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  • Palace Walk
  • Written by Naguib Mahfouz
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307947109
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Palace Walk

The Cairo Trilogy, Volume 1

Written by Naguib MahfouzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Naguib Mahfouz

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Palace Walk is the first novel in Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz’s magnificent Cairo Trilogy, an epic family saga of colonial Egypt that is considered his masterwork.

The novels of the Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons—the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. The family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two world wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries.

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny

 

Excerpt

1

She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock.A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently, she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her room would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet rapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase.

Habit woke her at this hour. It was an old habit she had developed when young and it had stayed with her as she matured. She had learned it along with the other rules of married life. She woke up at midnight to await her husband's return from his evening's entertainment. Then she would serve him until he went to sleep. She sat up in bed resolutely to overcome the temptation posed by sleep. After invoking the name of God, she slipped out from under the covers and onto the floor. Groping her way to the door, she guided herself by the bedpost and a panel of the window. As she opened the door, faint rays of light filtered in from a lamp set on a bracketed shelf in the sitting room. She went to fetch it, and the glass projected onto the ceiling a trembling circle of pale light hemmed in by darkness. She placed the lamp on the table by the sofa. The light shone throughout the room, revealing the large, square floor, high walls, and ceiling with parallel beams. The quality of the furnishings was evident: the Shiraz carpet, large brass bed, massive armoire, and long sofa draped with a small rug in a patchwork design of different motifs and colors.

The woman headed for the mirror to look at herself. She noted that her brown scarf was wrinkled and pushed back. Strands of chestnut hair had crept down over her forehead. Grasping the knot with her fingers, she untied it. She smoothed the scarf around her hair and retied the two ends slowly and carefully. She wiped the sides of her face with her hands as though trying to erase any last vestiges of sleep. In her forties and of medium build, she looked slender, although her body's soft skin was filled out to its narrow limits in a charmingly harmonious and symmetrical way. Her face was oblong, with a high forehead and delicate features. She had beautiful, small eyes with a sweet dreamy look. Her nose was petite and thin, flaring out a little at the nostrils. Beneath her tender lips, a tapered chin descended. The pure, fair skin of her cheek revealed a beauty spot of intensely pure black. She seemed to be in a hurry as she wrapped her veil about her and headed for the door to the balcony. Opening it, she entered the closed cage formed by the wooden latticework and stood there, turning her face right and left while she peeked out through the tiny, round openings of the latticework panels that protected her from being seen on the street.

The balcony overlooked the ancient building housing a cistern downstairs and a school upstairs which was situated in the middle of Palace Walk, or Bayn al-Qasrayn. Two roads met there: al-Nahhasin, or Coppersmiths Street, going south and Palace Walk, which went north. To her left, the street appeared narrow and twisting. It was enveloped in a gloom that was thicker overhead where the windows of the sleeping houses looked down, and less noticeable at street level, because of the light coming from the handcarts and from the vapor lamps of the coffeehouses and the shops that stayed open until dawn. To her right the street was engulfed in darkness. There were no coffeehouses in that direction, only large stores, which closed early. There was nothing to attract the eye except the minarets of the ancient seminaries of Qala'un and Barquq, which loomed up like ghostly giants enjoying a night out by the light of the gleaming stars. It was a view that had grown on her over a quarter of a century. She never tired of it. Perhaps boredom was an irrelevant concept for a life as monotonous as hers. The view had been a companion for her in her solitude and a friend in her loneliness during a long period when she was deprived of friends and companions before her children were born, when for most of the day and night she had been the sole occupant of this large house with its two stories of spacious rooms with high ceilings, its dusty courtyard and deep well.

She had married before she turned fourteen and had soon found herself the mistress of the big house, following the deaths of her husband's parents. An elderly woman had assisted her in looking after it but deserted her at dusk to sleep in the oven room in the courtyard, leaving her alone in a nocturnal world teeming with spirits and ghosts. She would doze for an hour and lie awake the next, until her redoubtable husband returned from a long night out.

To set her mind at rest she had gotten into the habit of going from room to room, accompanied by her maid, who held the lamp for her, while she cast searching, frightened glances through the rooms, one after the other. She began with the first floor and continued with the upper story, reciting the Qur'an suras she knew in order to ward off demons. She would conclude with her room, lock the door, and get into bed, but her recitations would continue until she fell asleep.

She had been terrified of the night when she first lived in this house. She knew far more about the world of the jinn than that of mankind and remained convinced that she was not alone in the big house. There were demon who could not be lured away from these spacious, old rooms for long. Perhaps they had sought refuge there before she herself had been brought to the house, even before she saw the light of day. She frequently heard their whispers. Time and again she was awakened by their warm breath. When she was left alone, her only defense was reciting the opening prayer of the Qur'an and sura one hundred and twelve from it, about the absolute supremacy of God, or rushing to the latticework screen at the window to peer anxiously through it at the lights of the carts and the coffeehouses, listening carefully for a laugh or cough to help her regain her composure.

Then the children arrived, one after the other. In their early days in the world, though, they were tender sprouts unable to dispel her fears or reassure her. On the contrary, her fears were multiplied by her troubled soul's concern for them and her anxiety that they might be harmed. She would hold them tight, lavish affection on them, and surround them, whether awake or asleep, with a protective shield of Qur'an suras, amulets, charms, and incantations. True peace of mind she would not achieve until her husband returned from his evening's entertainment.

It was not uncommon for her, while she was alone with an infant, rocking him to sleep and cuddling him, to clasp him to her breast suddenly. She would listen intently with dread and alarm and then call out in a loud voice, as though addressing someone in the room, "Leave us alone. This isn't where you belong. We are Muslims and believe in God." Then she would quickly and fervently recite the one hundred and twelfth sura of the Qur'an about the uniqueness of God. Over the course of time as she gained more experience living with spirits, her fears diminished a good deal. She was calm enough to jest with them without being frightened. If she happened to sense one of them prowling about, she would say in an almost intimate tone, "Have you no respect for those who worship God the Merciful? He will protect us from you, so do us the favor of going away." But her mind was never completely at rest until her husband returned. Indeed, the mere fact of his presence in the house, whether awake or asleep, was enough to make her feel secure. Then it did not matter whether the doors were open or locked, the lamp burning brightly or extinguished.

It had occurred to her one, during the first year she lived with him, to venture a polite objection to his repeated nights out. His response had been to seize her by the ears and tell her peremptorily in a loud voice, "I'm a man. I'm the one who commands and forbids. I will not accept criticism of my behavior. All I ask of you is to obey me. Don't force me to discipline you."

She learned from this, and from the other lessons that followed, to adapt to everything, even living with the jinn, in order to escape the glare of his wrathful eye. It was her duty to obey him without reservation or condition. She yielded so wholeheartedly that she even disliked blaming him privately for his nights out. She became convinced that true manliness, tyranny, and staying out till after midnight were common characteristics of a single entity. With the passage of time she grew proud of whatever he meted out, whether it pleased or saddened her. No matter what happened, she remained loving, obedient, and docile wife. She had no regrets at all about reconciling herself to a type of security based on surrender.

Whenever she thought back over her life, only goodness and happiness came to mind. Fears and sorrows seemed meaningless ghosts to her, worth nothing more than a smile of pity. Had she not lived with this husband and his shortcomings for a quarter century and been rewarded by children who were the apples of her eye, a home amply provided with comforts and blessings, and a happy, adult life? Of course she had. Being surrounded by the jinn had been bearable, just as each evening was bearable. None of them had attempted to hurt her or the children. They had only played some harmless pranks to tease her. Praise God, the merit was all God's. He calmed her hear and with His mercy brought order to her life.

She even profoundly loved this hour of waiting up, though it interrupted a pleasant sleep and forced her to do chores that should have ceased with the end of the day. Not only had it become an integral part of her life, tied to many of her memories, but it continued to be the living symbol of her affection for her spouse, of her wholehearted dedication to making him happy, which she revealed to him night after night. For this reason, she was filled with contentment as she stood in the balcony peering through the openings toward Palace Walk and al-Khurunfush streets and then towards Hammam al Sultan or the various minarets.

She let her eyes wander over the houses bunched together untidily on both sides of the road like a row of soldiers standing at ease, relaxing from harsh discipline. She smiled at the beloved view of this road, which stayed awake until the break of dawn, while the other streets, lanes, and alleys slept. It distracted her from her sleeplessness and kept her company when she was lonely, dispelling her fears. Night changed nothing save to envelop the surrounding areas with a profound silence that provided a setting in which the street's sounds could ring out clearly, like the shadows at the edges of a painting that give the work depth and clarity. A laugh would resound as though bursting out in her room, and a remark made in a normal tone of voice could be heard distinctly. She could listen to a cough rattle on until it ended in a kind of moan. A waiter's voice would ring out like the call of a muezzin: "Another ball of tobacco for the pipe," and she would merrily ask herself, "By God, are these people ordering a refill at this hour?"

They reminded her of her absent husband. She would wonder, "Where do you suppose he is now? What is he doing? . . . May he be safe and sound whatever he does."

It was suggested to her once that a man like Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, so wealthy, strong, and handsome, who stayed out night after night,must have other women in his life. At that time, her life was poisoned by jealousy, and intense sorrow overcame her. Her courage was not up to speaking to him about it, but she confided her grief to her mother, who sought as best she could to soother her mind with fine words, telling her, "He married you after divorcing his first wife. He could have kept her too, if he'd wanted, or taken second, third, and fourth wives. His father had many wives. Thank our Lord that you remain his only wife."

Although her mother's words did not help much then, she eventually accepted their truth and validity. Even if the rumor was accurate, perhaps that was another characteristic of manliness, like late nights and tyranny. At any rate, a single evil was better than many. It would be a mistake to allow suspicion to wreck her good life filled with happiness and comfort. Moreover, in spite of everything, perhaps the rumor was idle speculation or a lie. She discovered that jealousy was no different from the other difficulties troubling her life. To accept them was an inevitable and binding decree. Her only means of combating them was, she found, to call on patience and rely on her inner strength, the one resource in the struggle against disagreeable things. Jealousy and its motivation became something she put up with like her husband's other troubling characteristics or living with the jinn.
Naguib Mahfouz

About Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz - Palace Walk

Photo © Barry Iverson

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy and an avid reader, his works range from reimaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Over a career that lasted more than five decades, he wrote 33 novels, 13 short story anthologies, numerous plays, and 30 screenplays. Of his many works, most famous is The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1952. In 1988, he became the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in August 2006.

Praise

Praise

“The alleys, the houses, the palaces and mosques and the people who live among them are evoked as vividly in Mahfouz’s work as the streets of London were conjured up by Dickens.” —Newsweek

“Rich in psychological insight and cultural observation. . . . A majestic and capacious accomplishment.” —The Boston Globe
 
 “A tale told with great affection, humor, and sensitivity, in a style that in this translation is always accessible and elegant.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
Palace Walk is a feast indeed.” —Chicago Tribune
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions and other material below are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk.  The general questions that follow provide topics for further discussion of the trilogy as a whole.

About the Guide

Palace Walk is the first book in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy, completed in 1952.  The trilogy as a whole, including Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, is a masterful realist novel, one of the most complete descriptions of Cairene life in the first half of the twentieth century. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is a man whose authority in his home is absolute.  While holding his family to the strictest Islamic standards of behavior, he spends his evenings drinking with friends and meeting with lovers. Yasin, his eldest son from an earlier marriage, is a young man driven purely by sensual urges; Fahmy is a promising law student, earnest and obedient; Kamal is an affectionate boy full of energy and imagination.  His daughters are Khadija, sharp-tongued and intelligent, fearful that she isn’t beautiful enough to marry, and Aisha, whose extraordinary beauty is joined with self-indulgence and lassitude.

Palace Walk has been widely praised, in part for providing an intimate view of a culture that has not been well understood by those outside it.  Like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the rich and absorbing story of a family whose fortunes are changing with tumultuous times.


Historical Context

The British occupation of Egypt centered on the Suez Canal, which had been completed in 1869.  Beginning in 1882, they held the country loosely with a standing army and a cohort of civil servants, and though they repeatedly promised independence, they declared Egypt a protectorate in 1914.  Even after their victory in World War I, the British refused to give up their role in Egypt.  Rising Egyptian nationalism came to a head during the demonstrations of 1919, during which some eight hundred Egyptians were killed.  In 1919 the leader of the Wafd party, S’ad Zaghlul, put together a delegation to present a declaration of Egyptian independence to the government in London.  They also planned to present their case to world leaders at the Paris peace conference.  Instead of being allowed to go abroad, Zaghlul and others were taken into exile in Malta.  When this failed to quell the nationalist fervor, Zaghlul was freed.  Efforts by Zaghlul and Ali Pasha to win an independent Egypt finally succeeded in 1922, but Britain maintained control of the Suez Canal zone and much of the administration of the country.  The Wafd nationalist party retained wide popular support, in part because of King Fuad’s collusion with British power.  Fuad’s son and successor Farouk signed the unpopular Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936, provoking student demonstrations once again.  Support for the Wafd party began to collapse when it became clear that they had not been effective in ridding Egypt of the British.  The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that rose in 1928, became a political presence with its wide-reaching social and charitable work and its slogan, “Islam is the solution.”  In 1952 another revolution occurred.  Led by Gamal Nasser and Muhammad Naguib, it was aimed at overthrowing King Farouk and the constitutional monarchy, and establishing Egypt as a republic purged of foreign influence.

About the Author

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. As a boy, he witnessed the violent confrontations between British and Egyptians demanding independence in the popular uprising of 1919.  A student of philosophy and an avid reader, he produced works ranging from reimaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture.  Over a career that lasted more than five decades, he wrote 33 novels, 13 short story anthologies, numerous plays, and 30 screenplays.  His most famous work is The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1944.  In 1988, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first writer in the Arabic language to do so.  He died in August 2006.

Discussion Guides

1. What concrete details of daily life does Mahfouz describe in introducing the family?  What daily rituals are described?  What is the effect of this intimate, material presentation?

2. The women spend much of their time, when not engaged in housework, looking out at the street through the latticed screen on the house’s balcony.  Do they feel imprisoned or envious of the men in the family?  How do the women react to, and deal with, their highly traditional sexual and domestic roles?

3. How many important roles does Amina play in this family?  What is her strategy in dealing with her husband?  Is it difficult to identify with her?  Why or why not?

4. What is different or surprising about the rhythm of life for the al-Jawad family?  When are the men separated from the women, and when do they come together?  What are the important social moments of the day for the family?  Why is Kamal so sad when his two sisters leave the family home?

5. Al-Sayyid Ahmad is “a man known to his family for his ferocity and anger” (220); his character is double-sided (240).  How does he justify to himself the forbidding demeanor he puts on with his family, while going out nightly to enjoy music, laughter and erotic entertainment with his close friends?  Is he a hypocrite?  Does his relationship with his family make him difficult for a reader to like?

6. Considering that the spiritual ecstasy that Amina experiences at the mosque is a high point in her life, and that her injury causes her both physical pain and shame as the consequence of her disobedience, what do you think of the way her husband punishes her?  How does this episode deepen our sympathies with Amina and her children?  In what ways does Mahfouz emphasize the role of prayer and belief in the life of the family?

7. What are Yasin’s, Fahmy’s, and Kamal’s most notable qualities?  How do the sons compare with the daughters in terms of character?  Which members of the family are most likeable?

8. Aisha would have been happy to marry the police officer she had been watching each morning, but when Khalil Shawkat makes an offer, she readily agrees to marry him.  How much choice does she have in this matter?  What does she gain in marrying and leaving her father’s house?  What social function do wedding celebrations seem to perform?

9. Yasin is shocked to discover his father in Zubayda’s house, joyful, smiling, and playing music.  Why is he so pleased to see “a bit of his own soul and heart” (269) in his father?

10. After Yasin rapes his wife’s maid on the family’s rooftop (407-11), his wife Zaynab demands a divorce, which is then negotiated by her father and Al-Sayyid Ahmad.  Ahmad is enraged at his son, but mainly for not controlling his wife: “Let him get drunk, carouse, and take lovers, on condition that he remain the unchallenged master of his family” (438).  How are father and son alike?  What lessons about the power relations in marriage does Ahmad hope his sons will learn from his example?

11. What is the experience of being engaged in the story of a family whose lives are bound by a set of conventions and expectations very different from our own?  What is it like to judge the characters and events in this book, keeping in mind that ideals about individual freedoms are not wholly relevant in Mahfouz’s world?

12. Fahmy’s mother asks him to explain how he can endanger himself in the demonstrations.  When he retorts, “A people ruled by foreigners has no life,” Amina argues, “But we’re still alive, even though they’ve been ruling us for a long time…. Son, they don’t kill us and they don’t interfere with the mosques.  The community of Muhammad is still thriving” (374).  What does this exchange underscore about the values held by Fahmy, and those held by his mother?

13. On the day of Sa’d Zaghlul’s release from exile, Fahmy seeks his father’s forgiveness for participating in the demonstrations.  Al-Sayyid Ahmad is ambivalent; he has wanted his son to be safe, but says to himself, “Since God has allowed him to live to see this day, I wish he had done something important in it. By God, if you were young, you would have done much more than your son has” (521).  Given that Fahmy will be killed later on this very day, discuss the emotional conflict in both father and son between safety and patriotic action.  How does the narrative style on pages 522-528 put the reader in Fahmy’s position?

14. With the death of Fahmy, the political life of the nation has burst into the private home on Palace Walk.  His father had meant for his children “to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.  He alone would set their course for them” (451).  What larger point is Mahfouz making about the intersection of history and the family?

15. Questions on the Cairo Trilogy (including Palace of Desire and Sugar Street)
1. The trilogy dramatizes the human quest for a sustaining belief—mainly through Kamal, but also through Khadija’s sons Abd and Ahmad al-Munim.  Kamal is in search of his own truth, and he struggles to break from the religious orthodoxy of his upbringing and to attain a more modern and Western intellectual life. Are any belief systems found to be sustaining for the characters in the trilogy?  Does Kamal eventually arrive at a satisfying intellectual, spiritual, or political position?
 
2.  In Palace of Desire, Kamal is obsessed with the worldly French-educated Aïda.  In a moment of illumination, he realizes that his father has created the model for his own masochism in love.  He speaks in his mind to his father: "Do you know what other consequences there were to loving you despite your tyranny? I loved another tyrant who was unfair to me for a long time, both to my face and behind my back. She oppressed me without ever loving me. In spite of all that, I worshipped her from the depths of my heart and still do. You’re as responsible for my love and torment as anyone else. In any case, Father, you're the one who made it easy for me to accept oppression through your continual tyranny."  In what other ways have the sons, daughters, and wife of ASA been warped by their relationship with Al-Sayyid Ahmad?
 
3. In the final chapter of Palace of Desire, while the husband and sons of Aisha are near death from typhoid, Yasin’s wife, Zanuba, goes into labor, and the newspaper announces the death of the political leader Saad Zaghlul.   What is Mahfouz expressing, in the trilogy, about his understanding of time, change and heredity?
 
4. Mahfouz’s women are very strong, whereas the men tend to be childish, self-indulgent, and relatively weak.  Compare the characters of Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his wife Amina, for example.  What does this contrast suggest about the family structure Mahfouz portrays?  How do cultural and familial assumptions about women and sexuality influence the romantic lives of Yasin and Jamal?  How do they think about and express their desires, and what, if anything do they have in common with their father in this regard?
 
5. Mahfouz was aligned with the first wave of support for the Wafd party, represented by Fahmy in Palace Walk.  He said, “Maybe my generation of intellectuals was the last one that really believed in democracy. . . . I was proud of our 1919 revolution and proud to be a Wafdist.  But the top priority of the revolution was not democracy; it was to get rid of foreign rule.  Egypt was the first country in our century to rise up against European occupation.  The people, led by the Wafd, ended the protectorate but failed to gain real independence, and, in any case, the Wafd did not know how to govern in a democracy.  Democracy is not deeply rooted in our culture.  Egyptians would make sacrifices for independence, but they did not value democracy, and so, step by step, our system fell apart. . . .  I believe that the blame really belongs to Britain’s colonialism and Egypt’s kings.  But, whoever was responsible, most Egyptians had concluded by the start of World War II that democracy offered nothing—not social justice, not freedom, not even full independence.  They laughed at democracy” (quoted in Weaver, 40).  How might Mahfouz have felt had he lived to see the wave of protests that took place in 2011, as well as the trial of Hosni Mubarak?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Alaa al-Aswany, The Yacoubian Building; Rasheed el-Enany, Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning; Yusuf Idris, The Cheapest Nights; Elias Khoury, White Masks; Abdul Rahman Munif, The Trench; Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious; Edward Said, “The Cruelty of Memory,” The New York Review of Books (November 30, 2000); Mary Anne Weaver, “Man of Gamaliya,” The New Yorker (July 2, 1990). 

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