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Naguib Mahfouz: بينالقصرين (Palace Walk)

The first book in Mahfouz’ Cairo trilogy focuses on the Ahmad family during the British occupation of Egypt, starting during World War I. The head of the family is Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who owns and runs a grocery store. His (second) wife is Amina. Living with them are Yasin, his son by his first marriage, and the four children he has had with his second wife, two boys, Fahmy and Kamal, and two girls, Khalija and Aisha. Mr. Ahmad is ruthlessly strict with his family, even by the standards of the time. None of the women are allowed to leave the house unaccompanied at any time and all the family is regularly subject to abuse. He himself frequently visits brothels, drinks and has affairs but never sees the hypocrisy in his behaviour.

As well as focusing on Ahmad’s extramural activities and his often strained relations with his family, the story has two main threads. The first concerns the marriages, both for the two girls and for the two older boys. Aisha is the younger but prettier one and she gets offers before Khalija, the older but less pretty one (she has a big nose). The trials and tribulations this causes and the eventual resolution, including Aisha’s pregnancy, are all key to the story. Yasin, the older boy, is different from the rest. His mother, with whom he has little contact, has divorced and married several times since she divorced Ahmad. She is considered something of a black sheep and Yasin is also, to a certain degree. He is initially in love with a young woman who works in a brothel and it is when he is visiting her, that he finds his father with another woman there, behaving, inevitably, in a far more friendly manner than he ever does at home. Yasin does eventually marry but continues to misbehave, till his wife finds him having sex with her (much older) maid and leaves him to go back to her father. Fahmy lusts after the girl next door but nothing really develops there.

The other main story is the British Occupation. While there is general opposition to the British – so much so that everyone hopes that the Germans will win World War I – it is only Fahmy, unknown to his father, who becomes politically involved. When there are strikes and demonstrations against the British, Kamal, the youngest son, hopes for time off school, but Fahmy is politically active. To suppress the strikes, the British set up permanent posts in various parts of the city, including at the end of Palace Walk, the street where the Ahmads live. Kamal becomes friendly with the soldiers but one night, returning late from a spree, Ahmad is captured and made to work during the night on repairing a road damaged by saboteurs.

Above all, Mahfouz shows us what Cairo was like during that period, with a rich cast of characters of both sexes and various ages, all struggling with their lives, with women repressed but just starting to move away from that repression, and with a strong yearning for political freedom. Religion plays its part, but more as formal lip service than any real commitment. Ahmad himself is continually invoking God, even while drinking and carousing, and fails to see the conflict. But he remains an interesting if unlikable character and one that dominates his family and dominates this book.

Publishing history

First published in 1956 by Maktabat Misr
First English translation in 1989 by Doubleday