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on 1 April 2003
When I went to Egypt recently, every Egyptian I met, when I expressed an interest in Egyptian literature, told me to read the Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. Once you've read the trilogy you'll realise why he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He tells a gripping story of a family's life in Cairo, interweaving the stories of each member of the family with the wider political events affecting Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. It gives an insight into Egyptian life which as an outsider you could never otherwise hope to gain. The trilogy is timeless and easily the best three books I have read in the past year.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 February 2014
A superb read; first in the Cairo Trilogy, telling the saga of a middle-class family living under the hated British Protectorate
. Head of the house, Ahmad, is brilliantly and convincingly drawn - on the one hand he is a strict Muslim, demanding his wife and daughters live in total seclusion, and keeping all the family in a state of terror at his displeasure, yet every night he goes out on the town with his worldly friends to enjoy wine, women and song.
'Was he two separate people combined into one personality? Was his faith in the divine magnanimity so strong that he could not believe these pleasures really had been forbidden?...He found within himself strong instincts, some directed toward God and tamed through worship and others set for pleasure and quenched in play.'
His meek wife, Amina, devotes herself to pleasing him, never questioning his nocturnal excursions, while she looks out on the world through the slits in the shutters. With them lives stepson Yasin - child of a previous, unfavoured wife - who seems to be inheriting his father's immoral ways- and their own four children: sons Fahmy, a law student, becoming increasingly passionate about the anti-British movement, and mischievous schoolboy Kamal plus two daughters awaiting marriage: beautiful Aisha and her older sister, plain, sharp-tongued Khadija.
I couldn't put this down, and intend to read the other two works in near future. Utterly recommended: an Egyptian Tolstoy.
Leaves the female reader glad she doesn't live in an early 1900s Egyptian home, when she reads quotes like:
'No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me...me...me...me' and
'Women are just another kind of domestic animal and must be treated like one'. !!
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Enjoyable glimpse into Egyptian society in the 1930s
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on 23 November 2002
Twelve years ago, I spent several months living in Egypt. I am an American woman, and at that time, I found much of the culture and behavior of Egyptians to be confusing. Since that time, I have married a Moroccan, and have lived in Morocco for the past ten years. I now feel that I understand much about Arab culture.

Just recently, a friend recommended I read the Cairo trilogy. I began with Palace Walk, and haven't yet read the others. This book is SUPERB. Westerners have trouble understanding how Middle Easterners THINK. This book is so wonderful because it takes you inside the mind of each of the characters, in turn, chapter-by-chapter, showing you how each one of them thinks, and allowing you to see their motivations for their behavior. One person commmented in their book review that the majority of the book concentrated on the male characters. There is a reason for this. Egyptian society is mostly about men, not about women. Even as the society modernizes, the THINKING stays the same. Mahfuz has done a masterful character study of each character in the book, as they go therough their daily lives. Without yet having read the two subsequent books, I expect that I will get more in depth into the women's lives in Sugar Street, because this is the house to which the two female daughters have moved upon their marriages to two brothers.
In the past, I have tried to read some other books by this author, and just couldn't get into them. These books are different. They really do merit the Nobel Prize. Reading them now, after being immersed in the Arab culture for 12 years, I see so many more things than I would have noticed had I read the books first. But living in this culture, I can see how accurate they are, and how the men really DO behave and think like the characters in these books! Aside from the all this, the story line is wonderful, too. I had trouble putting the book down after having read the first few pages. I recommend these books to anyone who would really like to understand the Middle Eastern culture.
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on 27 August 1999
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.
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on 7 October 1998
This book is filled with fascinating characters and is definitely worth reading. However, if you have a short attention span like me, you will get frustrated with the repetitions of the characters' traits and appearance. I am glad I read this book, but there were times when I felt like I was slogging through. Being a woman, I found the attitudes of the men in this book to the various "classes" of women to be quite eye opening; I thought all women were treated roughly the same way in strict Muslim societies.
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on 15 November 1998
Naguib Mahfouz's wonderful novel Palace Walk was originally published in Arabic in 1956, and not translated to English until 1990. Why the publisher waited so long to make this beautiful and sad novel available to a wider audience is beyond me. At least, better late than never!! In broad outline, this is the story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Cairo during and after World War I, his wife, Amina, and the lives and courtships of their several children. The novel offers profound insight into a different culture and religion. Al-Sayyid has literally a dual personality -- petty tyrant at home, with his wife and children; bon vivant and man-about-town with his friends. Because of the harsh sexual segregation in his traditional Arab home, his wife is none the wiser, but his older sons learn of first hand then come to emulate their father's lifestyle. Although the subject matter is "small" -- a middle-class family's domestic issues -- this is unquestionably a "big" book, raising issues of religion, class, gender, and integrity. Mahfouz is also a wonderful writer, and conveys his characters with humor, insight, and clarity. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and it is easy to see why.
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on 3 February 1999
As I was reading this book, I couldn't help but think of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". This book shares much of the sense of wonder and yearning of Proust's narrator (and expresses it in the same beautiful attention to language and detail). In both books you get an incredible feel for the inner lives of the characters, their conflicting motivations and desires. You get to watch as they explore the contradictions in their beliefs and actions. (and some of their actions and beliefs were at times irksome to me)
As others have said, the book follows a Muslim family. But this isn't a typical Muslim family, even by the norms of the time (as reflected in the comments of characters outside the family, expressing surprise at the strictness of the father's rule). But the characters are believable as humans, not so alien you can't see a bit of yourself in all of them.
My only complaint is that at times the translation was a bit jarring, especially when rendering slang or exclamations: they came out sounding rather stilted and artificial.
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on 12 January 2009
Some reviewers have said that nothing really seems to happen in the 500+ pages of "Palace Walk". I wouldn't agree with that in principle. An awful lot does actually happen; it simply happens to one Egyptian household in sharp focus beneath Mahfouz's microscope. There is no narrative arc as we would naturally expect in Western storytelling: there is no real build in tension and no particular plotline. There are no character transformations and nobody seems to gain any self-knowledge along the way. This is perhaps an unsatisfying mix for many readers, although it didn't bother me too much as I still found the characters complex and interesting.

The translation from Black Swan is jarring at times, clinical at others and generally quite stiff. But I suspect this is due to the Arabic language. As I understand it, a great deal of Arabic simply won't work in English...and so I think a lot of lustre, depth and wordplay has been lost in the conversion.

Most Western women will undoubtedly find this book infuriating. The lead character, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, is a vile figure who treats his wife and family despicably with complete impunity. I'm a bloke and even I found myself hating Ahmad's views on women, his inflated ego, his blind hypocrisy and poisonous narcissism.

What I felt most, however, when reading "Palace Walk" (and I'm sure Mahfouz didn't intend it this way, given the amount of times he dutifully quotes the Qur'an with handy little verse/chapter references) was an overwhelming revulsion for organised religion...and, by default, the Islamic faith. There is so much injustice, malice, bigotry and ignorance within these pages - all excused by religion. It really left a bad taste in my mouth and I got tired of hearing the name of God invoked for every conceivable reason, from violence and sexism to adultery and racism. I really felt sorry for the females in this book - women who cannot leave the house, are married off to complete strangers, are denied an education and grow up genuinely believing that God put them on the earth to serve men.

This novel is set in 1919 and understandably depicts a more conservative era. The next two books in this trilogy will no doubt try to show how Cairo became more and more liberal as the years passed. But what we're dealing with here is less so the changeable culture of a city and more so the unchangeable nature of religion. I don't know if I can take two more books of unchallenged male bravado, propped up by suffocating religious `authority'. Perhaps I'll try one of Mahfouz's novels about Ancient Egypt instead.
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on 4 May 2004
A startlingly beautiful book and trilogy. Through Mahfouz, you see Egyptian society, social structure, religion, politics, love and a long lost era. Magic, heaven and apparently, it's even better in Arabic!
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