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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1989, Page 24
By Naguib Mahfouz. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1981. 256 pp. $9.00 (paper).
Reviewed by Dan Sisken
In his half century of writing, Naguib Mahfouz has chronicled modern Egyptian history through fiction. During this time he has explored and developed issues such as social change, morality, politics, class conflict, and oppression by the police state. Although his stories are expressly Egyptian, his themes are universal. For this reason—and in recognition of his skill and compassion as a writer—he was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Midaq Alley is perhaps Mahfouz's best known novel. Set in Cairo during World War II, the book revolves around the people living and working in an old, narrow alley. Among them are the pious, the corrupt, the naive, the ambitious, the cynical, and the mystical.
As he intertwines their stories, the spirit Mahfouz evokes in his collective portrait of the people of war-time Cairo seems as familiar and unaltered nearly half a century later as the traditional neighborhoods themselves. This unchanging quality of Egyptian society is a prominent theme inMidaq Alley.
Mahfouz tells us that Midaq Alley is an "ancient relic" and "one of the gems of times gone by." The crumbling walls of Kirsha's cafe "give off strong odors from the medicines of olden times, smells which have now become the spices and folk-cures of today and tomorrow." The alley itself he describes as a throwback to some undefined, perhaps undefinable, era-ever since which it has been in a constant state of a disrepair. Its vitality and spirit are seemingly timeless, however.
Much of the social life in Midaq Alley is centered in Kirsha's cafe. As night falls, the men gather there to drink tea, smoke their hooka water pipes, chat, and while away the hours. It is here that the reader meets such colorful figures as Radwan Husseini, clearly the most pious of Midaq Alley's characters. The people come to him for spiritual guidance in times of stress and indecision, respecting his wisdom and his religious authority. Although Husseini is the alley's most optimistic person, he has suffered the bitterness of losing all his children. Yet he has eschewed self-destructive behavior, turning instead to faith to find solace and meaning in life.
If Radwan Husseini is the alley's most cheerful individual, Hussein Kirsha, the son of the cafe owner, is one of its more cynical. Hussein, who has no affection for Midaq Alley or its people, is eager to leave home and its troubles forever. He goes to work for the British army, making considerable sums of money both legally and illegally, and lives a life of material extravagance. The end of the war, however, ends his good fortune and he finds himself back in the alley, his ambitions defeated by forces far beyond his control.
In addition to corrupting himself, Hussein also convinces his friend Abbas, a young barber, to sell his shop in the alley and seek his fortune with the British army. Abbas, who is content with life in Midaq Alley and feels genuine affection for his neighbors, initially rejects Hussein's appeals. But Abbas is in love with Hamida, a young woman of uncommon beauty, ambition, and an unflinching willingness to manipulate people to achieve her ends. In order to get Hamida to agree to marry him, Abbas decides to leave the alley for more lucrative employment with the British.
Hamida, the central character in the unfolding story, sees Abbas as her best hope out of a life of poverty and monotony in the alley. When, however, she is tempted by the proposal of a wealthy businessman, she quickly forgets her commitment to Abbas. Things don't work out as planned for either the businessman or Hamida, however. Mahfouz is at his best in depicting the consequences for Hamida of embracing materialistic values and moral depravity in her rebellion against lower-class life.
The dilemmas of her class' situation are readily apparent in Midaq Alley. With few prospects for improving their material conditions, the people of the alley respond in different ways. For many, money becomes an obsession. Others accept their plight with varying degrees of resignation, good humor, and escapism. Bitter squabbling may alternate with touching demonstration of camaraderie. It is this solidarity, stemming from the reality that they have no one else to rely on, that holds the denizens of Midaq Alley together, despite the hardships and social dislocations afflicting them.
In the concluding chapter of Midaq Alley, Mahfouz makes it clear that the reader has witnessed only a short period in the collective life of the alley, which seems to transcend the individuals who live in it. Although its inhabitants suffer terrible hardships as they lurch from crisis to crisis, the alley itself remains triumphant over all adversity.
Dan Sisken is a Washington, DC-based free-lance writer on Middle East affairs.