Palace Walk is the first novel in Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo trilogy. The three books provide a window onto a culture far removed from that of to-day's Western liberalism. His trilogy starts in 1914 and ends in the min-1950s. For our guide to this world Mahfouz uses a bourgeois family living in central Cairo. Their members act as a vehicle for interpreting the effect of world events as they impact on traditional Egyptian society. To ensure that his message is understood Mahfouz makes his story easily digestible for European readers by using the format of a Victorian bourgeois family saga. The roots for this fascinating trilogy of books can be traced back to the high-Victorian novelists of Trollop and Collins. He gives this tradition a modern twist by including comment on the main political events of the time. Although his style is Victorian his theme is not. Mahfouz focuses on two generations of one family and demonstrates how Egypt changed from an introverted, autocratic, chauvinist society to a more liberal and liberated, outward looking culture.
As an Egyptian who lived through this period he shows it to us with a sharply focused eye that can portray the inevitability of the changes and both the positive and negative elements of what was lost. The central character, Al-Said Ahmad, combines a laughing, charming side that he exposes to his male friends and concubines and another of a bullying, inflexible autocrat which he shows to his family. He lives his life as a devout muslim and recognises no conflict between these two sides to his life. In the novel he personifies the old pre-war Egypt and his death at the end of the trilogy marks the end of this ancient culture. Palace Walk, the first book in the trilogy, defines traditional Egypt. Al-Said Ahmad is the great patriarch and Amina is his devoted wife, between them we have two powerful characters from whom the whole story hangs. Mafhouz skilfully controls a large number of characters. He is prepared to give each one a large section of the book. Their relationships, problems and thoughts are carefully and minutely conveyed through their own actions and concerns and through their interactions with their family and friends. Like any great Victorian novelist Mahfouz takes his time. He wants us to be part of the family, perhaps a distant cousin who hears the stories knows the characters but is not invited to comment. The landscape that Mahfouz creates for us is dominated by Al-Sayid whose dreadful hypocrisy leaps off the page from the first chapter. Amina, his wife, despite rising at 5am to cook the family breakfast, must break her sleep in the middle of the night to greet her dominating husband as he returns from his revels. She peers down the stair well with a mixture of love and fear as the light from his lamp slowly rises towards her. Each night is the same; she kneels before him and helps him undress. She waits to be dismissed to her own room whilst he hums the songs that he has been listening to and laughs at the memories of jokes and experiences that he denies to his wife because she is a woman.
With the commitment of a devout muslim he cares for the souls of his wife and daughters by keeping them confined to his house, uneducated in any activity not directly related to managing a home. He terrifies his whole family into submitting to his will in all areas of life. But this fear excludes him from any intimacy with them. They love and admire his will, religious faith and zest for life. It is only after he has left in the morning for his shop that family life begins and his three sons and two daughters can reveal their true selves, gossip about their neighbours and bicker with each other.
Their daily lives are predicated on their gender. The two girls stay at home and through their lives we see a lost world of domestic life. Many boring and arduous tasks must be completed each day. They fight and complain but with no real will to change their destiny. They exploit the power that their domestic position gives them when fighting with their brothers. The age range of the boys allows for detailed descriptions of the old Egyptian way of life outside the home. Kamal is the youngest son and still at school. Yasin, the eldest, is a young bachelor of independent means who is beginning a life of dissipation that mirrors that of his father.
Although carefully planned to demonstrate how life changed over the middle years of this century the novel is not contrived. Each member of the family has a fully rounded character which drives their actions. This is one of those rare books where fictional characters and real events create a coherent whole.