Palace Walk


Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk was, for me, a slow burn. While I ended up drawn into the domestic turmoil of the al Jawad family, its relation to the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and the author's comments on power dynamics in early twentieth-century Egyptian society, both the subject matter and the writing style (or possibly the style of translation from the Arabic by Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny) made the first 200 pages in particular into an awkward and sometimes suffocating reading experience.

The first installment in Mahfouz's 1956 Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk introduces the reader to the middle-class, conservative Muslim al-Jawad family, whose patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad terrorizes his submissive wife and five children into absolute obedience through his cutting sarcasm and frequent temper tantrums, even while spending his time apart from his family indulging in wine and women. While Sarah provocatively compares Palace Walk to Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, the comparison that primarily leapt to my mind during the first half of this novel was of an Arabic-inflected, Proust-influenced Jane Austen. As in Austen, this half of the novel is profoundly domestic (most of the action takes place within the family's house on Palace Walk), and concerned with the highly ritualized interactions among family members and between members of the family and outsiders. This comparison struck home for me particularly during one scene in which the women of the household are thrown into frantic excitement at the announcement that two ladies unknown to them have arrived for a visit. Like Mrs. Bennet watching out the window for a carriage rolling up the drive, the al Jawad ladies know that visitors mean marriage prospects, and fly into a frenzy of beautification to greet these "marriage scouts," who are made necessary by the fact that no men outside the family are allowed to lay eyes on either of the daughters or the wife. As in Austen, then, the women sit together having what appears to be a pleasant conversation about trivialities, when in actuality they are cold-bloodedly sizing each other up as potential relatives by marriage—in other words, subservient house-mates, help-meets, and heir-producers.

In this scene as in others the extreme subtleties of conversation, and the ways in which a person seeming to say one thing is often expressing another, are key to the unfolding drama—another similarity with the barbed repartee of Austen characters. Late in the novel, one of al-Sayyid Ahmad's children has finally summoned up the courage to disobey him openly, earning his scorching wrath. When the son braves his father's rooms to apologize for his behavior, he is met at first with unremitting silence, after which they have the following exchange (this passage, by the way, is a good example of the slightly awkward, jerky quality of the writing, an aspect of Palace Walk which did not remind me of Jane Austen.)

       "I'm really sorry. I haven't had a moment's peace of mind since..." He found his words were leading him up to a reference to something he wanted with all his heart to skip over. So he stopped.
       Before he knew what was happening, his father asked him harshly and impatiently, "What do you want?"
       Fahmy was overjoyed that the man had abandoned his silence and sighed with relief as though he had not noticed the harsh tone. He entreated his father, "I want your approval."
       "Get out of my sight."
       Feeling the grip of despair loosening a little around his neck, Fahmy said, "When I have your approval."
       Becoming sarcastic suddenly, al-Sayyid Ahmad asked, "My approval! ... Why not? ... Have you, God forbid, done anything to make me angry?"
       Fahmy welcomed his father's sarcasm twice as much as his renunciation of silence. Sarcasm with his father was the first step toward forgiveness.

There are at least three levels to what is actually going on between father and son here: on one level, in other scenes, we see al-Sayyid Ahmad admit to himself that his son's disobedience is a mark of his approaching manhood. Despite being angry, he is also to some degree proud, but he believes that showing his pride in his son will "spoil" his son and undermine al-Sayyid Ahmad's own authority. So he exaggerates his real anger, allowing his harshness to reduce gradually over the course of the conversation so that his son will know they are back on good terms, while still stopping short of showing him actual kindness or respect. Fahmy is therefore kept in an oppressed, downtrodden state, while somehow still feeling grateful and loving toward his father for al-Sayyid Ahmad's supposed clemency in forgiving him.

Indeed, like such novels as Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, Palace Walk shows a strong preoccupation with the power dynamics of oppression, both in terms of gender and age, and in terms of the occupation of Egypt by the English. More than anything, though, it was the infantilization and disempowerment of women in the al-Jawad family that really got to me throughout Palace Walk. While Mahfouz makes it clear that the larger Egyptian society provides women with few safeguards against male tyranny, Al-Sayyid Ahmad is considered conservative even by his male peers: for example, he forbids his wife and daughters from ever setting foot outside the family home, the only extremely rare exceptions to this rule being the occasional veiled and chaperoned trip to visit his mother-in-law. (Just thinking about this, by the way, makes me start panicking. I love staying home, but to live in a city for one's whole life and never be able to wander its streets, seeing them change over time? Never to wander freely and gaze into the shop windows and the restaurant windows and the windows of the weird art installations and pie shops? Throughout my reading of Palace Walk I viewed my daily two-mile walk to work and back with a new joy and appreciation, and a new horror that anyone would be willing to deny that experience to half the population based on their own petty sexual jealousies.)

The atmosphere of the al-Jawad household is extremely repressive around all emotions, but particularly around sex and sexuality. One of the more heart-wrenching series of events takes place around the wedding of one of the family's daughters, at which al-Sayyid Ahmad segregates himself away from the rest of the family because he "did not care to observe at close hand their relaxed response to a festive occasion." While he doesn't discipline them for being happy at a wedding, neither can he bear to watch it. Meanwhile, the family's youngest son has so thoroughly imbibed the message that women are pure beings polluted by any contact with males, that he is deeply disturbed when he looks through a keyhole and sees his sister kissing her new husband. He interprets the sight as an assault on his sister's honor, and runs to tell his mother. Tragically, she herself is so uncomfortable and repressed around sex that she is incapable of explaining to her son that this behavior is ever acceptable, even in the context of marriage:

       She hit him hard on his shoulder to make him stop. She whispered in his ear, "Don't say shameful things. If your father heard you, he'd kill you."
       He persisted and told her, as though revealing something to her she could not possibly have imagined, "He was holding her chin in his hand and kissing her."
       She hit him again, harder than she ever had before. He realized that he had certainly done something wrong without knowing it. He fell silent and was afraid. When they were crossing the courtyard of their house, straggling behind the others except for Umm Hanafi, who had waited behind to bolt the door, lock it, and latch it, Kamal's anxiety and curiosity overcame his silence and fear. He asked pleadingly, "Why was he kissing her, Mother?"
       She told him firmly, "If you start that again, I'll tell your father."

What breaks my heart about this and other scenes, is the key role that women play in reinforcing each others' oppression: Amina accepts her husband's judgments and behavior without question, and similarly accepts that it would be improper for her to talk about kissing, or take a walk outside her house, or express an opinion different from that of her husband; in turn, she believes these behaviors to be improper for all women. Later in the novel, she becomes one of the harshest critics of a new female addition to their household who is accustomed to more lenient rules. Her own experience, far from allowing her to sympathize with her daughter-in-law, means that her whole world-view is wrapped up in reinforcing the strict rules that she herself has followed:

In Amina's opinion, Zaynab was arrogating to herself masculine prerogatives. She took exception to this conduct, precisely because she was a woman who had spent her life shut up inside her house [. . .] Her silent criticism was mixed with a feeling of bitterness and rage which she seemed to be rationalizing when she observed to herself, "Either that woman is punished or life has no meaning."

The power dynamics in the al-Jawad family are such that all its members tend to confound oppression with love and meaning in this way, unable to imagine one without the other. At the same time as this cycle is continued into the next generation, however, Palace Walk depicts a society in flux, experiencing changes that would have been unimaginable to the characters' parents and grandparents. Despite the sometimes-awkward prose and challenging politics, I look forward to following Mahfouz's trajectory with the next two books in this trilogy.


Thanks to Richard for hosting the Cairo Trilogy Readalong. Discussion of the next book, Palace of Desire, will take place around January 30-31.


  • I've never read Jane Austen but for me, in the beginning, Amina has a scene where she's looking out of a window or from her roof (don't remember which) that reminded me very strongly of that scene in Jane Eyre where she's looking at the horizon from the manor house and stretching her mind to encompass the whole world outside the confines of Thornfield Hall. (Woolf discusses it in A Room of One's Own.) That seemed to me to possibly hint at latent desire in her and I was disappointed to see that Mahfouz didn't follow up on it more than he did. Amina seemed submissive to an almost impossible extent or maybe that's just my ignorance speaking. Al-Sayyid Ahmad two-sided personality, meanwhile, is almost pathological.

    I'm not quite done yet but I do enjoy it quite a bit, although I can see where you're coming from with regard to the style and subject matter.

  • I felt bad for Amina at first, thinking her submissiveness to her husband was the most astonishing thing about her. Like you, I couldn't even begin to comprehend what it would be like to live in a place for 25 years and have seen only what was visible from the windows of the house...! But then I was astonished even more by the disapproval she showed toward Yasin's wife. You mentioned the role women played in helping to continue repressing themselves - it boggles the mind! Such a strange cultural and psychological thing. I have a really complex reaction to Amina now...and I am very curious to see where the story progresses from here.

    Excellent post, by the way - I love your Austin comparison. Very apt - and a fascinating connection between cultures.

  • I found the first half of this book very slow too, but the second half made up for that.

    This book actually made me think that their way of life had many good points. I had previously thought that the women in this society had a very poor life, but in many ways the closeness of their relationships makes up for this. I may be able to wander the streets but my family is fragmented across the country and so I rarely get to see my sister/aunts etc. I would love to be able to form that close relationship with so many other women and the transient nature of my life and others around me means I will never be able to form bonds as strong as theirs.

  • I've been wondering about this books for sometime. I had no idea it was the first of three. It sounds both fascinating and in a way repellent at the same time. I look forward to hearing about the remaining two books.

  • EL Fay: Yes, I remember both the Mahfouz and the Bronte scenes you're referring to - interesting parallel! I know what you mean about Amina, although to me the fact that Mahfouz explored the flaws and harshness caused in her personality by her extreme submissiveness to her husband (i.e., her attitude toward Zaynab) made her more believable, if also more horrifying. (And by the end I was enjoying it too - just took a while to appreciate what Mahfouz was up to.)

    Sarah: I know what you mean! I ended up with a complex relationship toward most of the characters, particularly al-Sayyid Ahmad and Amina, which I suppose is a good sign. Amina's harshness toward Zaynab and that scene where she shames Kamal for asking about the kiss were both pretty awful in my opinion. I was actually reminded of Betty Draper (of Mad Men) locking her daughter in the closet or implying her daughter has no redeeming qualities apart from her physical beauty. Ack, trauma parenting!

  • Jackie: Hmm, I can see your point but I'm not sure I agree about how close the family ACTUALLY is...I mean, they all live together, but they're so repressed about speaking their actual feelings that they seldom actually communicate with one another. Or if they do it's in this elliptical way that reinforces the extreme power differentials in the relationships - not a way I'm interested in living! The whole family portrait was extremely claustrophobic to me. But full disclosure, most of my extended family lives in the same city I do, so I get the emotional support without the messed-up power dynamics or having to stay in the house for years on end!

    Stefanie: Yes! Fascinating and repellent. I mean, in all fairness the things that bother me about Egyptian society bother Mahfouz as well - he's consciously critiquing them. Still, sometimes intense to read. I'm curious where he goes with the next two books as well!

  • The Undset comparison's a funny thing, Emily, because Mahfouz and our enemy both dabble in domestic drama, gender politics, and the like but with such different outcomes! That being said, it did take a while for me to warm up to Mahfouz's prose here because he was committing one of Undset's worst vices in the early going: telling us how everybody thought or was feeling rather than revealing it through dialogue or action. Very different from the only other experience I've had with him in a shorter novel that flowed a lot better than this one. However, I did enjoy observing what you rightly call "the power dynamics" in the main family--and feel that the emotional awkwardness that we all seem to be taking away from this has a good deal to do with Mahfouz's success at constructing credible characters. Would you agree with this last bit? I will have to read one of those British governess authors at some point so I can observe the Austen-Mahfouz connections from closer up next time, ha ha!!!

  • Richard: Yes, I would definitely agree that the emotional awkwardness is to Mahfouz's credit, and in my case is down to the unbearable yet real-seeming family dynamic he's created. Agree that his telling-not-showing re: the characters' thoughts and feelings takes a little getting used to; I think that was one of the main hurtles for me with his prose. Re: the literary comparisons, I do feel like there's a wealth of relationships worthy of dissection here, which I didn't feel with Undset. And as far as Austen goes, I think you might be surprised what an enjoyable smart-ass she is. ;-)

  • I read this one a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, in the complicated way you enjoy uncomfortable things. It was fascinating learning about that time and culture. I haven't quite committed to finishing up the trilogy, but perhaps I should at some point -- I'll be curious to see what you make of the next one.

  • Dorothy: "in the complicated way you enjoy uncomfortable things" - very well put. I was torn between interest and revulsion for much of the novel. Still, I'm curious, even eager, to find out where Mahfouz takes these characters with the next two books.

  • Such an interesting comparison between Jane Austen and Palace Walk! I seem to be the minority that actually liked the first half of the book best and had trouble staying focused during the sedonc half..

  • Iris: The Austen/Mahfouz connection was definitely not one I expected, but it seemed more & more apt as the book went on. And that is interesting that you liked the first half best; there's definitely a stark change halfway through, so I can understand how that might happen.

  • Just finally put up my thoughts yesterday...I feel everyone else is doing a better job of discussing this than I did :-). Blame it on my cold, maybe.

    I find interesting, your comparision between the "Palace Walk" characters and the Austen novels and those of the Austen era. It did occur to me, while reading, that this was taking place during a time that was still unequal for women all over the world, including the US (we weren't even allowed to vote yet). The al-Sayyid family definitely was very repressed, though. Even the sons were caught up in it -- I remember one scene where al-Sayyid Ahmad is bawling out Yasin and there's all these thoughts running through Yasin's head, but what he actually says is "as you wish Father" or something like that.

    I'm glad it was pointed out that the family's repression may mirror Egypt's "repression" by the British -- will be keeping an eye out for that as I start Book Two (today).

    • Yes, the sons were definitely subservient to al-Sayyid Ahmad as well; I remember the scene you're talking about. At the same time at least they have the knowledge that their time as doormats is limited, and they can look forward to growing up and becoming tyrants in their own right. What a system. I look forward to the discussion of the next two books!

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