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.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

He could not imagine that the world of the emotions had infiltrated the atmosphere of his home, which he vigilantly strove to keep one of stern purity and immaculate innocence.

Why do you pretend to be pious around your family when you’re a pool of depravity?

Published in Arabic in 1956 and released in English in 1990, Palace Walk is the first book in Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy follows one family in Cairo over the span of decades, but Palace Walk takes place over the course of about a year at the end of World War One.

Palace Walk centers on the household of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, which consists of his wife Amina, their daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal, Yasin, the son of his first wife, and the maid Umm Hanafi. Yasin still lives with the family despite having graduated and obtaining and a job, following in his father’s philandering footsteps but without his restraint. While the two younger boys, the dedicated and Romantic Fahmy and the carefree Kamal still attend school. The women, obedient Amina, homely and intelligent Khadija, and beautiful but vain Aisha, remain secluded within the house. Much of the story is driven by the contradictions within the character of al-Sayyid Ahmad. At home he is a severe, domineering overlord who forbids the women from leaving the walls except for Amina’s infrequent visits to her mother. The family’s rhythms are dictated by the presence of the father, though, and he spends most evenings out with his friends, laughing, singing, drinking, and womanizing.

The children are measured in contrast to their father and, to a lesser extent, mother. For the girls, this is a physical contrast–their eyes and their noses; for the boys, it is a more fundamental comparison–to what extent do their physiques match their father and to what extent did they inherit his appetites. However, at least in his mind, Fahmy and Yasin are fundamentally flawed, taking on aspects of his desires without taste or responsibility. Kamal, the youngest, is the exception to this rule, not because he is without fault, but because he is not yet fully developed and so looks upon the actions of his elders with confusion and wonder.

Palace Walk is a tightly-knit family story, so the bulk of the narrative consists of quiet domestic tension, particularly on the part of the long-suffering Amina, as well as marriage and infidelity. I found these scenes moving for all their quietude, but what elevates Palace Walk into a masterpiece is how Mahfouz sets it across the end of World War One, juxtaposing the family’s agitation for independence from their father with the Egyptian protests in favor of independence from Britain.

News about the strike, acts of sabotage, and the battles had filled him with a hope and admiration, but it was a totally different matter for any of these deeds to be performed by a son of his. His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.

al-Sayyid insists that his authoritarian regime at home is designed to protect his family, but this ambition proves impossible.

Throughout the story Mahfouz does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for women and children even while not making al-Sayyid without redeeming characteristics. Despite the importance of the father, it is clear that Kamal has a particular importance for the story. It is through his eyes that one asks why the girls fall away from the story after they marry. He is untouched by the rancor and violence that surrounds the protests, and being struck by the prominence of his character, I was prompted to look ahead to find out that Kamal is indeed a main character in the second two novels. His innocence, transcending even that of Amina, stands out.

I want to reserve final judgement on Palace Walk until I read the other two books, but this was an excellent start. The story is beautiful and moving, and Mahfouz ratchets up the tension until a shocking conclusion.

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Earlier today I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a magical-realistic murder story set in an unnamed Indonesian town. Next up is Rina Frank’s 2006 novel Every House Needs a Balcony.