Books · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz)

Simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic

★★★★★★☆

Title: Palace Walk (original Arabic title: Bayn al-Qastayn)
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translator: William Maynard Hutchins
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Classic / Middle East
First published: 1956 (in Arabic)
Edition: Paperback, published by Black Swan in 1994

Set against the backdrop of Britain’s occupation of Egypt immediately after World War I, Palace Walk introduces us to the Al Jawad family. Ahmad, a middle-class shopkeeper runs his household strictly according to the Qur’an while at night he explores the pleasures of Cairo. A tyrant at home, Ahmad forces his gentle, oppressed wife and two daughters to live cloistered lives behind the house’s latticed windows, while his three very different sons live in fear of his harsh will. 

***

When I went in search of Middle Eastern classics this was one that came up time and time again. Now I have finished it, I can see why.

I thoroughly enjoyed this often claustrophobic tale of a family living in Cairo around 1919. It starts out sketching the family situation. The father, who is strict with his family, but fun-loving and outgoing at nighttime with his friends and lady lovers. The mother and two daughter, who do not leave the house without his permission, and his sons, each struggling to find a place under his tyranic roof.

Most of the book concentrates on the domestic situation, but as tensions rise in Cairo in 1919, politics starts to penetrate even this most closed-off of households.

This is a beautifully written saga set in a place and time very different from what I am used to. The characters felt very human, with strengths and flaws. My ignorance of this period of history in Egypt and its customs did not inhibit my enjoyment of this book. In fact it was fascinating.

The translator must have done a great job, because it flowed really well. This was not quick read and I did not expect it to be, but it was one I thoroughly enjoyed. There were only a few places where my attention wavered, but I was always pulled back in quite soon.

There are two more books in the Cairo Trilogy and I will definitely read those, because I want to know how the story of this family continues.

6 out of 7 stars

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