Palace Walk Summary

Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk

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Palace Walk Summary

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Palace Walk is a 1956 novel by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. The novel was not translated into English until 1990. Palace Walk takes place in Cairo during World War I and directly after. It touches on the political climate of the time, as Egypt transitioned from British occupation to nationalism. The novel presents this change through the day-to-day life of the Muslim el-Gawad family.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd el-Gawadis the head of the el-Gawad household. He believes that his family should obey and honor him, and that he is both infallible and unquestionable as head of the household. His wife, Amina, prides herself on being the perfect obedient Muslim wife and rarely ever leaves the house, which is a rule ofal-Sayyid Ahmad’s. They are joined by their sons Yasin, Fahmy, and Kamal, and their daughters Khadijah and Aisha.

Although al-Sayyid Ahmad paints the picture of a pious Muslim man, he is anything but. He philanders, drinks, and enjoys music, all of which are forbidden by his faith. He has affairs with random women and courtesans, and he stays out late drinking and dancing. His family is forbidden from asking him about his late nights and drunkenness, although some of them are aware of his actions, mostly Amina, who feigns ignorance.

Yasin is al-Sayyid Ahmad’s eldest son from a previous marriage. He shares some of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s forbidden proclivities, including visiting courtesans, drinking, and music. Fahmy is Amina’s eldest son. He is highly intelligent, more pious than his brother, and wholly unaware of his father’s activities. Kamal, who is the youngest of the family, is close to his mother and sisters. Khadijah is the eldest daughter, who speaks her mind and is often jealous of her younger sister Aisha, who is said to be more marriageable and beautiful. Aisha is often the peacekeeper of the family and is much more amenable than Khadijah.

In the mornings, the women prepare breakfast at dawn. The men of the family eat together, then leave for school or work. The women of the family then have their breakfast and begin housework, with Amina strictly overseeing her daughters. Al-Sayyid Ahmad comes home for lunch and a nap before returning to his shop in the afternoon. After work, he goes out, doing as he pleases. The rest of the family meets around dusk in their home for coffee hour, which is a cherished time.

Yasin soon discovers that he and his father are much alike. Yasin has begun visiting a courtesan in the same household as al-Sayyid Ahmad’s courtesan. There, as he watches from the other room, Yasin witnesses his father playing the tambourine and dancing to music. Yasin is happy that his father has the same interests he does, as forbidden as they are. Al-Sayyid Ahmad soon leaves on a business trip to Port Said. Amina decides to take this opportunity to visit a mosque, which is encouraged by her children.

Al-Sayyid Ahmad often brags that no one has seen his daughters since they were young girls, as they are not allowed to leave the house. The same goes for Amina. Unfortunately, on Amina’s journey back to the house from the mosque, she faints, due to the heat, and a car hits her. She fractures her collarbone in this accident, and it is set by a doctor the children call to the house. When al-Sayyid Ahmad finds out, he is incensed. He waits for the collarbone to heal, but then forces Amina out of the house, making her stay with her mother.

A large part of the novel describes the marriages of Khadijah and Aisha. Aisha is the first to get married, which fulfills Khadijah’s jealous anxiety, but she ultimately feels better without Aisha at home and is soon able to get married herself, to Aisha’s husband’s brother. Both girls ultimately live happier lives with their husbands, as it is less strict in their new household. The events surrounding Aisha’s wedding settle a few tensions in the novel.

As the negotiations for Aisha’s engagement and wedding commence, al-Sayyid Ahmad decides to bring Amina back home, as he knows she would want to know about her daughter’s wedding. The wedding itself is tumultuous. The singer who is hired to entertain is a former lover of al-Sayyid Ahmad’s. The singer, Jalila, openly drinks and hints at her former relationship with al-Sayyid Ahmad. She ultimately confronts him about his new relationship with a younger courtesan, the same one Yasin knows about. Yasin takes the opportunity to tell Fahmy about his father’s predilections. Unlike Yasin, Fahmy is disturbed by the information, and starts to question himself and his father’s authority. He has difficulties connecting with his father from then on.

Yasin gets drunk and attempts to force himself on his family’s servant. She screams, catching the attention of al-Sayyid Ahmad. He is furious with Yasin, but decides he must force Yasin to get married, so that he can take his attentions elsewhere.

Soon, the war ends and the British begin to creep in on Egypt. British soldiers build an encampment across the street from the el-Gawad household. This angers Fahmy, who has grown passionate about the nationalist cause. Kamal makes friends with the soldiers, which scares and angers his family. Fahmy wants a more militant approach to Egyptian nationalism, but the rest of the family is fearful about the current political atmosphere. His mother asks him to calm down in his politics, as he often attends demonstrations, putting himself in danger. His father is somewhere in the middle, as he wants him to be safe, but understands his politics.

The nationalists gain more ground and have a celebration; however, Fahmy is gunned down by British soldiers. Al-Sayyid Ahmad had meant to control his family in order to ensure its safety, but history and politics take their own course.