Palace of Desire – Naguib Mahfouz

You imply there’s a difference between prestige and learning! There’s no true knowledge without prestige and wealth. and why are you talking about learning as though it’s one thing?..Some kinds of knowledge are appropriate for tramps and others belong to the pashas of the world.

How can you describe a spirit using corporeal expressions

Long live the revolution!

The second book in Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, Palace of Desire, picks up seven years after the events of Palace Walk. Our protagonists have aged in the intervening years and have just now seemed to recover from the tragedy that struck the family at the conclusion of the last book, but the most notable development is that al-Sayyid Ahmad has loosened his authoritarian grip over his family–not always for the better. Palace of Desire is perhaps most characterized by how the characters begin to strip away the layers of formality and constructed roles, seeing who their family members are for the first time.

The bulk of Palace of Desire is dedicated to the stories of the three remaining men of the family, al-Sayyid Ahmad and his sons Yasin and Kamal. al-Sayyid has only recent resumed his attending the raucous parties thrown by his friends and is utterly infatuated with the lute-player Zanuba, who dreams of being a wife. The older son, Yasin, is one of the villains of Palace Walk and continues in his philandering ways through a second and, in quick succession, third marriage. Both marriages are scandalous and cause his father no end of grief, particularly when their amorous affairs come into contact. Yet, where Yasin is indulgent with women and drink to the point to the point that he fails in his societal responsibilities, al-Sayyid is ever diligent in protecting his children.

The affairs of al-Sayyid Ahmad and Yasin are trapped in the past and it is therefore appropriate that the women they pursue are familiar to the reader from Palace Walk. In contrast, Kamal gets a coming of age story in three parts that all revolve around the same central issue: ought the family be looking to tradition or to the west. Now sixteen, he has grown into an intelligent and likable young man, traditional in his dress and disproportionate in his features, but, above all, firmly committed to the cause of Egyptian nationalism. Although his upbringing is old-fashioned and his background modest, al-Sayyid’s success as a merchant and good reputation won his son a position in a good school where Kamal made friends with the children of wealthy and influential families. However, where his friends are destined for lives of luxury or careers in the diplomatic corps, Kamal is determined to go to teacher’s school and pursue a career in writing, much to his father’s dismay.After all, al-Sayyid Ahmad believes the purpose of educating his sons is so that they can gain prestige in modern Egyptian society. At the same time, Kamal falls in love with Aida, the sister of his dear friend Husayn, but, while his heart longs for this elegant, westernized woman who has spent time in Paris, there remains the question of whether she is using him in order to manipulate someone else. Finally, in his despair, Kamal begins to dabble with things he sees as being outside the form of Islam he was raised with, including prostitutes, alcohol, and western science.

Palace of Desire is a specific location in the book (of Yasin’s new house), a metaphorical one for all of the male characters, and could be regarded as one of the overriding themes. However, I believe the dominant theme is how the characters gradually come to understand who their family members are rather. Frequently, this unveiling takes the form of coming to recognize what people actually do when their family is not watching, such as al-Sayyid’s sons seeing him drink and sing, Yasin and Kamal bumping into each other drunk at a prostitute’s door, or al-Sayyid reading an article on Darwin that Kamal published in a literary journal. Every character in the family, as well as those they interact with, project different version of themselves depending on the context and Mahfouz juxtaposes these externalizations with internal dialogue. Much of Palace of Desire, then, is dedicated to the gradual reconciling of the differences between the two.

My biggest problem with Palace of Desire, and why I think it is a modest step back from Palace Walk, is that the stories of the women felt incomplete. For instance, it is stated that Amina received additional freedoms in the intervening years, but as the story of the men takes them further and further from her walls, she is given proportionally less space. Her actions and words are well-conceived and I liked her moments, but she is no longer the rock of the family. Likewise, there is an episode in the middle of the story about domestic strife at Khadija and Aisha’s new home, particularly strife between Khadija and her mother-in-law, that requires al-Sayyid Ahmad to be drawn in as mediator. It is a marvelous scene, both because Khadija launches a devious propaganda campaign against her sister and mother-in-law and because it prompts al-Sayyid Ahmad to have a revelation regarding gender: that Khadija, despite being a woman, is his child who inherited most of his best qualities. But this arc mostly appears and then vanishes without reference to it elsewhere. As with Amina’s story, the result is that the the writing and characterization is excellent and the themes of these passages mesh with the rest of the story, but the tightly-knit family drama that explored issues of gender in such interesting ways in Palace Walk feels just a bit incomplete in Palace of Desire.

I started reading Palace of Desire shortly after President Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the United States. I have owned the book for some time now, but chose it because I didn’t have literature by authors from the countries targeted by the ban and Mahfouz wrote in Arabic, so I figured it could serve as a stand-in. Mahfouz presents an Egypt in the throes of a nationalist movement, but trapped between the West and tradition (not necessarily Islam, but it plays a role), between indulging personal choice and fulfilling responsibility, and between the different responses one can have to the inevitability of change.

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I am currently reading two books, Ann Leckie’s Hugo-winning novel Ancillary Justice, which I found a bit difficult to get into but am now enjoying it, I think, and G.R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire, which I am enjoying the heck out of and have thoughts on both as a fan in terms of the actual material and as a historian in terms of the form.