Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most prominent literary figures in Egypt, became known with the publication of The Cairo Trilogy in 1957 and acquired international recognition when he awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Through his novels, Mahfouz chronicled the historical and social issues of his own time in Egypt, and in Cairo, his city, in particular.
Midaq Alley, written in 1947, is an extraordinary depiction of the microcosm in a poor alleyway in Cairo during World War II. It is an engaging book that revolves around the people living and working in this old alley.
“Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, of the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that, but in any case, the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.”
The inhabitants of the Midaq Alley live in ‘almost complete isolation from the surrounding activity’. But the World War II was a period of social transformation in Egypt. Strong emotions and feelings, poverty and gossip keeps them closely connected and alive, but the political turmoil and the changes brought by the war and the British Army, entice them away, it feeds their aspirations and hopes of material gains and a new comfort life, away from the alley. Their dreams and ambitions make the reality in the alley all the more difficult.
The emotions, the motivations, the desires and the strangles of the characters make the novel timeless. Among them are the middle-aged, homosexual and hashish-smoking cafe-owner Kirsha, who lives with his fiery wife and his cynical and materialistic son. There is also the pious mystic Radwan Husseini, and Zaita, a dirty, old beggar whose specialty is creating other beggars. Salim Alwan, an elderly and rich perfume merchant with a voracious sexual appetite, has an intense lust for the young Hamida, the beautiful daughter of Umm Hamida, a marriage broker in her mid-60s. Hamida, driven by ambition and a desire for beautiful clothes and wealth, falls for a pimp who turns her into a prostitute. Moral depravity is her rebellion against poverty and lower-class life.
Midaq alley is a wonderful and rich novel. Morality, depravity, class conflict, politics, corruption, and oppression are exposed calmly and with subtle humour. Women are empowered, they have a voice and the capacity to make decisions and fulfill their aspirations. Naguib Mahfouz does not judge the choices his characters are forced to make. Dispassionately, he presents their idiosyncrasies, their desires for money and sensual pleasures and the consequences of their actions. Despite the tragic events Midaq Alley survives, the next day, and the next. Life must go on.