Sunday, December 18, 2011

Palace Walk

Palace Walk, the first book of a trilogy by Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz, is not a new book. It was published in 1956. It is not a children's book, so why am I posting about it on a blog about children's lit?

Julie Larios, a poet I was lucky enough to have as one of my advisors at Vermont College, advises students who write for young people to take the time to read literature written for adults. That is very good advice. Palace Walk is well worth every minute, an amazingly beautiful book, one that  not only instructs writers of children's lit about the craft of creating compelling child characters, but also shows us that children, even in a culture as different than ours as 1940's Cairo, are the same, for instance, in their need for love and family. I was also compelled as I read to think about all women's lives.

In Palace Walk, the narrator is omniscient, and thus we are privy to the internal thoughts of the strict, and by current American standards, emotionally abusive Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his wife Amina, his three sons Yasin, 20, Fahmy, 18, Kamal, 10, and two daughters Khadija and Aisha, both in their mid-teens. We get to know everyone intimately.

Mahfouz has created young characters who are strikingly different, emotionally true to their ages.
For instance, Yasin, disturbed, secretive, and totally obsessed with sex and drinking, is unable to control his impulses. Today we would say he is a troubled kid, even criminal, lacking all frontal lobe inhibition.  Fahmy is obsessed in a different way, with politics, placing his life at risk protesting against the British, reminding me of today's Arab Spring protestors. Kamal, like any ten-year old, wants only for his family to stay together and never change. He asks, when his sisters marry, when they will return home again, unable to understand that they never will. Khadija is a smart girl, the brunt of family teasing because of her big nose and her sharp rebellious tongue. Beautiful Aisha wants only to look at herself in the mirror and be admired. They all seemed familiar to me.

The mother, Amina, along with her daughters, is forbidden to leave the house. After twenty-five years inside, she is terrified to leave her front door and she cowers with terror in the presence of her husband. As I read these pages, I was tempted to criticize the 1940's strict Islamic culture portrayed in this book, where women live as if imprisoned, totally dominated by a powerful patriarch. But I refrained. Instead I simply tried to imagine what it is like to be the women inside these pages, and to understand a culture I know little about.

After all, America isn't perfect. According to  NY Times columnist Gail Collins, political discussions in our congress in Washington, about de-funding planned parenthood are taking place today. And then there are the protests by the Catholic church about providing birth control to women in hospitals that serve the public. Domination of women by government and religion is not just an islamic issue. There is plenty to criticize right here in contemporary America. There is no need to focus on a foreign culture that most Americans, including myself, know way too little about.

I was glad I read Palace Walk. It gave me much to think about.


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  2. Thank you for this book title, Janice! I had forgotten about this wonderful author. I read a book by him about ten years ago and always meant to read more because I thought he was brilliant (can't even remember the title now!). I've been reading and researching Middle Eastern history for longer than that, and you've given me a great kick to the library to pick up this trilogy and immerse myself in his words again. I've also been writing an ancient Middle Eastern novel for about 7 years (and the entire trilogy sold to Harpercollins in October - blow me away!)

    I'm hoping to travel to the Israel, Jordan and Egypt next Fall. Fingers crossed. :-)

    Thanks again!