Palace walk

by Nagieb Mahfoez

Paper Book, 1990





New York Doubleday 1990


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.

Media reviews

Naguib Mahfouz has been compared to Balzac and Dickens, and his characters, like theirs, are drawn with absolute authority and acute psychological insight. ''Palace Walk'' is a tale told with great affection, humor and sensitivity, in a style that in this translation, by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny, is always accessible and elegant.

User reviews

LibraryThing member kidzdoc
The first novel in The Cairo Trilogy is set in a Cairene neighborhood in October 1917, just after the death of Husayn Kamal, the Sultan of Egypt. Kamal was chosen three years earlier as the figurehead of the land that was a part the Ottoman Empire but had been ruled by Great Britain since 1882. The previous leader, Abbas II, was deposed by the British at the onset of World War I, once the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers and against Great Britain. Egypt was declared a British protectorate, which ended its semi-independent status and fueled the nationalist movement to expel the unwanted colonizers.

[Palace Walk] is centered upon al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a successful neighborhood shop owner in Cairo. He is a merciless tyrant at home, imposing his unbending will and strict Muslim beliefs on his family, but a beloved and devoted friend to many and a fervent lover of wine, women and song outside of it. The al-Jawad family includes Amina, al-Sayyid's pious and tirelessly devoted second wife, his two daughters, the beautiful and vain Aisha, and the homely but quick witted and razor tongued Khadija, and his three sons, Yasin, a government servant whose prodigious appetite for debauchery exceeds his father's; Fahmy, an idealistic law student and freedom fighter; and Kamal, the youngest of the clan, an irreverent young dreamer who has a nose for getting into trouble but loves everyone in his family passionately and unconditionally.

The al-Jawads and those closest to them each struggle with parallel internal conflicts, in keeping with the struggle of the Egyptian people torn between the protection from the ravages of war by British occupation and the burning desire for independence, between older religious traditions and emerging secular freedoms, and especially between the traditional and modern roles and rights of women in early 20th century Egyptian society. In addition, the three sons of al-Jawad each seem to serve as metaphors for different periods of modern Egyptian history, with Yasin representative of traditional Cairo, Khady of the troubled land during the British protectorate, and Kamal of the bright but uncertain future independent country.

Mahfouz does a masterful job in fully portraying each character, the bustling neighborhood that surrounds Palace Walk, and the deep tension and stifling oppression within the al-Jawad household. Palace Walk is a monumental work, one which is essential to an understanding of the history of modern Egypt, and an outstanding family saga that rivals any other in literature.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
This is a book to be savored. Each sentence is a finely crafted piece of genius. And you want to dwell on each one for an inordinate amount of time. Or you want to keep rereading the sentence, wondering how Naguib Mahfouz knew that this particular combination of words would transform the narrative into something so….beautiful.

Palace Walk is a family saga taking place in Cairo in the years during and immediately following WWI. The Muslim patriarch of the Sayid family, al-Sayid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, is a tyrannical brute who lives by a double standard. He subjects his wife, Amina and daughters Aisha and Khadija, to a life of complete and total isolation where they are not permitted out of the house and his sons Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal, live in constant fear of their father’s strict discipline. This severe interpretation of the Quer’an, however, somehow permits him to adopt entirely different rules for himself. He spends each evening drinking and carousing and partying and when oldest son Yasin, observes his father with another woman he can’t help but comment:

”What a strange man he was to sanction forbidden forms of entertainment for himself while denying his family legitimate enjoyments.”(Page319)

The Sayid family, up until Yasin’s observations, is completely unaware of their patriarch’s double life and even if they had known, really, what could they do? They lived in total and complete domination by a man who willfully refrained from smiling in front of his family, in order to keep up his reputation as a tyrant. I have to admit, I kept waiting for some kind of resolution of this aspect of this family’s plight because it was so outrageous. As a lifelong resident of the West, I just don’t know enough about other cultures and this story takes place almost 100 years ago, but to hold women prisoner in their homes, to not educate women so that no men will know what they look like is so foreign to me. So thank you Mr. Mahfouz for the education. On the other hand, I could not warm up to al-Sayid Ahmad. He goes so against the grain of anything that hints at women’s rights. So it’s surprising how much I loved this book.

One thing I must comment on and that is the fine-detailed, acutely defined characterizations of all the family members. As the story is told through the viewpoints of all of them, it was important for these characters to ring true, and they certainly do.

Under the dreadful conditions in the Sayid home, Mahfouz spins a tale of life in Egypt during the time of the British occupation. And middle son Fahmy, is a dedicated freedom fighter that loves his country and will do anything, even go so far as defying his father’s order to stop participating in the distribution of handbills. And when the British set up a check point right in front of the residence on Palace Walk, things really heat up. Can anything good come of this? The author builds suspense, page by page, until the final climactic page when it becomes apparent that this tale will be continued in another volume. And I will certainly be reading that one shortly. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member deebee1
Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy is the 3-generation saga of a family spanning several decades, from 1917 to the 1950s. Palace Walk, set against the backdrop of the British occupation of Egypt right after the first World War, introduces us to the tyrannical patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, and their children. We get an intimate view of an ultra-conservative household in a society that has resisted change for centuries, whose cocoon is buffeted by the sweeping changes in the country as it struggled for independence from the British.

The story drags for a few hundred pages, but through an exhaustive portrayal of the character of each of the family members, their daily routine, their relations with their neighbors and friends, we begin to have an understanding of the deep cultural and religious bonds that tie Egyptian society. The father is deeply feared, but loved and respected, in his family whom he keeps in a very tight leash. The women follow the strict tradition of being cloistered, restricted from stepping outside their doors unless in the company of the husband, and covered whenever that very rare chance occurs. Amina and the 2 daughters have never gone outside their home except to visit the grandmother, they are ignorant of what lie beyond the walls of the house. The men are different -- the father is a totally different person as soon as he is outside and unseen by his family -- he is a charming, sociable person, reveling in the company of friends, a womanizer, a drinker, a lover of pleasures. His nights are spent in abandonment and pursuit of these delights. Nobody at home knows this side of his character.

The story unfolds slowly until halfway through, allowing the reader to fully absorb the mindset and outlook of each family member, and then events unfold -- secrets are revealed, realizations occur, changes take place in the family structure, and the events outside parallel the turmoils going on inside each individual member as all these changes impact the relative calm and peace they have known so far. The father's authority is challenged by the rebellion of the sons, expressed in their own different ways. Amina witnesses all and suffers silently. The political events breeds violence and the family is not spared.

The story is captivating, although it tends to be repetitive in the character portrayal. Perhaps because the story was first published in serialized form in a weekly magazine that some description is necessary every time, which in a novel can drag a bit. It seems that it's also for this reason that the prose is very easy to read, to make it accessible to the widest range of regular readers.

Overall, a wonderful book, opening to us a world that's rarely glimpsed and understood.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Mahfouz rewards patience.

Naguib Mahfouz, the Arabic language writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, begins Palace Walk with Amina, the devout and devoted Muslim wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad patiently waiting for her husband to return home from another long night of drinking, music, and carousing with his male friends and pursuing illicit sexual relations in Cairo’s clubs and cafes. Mahfouz thus immediately establishes Amina’s willing and absolute subservience to her husband. Mahfouz takes the next several chapters to develop al-Sayyid Ahmad’s position as the unquestioned head of a family of two daughters, Khadija and Aisha, and three sons, Yasin an adult son from a prior marriage, Fahmy a law student, and young Kamal.

A central theme of the book is the absolute obedience, love, devotion, and fear of each member toward al-Sayyid Ahmad. The father is a towering figure who dominates their lives. They seem only to live and breathe in his absence. Al-Sayyid Ahmad insists upon a strict familial discipline and obedience that strikes even his close friends as extreme. The women in particular are subjected to isolation so extreme as to prohibit even a trip to a local mosque. Yet, as Mahfouz languorously unwinds his tale it becomes entirely clear that the family’s devotion to him is sincerely heartfelt.

At the same time, as the reader has already learned, al-Sayyid Ahmad retains to himself the right to live a virtual double-life. He goes out on the town for wine, women, and song every single night without fail (the cliché fits al-Sayyid Ahmad too well to abjure). He even ‘officially’ allows himself these indulgences . The family remains almost entirely ignorant of these activities, except for his wife Amina who knows only about the wine and song. With this juxtaposition of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s guiltless pleasures with his strict demands on his family and their abject obedience, Mahfouz patiently builds to a thunderously powerful sensation when al-Sayyid Ahmad’s pronounces his stunning punishment upon his wife for her guilty, secretive, and accidentally disastrous trip to the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Husayn.

While Al-Sayyid Ahmad often dominates the pages of this novel much like he dominates his family, Mahfouz nonetheless manages to patiently develop each family member’s individual story. Khadija is the homely strong-willed older daughter with an incisive mind and a cutting tongue while Aisha is the passive, but beautiful and sought-after younger daughter. Yasin has inherited his father’s taste for the forbidden pleasures, but not his discipline. Fahmy is the serious law student and secretly active nationalist. Kamal is a young boy whose poignant love for his family is so palpable and his understanding of the world so undeveloped that the reader desires nothing more than for Mahfouz to shield him from harsh reality. The wife and mother Amina remains largely an enigma perhaps because she has entirely submerged her sense of self into her husband.

About two-thirds of the way into the book, the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 breaks out against the British occupation and draws the family into its vortex. Much of the final third of the book is taken up with the family’s interactions with the British occupiers. The revolution provides an important historical background and Mahfouz masterfully recreates the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of Cairo’s streets, but his greatest triumph is the creation of the complete life of this urban yet intensely Islamic and Egyptian family, a family that is perhaps remarkable in some ways, but well within society’s accepted bounds.

Take the time to savor Palace Walk. Mahfouz rewards the persistent reader by patiently building the remarkable depth and completeness of his characters. Once the last page is turned, the reader can rest secure in the knowledge that Palace Walk is only the first book in Mahfouz’s great Cairo Trilogy. Highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member benjaminorbach
This is literature. As a writer, I found this book to be both a humbling and inspiring experience.
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
I loathed the father and was incredibly frustrated with the mother. I had a difficult time understanding most of the characters. Sometimes, especially when there are the cultural and era differences there are here, I have tremendous interest in a book; here it made it very difficult for me to read it. I’m not sure why as I’ve adored plenty of books with evil or unappealing characters. I did begin to enjoy it a bit more toward the end and I should probably give the next two books in the trilogy a try…but there are just so many books that I want to read so I doubt that I will do that. But I know that many people think highly of this book and I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading it.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Sitting in the garden of my friend Jim yesterday with several other readers we were discussing this novel by the Nobel-prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz. Everyone agreed that it was a good read and perhaps even a great book. The reasons center on the characters Mahfouz has created and their relationships--their story. he story is one which takes you back to Cairo, Egypt during the Great War. The family is devoutly Muslim and each of the members, mother, Father, three sons and two daughters are distinct personalities with a story and a life to live. While the novel begins slowly, Mahfouz has complete control and uses this control to slowly increase the speed at which events occur to stir the pot, as they say. While it is a patriarchal society Al-Sayyid Ahmad abd al-Jawad, the father, sees his control diminishing as events overtake him, both within and without the family. The youngest child, his son Kamal, is easily the most likable and functions, in part, as a go-between the older male and female family members because at ten years of age he is young enough to be accepted in both realms. However, in this strict Muslim family the women are kept separate from the men and the mother, Amina, in particular maintains a subordinate role to her husband but does not rebel, for the most part, that is until her one mistake which shakes up the household and her relationships. But, rather than discuss specific events I would suggest that the success of the book depends upon the authors ability to maintain both control and a balance of the narrative that is exceptional in literature. The book reminds one of Eliot's Middlemarch both in this sense and in its portrayal of the breadth of society with many diverse characters interacting to present a complete world for the reader. The author does this with a subtlety and ease that makes this a delightful novel. The result is the reader's desire to continue on to read the subsequent two novels that continue this story and form the complete "Cairo Trilogy".… (more)
LibraryThing member mooingzelda
Unfortunately I couldn't finish this one. I loved the sound of the book from the blurb, but the slow pace and intensely irritating male characters have left me reluctant to read any more than 100 pages. I think I'm also generally just not in the right mood for this book at this time!
LibraryThing member Pferdina
This huge novel follows the lives of one family living in Cairo in the early 1900's, during the British occupation. The father is strict and severe at home, but a dissolute party animal with his friends each night. The mother is a devout, patient, perfect wife who never leaves the house. The children are nearing adulthood and discovering their own personalities and how to navigate their separate lives.… (more)
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Despite the fact that the father irritated me intensely with his hypocrisy, I loved this family saga set in 1900 (?) up to 1919 Cairo! I got involved with all the family members and learned a bit more about Anglo-Egyptian relations post-WW1 as well. I can see why Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize!
LibraryThing member evilmoose
I think it was a gorgeously textured and interesting story, but I struggled with the audiobook reader, and don't think he made the best of the book. Would not recommend him.
LibraryThing member -Cee-
I wanted to like this book as it was highly recommended and written by a Nobel prize winning author. However, it was quite disappointing to me both for the content and the fact that it was not particularly well written. All in all, the story was neither inspiring nor engaging, while the characters were oppressed or tyrannical and irresponsible. It was a struggle to read through to the unsatisfying end. A serious book that falls short of expectations.

I am not at all tempted to read the rest of the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member hellbent
Excellent synthesis of modern Egyptian culture with the history of overthrow of the British protectorate early in the 19th C.
LibraryThing member tgsalter
set in Cairo at the end of WWI -- world events are peripheral to the life of the family portrayed. The family was peripheral to my interest which was focused on finishing the book.
LibraryThing member starbox
A superb read; first in the Cairo Trilogy, telling the saga of a middle-class family living under the hated British Protectorate
. Head of the house, Ahmad, is brilliantly and convincingly drawn - on the one hand he is a strict Muslim, demanding his wife and daughters live in total seclusion, and keeping all the family in a state of terror at his displeasure, yet every night he goes out on the town with his worldly friends to enjoy wine, women and song.
'Was he two separate people combined into one personality? Was his faith in the divine magnanimity so strong that he could not believe these pleasures really had been forbidden?...He found within himself strong instincts, some directed toward God and tamed through worship and others set for pleasure and quenched in play.'
His meek wife, Amina, devotes herself to pleasing him, never questioning his nocturnal excursions, while she looks out on the world through the slits in the shutters. With them lives stepson Yasin - child of a previous, unfavoured wife - who seems to be inheriting his father's immoral ways- and their own four children: sons Fahmy, a law student, becoming increasingly passionate about the anti-British movement, and mischievous schoolboy Kamal plus two daughters awaiting marriage: beautiful Aisha and her older sister, plain, sharp-tongued Khadija.
I couldn't put this down, and intend to read the other two works in near future. Utterly recommended: an Egyptian Tolstoy.
Leaves the female reader glad she doesn't live in an early 1900s Egyptian home, when she reads quotes like:
'No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to' and
'Women are just another kind of domestic animal and must be treated like one'. !!
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LibraryThing member prima1
This is one of the best books I have read recently. It had a fascinating shooting effect. Cannot wait to read the rest of the trilogy
LibraryThing member christinejoseph
1st volume of Cairo Trilogy — Al-Sayyid Ahmad + family very religious — stern w/ family whole other life — Praise corrupts — gruffness is corrective + educational
all of men — me me me — if they want to marry daughter because of him
LibraryThing member sushitori
Interesting but very hard to read. The author, who is Muslim, tries to portray life in Egypt in the 1930s. Although he is critical of some of the religious and misogynistic attitudes, he tends to rationalize the strict rules that govern behavior. Women are forced to spend their lives in total isolation, a condition that seems untenable to me.They are treated like property, ignored and regarded as insignificant. You keep waiting for someone to do something redemptive, but it never happens. Although I try to be anthropological and less judgmental about Middle Eastern culture, the horrific treatment of women is what makes it impossible to feel good about the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member krizia_lazaro
It was an okay book, kind of boring. it was uneventful except for the last 2 chapters where I really connected and really felt something for the characters. However, it was nicely and simply written with compelling characters, who you will either hate, like the father, or love, like Fahmy.

A nice look into Egyptian and Muslim culture. It might be another reason I wasn't able to fully connect with the story because they are so different from my culture. Such low regard for women..tsk tsk… (more)
LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Fascinating account of an Egyptian family.

This was a fascinating insider view of a patriachal family in Egygt in the early twentieth century but I found my enjoyment of the narrative severely curtailed by the flowery, poetic language. Whilst this is probably an accurate translation from the Arabic, it was so far removed from current styles that I was constantly aware of it and it took me well over a month to finish the book.

The family at the centre of the book is headed by the autocratic Al-Sayyid Ahmad. Amongst his friends he is the life and soul of the party, laughing, joking, drinking and womanising. At home he is overbearing, severe and unforgiving. His submissive wife and two daughters are confined to the home as is deemed appropriate for middle class Egyptians of the time. His three sons are growing and watching, absorbing this way of life to pass on to their subsequent families.

In many ways it's quite a frightening scenario, still maintained by some cultures. We discussed it in our book group which includes several Arabic speaking Muslims and they confimed that such fmilies still exist, although many have moved into a more tolerant version of Ahmad's family.

The book was also rooted around the time the British had control of Egypt and following an uprising, soldiers are camped on the streets to maintain peace. They provide and interesting backdrop - befriending the young Kamal whilst showing an agressive front to the adult members of the family.

All in all a fascinating account, severely affected for me by the style of writing.

Your Tags: egypt, historical
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LibraryThing member LukeS
"Palace Walk" is one of those stories that, while it is reasonably well-crafted, makes us wonder what the Nobel committee is about.

This is a passably interesting family story set in a traditional Muslim Cairo in the early part of the 20th century where the head of the household keeps outwardly to a strong paternalistic pattern of authoritarian in the home and philanderer outside of it. A series of shocks hit our hero, Mr. Ahmad, and he is hardly ready for them. These culminate in the needless and capricious death of a grown son, and the father's world collapses utterly. The idea here is that change is inexorable and that fighting against it only makes it worse.

Mahfouz is directly on target when protraying human nature - this is very much a strong suit. But the story seems plain, sort of pedestrian and not very remarkable. I don't necessarily object to the Nobel Prize for this author and his book, but I'm curious about what the trigger might have been. Was it the depiction of human nature at a time of wrenching social change? Was it the tragic ending? Was it the theme of the helplessness of (mostly) virtuous individuals in the face of the force of Empire?

This is a long book, and while I didn't grudge the time I spent on it, I came away feeling bemused over the critical gush that accompanies it.
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LibraryThing member stef7sa
Strangely enough the author gives the impression of not being very concerned about whether his readers remain interested in his story or not. Opportunities to tell exciting events are neglected, narrative lines are abandoned unexpectedly, a monotonous structure is employed throughout in which an event is presented followed by the thoughts of each of the family members. Moreover it is difficult to identify with the father figure who is extremely stern with his wife and children but indulges in all sorts of liberties himself.… (more)
LibraryThing member otterley
A riveting and compelling book that gathers force and complexity as it moves forward through the multi layered dimensions of Cairo at the start of the 20th century. Religious and secular; family and politics; coloniser and colonised all locate themselves in the shut off buildings and winiding passages of this eternally mysterious city.… (more)
LibraryThing member lindawwilson
This was a interesting book, although the sequels were increasingly less interesting; at the time I was amazed at the Muslim world and how women were treated; this was way before 911 when people knew nothing about the Middle East and did not care much either
LibraryThing member jonfaith
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.

Palace Walk is a sweeping realist survey of a middle class family in Cairo. The novel covers two years or so from 1917-19, culminating in the Egyptian Revolution which overthrew the British Protectorate. The Abd al-Jawad family is dominated by the father, an ostensibly pious man who forbids his wife and two daughters from being seen, much less actually leaving this house. Yet this pillar of propriety is predisposed to nocturnal boozing and whoring. So it goes. His three sons quiver in his presence but all harbor hopes for both emancipation as well as approval: yet another family paradox.

Despite it being penned in the 1950s, this is a realist novel with little modernist trickery. There is a gentle core to this tale.
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