minuscule details of the personality and thoughts  of each member of the family and the complete disregard of Ahmad  for the individuality of his wife and daughters. It also illustrates the views of the family on sexual education or the lack of it. After the wedding party when Yasin goes back to the house in a drunken state, tries to rape their maid. She cries and yells and then Ahmed comes down to intervene. As a punishment, he decides that Yasin will get married to the daughter of one of Ahmad’s acquaintances. Eventually Kadija –Yasin’s sister– marries the brother of Yasin’s new wife, Zaynab.

Zaynab’s arrival into Yasin’s household brings to light the complexities of integrating her into the family. Khadija and Amina harbor reservations about Zaynab. Meanwhile, Yasin grapples with the realities of married life, experiencing moments of monotony and nostalgia for his bachelor days.

During a period of confinement due to English occupation, Yasin commits a reprehensible act, assaulting his wife’s servant. Zaynab, pregnant with Yasin’s child at the time, leaves the household. Ahmad chastises Yasin, but the situation escalates when Zaynab seeks a divorce. Ahmad’s anger stems not from the assault but from the affront to his honor when Zaynab’s father demands a divorce.

The book ends with Fahmay being killed during a protest against the English occupation. Ahmad, completely demolished by the news, goes to his house with a heavy heart and doesn’t know how to tell this to the family.

Perhaps one of the reasons that made me start this book is that the narrative is extremely beautiful. This book reads almost like poetry. Just to give an example of how Mahfouz describes something as mundane as feeding hens, here is a very brief excerpt: 

… Their beaks fell on the grain quickly and regularly, like sewing-machine needles, leaving little indentations in the dust like the pockmarks from a drizzle. How good she felt when she saw them gazing at her with clear little eyes, inquisitive and questioning, while they cackled and clucked with a shared affection that filled her heart with tenderness”.

This is  a fantastic book. Mahfouz won the Nobel prize of literature in 1988 and I believe he is the first person from an Arab country to have  the award. Mahfouz’s beliefs of freedom of expression attracted a  lot of attention from Islam extremists and he suffered an assassination attempt. Mahfouz lived, but his life as a productive writer progressively decreased after the attack.

I love this book and I will read the next one in the series -Palace of Desire.

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