Nairobi’s bookshop scene might be vibrant but you can owe all that vibrancy to the numerous ‘advisory’ books that are out there. “XX Ways To Make Money”, “How To Get and Keep The Right Man or Woman”, “Why You Need The Right Attitude At Your Workplace” are some of the titles that are popular. And they are reported to be moving quite fast off the shelves. That is good enough. At least it marks that the reading culture is not dead. But it is not so with what I would call the fathers of yore in ‘African literature’. I remember when I was looking for Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk which is part of the Cairo Trilogy. My usual library did not have the first book and the next two that I visited also did not have the first book. In the fourth bookshop I visited, they did not have the second book. I just decided to get the first book and hunt for the second book once I was done with it.
I was not disappointed. Naguib is a master storyteller who tells us of Egypt’s colonial days through the life of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad’s family. Ahmad is an upper middle-class shopkeeper married to Amina with whom he has two sons (Fahmy and Kamal) and two daughters (Khadija and Aisha). Ahmad also has a son named Yasin from an earlier marriage. The five children love each other although Khadija has a way of mocking the others especially her more beautiful sister Aisha. Kamal, the youngest brother and the ‘child’ of the Ahmad household, is the jester with his ridiculously made-up stories.
Ahmad rules the family with an iron-fist although he is totally different from the man who is known by his friends to throw lavish parties and also have a mistress. He ensures that everything in the family is run as he wants it to be without anyone deviating from the set ways. He views the children with pride outside the house but within the house, they are a nuisance and a disappointment to him. He will call them ‘their lions and the fruit of his loins’ in front of his friends while at home, the most affectionate names they can get are ‘bastards and sons of bitches’.
Ahmad, though a pious man at home (he performs all the five required prayers and takes his sons to the mosque ever Friday), is a notorious wine-partaker and a womanizer. He will take his wine until a certain hour before passing by the woman he is partaking fruits from. He does all this in full view of his neighbors and their knowledge but tries as much to hide it from his family. There is the face that he keeps at home and the one that is seen in Cairo’s streets and cafes at night. But Yasin has taken up to his father’s characteristics though to a much more notorious scale. Yasin once tries to sleep with the house maid but is caught when she screams. Soon after he is married off but is soon afterwards caught in the act with the wife’s personal maid. Yasin was also the man who knew that their father had a relationship outside the marriage and was a good singer.
Fahmy is the revolutionary in the family, a fact that angers his father when he comes to learn of it. Egypt is under occupation by the English forces and they have sent the leading revolutionaries into exile while some died there. Demonstrations are the order of the day in Egypt once the latest group of revolutionary leaders is sent into exile. Fahmy is involved in organizing these demonstrations but is one of the first ones to escape once the police start charging.
The language in the book is simple and it flows well. The characters are all well developed and none of them overlaps into the other but they fit in well-perfectly with each other. This is a book that gives one a view of Egypt as at that time and what things were common place. Politics, religion and the role of women in society form the major them e of the novel that was translated from Arabic (Mahfouz’s wrote the book in this language) to English by William M. Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny. I can hardly wait to start looking for Palace of Desire (book two) and Sugar Street (book three) from the Cairo Trilogy. Oh and it would be best if bookshops knew what books formed a trilogy (twice-ology, quadro-logy and so on) and ensure that all of them are in stock. Having to walk all over Nairobi looking for one book or buying them in batches is not a good idea when one is book hunting.
About the author
Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is regarded as one of the first contemporary writers of Arabic literature, along with Tawfiq el-Hakim, to explore themes of existentialism. He published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career. Many of his works have been made into Egyptian and foreign films.