Posted by: Sally Ingraham | January 31, 2011

Palace of Desire

palace of desireby Naguib Mahfouz
translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny, and Olive E. Kenny

I read the first half of this second installment in The Cairo Trilogy rather eagerly. Granted, I was couped up in buses and planes at the time, but for awhile I was really getting a kick out of the relentless drama of romantic encounters and family squabbles. Then it all got to be a bit too much.

In this segment the children are all grown and married, with the exception of Kamal who is still living at home and is in school. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, their tyrannical father, has loosened his grip significantly, and Kamal marvels at one point that it has been over two years since he has been the recipient of screaming curses from his father. While the sisters deal with their husbands and children and mother-in-law, and Yasin rampages through wives and other women, Kamal is in love. Bringing a refreshing change from the animal desires of Yasin, Kamal sees his beloved as the most perfect, the most exquisite being in creation. His love for her is pure, unattached to the base needs of the body. In fact he’s almost more in love with his idea of love than he is with Aida. Although his love was doomed from the beginning, he suffers mightily when rejection and dismissal are his bitter fate. In an interesting twist, al-Sayyid Ahmad, while struggling to accept the fact that he’s aging, also falls in love and for the first time in his life he finds himself utterly ruled by the whims of a young and beautiful musician. When he finally pulls himself together and tosses the girl aside, his son Yasin is standing in line right behind him and he loses no time before divorcing his second wife and marrying her. So it goes.

While the romances and womanizing in the book quickly grew tiresome, I did find Kamal’s intellectual journey interesting. Always a good scholar, he decides that he wants to devote himself to learning. He joins the Teacher’s College simply to go on learning about every topic he can, turning more and more to science and philosophy to help explain existence. Devoutly religious for most of his life, he can’t reconcile the new ideas that are flooding his mind with the belief system he grew up with. While there are less politics in this volume, the discussions between Kamal and his friends show how rapidly Egypt was changing at the time, offering a variety of social and political views.

There was a slight change in the narrative style in this book. Instead of being so much in the third-person, there were frequent long internal dialogs voiced by the characters themselves. Overall I enjoyed this, and occasionally Mahfouz offered up a bit of psychological insight that was somewhat profound (and reminiscent of Proust…). And there were some bizarrely fantastic turns of phrase!

My opinion of the work hangs on the last book, but so far the journey is still a frustrating one. I liked this section less than the last. It lacked the common enemy that al-Sayyid Ahmad provided in the first book, and so became a seemingly endless parade of annoying and demanding characters acting outrageously. Tough. But still oddly entertaining. I guess I’ll finish the ride and see where it takes me.

Thanks again to Richard for hosting The Cairo Trilogy readalong. Here’s his post with links 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 month!


  1. Sorry this is turning out to be such a frustrating read for you, Sarah, but I understand and am probably only somewhat more amused than you. Love what you call those “bizarrely fantastic turns of phrase” and empathize with the too much womanizing complaint–great point about the shift in narrative style, too (I overlooked that even though I complained about it in the first volume of the trilogy…how inconsistent I am!). Cheers!

    • I used the word frustrating, but perhaps I mean something closer to…amused irritation? My notes are full of “oh good grief”s and “Seriously?!”s, and I am constantly flabbergast by the decisions made by characters, but it is still pretty entertaining for the most part. Certainly better than Undset. 🙂

  2. I do think that this trilogy is kind of long to focus on one family’s various dramas — I was kind of disappointed that there wasn’t as much political background but I think Mahfouz subsituted the university discussions to provide context of the times.

    I’m not sure that I agree that al-Sayyid Ahmad “falls in love” — but that what made that relationship different is that the woman convinced him to set her up in her own home, etc and I don’t think that is something al-Sayyid Ahmad was willing to do with his previous dalliances. Maybe he did it because of his crisis of realizing he was getting older.

    I’m still enjoying this trilogy in spite of it all, and looking forward to what part three will bring.

    • You’re right, he didn’t really fall in love and that relationship definitely caught him in crisis mode. He just couldn’t get the girl until he set her up with a houseboat, etc. – but then once he had her, he continued to lavish gifts and whatnot upon her in an effort to keep her, since the virility of his body and his amazingly good looks (jeez…whatever!) were no longer enough. That was an interesting segment…

  3. I found it interesting that when al-Sayyid Ahmad loosens the reins on his family, as you mentioned, he begins to learn more about them, but he mostly notices their defects. I recall the scene where he is called to Khadija’s home by her mother-in-law to confront her on her “bad behavior.” At one point he asks himself (paraphrasing), “Does Amina know about Khadija’s sharp tongue?” It seemed so strange that he was only just becoming aware of a main facet of his daughter’s personality…

    I’m also hoping the final book will be a little more interesting, and perhaps make the trilogy feel more complete.

    • Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s reaction to learning anything about his family was always amusing to me – his extreme shock! And of course, it was all about how it reflected on him or how it effected his honor. What a rat.

      I’m mostly excited that the last book is so much shorter! 🙂

  4. I somehow missed this post when you originally put it up, but glad I found it eventually because you make some great points. I think it’s interesting to canvass the different opinions on Kamal – I too found his intellectual journey interesting but very quickly tired of his deification of Aida. And it’s so frustrating (intentionally so on the part of Mahfouz, I’m sure) that in the world he creates one must choose between total contempt toward women (Yasin & Al-Sayyid Ahmad) and unrealistic worship of them (Kamal). Will be interested in how the final installment unfolds…

    • Indeed, indeed. I’m hoping a woman character really asserts herself in the final chapter. It annoys me so much that most of the women in the book are powerless when faced with Yasin or al-Sayyid Ahmad. I want to root for someone who can resist such creeps!! Pretty please, Mahfouz?

  5. […] – Previously: Palace Walk, and Palace of Desire […]

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