I start my tour of Egypt with a study of its best writer, Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1988. Midaq Alley
was one of his early novels set during the Second World War. The novel is about the residents in Midaq Alley, an impoverished part of Cairo city. The World War has wrought changes in the city: It brought electricity (the new radio in Kirsha’s cafe), it brought money (mercenary soldiers) and it brought a collapse of the traditional value systems. And no one in Midaq Alley escapes these influences. There is no single protagonist in this novel, but one dominant theme–self-indulgence at any cost. It is no wonder then that these people face the tragic consequences of their desire for money and sensual pleasures. Critics claim that the novel is about the conflict between the past and the present and the ever changing value system. But I disagree. It is about human failings, and about overreach.
Midaq Alley is home to Kirsha’s cafe , Uncle Kamil who has a sweet shop, Abbas the barber, the baker Jaada and his wife Husniya, Umm Hamida a marriage broker and her foster daughter Hamida, Zaita a beggar maker, a “dentist” Dr. Bushi, Salim Alwan a perfume merchant and Mrs.Saniya Afifi the landlady.
Of these, Hamida
occupies quite a large role in the book. An adopted daughter, growing up in a lower middle class environment, she feels no particular attachment to her mother or to any of her neighbors. She dreams of wealth and control over men. She knows she is attractive and wants to ensnare the right kind of men–those that are rich and powerful. Initially, she latches on to Abbas
the barber, as a stop gap solution no doubt caught in his enthusiasm and his earnest promise to earn more money. But visions of slaving over a hot stove, leading the dull life of a housewife with nothing but the next pregnancy to look forward to, quickly cures her of her love for Abbas. While the naive Abbas is away in the army making an honest living, she transfers her attention to the rich Salim Alwan who is lusting for her anyway. A freak heart attack forces Salim out of her life and into a life of an invalid. However, that works in Hamida’s favor too because she now realizes that prostitution is her calling; she is a “whore by instinct”(205). Seduced by the pimp Ibrahim Faraj she embarks on her new fulfilling career. She will not be completely happy, though, till she has subjugated the pimp and given herself emotional power over him. She appeals to Abbas, Now a rejected, angry and jealous suitor, he agrees to defend her “honor” only to learn that her honor has been bought and sold several times to the British soldiers. Totally out of control with rage and frustration, Abbas hurls a beer bottle at her face wounding her. He is beaten to death by the soldiers.
Umm Hamida is Hamida’s foster mother and has not really much role other than to emphasize Hamida’s lack of social status. She is a marriage broker who helps Mrs. Afifi find a young husband. Mrs. Afifi is 50 years old and is determined not to lose any more precious years without the companionship of a personable mate. Her vanity forces her to appeal to the dentist for a new set of teeth which he does get her..only, they belong to a new corpse in the graveyard!!
the perfume merchant has enough money (courtesy the blackmarket) and power, a devoted wife, three sons and four happily married daughters. But he is still dissatisfied with life. He is constantly worried about the future of his successful company since his sons don’t want any part of it. He has a craving for fame and needs to broadcast his name. He considers buying the title of a “Bey” or “Pasha”. He indulges in aphrodisiacs but is not interested in his aging wife, “unable to find in her the pleasures he yearned
for”.(80) He is attracted to Hamida but he takes forever making up his mind about marrying her. “Why should he be consumed with longing for a body that could be his at merely a nod of his head?”(149), he reasons with himself. Sadly, by the time he decides, it is too late. He has a heart attack. Later, health becomes an obsession and the memory of his former virility becomes a source of bitterness. Smoking or even cold water is now dangerous to his body. Self-pity envelops him and regrets eat at him till he turns into a miserable, cantankerous old man almost overnight.
Zaita, the beggar maker is the poorest and filthiest of men in Midaq Alley. He lived in a small, smelly room at the back of the bakery in Midaq alley. Nevertheless, he glories in the filth and he loves being poor. Of all the characters in the novel, he is the only one who is happy with himself with no conscience to trouble him. His appearance is as black as his soul. He too has a purpose in life. He provides succor to the dregs of humanity; he cripples them so they can be professional beggars and pay him a regular commission on their earnings. He revels in the power that this gives him. It shocked me that people did place themselves at his mercy; they were willing to be mutilated, deformed or blinded. And they regard him as if he, a morally decrepit individual, were God. His partner in crime is Dr. Bushi, who provides him with these beggars. In return, Zaita accompanies him to graveyards to pull out gold teeth from corpses that the “dentist” could reuse. The nights Zaita would spend in his room, he would peep through a crack between the wall and the door frame and watch the baker’s wife beat her husband or love him. He is filthy within and without. Not content with being the voyeur, he indulges in flirting with the outraged baker’s wife who attacks him with a coffee mug.
has no formal training as a dentist but just someone with a lot of experience as a dental assistant. He establishes his practice on these flimsy credentials and gains a loyal clientele by simply charging very low fees. He throws in his lot with Zaita who helps him look for gold teeth in graveyards. In return, Dr. Bushi brings potential beggars over to Zaita. Although their actions are evil, the two are more or less caricatures.
Ibrahim, the pimp, is alarmingly like Zaita. He calls himself a headmaster of a school, teaching the art of seduction. The different ‘departments’ in this school include a dancing department and a language department that teaches the language of love-making–a travesty of schools that teach proper values to its students. This “school” takes all that is beautiful, sacred and pure and turns it into a rust that corrodes human dignity. He makes cripples too, just like Zaita. The women he preys on are trapped in gilded cages, misfits for life.
Uncle Kamil‘s physical appearance is in itself a proof of his self-indulgence. Corpulent is describing him mildly. “He is a hulk of a man, his cloak revealing legs like tree trunks and his behind large and rounded like the dome of a mosque, its central portion resting on the chair and the remainder spilling over the sides. He has a belly like a barrel, great projecting breasts, and he seems scarcely to have any neck at all. Between his shoulders lies his rounded face, so puffed and blood-flecked that his breathing makes its furrows disappear. Consequently, not a single line can be seen on the surface and he seems to have neither nose nor eyes. His head topping all this is small, bald and no different in color from his pale yet florid skin….People are always telling him he will die suddenly because of the masses of fat pressing round his heart. But how will death harm him when his life is merely a prolonged sleep?”(12) Possibly, Kamil’s innocence is what is protecting him from the shroud he says he cannot afford. The irony is that Abbas buys one for him but needs it before Kamil does. Kamil’s role in the novel is limited to being an obese caricature.
Kirsha the coffee shop owner, is the embodiment of dissoluteness and corruption. He indulges in hashish and homosexuality (the “other hashish”). The novel describes in detail Kirsha’s search for a target and the persuasion to seduction. “…Mr. Kirsha had always lived a most irregular life and he had rolled in its dirt so long that it appeared to him a perfectly normal one.”(55) He never regrets nor repents these habits. When Radwan Husaini condemns him for his homosexuality, he retorts,”Don’t you know who that boy is? He is a poor boy whose poverty I am trying to alleviate by being charitable to him.” (106) To maintain his self-indulgence therefore, he needs a steady income. He is a hashish peddler and his corruption extends to taking bribes from politicians in exchange for votes. Initially, he keeps his quirks hidden, but later ceases to worry about his reputation and expresses relief when the wife blows his scandal out in the open by beating up his young paramour.
Sheik Darwish, once a respected teacher in a religious foundation school becomes a disgruntled clerk in the Ministry of Education when changes take place in the government. Pompous and lazy, filled with ideas of his own importance, he blatantly disobeys orders from his superiors. When he is fired from his job, he deserts his family and friends, he wanders off “into the world of God”(23), ashamed and unhappy. Even as he renounces the world, he is rid of all his worries and moves into ” a state of peace, contentment and beatitude as he had never known before. Even though he had lost his house, the whole world had become his home. Even though he had lost his salary, gone too was his dependence on money. Though he had lost his family and friends, everyone he met became his family.”(23) Sheikh Darwish born again with the slate of his past offences (indulging in conceit) wiped clean adopts the role of the Greek chorus in the novel. His silence is broken occasionally by timely utterances/commentaries on the characters and situations. Commenting on Uncle Kamil’s new shroud, Darwish suddenly yells out, “…Shrouds are the veils of after-life. Enjoy your shroud before the shroud enjoys you…The reptiles will feed off your tender flesh as though it were a sweet. Why, the worms will grow so fat they will be like dafaadi. The meaning of this word in English is ‘frogs’ and it is spelled F-R-O-G-S.”(20)
Mahfouz’s alley is full of floundering men and women, dysfunctional families, and misguided energy. It is tragic that the author could not find one shining, exemplary character in the multitudes. He has created a world of flaws; he is suspicious of men, marriage and children. This world finds no solace in morality, which should be guiding the lives of men, but doesn’t. Homosexuality is a sin in Islam, but the society appears to accept it, just as it accepts corruption and wife-beating as ordinary. Only those who renounce the world seem to find peace. If anything meaningful is to be salvaged, mankind has to surrender to the will of God and look to Him for guidance and forgiveness. Radwan Husaini sees the excesses in the Alley’s reisdents as the work of the Devil and claims that by allowing them to be ruled by the Devil he deserves partial blame. “Had I not simply let the devil amuse himself with my neighbors while I remained lost in my own complacent joy? Cannot a good man unknowingly be an accomplice of the devil by keeping to himself?” (279) Is Mahfouz saying that these ills are too firmly embedded in society that only a higher power can save it? Is Midaq Alley a dead end street spiritually as well?
Mahfouz, Naguib. Midaq Alley/TheThief and the Dogs/Miramar. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1989.
Rating 4 out of 5
An interesting reading (an excerpt from google books: Pamela Allegretto-Diiulio’s “Naguib Mahfouz” A Western and Eastern Cage of Female Entrapment) here .