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Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

 Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988

Translated from the Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E.Kenny

Palace Walk is the first book in the Cairo trilogy, which is normally considered to be Naguib Mahfouz’s greatest achievement. It became a best seller in the Arab world on its release in 1956, but also enjoyed worldwide success, selling 250,000 copies in America.

The book is set in Egypt and describes the life of the Al Jawad family. Every aspect of their day is described in minute detail and so we learn exactly what life was like for the middle-class shopkeeper and his family. The book begins in 1917 and focuses on the complex task of finding someone suitable to marry each of the children.

Men play the dominant role in the household, using the words of the Qur’an to decide the most appropriate course of action. The women in the book were oppressed and spent most of their time shut inside, but at no point did this feel wrong to me. The book made me understand why this society worked in the way it did and at some points I was envious of their tight-knit community and the way the women were so close to each other.

No woman was anything more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted and heard. It was lust, yes, but not bestial or blind. It had been refined by a craft that was at least partially an art, setting his lust in a framework of delight, humor and good cheer. Nothing was so like his his lust as his body, since both were huge and powerful, qualities that bring to mind roughness and savagery. Yet both concealed within them grace, delicacy, and affection, even though he might intentionally cloak these characteristics at times with sternness and severity.

I loved reading about the complex marriage negotiations and the way the household was run, but the text was so rich with detail that I found I could rarely read more than about twenty pages a day. This meant that it took me about six weeks to read the first 300 pages.

At about this point the style of the book changed, the pace picked up and I flew through the remaining 200 pages in just two nights. WWI brought British occupation to Egypt, changing the lives of the household completely. Seeing fear and tragedy brought to a family I knew so well made the impact much greater.

Palace Walk gives an impressive insight into Egyptian life. I loved the characters and the way I came to understand their very different way of living. I finished this book knowing a lot more about Egyptian history, but also feeling a little bit wiser and more tolerant. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Have you read The Cairo Trilogy? Are the other books in the trilogy similar in style/pace?

Do you recommend any of Naguib Mahfouz’s other books?

46 replies on “Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz”

I absolutely loved The Cairo Trilogy and felt like I gained so much insight and understanding of Egyptian life. It took me a long time to get through Palace Walk, too. The plot lagged just a bit in Palace of Desire, but picked back up with Sugar Street. Wish I could read them again for the first time… enjoy!

JoAnn, It is great to know the rest of the series is just as good. I’m going to have to get my hands on them soon – otherwise I’ll forget all those details.

Definitely don’t wait too long before beginning the other two. I read them all within 6 months and that seemed to be a good amount of time. It took me forever to read the first book though!

I’ve never read Mahfouz and wondered how his novels would read today. I realized recently almost all the books I’ve read this year were published in 2009 or 2010, and I want to add more older books to the mix. This sounds quite interesting to me, and I know so little about modern Egyptian history. I also love family sagas and trilogies. I’ll have to look for this one once I finish my Booker reading. Thanks!

Carrie, I find I’m drawn towards newly released books too – the Bookers are especially bad at tempting me. Hopefully now that I’ve finished them I’ll be able to have a more balanced mix of old and new.

Perhaps I just didn’t try long enough. A couple years ago, I tried to read this book (this is the first in the Cairo trilogy, right?), but after about 50 tedious pages, I gave it up.

Amanda, Yes, this is the first book in the Cairo Trilogy. The first 300 pages are very slow so I can see why people would be tempted to give up. It took me a while to get used to the pace and the details, but I’m very pleased I took the time to read it slowly as by the end I loved it.

I bought this book earlier this year, but I’ve been afraid I wouldn’t like it, because of my difficulty with translated books. But I do want to learn more about Egyptian history, because my knowledge of it is shockingly limited; and I also want to GO to Egypt one day, so I’d like to know a little about it.

Jenny, If you struggle with translated books then this probably isn’t a good place to start – it is very slow and detailed. There are so many fantastic translated books that would be a more gentle introduction. If you find a good one then you barely know it has been translated. I wish I could think of one, but my mind has gone blank – I’ll come back later if I have any inspiration.

I like the sound of this one, especially as my hubby is always so knowledgeable about Egyptian history and personally I know nothing. I have never heard of this trilogy but I will definitely add it to my list.

vivienne, This won’t make you an expert in Egyptian history, buy at least you’ll know a bit about what happens from 1917 onwards. Perhaps your husband will enjoy reading this one too?!

I’m really glad you enjoyed this Jackie. I have Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights sitting on my shelf right now. I nearly picked it up to make it my next read today, but opted for something else instead. Reading your review makes me eager to get around to it.

I keep telling myself I want to re-visit Mahfouz; I read three of his books (not the Cairo trilogy) about 20 years ago. I liked them enough to read them all, but don’t remember much. I still have them (bound in one volume), so I think I’ll try a re-read of those before I get to the Cairo trilogy.

I actually have a copy of this book and would like to read it before the year is out. I’d like to read more literature written by African authors, and Egypt is certainly a country I’d like to learn more about as well. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this one – I was worried the material might be too difficult to get into, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case at all. I’m really interested in reading about the family/societal dynamics you describe!

Steph, It isn’t difficult to read, but the pace is very slow in the beginning – not much happens for a long time. I think you’ll enjoy it and I look forward to reading your review 🙂

Jessica, I know exactly what you mean – I’ve been to Egypt too. I learnt so much about the ancient history while I was there, but nothing about more recent times.

I read Children of Our Alley for my university course in Middle Eastern and African literature. I remember at the time really enjoying it. He is such a wonderful writer. This book sounds interesting. Living in a Muslim neighbourhood I’ve been exposed to a lot more conservative and traditional values (the dominance of men, the shutting away of women) but haven’t been able to get deep into it. This sounds like something I would enjoy reading.

Ever since I saw this on your To be reviewed pile I have reserved the books from the library but haven’t got the courage to pick it up yet.

Timely launched of this book review in conjunction to Eid. After your review, I would be more encouraged to pick this up. 😀

I really enjoyed this one when I read it. Amy and I still have to do out joint review of it because I keep not answering our questions. Anyway, Amy had a similar reaction to the book, thinking that the last half was a much faster read, I somehow felt the other way around..

Iris, I hope that you get the chance to write your review soon – I’d love to see your thoughts. It is interesting to see that you enjoyed the first half more. The two halfs of the book are so different that I suspect everyone will have trouble with some of the book 🙂

I had this trilogy on my shelves for 15 years and finally donated it to my local used library book store. Now that I’ve read your review I realize that I missed a real gem by not disciplining myself to read this one.

Kathleen, Oh no! I’ve had a few books on my shelf for a long time too. I often consider getting rid of the ones that haven’t tempted me for a while, but your comment reminds me that that is a dangerous task. I hope you find a copy again 🙂

When I saw the title of the book in my reader, I held my breath hoping that you would like it! Mahfouz is one of my favorite authors. I read the trilogy a long time ago. I recall that Palace Walk was the strongest in the set, though I love the entire trilogy. So I recommend that you read the entire trilogy if you are so inclined. However, his other novels, especially, Midaq Alley, are also very good. Whatever you decide, I do recommend that you continue to read his other works.

Kinna, I’ll be ensuring that I keep an eye out for all his other books now. I’m sad to learn that Palace Walk is the strongest of the trilogy, but hopefully that is by a narrow margin 😉 I look forward to reading them all in the near future.

So I almost missed your post on Palace Walk this weekend. I’m glad you liked it — I wasn’t certain if the length of time you took reading it meant that you weren’t enjoying it. The series is very rich with details, so it makes sense that it took you a while to get into it.
I think I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t certain whether I’d continue with the series after the first book, since the only character I liked didn’t make it to the end of the book. However, I’m glad that I did read the rest of the series, since gave me some great insight into life in early 20th century Egypt. Although I found al-Sayyid Ahmad to be a boor in the first book, he grew on me over the series. I also really enjoyed Mahfouz’s descriptions of family life (including their great coffee hours), the environs of Cairo, and the British presence in Egypt.

Mome Rath, If a book is in my sidebar for a long time it normally means I’m enjoying it. I’ll give up on a book quite quickly if I’m not 🙂

I quite like Ahmad already. He has his moments, but I can already see his softer side. It is good to know he gets even more likable as the series continues. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to the family next.

I’ve actually not read a single book set in Egypt, which is strange considering its history, the Pyramids, the Nile etc. This book does sound fantastic, albeit I’m not so sure about “minute details” – sometimes, I find that trying. Hopefully, it’s not the case with this book?

anothercookiecrumbles, I’m struggling to think of another book I’ve read that is set in Egypt too. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie is the only thing that springs to mind. I wan’t to read Nefertiti soon though.

I’m not sure about the minute details. You might struggle with them, but I recommend taking it very slowly and eventually the plot takes over.

I read another book by Naguib Mahfouz (I can’t remember the title now) and didn’t love it, but someone told me that some of his are really good. This must be one of them, I’m adding it to my TBR list now!

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