Synopses & Reviews
The second volume of the highly acclaimed Cairo Trilogy from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, Palace Of Desire is the unforgettable story of the violent clash between ideals and realities, dreams and desires.
About the Author
Naguib Mahfouz was born in Cairo in 1911 and began writing when he was seventeen. A student of philosophy and an avid reader, his works range from reimaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. Over a career that lasted more than five decades, he wrote 33 novels, 13 short story anthologies, numerous plays, and 30 screenplays. Of his many works, most famous is The Cairo Trilogy, consisting of Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957), which focuses on a Cairo family through three generations, from 1917 until 1952. In 1988, he became the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in August 2006.
Reading Group Guide
The questions and other material below are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. The general questions that follow provide topics for further discussion of the trilogy as a whole.
1. Questions on the Cairo Trilogy (including Palace Walk and Sugar Street)
1. The trilogy dramatizes the human quest for a sustaining belief—mainly through Kamal, but also through Khadija’s sons Abd and Ahmad al-Munim. Kamal is in search of his own truth, and he struggles to break from the religious orthodoxy of his upbringing and to attain a more modern and Western intellectual life. Are any belief systems found to be sustaining for the characters in the trilogy? Does Kamal eventually arrive at a satisfying intellectual, spiritual, or political position?
2. In Palace of Desire, Kamal is obsessed with the worldly French-educated Aïda. In a moment of illumination, he realizes that his father has created the model for his own masochism in love. He speaks in his mind to his father: "Do you know what other consequences there were to loving you despite your tyranny? I loved another tyrant who was unfair to me for a long time, both to my face and behind my back. She oppressed me without ever loving me. In spite of all that, I worshipped her from the depths of my heart and still do. You’re as responsible for my love and torment as anyone else. In any case, Father, you're the one who made it easy for me to accept oppression through your continual tyranny." In what other ways have the sons, daughters, and wife of ASA been warped by their relationship with Al-Sayyid Ahmad?
3. In the final chapter of Palace of Desire, while the husband and sons of Aisha are near death from typhoid, Yasin’s wife, Zanuba, goes into labor, and the newspaper announces the death of the political leader Saad Zaghlul. What is Mahfouz expressing, in the trilogy, about his understanding of time, change and heredity?
4. Mahfouz’s women are very strong, whereas the men tend to be childish, self-indulgent, and relatively weak. Compare the characters of Al-Sayyid Ahmad and his wife Amina, for example. What does this contrast suggest about the family structure Mahfouz portrays? How do cultural and familial assumptions about women and sexuality influence the romantic lives of Yasin and Jamal? How do they think about and express their desires, and what, if anything do they have in common with their father in this regard?
5. Mahfouz was aligned with the first wave of support for the Wafd party, represented by Fahmy in Palace Walk. He said, “Maybe my generation of intellectuals was the last one that really believed in democracy. . . . I was proud of our 1919 revolution and proud to be a Wafdist. But the top priority of the revolution was not democracy; it was to get rid of foreign rule. Egypt was the first country in our century to rise up against European occupation. The people, led by the Wafd, ended the protectorate but failed to gain real independence, and, in any case, the Wafd did not know how to govern in a democracy. Democracy is not deeply rooted in our culture. Egyptians would make sacrifices for independence, but they did not value democracy, and so, step by step, our system fell apart. . . . I believe that the blame really belongs to Britain’s colonialism and Egypt’s kings. But, whoever was responsible, most Egyptians had concluded by the start of World War II that democracy offered nothing—not social justice, not freedom, not even full independence. They laughed at democracy” (quoted in Weaver, 40). How might Mahfouz have felt had he lived to see the wave of protests that took place in 2011, as well as the trial of Hosni Mubarak?