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Naguib Mahfouz: الشوق (Palace of Desire)

The second book in the Cairo trilogy starts off five years after the end of the first. Since the death of his son, Fahmy, at the end of that novel, Ahmad Abd al-Jawad has given up sex and drink but is about to start up again. His philandering is one of the major plot elements in this book. He rejoins his friends for their usual debauchery and even meets the same prostitutes. However, this time he falls in love with Zanuba, the lute player who was an assistant to Zubayda, the prostitute he loved in the first book, and who was coveted by Yasin, his son from his first marriage. Yasin, for his part, has continued his life of debauchery. However, to the disgust of his family, he has decided to marry Maryam, their next door neighbour, who has been married and divorced and allegedly had an affair with an English soldier and whom his late brother, Fahmy, was thinking of marrying. However, he has his own house, inherited from his mother who has recently died, and the family reluctantly accept. However, it is not too long before he is cheating on Maryam – with Zanuba. Zanuba is eager to be married – she is not getting any younger – and when Ahmad won’t marry her, she sets her sights on Yasin.

The two other main plot elements concern two of the other children of Ahmad. Khadija is married to Ibrahim but she is having major battles with her mother-in-law which require the intervention of Ahmad. The youngest son, Kamal, is the main focus of the book. We learn early on that he is in love but we do not learn who with. He is now in his late teens and planning to be a teacher (to his father’s great disgust) and is getting involved in religious, political and philosophical issues. When he writes an article on Darwin and evolution, his father, in his usual high-handed way, clearly shows that men descended from Adam and that there is no argument about it. We eventually find out that the love of his life is Aïda, the sister of one his friends. Though she mildly flirts with him and her little sister adores him, she becomes engaged to another of his friends and he is left to mourn his loss.

As in the first book, Mahfouz gives us a detailed portrait of Cairo of the period, with considerable reference to the evolving political situation, which is a subject of discussion for all the characters. We see the problems the country faces, while getting the details of the lives of the main characters, including the hypocrisy of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the struggles of the women characters to gain a certain amount of freedom and the growing pains of Kamal. Once again it is a fascinating account.

Publishing history

First published in 1957 by Maktabat Misr
First English translation in 1991 by Doubleday
Translated by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny and Olive E. Kenny