Here in Europe and in America knowledge about Egypt is mostly limited to history which is a pity because the country didn’t cease to exist with the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. In fact, Egypt is an important power in Northern Africa and the Islamic world today although she seldom makes the headlines unless in the context of terrorist attacks, wars and revolutions. Western-style literature doesn’t have a long tradition there, and yet, there are writers like Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, or Bahaa Taher (»»» read my review of Sunset Oasis) who are known worldwide. Today I’m reviewing the novel Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian laureate of the 1988 Nobel Prize in literature, which revolves around the simple residents of an old street in 1940s Cairo when the country was under British protectorate and thus involved in World War II.
Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ) was born in Cairo, Egypt, in December 1911. He was raised in the lower middle-class and devout Muslim environment of his extended family which didn’t prevent him from growing to be first an avid reader and later a professional writer, though. He studied philosophy at King Fouad I University (today: University of Cairo) and published several short stories in literary journals. After graduation he became a civil servant like his father for a living, but continued to write. According to wikipedia he brought out 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of film scripts and five plays in a career that spanned more than seven decades and that was crowned with the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. Many of the Egyptian author’s works are available in English translation, the most important among them are his Three Novels of Ancient Egypt: Khufu's Wisdom (1939: عبث الأقدار) , Rhadopis of Nubia (1943: رادوبيس) and Thebes at War (1944: كفاح طيبة), Cairo Modern (1945: القاهرة الجديدة), Midaq Alley (1947: زقاق المدق), The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk (1956: بين القصرين), Palace of Desire (1957: قصر الشوق) and Sugar Street (1957: السكرية), Children of the Alley (1959: اولاد حارتنا), Adrift on the Nile (1966: ثرثرة فوق النيل), Karnak Café (1974: الكرنك), Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985: العائش فى الحقيقة), and The Day the Leader was Killed (1985: يوم مقتل الزعيم). Naguib Mahfouz died in Cairo, Egypt, in August 2006.
Towards the mid-1940s World War II has been raging for years already, but air raids, blackouts and penuries of everyday goods have hardly changed Midaq Alley. It is an old stone-paved street in the Azhar quarter of Cairo, too isolated and too short to buzz with life like the rest of the big city:
“One of its sides consisted of a shop, a cafe, and a bakery, the other of another shop and an office. It ends abruptly, just as its ancient glory did, with two adjoining houses, each of three stories.”
The men of Midaq Alley like to gather in Kirsha’s café which is the perfect place to learn and spread news. In addition, also its hashish-addicted owner often gives reason for gossip because he is known to be attracted to boys to the point of making a fool of himself to the vexation of his wife. His son Hussain dispises the petty life in the poor neighbourhood and gladly seized the opportunity to get a well-paid job in a British Army camp which allows him to enjoy a more western-style life away from the alley and the café. The barber Abbas, who is Hussain’s best friend since childhood, feels completely different about it, though:
“… Abbas had a lazy dislike for change, dreaded anything new, hated traveling, and if he were left to himself he would make no choice other than the alley. If he spent the rest of his life there, he would be quite happy. The truth was, he loved it.”
But Abbas also is up to the ears in love with beautiful Hamida from one of the residences at the end of the street and he dreams of marrying her. Unfortunately, his little barber shop only earns him a bare living and he knows that Hamida yearns for a better life just like his friend. So in the end he makes up his mind to follow Hussain’s advice and to work for the British Army too for a while in order to save money and then start a family with his beloved. Hamida’s adoptive mother accepts Abbas’s proposal of marriage and thus officially engaged as well as convinced that nothing can now prevent their happiness, he leaves his little shop and the alley. However, not only Abbas is charmed by Hamida’s beauty. Also middle-aged and married Salim Alwan, the owner of the perfume company in the alley, is infatuated with her. And then there’s slick Ibrahim Faraj who waylays her in the streets and opens a world of beautiful clothes and jewellery to her…
According to eye witnesses and historians, everyday life as portrayed in Midaq Alley is characteristic of Cairo’s lower-class neighbourhoods in the 1940s. As shows the novel, the war had a great impact on Egyptian society, especially in the big cities, because it forced people to neglect formerly strict barriers of class, age, and sex in the figurative as well as the literal sense offering them at the same time unprecedented and most welcome opportunities of social rise... and creating strong desires. The third-person narrative from the point of view of an uninvolved observer focuses on daily life in Midaq Alley painting a colourful picture of surroundings and routines, but also of people. All characters of the novel are depicted true to life, thus multidimensional in their behaviour, convictions, dreams, virtues and vices. Desire is the author’s central theme which he skilfully shows in all its forms ranging from the simple wish for material gain and social rise to sexual desire. Most surprisingly for a novel from the 1940s and written in Arabic it also touches highly controversial topics like homosexuality and prostitution although from the biased perspective of a Muslim man it seems to me. While the café owner Kirsha appears as a hashish-addicted imbecile running after boys who just deserves being laughed at, Hamida is condemned as a “whore by instinct”. I must say that Hamida’s behaviour and reasonings were those that least convinced me because they felt unusually superficial to me. Maybe this is because the author is a man with a naturally male point of view. Maybe this is because Muslim values and traditions are too far from my own reality. Language and style are difficult, if not impossible for me to judge because I don't speak Arabic and have to rely on the translation. In any case it was a read that I enjoyed.
All things considered, Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz has been a very interesting novel which allowed me a glimpse into the Egytian soul and a deeply Muslim society. Although the book first appeared almost seventy years ago, the values and ways of life it conveys may not have changed as much as might be expected. What better reason to recommend it for reading in times like ours?
Original post on Edith's Miscellany: