Palace Walk, the first installment in the Cairo trilogy, by the 1988 Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, is quite easily one of the most well-written books ever. Mahfouz, in this book, has described Cairo the way Dickens describes London, and that, is really something.
The book’s Arabic title translates literally into ‘between two palaces’ – a phrase which highlights the cultural and political transition Egypt experienced at this time and the developments brought into focus by the lives of the al-Jawad family. It begins during the World War-I in 1917 and ends in 1919, the year of the nationalist revolution. The key characters of the novel are al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his unquestioning, obedient wife, Amina. They live with their three sons- Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, and two daughters- Khadija and Aisha. al-Sayyid Ahmad is the tyrannical head of the family who insists on extremely strict rules of Muslim piety in his house. Right when the narration begins, we get to know that his wife (who happens to be his second wife), Amina, has never left the house in a quarter of a century (25 years!). And yet, she never complains. She diligently does her work, and the religious person that she herself is, she follows her husband’s words blindingly, for she believes that is what the law of the nature is. And it is not just her, but all the family members who never dare to go against al-Sayyid Ahmad’s orders. He has invoked in his family members such a sense of fear for himself that nobody ever tries to defy him. However, one gradually finds out, that it is not just fear that the members have for the head of the family, but also great respect and awe, for al-Sayyid Ahmad is a very graceful and charming person.
With the progress of the narration, one finds how masterfully Mahfouz has sketched each and every character. His unfailing, intricate development of every character is very believable and goes on to prove that Mahfouz does have a very proper understanding of the complexity of human nature. While al-Sayyid Ahmad is a very stern, religious person for his family members, to the outside world, he’s the life of every party and permits himself officially forbidden pleasures, particularly music, drinking wine and conducting numerous extramarital affairs. Because of his insistence on his household authority, his wife and children are forbidden from questioning why he stays out late at night or comes home intoxicated. “His life was composed of a diversity of mutually contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity.” The focal point of the story that highlights the double standards of al-Sayyid Ahmad is when Amina, for the first time, sets foot outside the house, just to go to pray at the al-Hussein mosque. On the way back, Amina faints on the road due to the heat and is struck by a car, fracturing her collarbone; her children must fetch a doctor to come and set the bone. When al-Sayyid Ahmad discovers that she left the house without his permission, he waits until the bone has healed, and then exiles her from the house for some weeks, forcing her to live at her mother’s house. While he has stricter rules for the females of his household, his love for his daughters is not distinct from that he has for his sons. A tyranny in Amina’s methods is also brought to light when her stepson’s wife shows more liberal ways of living than she has followed. She, and also Khadija, complain about his wife’s attitudes lightly on random occasions, even though they themselves, in the heart of their hearts, would want to be relieved of many impositions.
Talking of other characters of the household, here’s a little light shed on them all. Yasin, the eldest son of al-Sayyid Ahmad from his first marriage, shares his father’s good looks and, like his father, is fond of music, alcohol and women. He dislikes his mother for her adulteries, but it’s extramarital affairs that end up bringing embarrassment to him and his father. Fahmy, Amina’s elder son who is a law student, is very intelligent and is deeply involved in the revolution against the British rule in Egypt. He has a soft spot for his neighbour, Maryam, but couldn’t do anything about it, thanks to his father’s sternness. Khadija, the elder daughter, who is very sharp-tongued and always has a keen eye for everything that goes about in the family, is always jealous of her younger sister, Aisha, who is considered very beautiful, and hence, more marriageable. However, her jealousy never overshadows her adoration for her sister. Aisha, on the other hand, is the softer, more mellow one who loves to sing and is utterly romantic. Kamal, the most lovable character of the story, is the youngest in the household. He’s a bright child who deeply loves his family members, especially his mother and his sisters. When the prospect of marriage of his sisters comes up, it deeply saddens him, for he doesn’t wish to have to part with his sisters. Despite the fact that there are numerous characters to be focused upon, Mahfouz does justice to each and every character’s development. This is the chief factor for increasing his likability.
The other reason for calling this book a very well-written one lies in the fact that the language used here is very lucid. With the progressive development of the story, absolutely no compromise has been made with the metaphors used (which are plentiful) or with the imagery. Some of the most resounding lines from the book that highlight Mahfouz’s master-abilities,
- “The universal rejoicing was not without a mournful tear.”
- “She knew far more about the world of the jinn than that of mankind…”
- “The way love can disregard fears, however, is an age-old wonder. No fear is able to spoil love’s development or keep it from dreaming of its appointed hour.”
- “He had told himself that if a person had a strong enough will he might be able to carve out more than one future, but no matter how strong will, he could never have more than one inescapable and unavoidable past.”
- “At times, a person may create an imaginary problem to escape from an actual problem he finds difficult to resolve.”
- “In a crisis, a person will concentrate his thoughts on saving himself. Once he is safe, his conscience will start to give him trouble.”
To me, more than a story, this book was more of a peek into the lifestyle prevalent in Cairo during the World War-I period, which I really enjoyed getting to know. All bows to Mahfouz for having written the book with as beautiful and livid a language as could be. Mahfouz makes sure that the quick, poignant end will leave you reeling for quite some while to follow after you’ve completed reading the book. 🙂