The tangled lives of Midaq Alley

Naguib Mahfouz’s depiction of the tight-knit Cairo community is just as relevant today as half a century ago

Entering into Mahfouz’ moody novel Midaq Alley is a little like wandering the back streets of a city you’ve never visited before. You’ll definitely start out lost, but once you get your bearings, it’s a lot of fun exploring all the nooks and crannies of the place.

The eponymous alley is home to a café, several small shops and homes, and a perfume business. It’s unremarkable, just like hundreds of other alleys scattered across Cairo. This is the whole point of Mahfouz’ project: he is showing us vignettes of the life of ordinary Egyptians, who represent the full spectrum of society, from the poorest (Zaita) to the richest (Salim Alwan). The book is set in the waning years of WWII, when Egypt was essentially ruled by Britain, but these vignettes still seem relevant today.

The alley is home to more than a dozen characters, and it’s difficult for a casual Western reader like me to keep track of them all. That’s partly because the names are unfamiliar to an Anglophone, and partly because the conventions around matronymics (Umm Hamida and Hamida are mother and daughter) and patronymics (Kirsha and Hussain Kirsha are father and son) are confusing. There are also odd overlaps of names (like Hussain Kirsha and Radwan Hussainy, or Saniya Afify and Husniya) that further complicate the situation.

There’s no privacy, and there are no truly individual identities — no one is really independent in the sense that modern Americans would recognize.

But there’s a deeper cultural reason behind the confusion. The characters lead lives that are densely, intimately intertwined. In Midaq Alley, everyone hears when Husniya the bakeress beats her husband Jaada for being lazy; everyone copies Salim Alwan’s aphrodisiac lunch of husked grain and pigeon meat; and everyone knows when Kirsha the café owner brings another beautiful boy to his café for inappropriate reasons. There’s no privacy, and there are no truly individual identities — no one is really independent in the sense that modern Americans would recognize. This entanglement of personalities makes it harder to separate out the individuals, and focus on just one character in isolation.

This is an important idea in an era when modern Americans feel ever more isolated and desperate for stronger community bonds. The social proximity of the people of Midaq Alley might seem like an attractive answer to this kind of social disintegration — after all, aren’t they more in harmony with their neighbors, and more in solidarity with them, because they spill into each other’s lives?

However, that turns out not to be the case. When Dr. Booshy and Zaita are thrown in prison for grave robbing, everyone in the alley is shocked, but they don’t seem to feel sympathy or pity for them. When Abbas goes off to work for the British Army, no one other than his best friend Uncle Kamil seems to really notice. And when Hamida runs away to be seduced into a life of prostitution, the people of the alley look for her for a while, but quickly return to their normal lives with a collective shrug. For all that these people live in close proximity, they haven’t built close emotional bonds or a strong sense of community.

A powerful theme throughout the book is leaving and returning to the alley. We see many examples: Hamida’s departure to seek her pimp lover; Abbas’ departure to and return from Tell el-Kebir; and Hussain Kirsha’s departure (before the book begins) to work for the British — and his scorn for the poverty and backwardness of Midaq Alley now that he can afford a modern apartment with electricity — followed by his return in humiliation, begging to move back in with his parents. The final chapters of the book are highlighted against Radwan Hussainy’s preparation to depart for the Haj.

For all that these people live in close proximity, they haven’t built close emotional bonds or a strong sense of community.

In each case the departure creates a small ripple of change in the community, but it’s quickly erased. The Midaq Alley that the characters return to is somehow timeless, and it’s largely untouched by external events. The end of WWII has barely any impact, and when the politician Ibrahim Farhat comes to Kirsha’s café to rally support, Uncle Kamil happily notes that he’s never voted, and Sheikh Darwish tells him to go to the devil. Mahfouz is ambiguous on the question of whether this is a good thing — some of the departures feel like desperate attempts to escape the alley’s monotony, yet clearly it is a place where characters can return to in times of need.

Finally, lurking below the surface of everything is the political question of the role of the British. While Egypt nominally governed itself during this period, British troops were permanently stationed there (largely to defend the Suez Canal), and the British heavily influenced the Egyptian army. Egypt came under attack by the Axis powers because of the presence of the British forces, even though it was nominally neutral.

At first, the book depicts the presence of the British as a good thing, a source of high-paying jobs for Egyptians that allows people like Hussain Kirsha to literally and figuratively escape the poverty and backwardness of places like Midaq Alley. But this simple picture changes later in the book; Hamida’s corruption and fall is caused by Ibrahim Faraj, a wealthy Egyptian pimp, but the demand for his prostitution services comes from British officers. Hussain Kirsha finds that British employment is fickle, and can disappear in a moment leaving him poorer than ever. And when the lovesick Abbas finally stumbles across Hamida in a bar, flirting with British soldiers, he goes wild with fury and attacks her, and is beaten to death by them.

By the end of the book, it’s Abbas who has emerged as the most obvious symbol of what British hegemony has done to Egypt: taken simple but good men away from their traditional lives in places like Midaq Alley, and lured them into drinking, violence, and death. What had originally seemed like the woefully backward nature of the alley and its way of life is redeemed, and ultimately shown to be morally superior to what the British, and the generic idea of progress, is offering. Midaq Alley may be boring, and the people living there may have their flaws, but they are a community worth emulating, preserving, and defending.

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