The first volume of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk, was originally published in 1956 with the title Bayn
al-qasrayn. In 1990, Mahfouz’s masterpiece was translated into English finally taking the non-Arabic-speaking world onto the streets of Old Cairo. Palace Walk begins the saga of the Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad family, which continues in the second and third volumes of the Cairo Trilogy. It is set against the backdrop of Cairo during and just after World War I.
All of the themes in Palace Walk are focused around this large family of seven (three sons and two daughters). The patriarch is a staunchly conservative, domineering man inside the home that he shares with his wife and children. In contrast, he is a romantic, music and wine-loving lush in his nightly jaunts out. The themes of identity, patriotism, colonialism, family, youth, and misogyny are all relayed by Mahfouz through the personalities and routine activities of his characters. The story moves along with the day-to-day life of the family and through their casual dialogue we gain insight to the deep and profound realities of early to mid-twentieth century Egypt.
Mahfouz’s divergent character identities include an idealist youth nationalist, an indolent and adulterous young man, a dissatisfied and outspoken newlywed bride, a submissive wife and mother, and a hypocritical and dominating husband and father. Each character represents a prototype of an identity that must have been characteristic of the rapidly changing Cairo as British occupation was ending and a national movement for an independent Egypt was taking form in new ways.
The younger generation was taking a role in the rise of Egyptian nationalism through dreams of self-rule and independence after prolonged occupation by the British. The change we see emergent as we walk the streets of Cairo and spend time in the family home with these characters is a change indicative of a new generation with progressive standards and ideals. This change beckoned a shifting paradigm of social constructs as the country shifted from an “old” Egypt to a “modern” Egypt. As is always the case with history, a glimpse into Cairo’s past may provide more context and perspective on Cairo’s present. Juxtaposed to the recent revolution in the country, it is evident that the spirit of Egypt, of Cairo specifically, continues to be the vibrant, evolving spirit of the city Mahfouz so loved and through his writing, brought to the forefront of global literature.
Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. I was surprised at myself for never exploring Mahfouz or other writers of Arabic literature while I was growing up in the Middle East. I think fondly of my Egyptian friends dispersed all over the world and wonder how they may or may not relate to the Cairo presented to the world by Mahfouz.