Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 1956, 498 pp
(Palace Walk is the first volume of the Cairo Trilogy. It was originally published in Arabic in 1956; translated by William M Hutchins and Olive E Kenny, then released in English by Doubleday in 1990)
Naguib Mahfouz is a Nobel prize winner from 1988. He is credited as the first Egyptian to write modern novels. Palace Walk follows a middle class family through two years in the early 1900s. World War I is ending, leaving Egypt under occupation by British forces, their leaders sent into exile and the populace in rebellion. The political factors are as much a part of the story as the family matters. This has been Mahfouz's theme in all his novels so far: the outside influences which bring change to religious and family traditions.
Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the father of the family, is a complex character who rules his wife and children in the strictest interpretation of Muslim patriarchy. His wife and two daughters never leave the home unless wrapped in cloaks and veils and under his close chaparonage. His three sons work or go to school but all live in abject fear of Ahmad's anger and displeasure.
But out in the world, Ahmad is admired and well thought of even though he is a womanizer and gets drunk every night. As his children begin to marry and one son becomes deeply involved in revolutionary activities, Ahmad has to confront the contradictions in his character though he changes little.
The plight of most women is dire. Basically imprisoned in their homes, submissive to husbands from arranged marriages and only scantily educated, they play no other part in the social world besides mother and wife. The only alternative for a woman is to become an entertainer and mistress to wealthy men. Not all husbands are as strict as Ahmad, who exemplifies the extreme, but no "respected" woman gets far.
Palace Walk is a look into another culture, though also an example of life in present day Iran and Afghanistan. I predict further and more far reaching upheavals in the second and third books of the Cairo Trilogy, but in this first volume, Mahfouz has laid out how Egypt was before the larger picture changed.
As a writer, he is strong on character, both male and female. His plotting is less dramatic so it is the characters, their emotions and conflicts, hopes and fears, that drive the novel and keep one reading. In every one of his books so far, I have reached the end satisfied by a stirring tale.
(Palace Walk is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)