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The Cairo Trilogy

Palace Walk (1917-1919)

Palace Walk

We are introduced to Al Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al Jawad, a conservative patriarch and his family-Amina, the subservient wife who doesn’t dare lift her eyes to her husband despite his debaucheries and iron rule that keeps her in house arrest. Fahmy, the law student whose nationalistic fervor makes him stand up against the British and who, when the novel is about to reach its conclusion, breathes his last. Kamal, a courageous young boy with the spunk to make friends with the enemy and who is devoted to his sisters. Yasin, Al Sayyid Ahmad’s first son, whose mother he divorced. Aisha and Khadija, sisters with temperaments and looks that are very different and in contrast to one another. Khadija with her mediocre looks, acerbic tongue and petulant ways. Aisha, with her god-given beauty, impeccable manners and mellow nature. Umm Hanafi, the servant of the Al Jawad household who has been with the family long enough to become an inseparable part of it.

Al Sayyid Ahmad is a devout Muslim whose hypocrisy permits him to set different rules for the women of his household and for the courtesans who add to his bacchanalian revelries characterized by music, wine and promiscuity. During the day, he manages a grocery shop that permits him to flirt every now and then. Seldom does a harsh word or an inappropriate phrase pass his lips when he is with anyone who is not a family member. In him we see something of a split personality: A reticent and short tempered disciplinarian who in his house, will not brook nonsensical or unnecessary talk and outside, a witty and loyal friend whose eloquence with language and passion for life endear everyone who comes into contact with him. Although a thick wall prevents his family from taking part in this lighter side of his personality, they nevertheless greatly revere and love him and just as love of god doesn’t make them less god fearing, love for Al Sayyid Ahmad doesn’t make him less fearful in their eyes.

When Al Sayyid Ahmad leaves on a business trip to Port Said for a day, Amina is torn between her desire to visit the mosque of Al-Husayn, a descendant of prophet Muhammad, and her obedience towards her husband. On the insistence of her children, she eventually succumbs to her desire and decides to visit the shrine with her son, Kamal. On their return from the mosque, a car knocks her over and she is brought back to the house, unconscious. With one arm in a cast, she is afraid that Al Sayyid Ahmad will find out about her secret excursion to the mosque but her children persuade her to cover up the incident with a small lie that she broke her arm in the midst of a household activity. Unable to bear the lie, whose magnitude is magnified to gargantuan proportions by her conscience, she confesses to Al Sayyid Ahmad, telling him everything that happened. At first, Al Sayyid Ahmad doesn’t respond. He at once seems forgiving and large hearted but once Amina recovers, he sends her away, much to the children’s’ grief, to her mother’s house.

Meanwhile, Aisha receives a proposal for marriage and this intensifies Khadija’s jealousy and fears that she will remain a spinster forever. The occasion however, gives Al Sayyid Ahmad a chance to forgive his wife’s grave misconduct and invite her back, though not in so many words and Amina, whose love and respect for her husband only increase due to this sudden act of benevolence, is only very happy to be restored to her children at Palace Walk. Soon, Khadija receives a similar offer from the brother of the man who proposed to Aisha and the two sisters become destined to live under the same roof for the rest of their (which is however not the case owing to a tragedy at the end of Palace of Desire, the second book in the trilogy) lives.

Yasin, who resembles his father the most in having inherited his looks and his interests, suffers from an unquenched lust. Seeing him suffer, his father marries him off to Zaynab, the daughter of a friend. For a while, Yasin savors marital bliss but when his nightly wanderings and spirit of celebration upset his wife, making her pour out her frustrations to him, he is soon disillusioned and confides this to Fahmy, his half-brother. What seems unfair to Yasin is the discrepancy in the treatment accorded to him by his wife, Zaynab and that accorded to his father by Amina, his step-mother.

After Aisha’s marriage, not unintoxicated, he makes a move on Umm Hanafi on the terrace and owing to the latter’s screams, is discovered by Al Sayyid Ahmad before he can fulfill his mission much to his terror and shame. This serves as a catalyst to precipitate the collapse of the already weak molecular structure of his matrimony and soon, Yasin finds himself divorced. Amidst this, Zaynab bears his child in her womb.

Fahmy meanwhile, is crushed by his desire for Maryam, the neighbor’s daughter, with whom he carries on a secret affair consisting of glances and expressions as meaningful and promising to him as intermittent light signals are to a firefly in search of a mate.When the terrace is out of bounds to either of them, Kamal plays the role of a messenger in that he passes on Fahmy’s requests to Maryam and takes back Maryam’s innuendos to the anxious Fahmy. Al Sayyid Ahmad however refuses peremptorily when Fahmy asks for his permission to request her hand in marriage, an action which the former would regret for the rest of his days.

Despite his father’s protests, Fahmy continues to take an active role in protesting against the tyranny of the British rule. Here is the suggestion that Al Sayyid Ahmad is a metaphor to the British occupation of Egypt and Fahmy, just as he couldn’t assert his freedom in his house, couldn’t assert it in his country either and the loss of Maryam is an apt harbinger of the loss of his life.


Something To Answer For by P.H.Newby

This out of print novel by P.H.Newby, was the first book to win the prestigious booker prize. After a brief search on Google, I found a few sites that were selling it for around $250. Much as I wanted to read it, I couldn’t find it in my paltry stipend to provide for such steeply priced antiquarian literature. I therefore decided to search my university library for it, having found in the past, impressive volumes I could never find in conventional book stores.  When I did find a copy in the library, I felt numbed seeing the status show that it was available and regretted not having searched for the book in the library sooner. It didn’t surprise me to discover that I was the first to have borrowed the book since it arrived at the university library on the year of its publication-1969.

The reason I wanted to read this book was because I wanted to explore its archetypical stlye that might have set the tone for its successors; whether or not it actually did is debatable. Newby’s novel is set in Port Said, which was a part of the formerly known United Arab Republic, a joint state constituting the republics of Egypt and Syrria. The protagonist is an Englishman (who claims to be Irish) named Townrow who is visiting the widow of Elie Khoury, a friend. The widow herself is an English woman in her sixties whose property is in danger of being confiscated by the Egyptian authorities. It is important to note that the story takes place during Naseer’s reign since the novel heavily relies on the politics surrounding the Canalization. My ignorance of the politics of the region certainly made it very difficult for me to maintain my interest level. Even as the narrative progressed, I hadn’t formed an adequate impression of the principal characters: Townrow Mrs.Khoury, Abravanel and Leah and except for a few incidents, most of the details have escaped my memory. I think this is partly because the author’s dry style of prose didn’t do much to bridge the gaps created by my own ignorance of the history of Port Said. That is not to say that the writing is deficient in the wit that normally characterizes most Booker winners. Consider this exchange between Leah and Townrow:

“Another thing, what did I say to offend you?” 


“In the car. You got out and walked off”

“You called me English. No Irishman likes that”

“Are you Irish?”

He frowned. He wished he could be sure.

 Finally, I’m not sure if “Something to Answer For” is worthy of the prize (I’ve read far better and far worse) but it is certainly worth a read, if not for anything else, just to be able to obtain a glimpse into the mood of the time and to try to find interest in the characters’ tensions. I also feel it would be worthwhile to trace why this book couldn’t find enough readership to stay in print since it might provide a clue into the workings of time on literary interest and popularity.  


July 2018
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