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In which Netty takes a wander through Palace Walk …

April 23, 2014

ImageSo, of course this was Andy’s choice. By which I mean – somewhat shamefully, I must admit – I have little knowledge of Middle Eastern writers. Crikey, I’d never even heard of Naguib Mahfouz, even though he is a Nobel Prize winner and considered one of the most pre-eminent of not just Arab writers, but 20th century authors.

However, there was little trepidation on my behalf, even though Andy’s selection Palace Walk (the first of the so-called Cairo Trilogy) clocks in at over 500 pages (it’s probably good training for some of the other monsters we’re tackling throughout the course of the year). It wasn’t a difficult read at all, although I was a little perplexed at the repetitious descriptions, particularly of the characters’ physical attributes. I read recently that the average native Arab speaker commands a vocabulary considerably in excess of his/her average English-speaking counterpart and is naturally florid in his/her speech – and this Anglo translation (a dual effort, interestingly enough) seems to reflect that.

And I guess that – the ease of the read – is because the heart of the book is a family saga. Andy’s description of it as a soap opera is not a million miles off the mark – and neither is it unkind. For me, that’s where its power lies. Andy was more interested in the political aspects of the story, which strongly come into play in the latter third of the book, while that was the section that I found a little ho-hum. Of course, it probably didn’t help that – keen as I was to go into the book with as little knowledge about it as possible – I didn’t realise that the setting was actually World War I. You would have thought I might have twigged at the references to the Australian soldiers occupying parts of Cairo, but no. Sigh. It wasn’t until literally the last 50 pages or so, when specific reference is made to the dateline, that I realised – hang on, this book is set in the late 1910s. D’oh. Back to the history books for this little black duck then …

There is so much that is fascinating and riveting about both the setting and timing (give or take a decade, ahem) of Palace Walk, especially compared with the west’s often superficial ideas of modern-day Islam. Mahfouz, himself brought up in a strict Islamic household – presumably much like the one depicted in his book – comes across as reasonably moderate and certainly sympathetic to the characters he places at the mercy of his tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad (referred to in the book as al-Sayyid Ahmad – and no, I have no idea about the naming conventions either).

Palace Walk depicts the family’s life and routines in deep, unflinching detail, as al-Sayyid Ahmad rules over his household – his docile, long-suffering wife Amina, sons Yasin (the product of his first marriage, which ended in divorce), Fahmy and the young Kamal, and daughters Khadija and Aisha – with an iron fist. Outside the family home, its stalwart is known for – and prides himself on – his generosity, spirit and sense of humour. He loves women, wine and song, indulging his passions for all three. He is well aware of the dichotomy of his two lives – and equally as aware of how his behaviour is at odds with his religion – but hypocritically reconciles himself to it anyway.

Subtly yet tacitly, it has much to say about feminism and society’s treatment of women – especially for a novel set in the 1910s and first published in 1956. Al-Sayyid Ahmad knows his friends and neighbours treat their families – especially the females – far more leniently than his own, who are not allowed out of the house, nor to have any male gaze upon them outside of their immediate family. And it is only something of which his daughters – who are both married off during the course of the book – become fully aware once they leave their father’s household. “You ask me about fathering females?” their father lectures his friends. “It’s an evil against which we are defenceless, but let us thank God. In any case it’s a duty. That is not to say I don’t love my daughters … ” Later, as Aisha endures a difficult labour, her husband calls for a doctor, while elsewhere in the house her father bristles about a male – a doctor, for crying out loud! – seeing his daughter’s body. And yet al-Sayyid Ahmad is not an unsympathetic character – you might not like him or approve of his actions, and I certainly didn’t, but Mahfouz puts you into his head. As he does for all his characters. And this is the novel’s greatest strength – and the secret to its success.

By the end of the book I really felt that I knew these fictional people – and it’s a given that I will be reading the other two books in this trilogy (even though it might take who knows how long to do so). I really, really want to see what fates lie in wait for them – those who survive, that is. No, no spoilers from me here – but there is certainly a sense of impending doom that hangs over the characters, especially as the Egyptian revolution heats up and the plotline starts to twist and turn in the latter chapters.

Mahfouz, who died in 2006 at the age of 94 in his home city of Cairo, was a prolific writer, churning out 34 novels, hundreds of short stories and several plays and film scripts over a 70-year-plus career. On the strength of Palace Walk alone, I’d say he absolutely deserves widespread Western recognition – and its readers.

A truly great novel.

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