Palace Walk provides a panoramic history of Egypt through the lives and fortunes of one family over three generations. The story illuminates Egyptian society as it changes from a feudal/medieval way of life to colonial life after the British invasion of World War I and to the political upheaval that leads to modern nationalism. The novel’s Arabic title means “between two palaces,” or “between the two palaces,” phrases indicative of what happens to the family who follows its own fortunes: This family will be caught between a static, regional perspective and the changing national perspective; and between a culture basically untouched by modernity and the modern British colonial-administrative machine that challenges Egyptian assumptions.
Because the novel form had not existed in Arabic literature at the time Naguib Mahfouz wrote Palace Walk, the author prepared himself for the task by systematically reading the works of the major nineteenth century realistic novels of Fyodor Dostoevski, Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Émile Zola. Though beginning with imitation of European novelistic forms, he adapted the form to a new culture, creating dialogue that captures the indirection of Egyptian discourse, which buries communication in ritual formulas of politeness, aphorisms, and quotations from the Qur՚n. In doing so he makes a foreign, unknown world gradually familiar.
The novel’s slow, repetitive pace, although perfect for capturing the stasis of prenationalist Egypt, can be disturbing to modern readers; the action becomes exciting only as the children of the family gradually discover the hypocrisy of their father, the varieties of acceptable behavior outside the restrictive walls of Palace Walk, and nationalistic fervor. Male tyranny, hypocrisy, and the social and cultural changes wrought by British occupation are the dominant themes of the novel.
Mahfouz effectively and daringly portrays the damaging effects of medieval misogynist views (woman is the root of all evil) that determine the total dominance of husbands over their wives and of fathers over their daughters. Dominance over girls and women is assumed as an absolute right, sanctioned by the Qur՚n, and is enforceable by physical violence. Fahmy, the idealistic son, fears the...
(The entire section is 942 words.)