Sunday, August 10, 2008

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

This book consists of 500 pages and it is the first part of a trilogy entitled ‘The Cairo Trilogy’. Modern day publishers would send back such a manuscript to the author saying, ‘Has promise but cut it back to 200 pages and then give me another look’. But this tome was published in 1956 in Arabic and it has only recently been available to an English readership.

Don’t be too quick to knock this book off your ‘Books I’d Like for my Birthday’ list because the Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988) for contributions like this. Arab leaders today are bemoaning the lack of books in Arabic and Mahfouz has done much to popularize Arab literature throughout the world.

The style of Palace Walk belongs to a former era and it has been compared to the works of Tolstoy, Proust, Flaubert and Dickens and other authors to whom Mahfouz was indebted. The comparison goes further than the length of the books and includes the intricate detail, the character portraits and the lingering pace.

The story of Palace Walk concerns the nation of Egypt under British occupation following the First World War but the focus is sharpened and the issues heightened as Mahfouz centres on the twists and turns in the daily journey of one Egyptian family.

While some events and experiences relate exclusively to the earlier time and the circumstances of Cairo the book contains important insights into everyday Arab culture and thinking in different places and circumstances.

Michael Palin’s assessment of Yemen as ‘a nation of secrets’ has implications for much of modern day Arab culture that happens behind walls and veils. Mahfouz reveals to his readers detailed insights into family dynamics (through the eyes of children and parents), patriarchal pressures, the conflicts between Islam observance and ethical dilemmas in modern life, the way sexual temptation is rationalized and the influence of the jinn (evil spirits).

This book offers a slow lingering walk with an author who possesses wisdom, humor and sensitivity.

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (London: Black Swan, originally published in English in 1990 but this edition 1994).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Palace Walk.