Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 26, 2010

Palace Walk

palace walkby Naguib Mahfouz
translated by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny

The first in a trilogy that follows an Egyptian family through several generations and charts their course through a rapidly changing culture and country, Palace Walk was a fascinating and frustrating read for me. Dare I say that it reminded me of the infamous Kristin Lavransdatter…? I’ll point out right away that the major difference is that I LIKED Palace Walk! However, aside from the obvious similarities (both are trilogies, both are historical fiction, both won the Nobel Prize for Literature,) there were other things that made me think of Undset’s book, in spite of myself.

Essentially, Palace Walk covers the disintegration of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s tyrannical rule of his family. From the beginning al-Sayyid Ahmad is a difficult but interesting character. At home he uses his fierce temper and terrible wrath to keep his timid wife, three sons, and two daughters on the narrow path of obedience. In public and with his friends he is a charming and generous man, quick to laugh, and a lover of music and women and fun. He finds within himself a balance between his hardcore religious beliefs and his pursuit of all the good things in life. This balancing act of course ultimately brings his downfall, for his children can’t help noticing that ‘ “Nobody else lives like us” ‘ – including their own father! His belief in the power of the love and fear he inspires in his children blinds him to the possibility of rebellion in any form, and so it is both awful and awfully amusing to witness the destruction of his hold over them.

Like Undset, Mahfouz infused his story with a sense of time and place without being super obvious about it, and the details of how al-Sayyid Ahmad and his family went about their daily lives in post-WW I Egypt was definitely a large part of what I enjoyed about the book. The culture is one I am unfamiliar with except in a general sense, so I felt like I was embarking on a full immersion experience whenever I opened the book. In addition to the details of what life was like for the majority of the population, it was especially interesting to see the difference between them and the ‘ultraconservative, Hanbali bias in religion‘ that Al-Sayyid Ahmad imposed on himself and his family.

Due to the contrast between the life I live and the culture and traditions of Egypt at that time, my notes on the book are full of incensed exclamations and the verbal pounding of fists. While the mantra “Time and place” helped me to understand the general treatment of women, I had a hard time with the attitudes toward women displayed by al-Sayyid Ahmad, and the reincarnation and exaggeration of those ideas in his eldest son Yasin. I had to stop at one point and verify that Mahfouz’s feelings were hurt as much as mine by this, and I was pleased to learn that the role of women in this society was something he was very interested in and was definitely exploring. Later in the book it was interesting to see the contrast between al-Sayyid Ahmad’s daughters and a young woman raised by a much more liberal family. This is something I believe Mahfouz will continue to discuss in the following books.

Another thing that reminded me of Kristin L. was a similar mix of religion and superstition. From the first chapter when Amina, the docile wife, is introduced, the jinn are mentioned. The jinn are a kind of demon, but they seem to come from a different world than the God of Amina’s faith, and to her they are an extremely real, nearly physical presence in her life. Further on, I believe it is her son Fahmy who is pointed out for not submitting to such superstitious beliefs. Religion is an incredibly huge part of life for these people – they can’t get through a simple conversation without asking for God’s blessing, or forgiveness, or submitting events to His will in almost every sentence. I was pleased that Mahfouz detailed various degrees of actual belief though – religion is ingrained in the culture, but it is still a deeply personal thing.

Stylistically, the tone of the book was very straightforward. While being extremely descriptive, Mahfouz wasn’t given to using particularly lyrical language. It’s pretty blow by blow. This could be partially the translation, of course. I don’t remember The Thief and the Dogs being quite so…wordy, but being a stream of consciousness narrative it was quite different in style. In spite of the wordiness of Palace Walk, I found the reading experience to be a bit bland. Again, this kind of reminded me of Undset.

With two more books ahead of me I am reserving the majority of my judgement. For the time being, while it took me awhile to get invested in any of the characters (and I still feel like I’m looking at them from across a wall,) at this point I am definitely eager to see what happens next. I’m not blown away by the overall experience thus far, but I am interested in what Mahfouz is doing and I’m curious to see where he’s going with it.

Thanks to Richard for hosting this readalong. Follow this link to his post, where you will also find links to other reviews. Next up, Palace of Desire, with the discussion taking place around January 30-31.


  1. Hee. I saw the reference to Kristin Lavransdatter, and nearly clicked away from this post! Glad I read it through–this does sound really interesting. Another excellent historical trilogy is Madison Smartt Bell’s Haiti trilogy–powerful and interesting.

    • I was worried that the Kristin L. reference might scare people off! Glad you read the post through too. Thanks for the tip on the Bell trilogy. I do really like historical fiction when it is done right. The choppy, wordy style of this book is not to my taste, but the details on time and place are truly fascinating.

  2. Oooooh, the gauntlet is thrown! Comparisons to Undset, the lowest blow. 🙂

    Actually, my reaction was almost exactly the same as yours. The family’s views toward women were extremely disturbing to me, and I think Mahfouz has a hard job walking the line between simply presenting the culture/family as it is without judgment, and making his disapproval of female oppression too preachy, Lifetime Special style. Overall I thought he did a good job, but the first part of the book in particular was almost suffocating to read in some places as I imagined being prevented from ever leaving the house or expressing my opinion. It’s kind of funny to read this book while Emma Donogue’s Room is receiving so much press, because the women in the al Jawad family are basically suffering the same fate as Ma, but publicly and for their entire lives in a way that’s condoned by their society. Freaked me out!

    Like you, I’m curious to see where Mahfouz goes with this. Was substantially more engaged with the second half of Palace Walk than the first.

    • Wow, crazy to think that the daily lives of these woman could be compared to the situation in Room that most people would readily admit is awful – and you’re completely right. Amina’s reality was so intense that I felt ill at times imagining it, yet my sympathy for her dimmed somewhat when I realized how ingrained the lifestyle was in her – to the extent that she would wish it on and expect no less from other women. Cultural and religious brainwash at its finest… Truly made me screech out loud at times!

      I did have to vocalize the Undset similarities that occurred to me, but at this point I am far more engaged by Mahfouz!

  3. You compared a book you liked to Kristin Lavransdatter??? But seriously, I can see where you’re coming from.

    I thought it was interesting that instead of giving us a typical family, Mahfouz portrays instead an overly conservative one. As you pointed out, even the family members notice that no one lives like them! But I wonder if his point is that this society even allows this type of psychological abuse to exist and provides absolutely no safeguards to protect vulnerable women and children. A very subtle protest, which I’m finding quite typical of Mahfouz when it comes to his criticism of female subjugation.

    • Haha, once the first similarity occurred to me I only found more ways to compare Mahfouz to Undset…I’m beginning to feel haunted by Kristin L.!

      You bring up an excellent point – it’s obvious that Mahfouz’s family is ultra-conservative, but the whole episode with Yasin’s wife makes that even more clear. It is interesting that all Yasin’s wife’s father did was remove his daughter from the situation – but in no way did it impact his friendship with al-Sayyid Ahmad. “You can treat your family any way you like, but my daughter is another matter. We’re cool.” Amazing! Pointing out this spooky aspect of the society like this is indeed a subtle protest.

    • That’s such a good point, EL Fay. I think it’s a pretty legit decision on Mahfouz’s part to take a different path from the typical “everyman” portrayals – his characters are actual people who diverge from the standard/average Egyptian citizen of the time. Simultaneously, he does illustrate how the culture props up al-Sayyid Amhad’s extremism and almost pathology.

  4. I, too, thought about K Lav while reading Palace Walk, Sarah, but Mahfouz beat Undset in every category I compared them in! In terms of the prose, I only have one other Mahfouz work to base my comparison on, but I enjoyed the style of the later, multi-narrator Miramar much more than the “wordy” Palace Walk. Felt that Mahfouz did too much description here and not enough dialogue–although I came to terms with that once the characters developed sufficiently for me. Not sure if the translation affected things either. In terms of the male/female conflict, I thought it was interesting that Mahfouz showed so many different examples of roles for people to play. The main family’s role was certainly severely limited in terms of the women, but Yasin’s mother, female entertainers, and the Turkish family’s women had a limited amount of extra freedom than the women in al-Sayyid Ahmad’s family. Liked that Mahfouz exposed the double standards without lecturing. This subtlety was definitely lacking in Sigrid Undset!

    • Mahfouz’s balancing act between exposure and lecture is definitely skillful. The amount of cultural detail he crams in while still maintaining an interesting narrative is also pretty great. I’m definitely impressed and like you, most of my issues with the style faded away as I got more caught up in the story.

  5. I wish this wasn’t so long, I would like to read it. I got one of his books that isn’t part of the trilogy, will have to try it. I would be infuriated by the part on the treatment of women… I see this on a daily basis, Switzerland and Germany have a very high density of fanatically religious people. I even see the Burka quite often… The amont of women being killed by brothers or other realtives because they were dating someone they didn’t approve of is on the rise… Sorry, to disgress but I haven’t read it. I think Mahfouz had problems at one point for criticizing certain aspects of Egyptian culture and politics, death threats etc.

    • That’s what is so scary about getting an inside view of this type of mentality – knowing that it still goes on in a lot of places! Yikes.

      Those of us who have read other things by Mahfouz have been really impressed. Richard and EL Fay have both read Miramar and I read The Thief and the Dogs – both books are short and show off different aspects of Mahfouz’s talent. He’s definitely an author worth checking out.

  6. I just checked. The book I got is Midaq Alley. Quite short. I need to read it soon.

  7. If I find the time, I’d really like to join you in the discussion of book 2 and 3. Not sure if that is going to happen :\.

    And I would certainly disappoint compared to such intelligent posts such as yours and Emily’s.

    • I certainly hope you can fit them in! Your thoughts would be welcome – and extremely intelligent I don’t doubt. 🙂

  8. I find interesting your parallels between KL and the Cairo Trilogy! It’ll be interesting to see whether you feel these parallels continue as we keep reading.

    I put my read-a-long post up yesterday, two weeks after finishing Book One, and I’m still thinking of the inequality and what a jerk al-Sayyid Ahmad was. I’m planning on starting Book Two today. One additional thing I’m curious about is whether the political aspect will become more present in Book Two (that happened with Book Two for KL, didn’t it?).

    • I’m actually going to try to stop comparing The Cairo Trilogy to Kristin L. as I liked Mahfouz’s book so much more. I just found it somewhat amusing at the start. Although I imagine the political aspect will increase in the next books, so yup, that’ll continue the parallel. It will be very interesting to see where Mahfouz takes his complex characters next.

  9. […] to others. The final discussion will be held Feb. 27th-28th. My thoughts on the first book are here. I’ll meet you back in Cairo next […]

  10. […] Previously: Palace Walk, and Palace of […]

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