A Divergence Between Two Places
Two years ago, I spotted Palace Walk in a bookshelf and thought that this might be an interesting read because the last time I encountered a story that has something to do with Muslim culture was in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and that was it. Still, I always strive to expand my preferences and immerse myself on literature that is more culturally diverse than I'm more used to. In all honesty, I also selected to buy this particular book because of the Nobel Prize Awardee label attached to it. So trusting that alone, I essentially went blind purchasing this novel, not knowing what to expect. I didn't even research about the book afterwards, and only done so once I finally finished it last night during a four-day Holy Week vacation at a beach resort.
In addition to reading Magneto Testament (which I just finished under an hour) Palace Walk has filled my humid, sea-drenched days with unexpected humor and entertainment each time I turn its pages, because this was actually a witty book filled with cultural and psychological insights on a lifestyle and struggle I was never very familiar with, but could very much deeply relate to nonetheless. It was rather shocking for me then, to be this insatiably riveted about a novel that mainly derives its drama and development from one family that's composed of some of the most well-rounded, compelling and sympathetic characters I have ever come across in literature.
I was mistaken to believe this is going to be an intimidating and difficult novel to peruse through (much like The Kite Runner which could be gruelling and depressing at times). I really thought this would be challenging in a sense that its exploration or themes would be dark and serious but I was pleased to have been misled by that first impression. Palace Walk is an utter delight, and a novel I can definitely say is very much character-centered in its approach and exposition. Writer Naguib Mafouz found his story's core strength and purpose by ensuring that these characters that readers would get to spend time with are always engaging and vibrant that we never stopped caring about them for a second. I may not always agree with certain characters' habits, temperament and actions but Mafouz has shown brilliant calibre because he managed to infuse just the right details concerning their personal lives that readers can't help but sympathize with them anyway.
Set in 1917 in Cairo, Egypt during the first World War, the novel could have stressed and divulged more on the political climate which had engulfed the place and its constituents at the time, but in all honesty we never truly touch upon that until the last hundred pages or so of this five-hundred-paged book. What the writer chose to dwell on instead is the Abd al-Jawad family who is the integral part of the overall narrative structure for Palace Walk. The author spent a great majority of the story tackling the inner conflicts and dynamics present within this household with the father al-Sayyid Ahmad, his doting and subservient wife Amina, and their three sons (Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal) and two daughters (Khadija and Aisha). Their individual roles, personalities and relationships with each other never fail to be a source of not only endless amusement for me, but also substantial reflections about social issues.
As awfully entertaining Palace Walk has been in the way the writer dwelt with much of the interactions and scenes using wit and humor, Mafouz was also able to tackle general sensitive issues with sheer elegance and understanding, and they concern mostly of the submissive parts that women in general play during that time as dictated by their religious practices, as well as the pronounced gender dichotomy and bias that are so ridiculous through our modern perception by now. Now I have never considered myself a staunch feminist but it did make me wonder if there are particular scenarios in this book that might possibly offend me if I did view it as a feminist in the first place (which, by the way, I never claimed to be).
My own socio-political leanings aside, I was still very much appalled with the fact that the Muslim women in this book are not allowed to go to school or learn issues from the outside world. Their needs must always coincide with the men in their family, and their duties and fulfilment should always be centered around domesticity and homemaking. I think this has always been the case though some Islam-based countries have started to radically change these old-world practices. But taking into account the times this book was written in, I suppose I can understand why this is the way women are portrayed because it's an honest depiction of the lives they led at the time. Regardless, I believe Mahfouz has written these themes with surprising optimism that blended so well with the tactful way he approached the issue. I never felt bad for the women. In fact, I developed genuine admiration for them with the way they managed to find the smallest joys even if I can't for the life of me imagine living such a heavily restricted existence where I'm not allowed to study in school, form my opinions and speak my mind, make my own choices and find a career other than being a housewife and mother. I try to avoid contextualizing my modern sensibilities as I read Palace Walk though, and doing so has made me enjoyed the novel and the characters a lot more.
For me to futher illustrate this gender dichotomy for this review, let's take the mother Amina as an example. She is one of my top favorites and I find her to be impressive in spirit and character. She is virtuous and steadfast in her devotion to her philandering husband, and possesses a naturally curious mind that never truly realizes its potentials only because of the limitations that precede her gender. Her only means to learn about new information is through her sons who adore her enough to include her in their intellectual debates and discussions some of the time. It was mentioned later on that there are women who are allowed by their husbands to go outside every once in a while, but Amina's husband al Sayyid-Ahmad is just too much of a conservative and controlling patriarch that wants to dominate everyone in his household. The thing that really pisses me off about this man is that he's a hypocrite. He maintains a false façade around his family while living a completely hedonistic life when he's around his co-workers and multiple lovers. Later on I began to pity him because he was always so concerned about keeping up appearances that his children have only known how to fear him and not love him. That's I think is the greatest tragedy for a father but I don't think he will ever realize this, nor is it a concern of his.
As for the children, I really loved the eldest daughter Khadija and the youngest Kamal. Khadija is definitely relatable because she is opinionated and shows a lot of intelligence which sadly only gets to shine through her deflective use of sarcasm to cover up her insecurities. Much of her conflict revolves around being unmarried at twenty and the preference of suitors and potentials husbands to her younger sister Aisha whom I find only remarkable in beauty and not in personality. Kamal, on the other hand, is inquisitive and playful, always living in his imagination and daydreams which makes him often a problem for his family. I love him very much though because of his inclination to learn and his outward sunny disposition even if his father disapproves of him, as well as his affectionate relationships with his mother and sisters which I hope will stay the same even when he grows older.
The older two sons, Yasin and Fahmy, are well-written characters themselves. Yasin is the son from al-Sayyid Ahmad's first marriage and he is probably the closest one who mirrors his father in a lot of ways, mostly his unflattering and vain qualities such as the way he perceives women and wrongly asserts his morality for the sake of a false sense of masculine security. Again, as much as I dislike both of these men, I can understand why they believe they have a right to live their lives according only to their pleasure and whims, with callous disregard of the way their loved ones would feel. Meanwhile, Fahmy is the second son who is an aspiring lawyer and is very much interested to involve himself in the inner workings of politics which I think could lead to some potentially disastrous results especially since they are living during wartime. I like Fahmy enough because aside from Kamal who is still fairly young, he doesn't seem to be that preoccupied with lustful adventures unlike his father and brother, and finds more satisfaction in scholarly matters. Still, the truth remains that the gender dichotomy that their culture and society permeates is harmful in this sense, I believe. Though the men are free to be who they want to be, they are still equally oppressed because they also feel that they have to play parts that serve to hide who they are and how they feel inside, all for the sake of machismo and patriarchy.
Basically, the selling point of this novel is that it's well-balanced; there are light and funny parts, as well as serious discussions about religion and political strife; all the while the author himself took much care and sensitivity in regards to the way he characterized his protagonists in the context of their own belief systems that may not always be agreeable but were articulated authentically enough to merit some contemplation. This book is also part of a trilogy, and I will certainly pick up the next two books because I am intrigued and invested on the world that Mahfouz has created. Palace Walk excels in the exploration of the day-to-day pressures, self-reflection and relationships of its characters. As a reader, I can't help but care about their welfare even with Yasin and al-Sayyid Ahmad whom I only have lukewarm feelings for. I was able to celebrate the joys and despair the losses that these characters experienced as I glided comfortably through the pages, and I think that alone makes this novel very commendable and worth the read.
Overall, Palace Walk is humorous, insightful and easily enjoyable. If you like character-centered plots and family drama in general then this book might appeal to you. It doesn't take itself that seriously and when it does, it can be warm and sublime in a lot of aspects, allowing readers to appreciate and value the richness of their own beliefs and idiosyncrasies as contrasted or reflected by the Abd al-Jawad family's own.